She listened; that’s for sure, although most of the time the conversations concerned complaints.
Speeding, road conditions, vacated land, rental properties, and the need for Garden Park improvements are a mere sampling of the comments received at meetings, on the phone, and in the emails Gloria Delbrugge processed during her 12 years as the Ward 1 representative on Wheeling Council.
And the listening, by the way, began even before she defeated the incumbent in 2004.
“We were having crime watch meetings then, and it seemed like there was so much controversy at those meetings at that time, and there were comments made about the need to have someone on city council who would speak up for the people in the ward,” Delbrugge said. “After one of those meetings a number of people came up to me and told me that I needed to run for council. Immediately I said no because I’m not a politician.
“But then they said that was the main reason why I needed to run, because I wasn’t a politician then, and I’m still not a politician,” she said. “I thought about it and thought about it, and then a month later they continued to persuade me to run for the position, and that’s when my husband told me that he also thought I should consider it. I even told him that I wouldn’t play those games, and he said the same thing the others said. He told me he would support me, and the next thing I know, I did it.”
The opposition was the incumbent Babe Schmidt and Don Bartholomew and Delbrugge was victorious by a healthy margin.
“I was shocked when I won,” she admitted. “I was at the city-county building, and Frank O’Brien was working for WTRF at the time, and he came up to me and said, ‘Congratulations,’ and I said, ‘For what?’ And he’s the person who told me that I had won the race for Ward 1.
“That was the beginning of it all, and now, a little more than 12 years later, I’m able to look back at it and see what was accomplished and what was not,” Delbrugge said “It was nothing like I expected; I can tell you that, and I don’t believe there’s a lot of people who do realize everything that goes into serving on city council. It’s way more than just the two regular meetings every month; that’s for sure.”
For more than a decade Delbrugge was the one and only female council member and she admits now there were times when she felt like an outcast, especially in the very beginning of her service to the city. That feeling changed, she insisted, and that’s because she refused to accept such atmospheres.
“That ‘good ol’ boys’ network stuff was just not my cup of tea, and there were times when I felt like I was being kept on the outside because I was the only woman on council, but I was never a player in all of that stuff,” Delbrugge said. “But I also watched it change during my 12 years, and if I had something to do with that, then good. I’m glad.
“I knew I had to do what I felt was right and I couldn’t and wouldn’t play those games, and I think the others came to realize that,” she continued. “At the same time I always knew that I couldn’t make everyone happy. That’s a big part of getting as involved as I was, but I did what I could while I was there, and hopefully I made a positive difference. If I didn’t, I feel bad about that, but I think I did, even if it was in a small way.”
Now that the phone has stopped ringing rapidly and her schedule has eased, Delbrugge has had the time to peer back at more than a decade of meetings, ribbon cuttings, proclamations, and all else involved with a council position in the Friendly City. She has a few favorite realizations, too, one of which concerned a former brothel in Center Wheeling.
“The first time I realized that what I said would make a difference was when I was serving under Nick Sparachane, who was the mayor at the time, and that’s when council had closed the ‘Green Door,’” Delbrugge explained. “The plan was to sell it, and it had been appraised for $110,000, and I voted no, and the rest of them voted yes. I was the only one that thought that it was just too much money.
“There was a lot of media coverage afterward because I felt it was too much money,” she continued. “That’s when I realized people were paying attention and that not every vote we took had to be unanimous if our opinions were different.”
There also was a particular comment Delbrugge made as a member of the Wheeling-Ohio County Health Board.
“At the time the board was working on the smoking ban, and I made the statement on radio that I thought Dr. Mercer was out of control,” she remembered. “After I said that, I thought to myself, ‘Oh, what have I done?’ That comment then appeared in the local paper and on the news, too.
“But that’s how I felt at the time and I have always been a person who says what they mean. Ask anyone who really knows me, and you can ask the people I served with. They all know that if I disagree, I disagree.”
Before Andy McKenzie was elected mayor after Sparachane was not permitted to continue in the position because of mandated term limits, council approved an expenditure for a study to be conducted that would display a vision for Wheeling’s downtown district by the year 2020. When Delbrugge was asked a question about it by a local media member, she realized she was the lone council member who had not received a copy before the 2020 Plan was released to the public.
“I was asked about it, and the only reply I could offer was that I knew nothing about it because I had not been given a copy of it like everyone else was,” she said. “That didn’t make me very happy, and I was determined to do something about it.
“Some of the others had a copy of the plan for two months, so when I went to the next council meeting, I stood up and said, ‘Everyone has this plan but me, so where is this plan and why I haven’t I seen it yet?’ Well, that caused a stir,” Delbrugge said. “The next morning there’s a big headline, ‘Delbrugge says show me the plan,’ and that was just one of few examples of how I just refused to play the games and how I wouldn’t stand for the games when they were being played.”
With a year remaining in her third term Delbrugge, began contemplating a continuation on council, and she allowed herself to look at a life without all the responsibility. She was 73, she and her husband both were retired from their full-time jobs, and the thought of downsizing to a smaller residence appeared more attractive to them than it ever had before.
Plus, following a regular council meeting a young man by the name of Chad Thalman asked for a word.
“He introduced himself and asked me if I was going to run and I told him that wasn’t going to. He then told me he was interested, but said he wouldn’t run if I was going to, and that’s when I assured him that I wasn’t,” Delbrugge recalled. “That’s when he really started showing interest, and he was attending all of the meetings, so, as far as I was concerned, I felt good about the way Chad was going about it.
“I could tell that he cared about our community, so that’s when I took him under my wing and started working with him,” she said. “I told him that he had to listen to the people, and I told him everything involved, and he took notes. He let me believe that he really cared, and I still think he does very much.”
Not only did Thalman become one of the city’s six new council representatives, but Mayor Glenn Elliott then appointed him as the city’s vice mayor, and when the new council conducted its first meeting on July 5, Delbrugge and her husband attended.
“And I couldn’t have done it without Gloria’s help,” Thalman said. “The fact that she took the time she did to help me and teach me is something I will forever appreciate because she didn’t have to do that. She could have just walked away, but that’s not her. She cares about the people in the ward and all over this city, and her advice to me is something that’s been invaluable to me during the first four months in the position.”
These days the Delbrugges live outside Ward 1 for the first time during their 42-year marriage. They packed up their home, quickly sold it, shed the clutter collected in the past four decades, and feel zero regret about retirement from public service.
“I voted my conscience after listening to my constituents as far as what they wanted and what they were concerned about,” Delbrugge said. “I listened and then I voted to represent the people in the ward. That’s how I always thought it should go, so that’s how I did what I did. Nothing changed that even though the mayor changed, and so did the members on council.
“But once I had made my decision, I started receiving a lot of mail from the people in the first ward, and at first when I read them, it made me feel really good, but the more that came in, it made me cry,” she revealed. “Bob asked me why I was crying, and I told him that I had no idea people felt the way they felt. So many people told me that they were proud to have me as their council representative and that I was the best one they ever had. I really had no idea so many people felt that way. That was the first time when I thought I might have done something right and did some good for my ward.”
(Photos by Steve Novotney)