AROUND THE COUNTY – March is Women’s History Month, and to help commemorate the occasion I thought we’d take a quick look at the 1949 election for City Council in Schenectady.
You might be thinking, “there were women running for political office in Schenectady in 1949?”
No, there weren’t, but there were two men, Sam Stratton and Charles Merriam Sr., who knew the importance of public service and also appreciated and understood the potential of the opposite sex.
Stratton, a Democrat, became a mayor of Schenectady and later spent 30 years representing this area in the U.S. House of Representatives. Merriam, a Republican, also spent 40 years as an elected official before he was defeated by Stratton and the Democrats for a seat on the City Council in 1949. The reason Stratton merits mention in a column commemorating women’s history is because he, more than any other politician, is the person most responsible for the 1975 legislation that allowed women into the armed service academies. Merriam, meanwhile, deserves plenty of credit because he and his wife, Jessie, fostered a commitment to community service like few families anywhere, and that legacy is very much alive today. Stratton fought for women’s rights long before it became fashionable for middle-aged males, while, in Jessie, Charles Merriam Sr. had a partner whose inclination to help others never waned, even in her 90s.
Let’s first take a look at Jessie McGlashan Merriam.
Back in 1978, after suffering a near-fatal stroke, her doctor warned Jessie that traveling by plane, especially a long flight, was extremely risky. She could die. She responded, according to a Schenectady Gazette story on May 22 of that year, “If I die in the air it’s all right. It’s closer to heaven.”
While Dr. Milton Gipstein tried to figure out how to best handle his difficult patient, and her family looked for the best possible nursing home for her, Jessie, 86, was busy making other plans. She did jump on a plane and go to Papua New Guinea, where one of her twin sons, Dr. Stuart Merriam, was running the Highland Christian Mission he had founded years earlier. Jessie was anxious to return to her role there as hostess. It wasn’t until six years later, after returning to the U.S., that she died at the age of 92 in 1984.
There’s evidently some kind of energy gene that runs through the McGlashan and Merriam families. Her grandson, Brian Merriam, has that gene and with it a strong inclination to serve others. He says it was his father, Charles Merriam Jr., who instilled the Rotary motto, “Service Above Self,” in him, and his dad no doubt inherited that same sentiment from his parents.
“My grandmother and I were very close, and when she had her heart attack, she not only didn’t pass, she ended up going back to New Guinea,” said Brian Merriam, a Schenectady resident who recently returned from a two-week trip to India with Rotary clubs from around the world. “The doctor objected, but then demanded that she take a nurse, so she did have a nurse on the plane with her.”
Born in Illinois, Jessie McGlashan was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the Colorado College for Women. She was the daughter of a Colorado mining town preacher, and endured a number of illnesses as a young woman, including tuberculosis. Before she eventually finished her education back home in Colorado, Jessie attended both Oberlin and Denison colleges in Ohio before her time there was interrupted by sickness.
When she married Charles Merriam in 1921 and moved to Schenectady, she immediately became immersed in several non-profit organizations, including the YWCA, the American Association of University Women, the Schenectady Museum, the Old Ladies Home, the Thursday Musical Club and the Schenectady County Historical Society. Her husband, meanwhile, wasn’t quite as busy with nonprofits as Jessie, but then he was in politics from 1907 to 1949, having been elected as a ward supervisor, chairman of the Schenectady County Board of Supervisors, a state Assemblyman and a member of the Schenectady City Council. And, he also oversaw a successful insurance company that still exists today,
In his book, “Who Runs This Town: A Political History of Schenectady and Its Governments,” Don Ackerman, a former Democratic member of the County Legislature, wrote that Merriam was “one of the last of a dying breed of men who felt it was their duty to take a leading role in the affairs of their community, whether it be for nonprofit organizations, religious institutions, or the political arena.”
And you get the sense that if Charles Merriam ever forgot his priorities and his duties, Jessie was there to remind him. She outlived her husband by 23 years, spending much of her time in the 1960s teaching primary school in New Guinea after Charles had died. It wasn’t a position or a place for the weak hearted. Nelson Rockefeller’s son Michael had disappeared in the New Guinea jungle in November of 1961 and his body was never found. Some say he drowned while swimming, and others suspect he was killed by natives, perhaps cannibals.
Those kind of stories in the 1960s and, later, her near-fatal heart attack in 1978, however, didn’t deter Jessie. When she made up her mind to do something, she did it.
Sam Stratton also had some excitement in the South Pacific, serving as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Army during World War II. Working on the staff of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Stratton drew praise for his interrogation of Japanese war criminal Tomoyuki Yamashita, who was later executed for his role in the Manila Massacre.
Stratton was an only child, and according to Wilbur Cross’s 1959 book, “Samuel S. Stratton: A Story of Political Gumption,” was much closer to his mother than his father. When Paul Stratton, formerly senior pastor at the State Street Presbyterian Church in Schenectady, died in 1942, Sam was just 26. Ethel Irene Russell Stratton, a native of Wappingers Falls in the Hudson Valley, remained a strong supporter of her son until she died in 1970 at the age of 86.
“We called her Nanny and she was a great lady,” Brian Stratton said of his grandmother, who showed some political gumption of her own with an unsuccessful run for ward supervisor when the family was living in Rochester in the 1930s. “I’m sure she had an influence on my dad. She was a member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, which focused on the elimination of alcohol and helping people with their sobriety, and she also fought for suffrage, so she had a progressive trait to her,”
Brian Stratton said his mother, Joan, and his three sisters also may have impacted their father’s thinking. Unlike many of his fellow Democrats, Stratton was something of a hawk during the Vietnam War. He was, however, a liberal on most issues.
“I was the youngest, so I don’t remember all of the dinner table conversations during the Vietnam War,” Brian said. “But I know that he was very proud of the 1975 Defense Appropriation Bill. He was ahead of his time there. I know he had many motivations to support the law – they called it the Stratton amendment – but he did it because he thought it was the right thing to do.”
Congressman Stratton got plenty of pushback for his support of sending women to the service academies. Gen. Maxwell Taylor, commandant at West Point, argued that women enrolled at a military school might take the place of “another Grant or Lee, Pershing or MacArthur.” Gen. William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. troops in Vietnam, said it was “silly” to permit women at West Point, and that it would “deprive young men of the limited spaces that are there.”
Even some women disagreed with Stratton’s idea. One female New York Times letter-writer said that “great colleges and universities had diluted their moral and educational standards when they became coeducational.”
As he did throughout his political career, Sam Stratton did the hard work, changed minds, and got good legislation passed. On May 21, 1975, the law cleared the House, 303-96, won unanimous support in the U.S. Senate, and was then signed by President Gerald B. Ford.
Brian Stratton said he thought of his father last month when six female pilots performed the Super Bowl Flyover in U.S. Navy fighter jets, and he had thought of him a month earlier when Denise Donnell was promoted to two-star Major General. Back in April of 2022, Donnell had been named commander of the New York State Air National Guard at the Stratton Air National Guard Base in Glenville.
“It took a while for the idea of women in the armed services to gain traction,” said Brian Stratton, also a former mayor of Schenectady and now director of the state Canal Corporation. “But my father, despite all the early pushback, continued to fight for it. I couldn’t help but think of him when I saw the flyover before the Super Bowl and heard that they were all female pilots, and when I saw that a woman had been named commander at the Stratton Air National Guard Base, I sent her a note. I told her, ‘my father would be very proud of you.’”
Sam Stratton’s quest for his City Council seat back in 1949 marked the end of Charles Merriam’s political career. But after four decades in politics Merriam, who had a strong independent streak much like Stratton, may have been happy to focus on his family’s insurance business. In what was a record turnout for an off-year election (56,500 votes were counted), Stratton collected 18,555 votes to Merriam’s 16,487. It was the only election Merriam ever lost, and it was the first of many more electoral victories for Stratton, arguably the most successful and prominent politician in Schenectady history.
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