When Her Town Needed Fixing, This Single Mom Stepped Up Marie Sayenga saw her local government needed improvement. So, while raising a family on her own, she stepped up and ran for office in the 1950s.

When Her Town Needed Fixing, This Single Mom Stepped Up

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Time now for StoryCorps, sharing the stories of everyday people. Back in the late 1940s, Marie Sayenga was a single mother raising two children on a secretary's salary in Bethel, Pa., when she decided to run for local office. At StoryCorps, her son Bill sat with his daughter Ellen Riek to remember his mother's lasting influence.

BILL SAYENGA: Mama was widowed when I was 4 years old. She had no education beyond high school, raised my sister and me on almost no money and bought a house so that her kids would have a proper place to grow up. She was 5 foot tall and a half-inch. And when she'd get mad at me and playfully go to swing at me, I could hold my arm out, my fingers against her forehead, and her arms would swing under mine. And then, of course, she'd start to laugh. And she wasn't mad at me anymore. And that was who she was. I don't consider myself a weak person. But I'm puny next to Mama. And I have no idea where that strength came from.

ELLEN RIEK: So for your grandkids, what do you think it's important to know about Granny? And what do you hope they don't lose in this next generation?

SAYENGA: Integrity. And keep finding out more pieces of who you are. I remember the second time she ran for tax collector. We're in this small suburb of Pittsburgh. And one of the workers was a guy by the name of John (ph). And John came to the door one Sunday morning with all of my mother's opponent's posters from all around town. He'd torn them all down. And he was very proud of himself. He brought them to the door and smiled and showed Mama and said look, I took them all down.

She said take those back out and put every damn one of them back up. Bill, you go with him. Make sure he does it. She'd have lost that election rather than cheat even a little bit. That's Mama. Of all the people that I have met in my life, I respect her and admire her more highly than anybody else that I have met.

MONTAGNE: That's retired teacher Bill Sayenga remembering and his mother Marie Sayenga at StoryCorps. Marie went on to win that election and five more races before retiring from office in 1978. She served 24 years in office. Their story will be archived at the American Folklife Center in the Library of Congress.

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