POTSDAM - Deputy Mayor Ruth F. Garner will be 95 on Thursday and accolades praising her legislative longevity are being issued from both sides of the political aisle.
Mrs. Garner is believed to be the oldest serving elected official in New York state and could be the oldest elected representative in the country.
Mrs. Garner, the former Ruth Finnigan, was born Nov. 18, 1915 in Massena. Her father was a telegrapher and a station agent for the railroad, and her mother was a seamstress. She had six brothers and sisters, who all predeceased her. Her last surviving brother died in the Pacific theater during World War II.
She became the first woman to serve on the village board in Potsdam in 1973 and was elected mayor in 1977. In 1981, she took a break from local politics to care for ailing family members and returned to the mayor's post in 1993. She has served on the board of trustees ever since.
"Someone asked me just the other day why do I do it," Mrs. Garner said Tuesday. "And I told them because every once in a while you have a little victory. That's why I do it."
She said her interest in politics was handed down from her father, who took time to speak to her about current events on a regular basis while she was a child. She said that was atypical in that era.
"Women weren't allowed to do much back then. But my father talked to me about politics a lot. I really enjoyed those talks with him," she said.
Mrs. Garner's political zeal over the decades has not gone unnoticed by community leaders on both sides of the political spectrum.
In Massena, Town Supervisor Joseph D. Gray said as a Republican he shares some stark differences with Mrs. Garner, a Democrat, when it comes to ideology. But he still points to her as a textbook example of what it means to be a community leader.
"Nobody is in local government for the pay. Nobody is in local government for the fame. People are involved in local government to make a difference, and Ruth Garner has been making a difference for much longer than I've been alive," Mr. Gray said.
"I continue to be awestruck by the level of productivity of a 95-year-old woman. But take her age out of the equation and you find a woman who is thoughtful, feisty and has a very strong concept of what government's role is in a small community."
While Mr. Gray praises Mrs. Garner for her commitment to community, others like state Democrat party leader June F. O'Neill said Mrs. Garner should receive accolades for being a trail blazer for women.
"Ruth helped pave the way for women in politics here in the north country. She was a Democrat long before it was 'cool," Mrs. O'Neill, Executive Committee chair of the New York state Democratic Committee said in an e-mail statement.
Likewise, Potsdam Town Supervisor Marie C. Regan said one of the reasons she became involved in politics in the early 1990s is because women like Mrs. Garner were already making a difference.
She said even though she has been involved in more than one public disagreement with Mrs. Garner on the political stage, she views the 95 year old as a role model for anyone interested in trying to make a difference.
"I think she is a remarkable person, I really do. We don't always agree but I always believe that Ruth has the best interest of the village at heart. She is unique," Mrs. Regan said.
Potsdam Mayor Rheinhold J. Tischler agreed.
"I've known her my whole life," Mr. Tischler said. "She is not afraid to speak her mind. Is she always right? No. But she has been my mentor. If there were ever any questions about what to do, when to do it, how to do it, she has been there for me."
In addition to her elected duties, Mrs. Garner has been involved in a variety of organizations over the years. She has been president and a board member of Potsdam Public Library and chair of the annual New York state Local Government Conference at SUNY Potsdam.
She has also served as president and a board member for Renewal House, a service to aid battered and abused women; and a board member of the St. Lawrence County Historical Society.
In Canton, St. Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce Director Patricia L. McKeown said she too sees Mrs. Garner as a role model to the next generation of professional women.
"I have known Ruth for over 30 years. She was hell fire in the '70s and she is a spit fire now. Love her, hate her, I don't care - but you've got to hand it to her - she's got great taste in hats," Ms. McKeown said.