West Lafayette’s first female mayor served from 1980 to 2003. Those 24 years of service constitute a longer commitment than anyone who preceded her.
Government officials throughout the Greater Lafayette area mourned Sonya Margerum this week after she died on Sunday at the age of 89 from kidney disease, according to her obituary.
Throughout her time as mayor, Margerum’s chief accomplishments came through the expansion of city development, quality-of-life improvements through a comprehensive system of trails and nature areas and collaboration with Purdue administrators. Her leadership led to prominent achievements at the city level, but began with smaller contributions to her family and community.
In the late 1970s, Margerum served a four-year term as an at-large city councilor and prepared to begin her extensive tenure as mayor of West Lafayette. Current Mayor John Dennis was a West Lafayette High School football player at the time and remembers Margerum’s devotion as a mother of three sons during that period. She, along with other parents, often hosted a pregame meal for the athletes.
“My first impression was that she was very nice, but she knew how to handle a group of young teenage boys,” Dennis said. “It wasn’t some sort of firm, directive approach. She just had a really effective, soft approach toward keeping us in line.”
Dennis and other city officials, including West Lafayette City Judge Lori Stein Sabol, described Margerum’s leadership style as subtle yet authoritative. She was hailed as an excellent communicator, specifically when working to coordinate the interests of West Lafayette with those of Purdue administrators.
Dennis said before Margerum took office, it was as if there was a dividing line preventing West Lafayette business owners from reaping the economic benefits of Purdue students who needed to eat, shop and pay to live somewhere. In her role as chief executive of the city, she bridged that gap. The current mayor said Margerum laid the groundwork for his 2013 annexation of Purdue, the culmination of years of attempts to foster cooperation between the University and the city government.
“Because of her, the citizens of West Lafayette were familiar with the fact that without Purdue, there would be no West Lafayette,” Dennis said. “They were also familiar with the fact that working collaboratively would be mutually beneficial.”
The creation of Wabash Landing is another testament to her negotiating ability. The area was designed to serve as a connection between the cities of West Lafayette and Lafayette. Sabol said Margerum was instrumental in conveying her vision of the potential relationship between the cities to former Lafayette Mayor Jim Riehle.
Margerum demanded respect in a political arena that was dominated by men at the time she was elected, Sabol said. Sabol grew up in West Lafayette and was inspired by the way the former mayor exerted her influence in the political sphere. Sabol and Dennis both characterized Margerum as a trailblazer for women who preferred to avoid any ostentatious displays of boundary-breaking; she instead used her unique abilities to benefit the city.
But Margerum did wield her influence to recruit other women. Before Sabol became city judge in 2001, she said Margerum approached her and detailed the logistics of the necessary background checks for her to be appointed and approved by the governor of Indiana. Since the initial appointment, Sabol has won every municipal election to date.
Throughout Margerum’s tenure, women were a fixture on the city council. Three were elected in 1999, according to previous Exponent reporting. Directly succeeding her in 2004 was Mayor Jan Mills, the second woman to be elected to the position in West Lafayette. Mills was a Democratic city councilor before being recruited to replace Margerum when she announced her intent to resign from office in 2003.
District 5 councilor-elect Kathy Parker said Margerum’s encouragement convinced her to run for city council for the first time in 2015. She hadn’t felt her prior experience as a teacher justified an attempt to win elected office until Margerum insisted her perspective was crucial.
“Margerum changed the trajectory of my life,” Parker said. “I would have never considered running for office if it hadn’t been for a phone call from her 4 1/2 years ago.”
When Margerum’s husband, Dale, passed away in August, Parker recalled the former mayor offering political advice in the throes of the funeral ceremony.
“She said to me, ‘Kathy, I want to help you with the election,’” Parker said. “And I said, ‘Well, what?’”
Although she was taken aback, the candidate agreed to allow the 89-year old Margerum to assist her with minor campaign activities, such as making postcards. In Tuesday’s election, Parker emerged successful in her bid and felt the first female mayor would be proud to see two women elected to a previously all-male city council.
“She was a fighter, and she loved politics,” Parker said. “She loved her city.”
Although less was known about Margerum’s personal life, those who knew her well said unconditional kindness and diplomacy filled her informal interactions as well.
“She was a great role model for me personally,” Sabol said. “For everyone who comes into my court, I try to show them the respect that she embodied for the city of West Lafayette.”
When the mayor exited office, Sabol said she continued to mentor people and was happy to offer advice to those working in public service. Dennis said he considered Margerum a top mentor of his even though the two represented different political parties.
He said the former mayor understood the difficulty involved in developing West Lafayette, and that allowed her to be enthusiastic and congratulatory when breakthroughs were made.
Dennis said Margerum didn’t just influence his facilitative brand of leadership. Rather, he believed her style became his own. He said her ability to foster cooperation erased the strains of partisanship and reinforced to Dennis the importance of community over any political agenda.
To Sabol, the congeniality present between the Democrat-dominated city council and the current Republican mayor can be attributed to Margerum’s attitudes on the role of government. The Democratic councilors neglected to slate a mayoral candidate to oppose Dennis because they approved of his ability to manage the city.
“If you’ve got a good person in office, you don’t need to run somebody against them just to have a political argument,” Sabol said. “Because of her, West Lafayette government really focuses on what’s best for the city.”
On Wednesday, the city council approved to have the new city hall, currently being built at the location of the Morton Community Center, be named after Margerum. Dennis said he informed Margerum of the plans prior to her passing.
“She was very moved and very honored,” Dennis said at the city council meeting.
When Margerum decided to resign, Sabol thought that though her time as mayor would end, her role as matriarch of West Lafayette never would. The city judge anticipates that Margerum’s impact will be everlasting because she is regarded as the primary mayor of West Lafayette.
Dennis, entering his fourth term as mayor, agreed with that sentiment.
“Her impact is so comprehensive,” Dennis said. “Margerum is West Lafayette.”