Mary Lowther had assumed she was done running for public office. After all, she’d had her time in her native Williamsville. Lowther was first elected a village trustee over 30 years ago. She later became the first woman mayor of the village and served from 2005 until 2011.
it’s not as if she was lacking for things to occupy her time. Lowther is the village historian and chair of the Historic Preservation Commission. She still works a day a week at Niagara Frontier Auto Dealers, where she helps run their charities. She’s an avid gardener who organized the first village Garden Walk in 2004.
So why in the world would Mary want to jump back into village government? Why would she run for village trustee at a time when our politics are so deeply divided and even hostile?
“I’m getting back into it because I don’t like what I’m seeing,” Lowther said Tuesday at her home on North Ellicott Street in the village. “I’m seeing national issues getting brought into the village that I think are totally inappropriate.
“I absolutely feel a sense of duty,” she said. “But I’m hoping we can get it back on track, because I’m getting too old to do this. I will be 74 this year.”
Lowther is running for one of two open trustee seats with another ex-mayor, Daniel DeLano, on the Community First line. They’re opposing David Sherman, a current trustee who is the long-time managing editor of the Bee Newspapers, and local businessman John Ariola. Sherman and Ariola are on the Harmony Line for the village election, which takes place next Tuesday.
DeLano and Lowther came out of retirement because they were troubled with the direction the board has taken under current mayor Deb Rogers, whose open defiance of the county’s COVID-19 mask mandate last year led to a $300 fine for the village.
The issue came to a head at a heated Dec. 13 meeting of the Village Board. Trustee Matthew Etu resigned in a withering letter, citing Rogers’s “toxic conduct” at the meeting. The board initially voted to hire a lawyer to fight the $300 fine, but later decided to pay the fine instead.
The mask controversy was an embarrassment and the last straw for DeLano, who calculated that the village would have spent more than a quarter million bucks to battle a $300 fine.
“That’s when I got ahold of Mary,” said DeLano, who served as village mayor until 2019 and is now chairman of the Tree Board. “We had chatted a couple of times leading up to it, kind of shaking our heads. It was funny, because neither of us wanted to say, ‘OK, I’m going to do this.’
“But then it was like, ‘All right, if you do this, I’ll do this,’” said DeLano, who has long considered Lowther a mentor and friend.
“So we said ‘OK’,” Lowther said. “We were both trustees, we were both mayors, we’ve got a lot of background, we can hit the ground running. There’s not going to be any training for us. And we can accomplish a lot in a short period of time if we really buckle down and do it.”
“Neither one of us liked what we saw,” she said. “I don’t appreciate people calling people communists, the talk about the Nazis. It’s not appropriate to the village.”
Last month at a Village Board meeting, Sherman drew a comparison between the state’s pandemic isolation and quarantine procedures and the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany. The Jewish Federation decried Sherman’s remarks and said it “unequivocally rejects the comparisons made between COVID-19 rules and the holocaust.”
This is uncommonly harsh stuff for a 1.2-square mile village with roughly 5,300 residents, a village that normally concerns itself with traffic and business and the fate of the Ellicott Creek dam.
Lowther grew up on South Forest and graduated in 1966 from Williamsville High, which is now Will South. She has an abiding affection for the village, where her parents, Pat and Joan, owned a diner on Main Street. It was in front of what is now the popular Britesmith Brewing, which is on a location formerly used for the village blacksmith and, later, a welding operation.
“The welding shop was behind it,” Lowther recalled. “That was one of my first jobs. I was a teenager. I went to work there after high school and that’s why I didn’t go to college right away.”
She has lived all over the village. Lowther eventually went to college for a year at Rosary Hill, then got married. She has been divorced since the 1970s. She bought her current home 32 years ago, around the time she was first elected a village trustee.
Lowther began taking part-time classes at Erie Community College in her late 40s. She was 55 when she finally got her bachelor’s degree, in economics and business from Empire State.
“I worked for car dealerships all my life,” she said. “Office management, controller, that sort of business. I left there in 2000 and went to work for Niagara Frontier Auto Dealers. They’re a marketing organization that does services for all the new franchise dealers. So we work with all the dealers in Western New York. We do their medical, all their insurances, comp.”
DeLano is a construction worker and musician who used to own The Delaware Inn, a tavern in Kenmore. He played for years in bands around the area, most notably with The Steam Donkeys. He’s currently building movie sets. Delano became a trustee in 2010 and served as deputy mayor and then mayor before stepping aside in 2019.
He long dreamed of buying a home in the Village of Williamsville.
“Oh yeah, it was my adult-life goal,” he said. “I always thought it was cool. I bought a really cool house. I worked my ass off to get here. As soon as I moved in, within six months, Kevin Gaughan tried to dissolve the village. That’s when I first got involved.”
The plan to dissolve the village government was soundly defeated in 2010. Turnout was large, much larger than some of the other elections. There was a prolonged stretch where board candidates ran unopposed.
“I think that’s part of the problem,” Lowther said. “When you don’t have contested elections, no one comes out with any ideas. You don’t know what they stand for. You have to come up with some ideas of what you want to do and how you want to do it to be a successful political person.”
Lowther said Community First stands for “controlled development, appropriate development, parks, green space, recycling … a lot of the green stuff.”
Asked what her top priority would be if she got back on the board, Lowther said fixing the dysfunctional Ellicott Creek dam. The dam remains open due to safety concerns, which means the channel behind Britesmith and The Irishman can’t fill with water during the busy months.
“I think abandoning the dam, which is basically what they did, is a huge disservice to the community,” Lowther said. She and DeLano said the board didn’t pursue a grant that would have provided the funds to fix the 90-year-old dam.
The dam is a big issue. But it was the wild, acrimonious board meetings, during which Rogers seemed to be rooting on people who violated the mask mandates, that was the real impetus.
DeLano said his music takes him all over the region. He’s constantly hearing people who ask him ‘What the hell is going on in Williamsville?’
“It’s a terrible embarrassment,” Lowther said. “We were like the poster child of getting grants, of getting things done, making such huge differences in infrastructure, all kinds of things. All of a sudden, we’re the laughingstock.”
She has dedicated much of her life to her tiny village. She loves Williamsville too much to see it become a reflection of the rancor and political division in the country.
“Dan does, too,” she said. “That’s the reason why we’re doing it. If we didn’t care, we wouldn’t do it. When you run for office at this level, God knows, you don’t do it for the money. I always kidded that I made ten cents an hour when I was mayor, because I worked almost as many hours as my full-time job when I did it.”
Lowther didn’t want to leave village government the last time. But two years after her re-election (by seven votes) in 2007, she slipped on some ice and fell down the front steps of her house while letting her dog out early in the morning. She broke her femur and was out of work for six months.
“After seeing the doctor and a couple surgeries, I knew I couldn’t do it,” she said. “Oh, I missed it a lot. But I had to do it. I was in a wheelchair for a couple of months. I was in a rehab facility for a month.”
She seemed pleased to confirm she’d never lost an election. Of course, Lowther has never been in one this hotly contested, or polarizing. The signs are out all over the village, and the Lowther-DeLano retro ticket seems to have quite a spirited following.
“I think people think I’m honest,” Lowther said. “They don’t always like what I say. I’m very frank. But I’ll never lie to people. I’m fairly well-known throughout the village, because I’ve been around forever and done a lot of things — been on a lot of committees, done a lot of work for the village.”
DeLano said he wouldn’t be running if he wasn’t doing it with Lowther.
“I always admired how she was able to put everything together and then surmise it, and lay it out, whatever the issue,” he said. “I’m pretty good at that, too. It’s the first time I’m officially working with Mary, and I realize how great she is at that.
“I’m optimistic,” DeLano said. “I’m not going to get overconfident. I don’t count my chickens before they’re hatched. You can embarrass yourself.”
Heaven knows, the village has seen enough of that.
Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.