Barbara Van Reed
Q. “Why are they naming this room after me?”
A. “Because you’ve spent so much time in it.”
Irene Martel was overwhelmed last week when the town hall officials and employees, friends and family, came out to surprise her with plaques and proclamations to commemorate her many years as the Town’s first female assessor and first female selectman.
She thought she was coming to a colleague’s retirement party, never thinking that the event was for her, to honor her nearly half a century of public service, a gesture made very real with the complete refurbishment of the old selectmen’s meeting room, now called the Irene A. Martel Conference Room.
After the official ceremonies and reception in the open hall, we returned to the Irene A. Martel Conference Room for a talk about the years she spent in the Webster Town Hall. Seeing the room again, and overwhelmed by what had just happened, she broke down.
“I thought I was going to pass out for a few minutes. I was so shocked,” she said.
“Do you think it’s a good idea to name a room after me,” she said to her sister Esther. An emphatic “yes” was the answer.
Irene was born in Dudley and moved to Webster when she was six months old. When she was 21, in 1946, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and Dr. Fallon was her doctor. “They had no chemo then,” she said. But she survived the ordeal.
She clearly remembers when she started her first job as a clerk in the Assessor’s Office. It was in 1963, the week JFK was assassinated. Shortly after that, the assessor left to take a job in Boston, and the clerks in the office were left all alone to run the show
“I didn’t know beans from shinola,” she said, “but we had hour- and- a- half lunch hours, and would read all the books to learn what to do. Another assessor was brought on, but he died.
So, she was appointed Assessor, and ran for the position in 1972. She won and served six terms. She thinks she was the first female assessor in Worcester County.
In 1982 she ran for Selectman, and won. She was the first female selectman in the 150-year history of the town. “It was the sesquicentennial year,” she recalls.
Two years later, in 1984, she was defeated as the Town Assessor. She applied for assessor positions in other towns. She tried to get a job in Oxford, but they didn’t want a female assessor, she said. Sturbridge was OK with that, however, and appointed her. She served there for five years and retired in 1989. “They were very good to me,” she said.
She was defeated for reelection as a selectman in 1990. She doesn’t recall exactly why, but believes it had something to do with an issue with the police chief. I went to bat for the chief,” she recalled.
She didn’t waste time in trying to regain her seat. She ran again the following year, and lost again. But in 1984, she succeeded, and served until 2010, when she was defeated once again.
Now, at 87 years old, she talked about those last few years. Her legs began to fail, and she had difficulty walking. Fellow selectman Mark Dowgiewicz would pick her up for meetings, and bring her home. It was becoming difficult to carry on, and her blood pressure was getting to be too high.
It’s so clear in talking with Mrs. Martel that she misses the work of the town and the people, the people most of all. “I enjoyed every minute of my time here,” she said. “I miss being with people.” She misses her husband too; he died 17 years ago. She has nieces and great nieces and nephews who clearly admire her.
Mrs. Martel told us that she has written her own obituary. “Who knows better than me what I’ve done?” she asked.
Among her accomplishments as selectman she counts being the first chairman of the dump committee, a project that took eleven years, supporting the Pediatric Center at the hospital, installing handicapped facilities in the town hall, replacing the windows for the building, and mandating physicals for new employees.
Apart from those town business activities, she prizes the 25 years she spent as president of the St Louis Ladies League, involved in many of the church’s events and festivals. She misses that too, she said. She was also an ace bowler, with 13 trophies and a score as high as 362.
Reflecting on her time in office, she said, “When I was working here I was happy as a pig in mud. And I always did what I thought was right for the town, tried to make the right decisions. And I think I did that.”
Even though she’s in a wheelchair now, Mrs. Martel still relishes an adventure. “If they ever perfect flying with wings, like you see in movies, I will be the first customer.”
Not that being in public office was always easy. “My pastor once asked me: 'How can you take it the way they treat you'?”
“I never talked about it…it’s different in public office. It’s different when you’re on the other side. I always said a prayer, asked God to help me make a good decision.”
Town Treasurer Pam Regis summed it up. “Mrs. Martel always did what she thought was right for the town, and I respect her for that.” A whole lot of people came out last Wednesday to second that thought.
Irene Martel’s tenure as Webster Selectwoman predates my time as editor of The Patriot newspaper, but I’m happy I had the opportunity to spend some time with her reminiscing about her long career of service to the town.