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One admiring friend suggested that Bernice “Bernie” Krieg should be looked upon as the grande dame (French pronunciation) of the Democratic Party in Bartholomew County. Personally, I think Bernie would have preferred grand dame (American pronunciation).
It’s easy to see why some would use the French pronunciation because Bernie was, indeed, a very influential woman.
Her death earlier this week closed the books on an eventful public career. Officially it covered a life of more than 20 years in elective office in Bartholomew County. Unofficially, in the way most people came to know her, it spanned the life of a woman who cared most about just getting the job done ... regardless of politics.
Make no mistake. Bernie was a Democrat — capital letters, underlined.
“Any document that she put out always had that message,” recalled colleague Nancy Ann Brown, who was the first woman elected mayor of Columbus. “It’d be in big bold letters ... “Bernice Krieg, DEMOCRAT. She was a Democrat through and through.”
But alongside that fierce determination to support her party was an equally strong desire to make government work, regardless of who got the credit.
Current Bartholomew County Commissioner and strong Republican Larry Kleinhenz came across Bernie when he made his first bid for public office in 1992.
“No question about it,” he said. “Bernie was very political. She was tough during a campaign, but when it was over she took me under her wing. She was always very courteous and polite.”
But she was not afraid to take on the so-called glass ceilings of male-dominated politics and business.
She was in the middle of a small army of women who took over Bartholomew County offices in the 1980s. She felt right at home, because in addition to being women, most of her fellow officeholders were Democrats. When she was the county recorder, Betty Essex was the county clerk; Nancy Ann Brown, the county treasurer; and Naomi Jackson, the county auditor.
“She was the trailblazer,” recalled Juanita Harden, who would later become the first woman elected a Bartholomew County commissioner. “She was a leader to everyone. She could just as easily talk with a president as she could with a janitor. She could take care of herself because she knew the answers.”
She did, indeed, have friends in high places. Lee Hamilton, who represented Indiana’s 9th District in the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years, called on her often.
“If I wanted to know the voter mood in Bartholomew County, I’d call on Bernie,” recalled the veteran legislator and statesman who is now director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. “She was good at predicting results, and she took her politics seriously. She worked at it.”
Bernie was not exactly a latecomer to Bartholomew County politics. She was born into a political family. Both her parents were active Democrats, and her father, Ben Wehmeier, served as president of the first Bartholomew County Plan Commission.
She also married into politics. Her husband, Glenn, was a precinct chairman and active in the party until he was killed in an auto accident in 1957.
But family aside, Bernie showed early on that she was her own woman and politics was her game. She needed strength because Glenn’s death left her a widow with four children to raise.
“Sure, I was alone (figuratively),” she said of her situation after her husband’s death in a 1996 interview, “But I had our parents. And I had my church. And I had some of the best friends in the world.”
Before Glenn’s death, she had helped organize the county’s Young Democrats organization in 1950 and four years later was in on the ground floor of the creation of the Democratic Ladies League. That same year (1954) she was elected vice chairwoman of the party organization in Bartholomew County.
She never attained the title of chairwoman (she lost the vice chairwoman post in 1956 in an intra-party squabble), but she retained a significant influence within the party.
“For most of my time in Congress, men held the county chair post,” Hamilton said. “Nevertheless, the key people were invariably women volunteers who gave a lot of energy to the party. Bernie was one of them. She was in politics for all the right reasons. She wanted to help people.”
As was said at the start of this column. Bernie was a grand dame, no matter which pronunciation you prefer.
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