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September 6, 2013

New Wilmington: Last male mayor ending his tenure

NEW CASTLE — The borough of New Wilmington boasts longevity in its mayors.

Those elected to the post have served a decade or longer and they always have been male.

That’s about to change when Wendell B. Wagner, the last of a line of long-serving male mayors, says good-bye to his fellow borough officials at the end of this year. His term is expiring and he is moving over for the first woman in the job.

Wagner, 79, chose not to run again after 12 years in the job.

“It’s time to slow down.”

Sherie Babb, 57, an associate broker for Haines Realty for 21 years, is the only candidate for the seat. Unless she is defeated by write-in votes in November, the job is hers. And so far, no one seems to show any great interest in the challenge.

Babb has been on borough council for four years. Wagner asked her to consider running for the job after she had helped him come up with other names, but none materialized into a candidate.

“He came into my office one day and said, ‘Sherie, we all decided you should run for mayor.’”

Babb is heading up plans for the borough’s sesquicentennial this weekend, when Wagner will be honored with a special presentation during the 11 a.m. opening ceremony Saturday.

Wagner’s warm and friendly personality has been known throughout New Wilmington and beyond for years, especially in political circles. He was a Lawrence County commissioner four years, a borough councilman for 24 years and has served 20 years as a Republican committeeman for New Wilmington.

He ran for mayor — a non-paying position — with the retirement of Guy “Curly” McCrumb, who had served 24 years before retiring.

Wagner’s primary responsibilities have been to oversee the police department and enforce borough ordinances. But he’s also kept his finger on the pulse of the community.

During his tenure, he has integrated police coverage into Wilmington Township, Lawrence County, and Wilmington Township, Mercer County. The borough has contracts with both municipalities.

“I’ve always felt that the better we kept the surrounding area, the better off New Wilmington is,” Wagner said.

New Wilmington operates on a $4 million annual budget, which affords it a full-time police department. Wagner oversees four full-time officers — Donald Bolinger, Randy Russo, Eric Berger and David Laritz — and three part-timers, Robert Capezio, John Melnik and David McBride.

Wagner’s biggest push as mayor got a chuckle from his fellow council members when he attempted to find a way to prevent horse droppings on borough streets. He was dead serious when he suggested the Amish diaper their horses.

Outside of the horse issue, he claims a good rapport with the Amish, who live outside the borough borders but patronize local businesses and attend the annual firemen’s auction.

Two mornings a week, Wagner goes to Jimmy’s, a Market Street restaurant, or Mugsie’s, a coffee shop, to meet seven other male friends. They hash out the world’s problems and talk politics.

“We generally are a very strong Republican group but not totally. We have one member, Glenn Morris, who’s a Democrat,” he said.

After breakfast, he goes to the borough building, where Sharonn Edmiston, borough manager, will advise him of what needs to do for the day, Wagner said.

“This man gives 110 percent to everything he does, and anyone who knows him knows that,” Edmiston said.

In addition to his borough duties, she noted, Wagner drives people to appointments and if they are in senior homes, he will go check on them. “He’s got a big heart.”

“I don’t want to see him go, personally or professionally,” said Police Chief Carmen Piccirillo. “I’ve worked with him for 10 years and it’s been a positive experience.”

Piccirillo noted Wagner “Is a big advocate for public safety and protecting our community. He’s a voice of reason, experience and common sense.”

Wagner is a lifelong resident of the area. He was born in the village of Fayette in Wilmington Township and his family moved to the borough when he was 5. His father owned New Wilmington’s only mansion, on Neshannock Avenue, where his grandmother also had lived. It was later torn down.

His father founded the Clare E. Wagner and Sons car dealership, and Wagner co-owned it with his brother Wayne for 35 years before he retired.

A graduate of Wilmington High School and Westminster College, Wagner served in the Army’s finance corps in the United States and Europe.

Wagner and his wife, the former Phyllis Decker, moved into their home at 230 Francis St. in 1950 and traveled together extensively. She died June 8, 2005.

They have a son, Douglas Wagner of Williamsport, and a daughter, Susan Garrett of Wilmington Township, and a granddaughter, Kimberly.

Wagner is an active member and trustee of United Methodist Church of New Wilmington.

(Email: dwachter@ncnewsonline.com)

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