January 18, 2010 Contributors: Gloria Speer, Patty Dewey, Polly Bigham, Roberta Heiman Also present: Pam Locker, President Pat Harris, Director, LWVIN
Roberta: Our League in Evansville restarted when some community issue came up that no one was paying any attention to. I wrote an editorial piece and in it I said that Evansville needs a League of Women Voters to take this up. We had not had a League for about a decade. Several women encouraged me to start one. I had no intention to do so at that time but after I retired I got more calls and eventually said “Ok, let’s do that.” Some of us got together at lunch and decided we could make this work. Marcy Au, head of the library system, Tammy Barnett and Martha Julian came. We announced a public meeting and 15 or 20 people came. This was five years ago. Now we have 59 members.
Patty: I believe I joined in 1970. Then it was called the Evansville League; we switched to Southwest Indiana, maybe in the mid 90s. I lived in Warrick County. There were several women interested in becoming members. We had five out-of-county women from Warrick County coming into Vanderburgh County. In three or four years we gathered more members, and I think we had two or three units in Evansville. We tried one in Warrick but after a year it just didn’t work. Warrick kept coming into Vanderburgh. I’m still a Warrick County resident. I worked on gathering signatures from Vanderburgh residents to try for the new consolidated government. My background had been in government service; I worked for Senator Birch Bayh for several years prior to my marriage in 1968. I was always interested in government so I took the Government and Voting Rights Committee and really enjoyed that. I did that most of the time I was active in the League. We had several really strong leaders, for which I was glad. Gloria Speer was one of them, Polly Bigham was another. Barbara McKenna was a very strong member, a strong organizer, and also strong socially. It was a great time to be a member. Since we had young children we had a baby-sitter for the board meetings. At least one unit meeting had baby-sitters. We had mainly morning meeting, as most of us did not work at that time. I think the downfall of the League came when women began to take jobs. In the summer I remember work meetings at Sylvia Weinzapfel’s farm out on the west side, with all the children, peanut butter sandwiches, and pitch-in lunches. It was just a good, fun, interesting group to spend time with. I surely, surely enjoyed my time with the League. When my children left high school I took a job teaching and didn’t have the time to spend on the League. I’m so glad that we’ve started up again.
Gloria: Our League whittled down to just a few of us, about four, doing all the work. That must have been in the mid-90s. We started the “Meet Your Legislators” in the mid-70s. Pam, you can tell us how we’re doing these meetings now.
Pam: We hold the meetings at the Library; Marcy Au, the director, is one of our members. The library puts the information on their web site and records the meetings. We have public TV in Evansville.
There were some things that popped into my mind when I was reading over some of the information that Roberta had gleaned from the archives. I remember Sadelle Berger, so concerned with juvenile justice; she spent hours and hours working on that. Through her and the League the whole Juvenile Justice System was turned upside down. We got a judge, a juvenile judge rather than a magistrate. Before her work, a magistrate heard the juvenile cases and the hearings were open to the public.
Another thing we worked on was the Equal Rights Amendment. I remember little postcard-size index cards. We wrote out the three sections of the ERA and handed them out, saying “This is it. This is all it says.” The ERA was so simple.
Gloria: I joined the League in 1970. I had this very dear friend, Maggie Zoff, who had been a long-time League member, and she knew I was interested in government. She brought me to the League and told me all the stories. She must have been in her 50s or 60s so she had been in the League for a long time. One story she told was about their poll watching. There were some precincts where money was passed out. Women would hang sheets on the line and people would go behind the sheets to get their payment. Maggie got me into the League. I started with Voter Service and soon became chair of the committee. In 1975 we had a scandal about the nursing homes and manipulation of the absentee ballots filled out there. Paul Walt was the Democrat on the election board. I cannot think of the name of our County Clerk, but she was one of the finest public servants I can remember. She and Paul asked us if we would take the absentee ballots into the nursing homes. We would get League members who would say they were Democrat and Republican; we had to have one of each. We’d go to the Clerk’s office. She would give us the ballots and train us. It was hard work; we had to carry the voting machines from bed to bed and read the ballot to each person. I’ll never forget one woman who was blind. She was not old, somewhere in her 40s. We read the ballot to her. She cried. She said this was the first time anyone had ever read the ballot to her. She had been voting all those years. We also went into the high-rise buildings, to the senior citizens living there. Gradually we had to drop thing, as more and more members went to work. Toward the end I had to take off a couple of days to do this work. Soon we just had to stop; we couldn’t do it any longer. I have rejoined because I love the League and really couldn’t stay out. I’m trying not to get too involved because I’ve got lots of other things.
Earlier we mentioned the social aspects of League. I came from the Midwest and at this time I was a stay-at-home mother. We would go to Barbara McKenna’s house and work all morning and then she would bring out the sherry. We would have a glass before lunch. Sherry before lunch was totally out of my experience. I would bring my little girl to the work sessions. She loved the nursery there. Voter Service and absentee voting were the biggest things I did. Now the only thing I’m doing is overseeing the coffee for the “Meet Your Legislators.” That’s all we do now. We used to moderate and do everything.
Pam: These meetings are sponsored by several groups in town in addition to the League, but we are one of the only ones to show up. A library representative comes and the teachers union helps by sending out reminders to people. I’ve been asked to be the guest moderator at the March “Meet Your Legislators” meeting because the regular moderator will be out of town. He has been involved with MYL for a long time. We had one MYL meeting on Saturday and between 160-175 people attended.
Polly: Like Gloria, I had a good friend, Carol Costa. She came here because her husband was on the faculty at the University of Southern Indiana and my husband was also. We became good friends. She became president and I joined because of her. The first thing I did was fund raising. It wasn’t hard; we had a very small budget, two or three thousand a year. A number of the lawyers in town were long-time supporters. I think they appreciated what we had done in juvenile justice. It was mostly a matter of sending out letters as a reminder. Except for Meade Johnson. Roland Eccles, Vice-President of Public Relations for Meade Johnson, was in charge of their foundation money. He insisted on being visited every year. But that was fun.
We then thought of the project of doing a cookbook. We sent a letter to all members of Congress asking that they send their recipes. The book was called “Political Hash.” We did this in 1975-76 and had a good response. I don’t remember how many books we had but we sold out. Phyllis Howard and I did that book together.
My great love in the League was doing Voter Service. My passion was registering new voters. I would go anywhere, any time, with my card table. That helped with our outreach to different groups. Our membership was very white, very female, although we had several long-time male members. When I was president, Ed Howard was on the board and headed our local housing study. Another great experience was my appointment to a Citizens Advisory Committee on Community Development Fund Spending. The League was asked to have a member on that. I spent two years with that group. We always had more requests than money, and we spent hours making our recommendations. Then the mayor would rearrange the whole thing. There were political groups that were definitely going to be supported by whichever party was in power. Another thing I enjoyed during the two years I was president was speaking to groups who requested a speaker. A newcomers group called and told me “Now don’t talk down to this group.” I prepared this great dissertation on the Reagan budget. A lot of bleary eyes looked at me that day but I didn’t talk down to them.
Gloria: I was on the first Public TV Board when Evansville organized Public TV. It was a community effort. I’m still so proud to have helped start Public TV. We needed it.
Patty: I remember being appointed to the Southern Indiana Health Systems Agency Board which oversaw spending for hospitals, nursing homes, that sort of thing. It was disbanded, I think in the early 90s. I was holding a consumer spot, not specifically a League spot, but I believe I was chosen because of my community involvement through the League. I also think that I was the only genuine consumer on that board. The hospital and nursing homes were on the board. They weren’t consumers. It was frustrating but interesting. I felt free to speak out and say what needed to be said. It would just be brushed aside. All the decisions came from the providers, not the consumers. I think that’s why the board just sank into itself; it didn’t function as needed.
Polly: Several times I had calls from local government people who were hiring. If the applicant listed the League as a qualification, they would call me. One was a member who became head of the Evansville Urban Transportation Study. Before that all her experience was volunteer, including with the League. Another woman who taught history at the University of Southern Indiana became part of metro-planning and then went on to Bloomington and worked in planning there. I cannot remember her name.
Gloria: I remember a member who came here from Pensacola, Florida. In Pensacola the League held a Roses and Brickbats Dinner yearly. They invited their local politicians and handed out recognitions for best and worst.
I brought my environmental T-shirt. It was part of a League effort to help the environment. We were trying to promote the improvement of cars. We also were trying to get a bike path down Walnut. We got nowhere.
Patty: You may have thought that the, but think of the bike paths and walking trails that we have in Evansville now, all the way to Newburgh. That impetus came from somewhere, and I like to think it was the League. It takes time. You don’t win the first time around. You have to come back and then come back again. Suddenly someone who is in government thinks of it too and then it happens. The fact that you put the idea in that person’s head may be forgotten. Except you know. And that’s all right.
Meals-on-Wheels Evansville was started by Peg Woodward after she had been president of our League.
Polly: My last job before retiring I worked for the American Cancer Society. Before that I worked for many years as a local reporter for one of our local newspapers. During those years, I got out of volunteer things; I didn’t think volunteer work mixed well with covering local stories. When I switched to the Cancer Society they were starting to do advocacy to make people aware of cancer. I was a new staff person. I felt like a kid in a candy store being allowed to do lobbying. We have a network of local cancer offices. A lot of our lobbying was with legislators. Many of the other staff felt intimidated about talking to a state legislator but they were all friends to me because of the League coffees each year. I encouraged other staff people to see lobbying as a very natural thing to do. It was great to get back into lobbying, something that I had loved as a volunteer with the League. And now I could do it as a professional.
Gloria: For many years part of my Voter Service was that we had congressional debates on public TV. That was so much fun. Sometimes I moderated, and one time I was on the panel. I was sitting next to David James, who was a young reporter, and we were asking questions with follow-up. Afterward he asked me, “How do you do that without notes?” At that time, I really did know the issues.
Polly: The League did a great service during our recent school board election. There were 13 or 14 candidates. It’s really hard to become informed about so many people. Our League had a series of candidates meetings that gave voters a chance to see and hear the people who were running. You can pretty quickly make your pick once you see and hear the candidates.
Gloria: I’m remembering the ERA and how excited we were when it passed the Indiana Legislature. It was a very close vote. And then to lose it on the national level, that was so sad.
Pam: The League had a speakers bureau to talk about consolidating local government in the 80s. The whole issue has come back now, and we’ve been very involved with it again.
Polly: We studied this twice. I remember going into the Trustees Office to observe interviews with people who were coming in for aid. I think we were requested to be there because of a suit brought against Center Township in Indianapolis. There were two townships here that were questionable so we were asked to be observers in those two township offices. They were Pigeon and Perry and that was 1975.
Gloria: The second study was in the 80s, but the committee reported that outside of the committee there wasn’t enough support. So we didn’t go on with it.
Patty: A week or two ago I went to the Vanderburgh County Commissioners meeting. Gloria and I sat together and remembered 40 years ago when we were doing basically the same thing. Now it’s back again. Maybe this will be the time it actually happens.
Polly: We haven’t talked about Coonie Baldwin, who must be in her 90s now. I remember her talking about the suffragettes who were working for the right to vote in Evansville. She talked about yellow parasols that they carried, and they would poke people with them. The League of Women Voters came from the suffrage movement.
Gloria: Coonie knew more about foreign policy than anyone else I know of. She never worked outside the home but she studied all the issues and gave us updates once or twice a year. She never made up her mind until she had read something on both the left and the right. She was from English, IN and is still alive and living in a nursing home.
It was a League member, Jo David, who did a study that led to the Court Appointed Special Advocate [CASA] program being started here.
Pam: We have several members now who are in local government, a judge and a city councilman. We function with a core of active people.