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Derry Borough mayor a woman who can't say 'no'

| Wednesday, April 25, 2012, 5:08 p.m.

Derry Borough Mayor Susan Bortz never learned the lesson her boss at the U.S. Department of Energy tried to teach her more than 30 years ago.

On her first day there, he told her she needed to defend the department's foreign travel budget to a group of congressman. When she lost 80 percent of the budget, he told her to get it back.

Throughout her yearlong temporary appointment, he would push Bortz to do the impossible, and she always found a way to make it happen.

On her last day, he called Bortz into his office. She asked why he had pushed her so hard.

"I wanted to teach you how to say no, and you never learned it, so I failed," he told her.

"And I've never learned it, and it's probably going to be the death of me," said Bortz, 62, a retired FBI agent who not only is the borough's mayor, but is also chief executive officer of the Derry Area Revitalization Corp. and runs the Derry Station Art Center in town. "That's one of my failings in life."

But Bortz's weakness for saying "yes" may be Derry's gain, as she has created a buzz about what's possible in the town these days.

"Susan's been a driving force all the way around town," said Vince Mastrorocco, owner of the 100-year-old Mastrorocco's Market. "She really does a lot. She's driven. She loves this town. She's working hard to try to improve things."

Though she spent some of her childhood in Salem Township and North Carolina, Bortz mostly grew up in New Alexandria, leading to her graduation from Derry Area High School.

She earned her degree in art education from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, but after a short stint as an art teacher in Tidewater, Va. decided to live and work in Washington D.C.

A job with the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association would lead to her stint at the Department of Energy and with some private government contracting firms.

But, at age 34, Bortz decided to take up a suggestion made to her by a friend's boyfriend, who was an FBI agent. He needled her for several years about joining the bureau. He thought she'd make a good agent.

So, in 1983 she entered the FBI -- the oldest in her training class and one of only four females. Injuries -- including a broken sternum -- would force her out of training twice. But her stubborn nature led her to finish during a third training class, nearly a year after entering the FBI.

"There's a fine line between being stubborn and stupid, and I've crossed it many times. I still do," she said.

She would work in FBI field offices in Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Philadelphia and Washington D.C. She investigated organized crime and white-collar crime. She did some undercover work -- once posing as a "bimbo" in Atlantic City.

She has worked on a case involving a Sicilian heroin syndicate and worked on a Chinese counter-intelligence squad.

"(The FBI) wants somebody that's flexible and can jump from place to place and specialty to specialty," Bortz said.

Though health problems led her to retire from the FBI after 13 years, she would find herself still drawn to law enforcement projects.

In 2003, she earned a master's degree in intelligence analysis from Mercyhurst University. Shortly after, she moved to Derry to care for her mother, who was suffering from Alzheimer's disease.

Upon her return, she took a job coordinating the municipal police and homeland security programs at Westmoreland County Community College. She held that position for about five years.

A need to give back

Her background caught the eye of Derry Police Chief Randy Glick. When the mayor's position was vacated in late 2006, Glick urged Bortz to apply for the position.

"He said the only thing I had to do is sign the paychecks. I'm gullible," Bortz said with a chuckle.

But, she truly did want to do something to improve things.

"When I moved back to town, I decided this was where I was going to stay until I died, and I needed to give back," she said.

Glick is glad to have someone who can serve as an advocate for his department as mayor.

"The mayor is the boss of the police department above me (and) having someone that has knowledge of what we all go through on a daily basis is vital," he said. "We're one of the favorite dogs to get kicked in the kennel because it costs money to have a police department. Having someone there to represent the police department that has that type of experience is a definite advantage and helps us out."

Bortz said people did not know what to make of her at first. She was an outsider -- someone who moved away and came back. But they began to see what she was trying to do for the town.

In 2009, she formed the Derry Area Revitalization Corp. to figure out ways to rejuvenate not just Derry Borough but Derry Township and New Alexandria.

While it started out slow at first, the group has been gaining momentum and more members.

"Everybody's gung ho on this," Derry Council President Allen Skopp said. "The naysayers don't get her down on this. They've got to move on."

They've held cleanup events and are sponsoring a fishing day later this month. They also sponsor movie nights at Keystone State Park.

Trail planned

But their biggest project is the planning of a walking and biking trail that will connect the Derry Area School District with the borough, its community park and perhaps wooded areas on the Chestnut Ridge.

The borough recently applied for a $15,000 grant on behalf of the revitalization group, which will raise the matching funds to build the $30,000 project.

"Our natural resources are the only thing this town has left," Bortz said."... It used to be industry and transportation, and all those things don't exist anymore. We need to start taking advantage (of the natural resources) if we want to keep our town."

She's also doing her part to try to bring businesses to Derry.

Bortz operates Derry Station Art Center along North Chestnut Street, which sells locally produced arts and crafts and offers art classes to the public. Four other small shops have opened in that area in the last two years, as well.

Still, for all the work she is doing, Bortz doesn't want to take all the credit.

"The whole town is starting to jump in to help," she said.

Mastrorocco agreed.

"It's starting a buzz in Derry," he said. "It's like we're waking back up and it seems to be infectious, and there seems to be a lot of people ready to do something in this town."

"I hope she sticks around for awhile," Glick said. "I can't imagine who'll you get next. I can't even imagine."

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