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Remembering Sonya Margerum

West Lafayette Public Library

The basement of the West Lafayette Public Library is covered in wooden shipping pallets and boxes of used books. But off to one side is a cabinet that – like the person its contents remember -- is unlike all the rest. It’s maroon, with about a dozen boxes inside, all neatly adorned with yellow labels. This is the home of the Sonya Margerum archive. Margerum passed away Sunday at age 89, but remembrances of her will continue for the next several months at least.

“To celebrate her life and her career with these photos and with some of the documents will be a no-brainer for us, yeah,” says WLPL Director Nick Schenkel, who’s thinking about a public display as he pulls files out of the boxes with current West Lafayette Mayor John Dennis.

In the boxes are mayoral surveys, campaign literature handed out to voters and even hand-tallied election results. In one folder, two sheets of yellow legal paper have been taped together in double-wide fashion, with vote totals from each West Lafayette precinct. Its folder identifies it as being from the 1979 municipal election -- Margerum's first of six mayoral wins -- which she captured by a margin of only about 100 votes.

Credit Stan Jastrzebski / WBAA News
West Lafayette Public Library Director Nick Schenkel (left) and current mayor John Dennis (right) look through a couple of the boxes in the Sonya Margerum archive in the library's basement.

For Dennis, memories keep flooding back as he reads names and sees pictures of his predecessors. But not all his memories are of politics. Some are from his time as a West Lafayette High School football player, alongside Margerum’s eldest son Larry.

“Is there anything here about what a great cook she was,” Dennis asks, remembering that the Margerum household was a frequent gathering site for team meals.

And as people talk about the former mayor, the remembrances are frequently more personal than political.

“It’s just we lost one of the good ones,” says Sue Scholer a former Tippecanoe County Commissioner who also represented West Lafayette in the Indiana General Assembly, both during Margerum’s time in office. Scholer, a Republican, says the Democratic mayor was a key ally.

“And that was a period of time when we were all conscious of the fact that women needed to get active in the political process and kind of needed to stick together in order to make that happen," she says. "I know that there was support across party lines for the women.”

Margerum’s middle son, Eric, says it was something of a foregone conclusion his mom would become a local politician – even after losing her first city council race. By the time she ran for the council again in 1975, the die was cast, he says.

“Dad pulled me and my brothers aside and said ‘Well, it looks like she’s not going to run for mayor this time, but when she does run for mayor – and you know she will – we need to be there for her and give her the support,’” he says.

Sonya Margerum’s husband Dale was a Purdue University chemistry professor who passed away in August. Eric says his father was often called upon to run errands for the mayor.

“She would send my dad to the grocery store. She said ‘Dale, I just need a couple of things. Can you pick them up, because you can do it in 15 minutes. It will take me two hours…’ Not only because people would stop and talk to her, but she wanted to talk to them.”

But he says when people gather to remember his mother – a public ceremony is scheduled for 2-6 p.m. the day after Thanksgiving at West Lafayette City Hall – he thinks he’ll hear less about politics and more from people whom his mother married or who attended her yearly "syttende mai" parties.

“Her side of the family is the Norwegian side of the family. Syttende mai is Norwegian independence day. She would get together anybody who had any Norwegian heritage would come over the house and enjoy Norwegian food, and all the spouses were then declared honorary Norwegians, like my dad.”

Credit West Lafayette Public Library
Some credit Margerum with improving "town and gown" relations between Purdue and the City of West Lafayette. Here, she shakes hands with representatives of the Purdue Research Foundation as the two entities complete a project together.

And the reason, people seem to agree, that the person will be remembered as much as the politician?

“She took the politics out of being mayor,” Dennis says.

Sue Scholer says that set a standard which persists today.

“I think one of the very important things in West Lafayette is you can’t be an activist, partisan person," Scholer says. "You need to be someone who’s truly interested in the concerns and hopes and aspirations of the entire community.”

Dennis won his fourth term as mayor Tuesday. But even if he were to tie Sonya Margerum’s record for longevity (he'd need to double his current tenure in office to do so), he thinks it’s she who deserves to be most identified with the city.

“When you think about West Lafayette, you cannot have that conversation without thinking about Sonya Margerum. There will always only be one mayor of West Lafayette – someone who will immediately be recognized as mayor of West Lafayette, and that’s Sonya Margerum.”