By Jim Coughlin
Sara J. Robertson served as Worcester’s first woman mayor from 1982 to 1984. She died May 8 at her home in Hobe Sound, Florida. She was previously elected to the Worcester School Committee in 1969 and became the fourth woman elected to the Worcester City Council in 1979.
The Worcester City Council until 1973 could have been considered a “men’s club” because no women had ever been elected. Then came the election of 1973 when three women were elected to the council: Mary Scano, Barbara J. Sinnott and Barbara C. Kohin. That year was considered “The Year of the Women.”
In the November 1975 election, the women councillors were all defeated for re-election. Robertson was elected to the School Committee in 1969 – she was not popularly elected mayor.
Robertson followed in the footsteps of the first two women elected to the school committee: Helen Bowditch and Christine Plumley, both of whom were elected in the 1960s.
However, the story of how she became Worcester’s Mayor from 3,000 miles away, living in Long Beach, California is very telling: She came out East to live in Boston in the early 1960s to get her Masters Degree in government at Boston University. Shortly after that, she moved to Worcester. Robertson, while living in California, was active in the League of Women Voters, and interestingly when she first came to Worcester, The League of Women Voters was the very first political connection that she made here.
It was this relationship that marked the beginning of Robertson’s political involvement in Worcester that would later see her elected to both the Worcester School Committee and City Council and eventually being made Worcester Mayor by her fellow councillors in 1982.
Robertson served as the League’s president for three years. It was from this position that she was able to become recognized for her good government efforts which included women from the league sitting in on City Council meetings as observers and conducting efforts to register new voters for the first time outside of Worcester City Hall. In October 2006, Robertson made a recording for the Worcester Women’s Oral History Project in which she candidly spoke of her political history in the city. She described this particular effort as “what she did that put her on the map.”
The Worcester City Council had voted to approve voter registration sites outside of City Hall for the very first time. However, Robert J. O’Keefe, the Worcester City Clerk who at the time ran the city’s elections and voter registration, refused to do it.
Robertson relayed the following story: The first registration site was all set to take place in Green Island. However, as it turned out, it was initially not that easy. There was a door closed by the City Clerk. This was something that she probably didn’t anticipate happening. But Robertson persevered and subsequently enrolled a city councillor along with a monsignor in the Worcester Catholic Diocese (who later became bishop) in order to make the voter registrations possible.
Robertson was ready to go that night. She attached a loud speaker to her station wagon, anticipating that voter registrations would happen, and had tables and chairs set up. Even though the city council voted for the voter registrations, the obstinate City Clerk had refused to come down and register the new voters. (Early voter suppression?)
She recalled: “I called (City Councillor) Joe Tinsley and he came down and said, ‘Bob, we (the city council) voted for this to happen, come on.’
Bob said ‘No, I’m not going to do it,’ she said.
Robertson quoted O’Keefe as saying, ‘If people can’t come down to City Hall to register, they shouldn’t vote.’
However, this setback did not deter Worcester’s first female mayor from still working on this effort. She then enrolled a religious leader in an attempt to sway the O’Keefe from his refusal to adhere to a vote of the Worcester City Council, approving of the registrations.
“I got on the phone with Monsignor (Timothy J.) Harrington, not a bishop yet, and I said, ‘Monsignor, we are having a problem here at Green Island.’ I knew we had a good bond. I’m not even Catholic. He (the Monsignor) came down and said, ‘Bob O’Keefe, I think you want to go down there and register people.’ And that’s how it happened. These vignettes. Yes, I did make a difference. And we did it all over the city. It was great.”
Sara Robertson was very right for challenging the former city clerk relating to new voter registrations. She and her colleagues in the League of Women Voters should have been openly welcomed and embraced by O’Keefe – not rejected.
It should not have been necessary for Robertson to complain to a city councillor and a member of Worcester’s clergy in order to have the City Clerk comply with the council vote providing for the voter registrations. Government works best when it reaches out to the citizenry to bring new voters into the political process. That is what our democracy should be about. The voter registrations should have been a natural for the City Clerk, and not something that he was being forced into doing. This is still happening all over America – voter suppression in Black and minority and poor communities.
Through out her political career, Robertson was known for her patience, persistence and diligence – in being very directed in whatever she wanted to accomplish. She was always known for being a good government city councillor and mayor. Perhaps, it would be fair to call Robertson an “iconoclastic” mayor. An iconoclast is one who challenges long held customs, values and traditions of the past.
In 1991, then Mayor Jordan Levy decided not to seek re-election of being chosen by his council colleagues to lead the City Council. This election of mayor, which Robertson eventually won, once again showed the people of Worcester the political strength and determination that Robertson possessed. She demonstrated that she could be just as assertive and effective in winning the Worcester mayoralty as her male colleagues had been in the past.
There were four candidates in contention for the Mayoralty: Thomas J.Early, John B. Anderson, Joseph M. Tinsley and Timothy J Cooney, Jr. Robertson’s name was not in the mix. It took the councillors 27 ballots to choose a mayor and the voting extended over a number of weeks from November to mid-December.
Some of the contenders dropped out of the selection process, thereby releasing their supporters to vote for other candidates. One of those Mayoral contenders was Councillor Timothy J. Cooney who served as Mayor in 1987. Cooney was the last mayor selected from amongst the council members before the city charter was changed providing for the direct election of the mayor by the people, with the top vote getter in the council race automatically ascending to the Mayor’s chair.
Cooney had nothing but praise for his former council colleague: “She had a lot of energy and was well spoken on the council floor. She did an excellent job serving as mayor. She made her mark being a woman mayor. There were nine councillors, and she was the only woman and I’m sure it wasn’t easy.”
Cooney said Robertson’s election as mayor “was a surprise to everyone.” He speculated that Councillors Levy and Tinsley were the people who were very instrumental and pulled Robertson’s mayoral election together. Tinsley was the 5th and deciding vote on December 15, 1981 making Robertson Mayor. At this meeting, he announced his support for Robertson, extended his hand and congratulated the mayor-elect.
Interestingly, Kathleen Toomey, the niece of former City Councillor and Mayor Tinsley is now a member of the city council. In the past, Toomey has told me, “I am a Tinsley.”
In a article in the Worcester Telegram published on May 8, 2023, Robertson once said and thereby verified Cooney’s “surprise assertion” amongst councillors after she was chosen as Mayor in 1981. Robertson was quoted as saying in the Evening Gazette on December 16, 1981 after her election as mayor in 1981, ” l am just stunned. I’m just shaking.This is just unbelievable.”
I happened to be in attendance at the city council meeting that night. I witnessed, first-hand, the surprise on the part of councillors and those in the audience at Robertson’s historic election or should I say, “herstoric” election. After the vote, I had a conversation with the Mayor-Elect’s husband, Gavin, that evening outside the city council chambers.
Robertson was the city’s first woman councillor who succeeded in breaking the glass ceiling at Worcester City Hall in relationship to the Mayor’s office. Because of Robertson, her mayoralty opened the door for another future woman mayor, Konstantina B. “Konnie” Lukes to serve as Worcester mayor from 2007 to 2009.
Worcester mayors, before Robertson, did not promote Worcester the way she did during her mayoralty. She brought a new vitality and energy to City Hall and in particular to the Mayor’s office. 1982 – when she became mayor – also marked the opening of the Worcester Centrum. Before then, Worcester was not a place that many from outside the city would come to visit. However, the opening of the Centrum also happened in 1982 which dramatically changed all that. For the first time, Worcester was being visited by people of all ages, especially the young, from throughout New England for all kinds of events at the Centrum – including music concerts. Before this, Worcester was in effect, “land locked” in that those who lived here stayed here, and very few from outside, came to the city.
All of a sudden, Worcester became an attractive place to visit. This paved the way for Robertson to become a very effective ambassador for promoting the city. She was frequently a guest on Boston television and radio stations and appeared throughout the region before various chambers of commerce and other civic groups. Robertson was an excellent marketing agent for promoting our city’s great gems and resources: our higher educational institutions; our public schools and our then-budding high tech and world-class technology.
During her mayoralty, and as a result of her promoting the city, Worcester’s perception in the public mind throughout Massachusetts and New England was forever changed from previously being regarded as “Boston’s largest suburb” to now being a city on the move. Worcester was a city on the upswing in part because of Robertson. As a direct result, Worcester was then placed in greater business, educational and governmental competition with the other large cities in southern New England such as Boston, Springfield Hartford and Providence.
Currently, a majority of the membership of the City Council is composed of women: there are six women and five men.
Robertson’s legacy in Worcester’s government is, indeed, a strong one. She started the tradition of more women serving on the Worcester City Council, which continues to this day and, as a result, the city council is more representative of the citizens of Worcester. She was, indeed, a political trailblazer in making it much easier for the many women councillors who succeeded her. Among them were Stacey Luster Dubois, Barbara Haller, Konstantina “Konnie” B. Lukes, Kathleen Toomey, Sarai Rivera, Candy Mero-Carlson, Donna M. Colorio, Thu Nguyen and Etel Haxhiaj.
If Sara Robertson could look down from the heavens above and see the city council’s current six women, it would undoubtedly bring much satisfaction to her.
On a personal note, when Sara Robertson was serving on the Worcester School Committee inspired me as a student at Doherty High School in the early 1970s. Somehow, I had thought that the voices of young people were not welcomed at City Hall. However, Sara set me straight and she and I had a conversation in which she encouraged me to directly petition the City Council with my ideas for Public Policy initiatives. Her suggestion directly resulted in me being successful before the City Council with a number of my initiatives. Among them were the City Manager Francis J. McGrath Blvd behind the Worcester Public Library at Salem Street in honor of the former City Manager, the re-naming of the Worcester Federal Court House, (done through an act of Congress) in honor of former Worcester Congressman Harold D. Donohue. The City Manager’s had enrolled former Congressman Joseph D. Early on my petition, and his effort resulted in his filing a bill in the House of Representatives renaming the Federal Court House.
Another one of my efforts before the City Council was was the naming of The Elizabeth L. “Betty” Price Park on the site that once stood Prospect House, the multi service center that Betty had served as Executive Director for many years.
In a recent telephone interview with Sara Robertson’s son, Gordon, who currently serves as the Director of Planning, Design and Construction for the Parks and Recreation Department in Denver, Colorado, he lauded his mother for her service to the City of Worcester. He said, “My mother, Sara Robertson, dedicated the majority of her adult professional life to the City of Worcester. She loved the City, but more importantly, she loved the people of Worcester. And she fought for them. My two sisters and I, Bonnie and Sarah, lived her love for the City by campaigning with her, going to festivals and VFW halls, and entertaining families and acquaintances from all over the City. It was a rich childhood of experiences that we wouldn’t trade for the world. We admired our mother for her strength of character and convictions. We are proud of her glass shattering at City Hall and her devotion to her friends and family.”
“We miss her very much,” he said.
On Friday, June 2, members of the Robinson family held a reception at the Beechwood Hotel in Worcester for members of the public who came by to visit with them and paid their respects.
Mayor Sara J. Robertson truly was a pioneer, and her legacy will carry on with the women now serving on the Worcester City Council.