This month marks 50 years since Sandra Swenk was sworn in as the Village of Port Jefferson’s first woman mayor.
In July of 1971, the 34-year-old mother of two took office as the village’s third mayor. Now, five decades later, she has paved the way for other lady leaders — not only here where she calls home, but throughout Long Island.
A lifelong resident, she was born at Mather Hospital in 1937 and grew up inside The Mather House Museum during the ’40s, as her family were caretakers.
“I had some good years there,” she said. “There were some things that are not there anymore, like a summer house, a beautiful old summer house that just kind of deteriorated years ago, but most of the property is fairly original today.”
After living there as a child, her family moved to various different homes surrounding Main Street — eventually settling with her husband John in a stunning historical home on Prospect Street in 1960.
“Port Jefferson is a great place to raise a child,” she said. “Because they can walk to school, and then we had downtown, and it wasn’t as busy as it is now.”
Swenk decided to become involved with Port Jeff’s politics early on, sitting on the board with her late husband to incorporate the village in 1963.
“We wanted to see the village incorporate and control its own destiny, so to speak,” she said.
Always interested in keeping the quaint village beautiful, Swenk wanted to see street trees, plants planted and window boxes in the local storefronts. She and a group of volunteers helped make that possible.
In 1971, Swenk decided to take the leap and run against the men of the village. In what she said was a low-key campaign, she said that she had a lot of support back then. Along with her son and daughter, she hand-delivered pamphlets around the village.
“I was proud of her,” said her daughter Brenda. “She did a lot. There was a lot of family involvement. There were a lot of things that we all did together.”
Swenk ended up winning, serving three terms until she was beaten by Harold Sheprow in 1977.
“I was always interested in revitalization,” she said.
According to Swenk, she wanted to keep the small-town atmosphere and have a recreational harbor. With the village known to be more industrial back then, she hoped to get rid of the gravel trucks and oil tanks that stayed near the water and the ferry.
“I also wanted to have what’s called adaptive use, using the older buildings for present uses,” she said. “I was big on historic preservation, and still am a historical society member.”
Swenk said she used Cold Spring Harbor’s streets as a model.
Another accomplishment she had during her tenure was working hand in hand with former state Sen. Leon Giuffreda (R) on a big safety issue that was happening around the village with its gravel trucks.
She said trucks didn’t have covers and often times gravel would spill into the busy streets.
“It was always a battle to get it cleaned up,” she said. “But today, if you see any kind of a truck, could be just a little truck or big truck or a gravel truck, they have to have covers — and now they do.”
Swenk said that from day one since she was elected, village board meetings were always busy.
“There were more people who went to the public meetings, probably because I was a woman and they wanted to see how I was going to run them,” she said. “People just didn’t know whether a woman could handle a job like that.”
But she got the support she needed to win.
“I think people realized I was genuinely concerned about the village. And its growth, and its business and its appearance,” she said. “That was very important to me and it still is.”
At first, she was the only woman in Village Hall, but during her second term, a woman trustee came in and gradually it grew from there. Since her run, Jeanne Garant served as mayor from 1999 to 2005, and her daughter Margot has just been elected to her seventh term.
Now, a half-century later, she still lives right off East Main Street and is still heavily involved with what’s going on around town. A member of the historical society, the First United Methodist Church and volunteer at The Mather House Museum, she keeps busy, but still reminisces about what life was like Down Port so many years ago.
“There’s no question that it’s changed,” she said. “When I was growing up here, we had all the necessary services in the village — we had a laundromat which we don’t have anymore, but for years had a hardware store, a dress shop, a drugstore. So, some of those needs have been lost along the way.”
Swenk wishes there was a grocery store for village residents to shop at. “I would love to have a grocery back here,” she said. “We’re really lacking that.”
She said she has been unhappy to see the development over the last decade, building upward with the continuous lack of parking — something that was an issue even during her tenure.