Posted: Aug. 17, 2007
MARY JORNLIN THEISEN, NEW CASTLE COUNTY EXECUTIVE, 1927-2007
By Celia Cohen
Mary Jornlin Theisen, a stately and gracious figure who was the first woman elected New Castle County executive and restored dignity to the office after a scandal, died Friday at the age of 80 at her home in Greenville.
Mary Jornlin -- as she was known throughout her political career -- was distinguished by her calming composure in the presence of potential calamity, whether it was the public maelstrom of being the county executive during school desegregation or the private crucible of carrying on with six children when her husband, state Rep. Francis Jornlin, died of a heart attack.
Jornlin, a Republican, was a pioneer in politics, elected in the 1970s when women in high office were still a rarity. She broke the stereotype that the top official of the county with its focus on public works be male and bore the sting of Ralph S. Moyed, a political columnist who belittled her in print as the "county executrix."
In addition to her election in 1976 to the county post, Jornlin was a two-term state treasurer, winning the office in 1972 and 1974, before it was converted in 1982 to a four-year term.
"She was just a grand, grand lady," said Donald R. Kirtley, who served as the Republican suburban county chairman at the time Jornlin ran for county executive and was instrumental in persuading her to do it. "When she walked into a room, things changed. People looked. She was close to six feet tall and very handsome. She had a pleasant manner, and she could work a room."
"Mary Jornlin Theisen was a dear friend and a compassionate, community-minded person who loved New Castle County and Delaware," said U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle, the state's highest-ranking Republican. "I will miss her friendship and her smile."
Long before the days of Bill and Hillary Clinton or Bob and Elizabeth Dole, Jornlin was half of an early power couple in Delaware politics. She was the state treasurer, and her husband Francis was a state legislator, and the Republican Party thought she could go far.
Her life was jolted by her husband's sudden death in 1975, but she still was determined to stay in politics. She thought about running for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1976 but was talked out of it by Republican officials -- partly for her interest and partly for their own political interest.
They persuaded her she would be better off running for county executive because it would keep her, newly widowed with all those children, closer to home, but it also spared the party a primary for the congressional seat against Thomas B. Evans Jr., a former co-chairman of the Republican National Committee. It cleared the way for Evans to win.
"Too many children, too many problems," Jornlin said in a 1998 interview, explaining why she did not run for the Congress.
As the candidate for county executive, immaculate in appearance and sympathetic because of her personal tragedy, Jornlin was an antidote for scandal and sour times. The country was just two years beyond the presidential disgrace of Richard Nixon and Watergate, and the county was recovering from a federal corruption investigation that led to the removal and jailing of County Executive Melvin A. Slawik Sr., a Democrat.
Late in the campaign, the Republicans realized that the authority of the acting county executive who replaced Slawik would expire on Election Night at midnight. The new county executive would assume office immediately.
Jornlin won and was sworn in with no time for a transition. She telephoned Don Kirtley with the classic candidate question, "OK, genius, what do we do now?"
What Jornlin did was clean up the county. She also worked with Republican Gov. Pierre S. "Pete" du Pont and Wilmington Democratic Mayor William T. McLaughlin, both also elected in 1976, to ensure that the much-resented, court-ordered desegregation of the northern New Castle County public schools was peaceful -- which was not a sure thing.
Jornlin took her stand through the county tax bills, according to Kirtley. Then as now, the county collected the school taxes. It sent out one bill for both the county and school taxes, and there was discussion about separating them to divorce the county politicians from the sulfurous school situation, but Jornlin said no.
"Mary decided we would just let that alone and not stir the pot," Kirtley said.
After that single term, Jornlin left politics. She went to work at Hercules, the chemical company, and remarried, wedding Vincent A. Theisen, a prominent attorney who predeceased her.
Jornlin had done her part for public life -- more than her part, really.