MAHERN: The substantial life of a Democratic pillar

February 15, 2014

I first met Mary Berry in the fall of 1960, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Republican dominance of the General Assembly meant only the 81 smallest Indiana counties had door-to-door voter registration. In the 11 largest counties, the Board of Voter Registration traveled to schools or firehouses on appointed days and registered potential voters who showed up between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m., or thereabouts. If an unregistered voter couldn’t make the appointed time, he or she would have to go downtown to register.

It was a difficult way to empower people to vote, demonstrating in hindsight that the GOP effort to limit the franchise in urban areas is not a new phenomenon.

At age 18 and not eligible to vote, I spent the summer knocking on every door in the precinct where my uncle, Paul Cantwell, was the committeeman. At each door, I inquired as to the politics of the residents, Democrat or Republican. They were marked down as independent only if they volunteered it.

Once I had canvassed the precinct, I compiled a list of unregistered Democrats.

On the day the board of registration came to Fire House 29 on Shelby Street across from St. Catherine’s church and school, I was assigned to seek out and drive to the station the unregistered Democratic voters I identified earlier in the summer.

On the chance these Democrats had children who needed to be watched while the parents went to be registered, I was assigned a lady who would do just that.

She was Mary Berry.

Although I had met these Democrats earlier that summer, it is remarkable and certainly a sign of a more innocent time that these parents would allow this strange albeit pleasant young woman to watch their children.

It was Mary’s first venture into politics. She was later elected precinct committeeperson for the area just north of Garfield Park and ultimately in the mid-1970s she became the Democratic Party vice chairwoman for Marion County. For at least 25 years, she was chairwoman of the 30th Ward on the south side.

During Robert Kennedy’s primary run in 1968, Sen. Ted Kennedy sat in Mary’s kitchen. When I ran for mayor in 1991, we filmed TV ads at her home.

For nearly a half century, virtually every Democratic candidate for state or Marion County office has visited Mary Berry and sought her support and counsel. Evan Bayh and Birch before him, Frank O’Bannon, Joe Kernan, Joe Donnelly, Bart Peterson, Andy Jacobs—they all dutifully showed up at her doorstep on South Garfield Drive.

Although she lived in St. Catherine’s parish, she never stopped attending mass at Holy Cross. For decades, Mary collected money for the Holy Cross pool, a sort of Catholic numbers racket that Baptists would never understand.

Mary’s mother’s family hailed from County Wicklow. Most St. Patrick’s Days, Mary and her mom, Mrs. Chrisman, along with Bridget Cunningham—herself from Donegal—could be found at The Golden Ace owned by the McGinleys, cousins to Mrs. Cunningham.

When traveling around town with Mary, one had to allow for extra time. She stopped and spoke with everyone she knew. No wake was complete without Mary Berry.

These days Mary is at The Hermitage, an assisted-living facility in Beech Grove. Sadly, her prodigious ability to match faces and names is slipping a bit.

However, one thing is for sure. Thousands of people in Indianapolis will have no trouble matching that smiling face with the felicitous name of Mary Berry.•


Mahern has been an assistant to U.S. Rep. Andy Jacobs and U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh and served in the Indiana Senate. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.


Recent Articles by Louis Mahern / Special to IBJ

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