Sewickley Township honors first woman supervisor for service, 100th birthday
Herminie native Mary Zakutney was a groundbreaker in Sewickley Township, where 62 years ago she took a position no woman had held in that rural community.
At a time when the township’s top elected officials were expected to fix roads and operate snow plows, Zakutney became the first woman to serve as a supervisor. She was appointed to the post in 1957, after being recommended by a friend who was the tax collector. Once in office, Zakutney proved popular with voters — winning a number of elections. She retired in 1981 after 24 years as a supervisor.
“I liked that I was my own boss,” Zakutney said, though she noted she still had to answer to township residents.
That was not always easy because “people are hard to please,” Zakutney said. “I’d tell my husband, ‘They pay my salary. I have to be nice to them.’”
In recognition of being Sewickley’s first female supervisor and turning 100, current supervisors proclaimed Sept. 19 — her birthday — as Mary Zakutney Day. She graciously accepted the applause from the audience when Supervisor Brian Merdian read the proclamation last week.
Zakutney was township secretary-treasurer for about 17 years. She was known to her peers as the “Nickel Squeezer” because of her strong desire to be fiscally responsible, Merdian said. She was on the board of supervisors that oversaw the construction of the township building along Mars Hill Road.
“If they were going to get enough money to build a building,” they needed to be “prudent and careful in their spending,” Zakutney said. “A dime gets to be a dollar if you have 10 of them.”
Sewickley was very much in need of a new township building when she came on board in the late 1950s. The small office next to the high school football field had few amenities, Zakutney said. It had an outhouse instead of a restroom.
“We had no water. We had nothing” at the building, Zakutney said.
A gas furnace heated the building, but did little to make it bearable in the winter.
“We would freeze to death in the building,” Zakutney said.
The daughter of Ukrainian immigrants was used to such hardships. She was the third oldest girl in a family of 14 children that lived in a four-room house on three acres. The property was big enough for a large garden and space for chickens, pigs and even ducks, Zakutney said. Water came from an outdoor pump, and family members were accustomed to using the outhouse.
The coal miner’s daughter met John Zakutney at a family event. They married in September 1939, days before her 20th birthday. A few weeks earlier, Germany invaded Poland to start what would become World War II.
After the United States entered the war in December 1941, Zakutney went to work assembling bombs at munitions plant in McKeesport, she said. She was able to give some money to her family, which could not afford to pay for her to go to college to study accounting.
Zakutney took on different jobs — learning how to be a tailor from a woman in Jeannette and to mend furs at a Greensburg business. She was a maid for a Squirrel Hill family, which was generous enough to buy her a pair of glasses because she said it was a luxury her family could not afford.
In her “spare time,” she still helped her mother raise her younger siblings, all of whom were born at home, Zakutney said.
She and her husband, who died in 1998, had two daughters, Mary Ann, with whom she resides in North Huntingdon, and Cathy of Austin, Texas, and a son, John Paul Zakutney of Irwin.
Zakutney has lived longer than her parents and other siblings, but she said she never expected to be here past the age of 70. Her caregiver, some 70 years younger than Zakutney, said she is one of the sharpest centenarians she has ever seen.
Sitting at a table with a stack of birthday cards, Zakutney attributed her longevity to a formula of good, clean living.
“I’m still not indulging,” she said. “No cigarettes. No alcohol.”
Zakutney offered advice for how to live the many years she has been granted.
“You just to have to live right,” she said. “Be honest. Be kind. Don’t hurt anybody else, they won’t hurt you.”
Joe Napsha is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe at 724-836-5252, [email protected] or via Twitter .