Mary Berdell blazed a trail for women, minorities, disabled in Waterloo

Posted by Pat Kinney on Wednesday, March 1, 2023

Fifty years ago this year, a blind woman became the first Black person to serve on the Waterloo City Council -- by the absolute narrowest of margins. 

In fact, you might say she won a three-round bout to get there.

Mary Berdell, a counselor at East High School, running as an independent against two white male opponents on the tickets of established, well-known mayoral candidates, survived a municipal election, an unprecedented runoff vote and then had her name drawn by lot -- from a wastebasket --  by the Black Hawk County Board of Supervisors to win her seat.

Berdell was a council candidate for the predominantly Black Fourth Ward. She was running against two formidable opponents. One was four-term incumbent Council Member Robert Kavanaugh, running on the ticket of banker Richard T. Jenkins, dubbed "Mr. Waterloo" for his community involvement on many projects and seen by many as the successor to outgoing four-term Mayor Lloyd Turner. Her other opponent was James Van Nice, a candidate on the ticket of second-term Black Hawk County Supervisor Leo Rooff, a popular local construction contractor running an anti-establishment campaign against what he called the city "power structure."

While Rooff and four of his council candidates decisively defeated Jenkins and most of his ticket, none of the three Fourth Ward candidates received a simple majority of 50 percent plus one vote in the regular city election. Van Nice and Berdell were the top vote-getters in the November municipal election. Van Nice received the most votes- 400 more than Berdell. Normally up to that time a plurality would ensure election. However, the Iowa attorney general mandated a runoff between the two top vote getters. In the runoff. Van Nice and Berdell each received 819 votes.

By law, the winner was to be determined by lot drawn by the Board of Supervisors, as the body which canvassed the votes. A simple plastic wastebasket in the board room was used as the receptacle from which Berdell's name was drawn as the winner by supervisors board chairman William Beck. The wastebasket was used after Jimmie Porter, Black community enabler with Urban Ministries, objected that the pieces of paper on which each candidates' names written hadn't been mixed up enough when first placed in a small box. 

Left: Mary Berdell reacts with glee as she wins a seat on the Waterloo City Council as the Board of Supervisors break a tie by drawing her name by lot on Nov. 26, 1973. (Waterloo Courier photo by Jim Humphrey)
Right: Waterloo Mayor Leo Rooff escorts Mary Berdell to her spot at the City Council table during the organizational council meeting and swearing-in ceremonies in January 1974. (Waterloo Courier photo by Dan Jacob)

Van Nice opted not to seek a recount of the already canvassed runoff votes; in fact, Mayor-elect Rooff escorted Berdell to her council seat at swearing-in and organizational council meeting in January 1974. 

It also was the first time two women served on the City Council at the same time. Berdell joined newly elected Rooff ticket council member Mary Lichty, from the fifth ward, also in a runoff.

Berdell served only one two-year term on the council but had considerable impact in the community beyond public office. She served as executive director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center; adjunct professor at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls; director of the Bee Hive Youth Center; vice chairman of the Waterloo Human Rights Commission and social worker at East High School and McKinstry Junior High School. She was named to both the governor's Crime Commission and Youth Opportunity Program.

Berdell attended the Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School in Vinton, received a bachelor's degree from Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., and earned two master's degrees, including one in social work from UCLA, in Los Angeles, to which she returned as a part-time teacher in 1983. She passed away there in 2008 at age 79.

Mary Berdell gives a talk upon returning to Waterloo from Los Angeles in her later years. (Waterloo Courier photo)

Berdell blazed a trail for others to follow on the council, including Willie Mae Wright, who served 10 years on the City Council, representing the Fourth Ward in the 1980s and early '90s; Ruth B. Anderson, who became the first Black and just the fourth woman elected to the Board of Supervisors in 1988; Sammie Dell, who became the first Black elected to a citywide post in Waterloo municipal government when he won an at-large council seat in 1987; and Quentin Hart, who was elected Waterloo's first Black mayor in 2015. In 2021, voters re-elected Hart and put a Black majority on the City Council for the first time ever, holding four of the seven council seats, including Nia Wilder, the city's first openly LGBTQ council member.

About The Author

Pat is the Oral Historian for the Grout Museum District.