Indiana’s First Elected Female Mayor
By Frank Vargo July, 2019
Mr. Andrew Jancosek Sr. could never have imagined what would happen to him and his family when he stepped off of the ship Augusta Victoria on the 19th day of March, 1892. He, along with some fellow travelers, had sailed from Bremen, Germany, looking for a better life and freedom in the United States. Some other men had already left their village of Zborov, part of what was known as Austria-Hungary at the time. He, however, was not Austrian or Hungarian. He was Slovak and proud of it. The Slovaks had lived under the rule of many foreigners for centuries. They were mainly a peaceful people who were farmers and animal herders. Life was hard, but their strong work ethic and Catholic religion helped them to believe that there was a better life ahead of them.
Andrew had heard that there were plenty of jobs in Whiting, Indiana, because many men from his village had already left Zborov to work at the Standard Oil Refinery. He and his wife Susanna settled in Whiting and started to raise a family. Among his children was Andrew Jr. He was to marry Terezia (Theresa) Wagner, whose family was also from Zborov, in February of 1914. Ten months later their first child, Mary, was born. After Mary came seven other children.
Mary was to make history by becoming the first woman elected mayor in the state of Indiana. It happened in a tragic way, but Mary was up to the challenge. Her husband William had been elected mayor of Whiting in 1955. In August of 1957, he was on a fishing trip and while in a boat on Forest Lake near Eagle River, Wisconsin, was stricken with a fatal heart attack. Mary was left with no income and the task of raising eight children, ranging in age from 1 to 20, without a husband.
Mary was the unanimous choice of the seven man Whiting city council to fulfill the remainder of her husband’s unexpired term as mayor. Mary was now in charge of eight children and the 9,655 citizens that lived in the city.
How did she do it? An article in the January 30, 1958, Chicago Tribune asked her that same question. Her philosophy as mayor and mother was to be firm – but with a smile. She believed in aiming at accessible goals, delegating responsibility, and in getting the job at hand done before allowing other activities to sap her attention. She was quoted as saying, “Raising eight children is easier than raising one, because the eight raise each other. They have no time to get into mischief.”
The new mayor gathered all of the city department heads and asked them to brief her on their work and responsibilities. She asked them to continue with the good work they had done under her husband, Mayor Bill. Mayor Bercik drew up an agenda for the city, following closely what her husband had already started before his untimely death. As she neared the end of her term in office, she made the decision to run in the 1959 election. With the support of the Whiting Democratic Party, she defeated her opponent, John Kupcha by a margin of 424 votes.
Mayor Mary got to work right away. She outlined her city-wide improvement plan with the support of the Democratic city council. This plan included major street repair projects. Schrage Avenue was completely repaved from 119th to 129th streets. LaPorte and Ohio Avenues were also resurfaced. New playground equipment was installed in the city parks.
New mercury vapor street lights were put in some parts of the city. A mosquito control program (who doesn’t remember following the “bug trucks” on their bikes breathing in whatever they were spraying?) was begun. The building of new homes on the east side of Schrage Avenue from nearly 119th Street to 121st Street was started.
The project she was most proud of was the building of the new fire and police stations on the corner of Schrage and Fischrupp Avenues. Ground was broken in May, 1962 and the buildings were completed by the end of the year. This helped to greatly increase the speed and efficiency of getting the fire trucks out to the street as well as providing better morale to both the police and firemen. Just as important, a fire alarm system with a direct hook-up to the fire department from all Whiting public schools as well as the four parochial schools, (St. Mary’s, Immaculate Conception, St. Adalbert’s and Sacred Heart), provided not only increased safety for the students, but calmed the fears of many parents after the terrible Our Lady of the Angels school fire in Chicago.
Despite all of these improvements, Mayor Bercik lost a hard fought re-election bid in 1963. Mrs. Bercik even had to publish a pamphlet refuting some of the information used by her opponent to gain his victory. The mayor had also lost some citizen support by her insistence to install water meters in everyone’s homes before the election, not surprising people with their installation after she was elected. She believed in honesty and transparency in city government, and it cost her a re-election victory.
After her defeat, she turned her time and attention to her family, but still remained a voice in the city. She was chosen Grand Marshall of the 1994 75th Anniversary 4th of July Parade. The Whiting Park Pavilion, home of the Whiting Park Summer Symphony series, was named The Mary E. Bercik Memorial Pavilion in her honor. Her son, Robert Bercik later became mayor of Whiting. Her life of service to family and community ended with her passing in 1996 at age 81.
Like most of the immigrants who came to the United States of America, Andrew Jancosek Sr. would have been so proud of his children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and even great-great grandchildren for all that they have accomplished, not the least of which was giving Indiana its first elected female mayor.