When Brian Stratton decided to run for political office in 1992, he didn’t really know what he was getting into. Fortunately, he had Ruth Bergeron in his corner.
“You might not think so, coming from a political household like I did, but I was something of a novice,” said Stratton, the son of former Schenectady mayor and U.S. Congressman Sam Stratton and twice elected mayor himself in 2003 and 2007. “It was Ruth who was very instrumental in my first run for City Council. She was the one who led me around door to door to get enough signatures to get my name on the ballot. She was one of the first to really work with me a lot on my first campaign.”
Bergeron, 95, passed away last month at the Ellis Residential and Rehabilitation Center. A native of Rochester who grew up in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and became a resident of Schenectady back in the 1960s, Bergeron was an avid Democrat, activist and tireless volunteer for many Schenectady non-profits.
“She was an ardent member of the Schenectady Democratic Committee, and someone who was very committed to advancing the goals of the Democratic Party,” said Stratton, who has served as Director of the New York State Canal System since 2011. “It was Ruth who grabbed a clipboard and then grabbed me by the arm and took me through the neighborhoods in Schenectady. She was always present at political functions. I hadn’t seen her that much recently, but I’ll always remember her fondly.”
Bergeron had run for political office herself back in 1972, winning the Democratic primary despite not being officially endorsed by the county party. She lost the general election to Republican Dom Gallo by only 2,000 votes with more than 30,000 votes cast.
“She was an activist in the reform movement of the Democratic Party, and when she ran for city council in the primary she was running against the old school candidate, and she beat him,” said former city council member Dave Roberts. “She also ran for sheriff against Barney Waldron in 1972 because the Dems had no candidate. She never expected to win, but she ran anyway. She was a neighbor of mine on Ardsley Road, and she was a great lady. Very confident and very smart.”
Bergeron never hesitated to speak her mind. When a referendum to change Schenectady’s form of government from the strong-mayor version to the city-manager style never even reached a vote back in 2002, she expressed her displeasure with a fellow Democrat to the Gazette.
“It’s gone, it’s done,” she said. “A flip of the dismissive finger.”
While she seldom minced words, Bergeron got along well with most of the politicians from around that time, Democratic or Republican.
“Ruth worked in the law department and used to visit me to sign documents,” said Albert Jurczynski, a Republican who served two terms in the mayor’s office from 1996 to 2003. “She was always pleasant and competent. Even though we were of different parties, our interactions were always very cordial and professional, the way it’s supposed to be. A nice lady. She will be missed.”
Former Schenectady County legislator Don Ackerman spoke highly of Bergeron, who also served as Deputy City Clerk in Schenectady and earned a paralegal degree before landing a position with the city attorney’s office.
“She was as smart as a whip, and had an opinion on everything, but was never obnoxious about it,” said Ackerman, who wrote a book on Schenectady’s political history, “Who Runs This Town: A Political History of Schenectady and its Governments,” released in 2021. “She loved politics and knew the business very well.”
Schenectady Mayor Gary B. McCarthy said Bergeron’s work as deputy city clerk and in the city’s law department was exceptional.
“She was a very good administrator and a very good city employee,” said McCarthy. “She had a nice demeanor, but if you crossed her you’d better do what she wanted or get out of the way. She was a long-time friend and supporter of mine, and just a great person.”
Bergeron was not only involved in city politics, but also devoted plenty of volunteer hours to Vale Cemetery, the League of Women Voters, the Schenectady Heritage Foundation and the Schenectady County Historical Society.
Gloria Kishton, currently director of the Schenectady Heritage Foundation, a non-profit whose mission is to “foster historic preservation in Schenectady County,” first met Bergeron back in the 1980s.
“She was a woman who was ahead of her time,” Kishton said of Bergeron. “If she had been born later who knows how far she could have gone. She was an avid reader, read three newspapers a day and was a real political junkie. She was also a wonderful woman, a very warm lady who really loved her family. I’m so glad I got to know her and became good friends.”
Bergeron’s knowledge of the inner workings of city politics and government made her an invaluable resource for the various non-profits she volunteered with.
“When it came to knowing all the processes for city foreclosures and the inner workings of the government, she was a real asset to the Schenectady Heritage Foundation,” said Kishton. “If we needed to accomplish a certain goal, Ruth was the one you would talk to see just how to reach that goal.”
Survived by her husband John Albert Bergeron and their three children, she was a graduate of Pembroke College in Providence, Rhode Island where she majored in biology. She also earned a graduate degree from Brown University and worked for three years as a research assistant at Cornell University. After moving to Schenectady with her husband, Bergeron worked at the General Electric Company and was also a science teacher at Linton High School. She eventually got her paralegal degree at The Philadelphia Graduate Paralegal Institute and worked with the city’s law department for several years before retiring at age 70.
Bergeron continued to be an avid reader well into her 90s, and a copy of the Daily Gazette was placed in her coffin by her youngest son, Andre.
“It was in the casket at the viewing and went with her into eternity,” Andre Bergeron said in an email. “It was open to the editorial page. I thought it was fitting.”
Bergeron said he made the decision to put the newspaper in her mother’s coffin just before her memorial service began.
“It was a last minute decision I made,” he said. “She always loved my impish sense of humor and I felt, she would love this. She always had it, or a book, so it just seemed fitting.”
In his eulogy at Bergeron’s memorial service this past Tuesday, Andre Bergeron said his mother wanted to be remembered as a “political pioneer.”
“When it came to politics and progressive issues like housing, equal rights, education and historic preservation, she was unfailingly engaged,” Bergeron told mourners at the First Reformed Church in the Stockade. “Mom wrote letters to the editor, penned missives to representatives, and threw more than a few florid expletives at the TV when certain personalities came on.
“Yes, she was a staunch Democrat,” added Bergeron, “but she was also a believer in finding common ground, creating functional legislation and fostering bipartisan compromise.”