When Mary Jancosek Bercik was born on December 27, 1914, women simply didn’t run for political office. Women had inherited government positions from husbands and fathers for centuries and had been elected to mayorships for half a century in the United States, but it was a rare thing. She inherited the position of mayor and made it her own in 1957 in Whiting, Indiana.
Bercik lived her entire life in Whiting. The community existed in the area before 1869 if the legends of “Pop” Whiting are to be believed. By 1871 the community had a postmaster, but it still was not yet incorporated as a town. The Standard Oil Company loved that railroads ran through the area, it was on Lake Michigan, and it was so close to Chicago, so they started buying up land. By 1895, Whiting incorporated as a town, then grew so quickly that it then became a city in 1903.
Bercik graduated from Whiting High School and from East Chicago Business College. She had eight children: four daughters and four sons. Besides being a mother, she was active in community groups, civic, and recreational.
In 1955, there was a disaster in Whiting that threatened its very existence. The refinery exploded, and the fire lasted for eight days. Whiting’s population had been slowly declining since its peak in the 1930s, but rebuilding the refinery included the incorporation of new technology that cut the need for employees. Bercik’s husband William ran for mayor of Whiting and won in 1956, and he faced the challenge of keeping jobs and people in the city.
In 1957, Bercik was called upon to complete the final years of her husband’s term after he died from a heart attack while out fishing. Bercik enlisted the aid of her mother to help her raise her children so she could also help the city. Bercik ran for and won election in 1960, serving as mayor until 1964. One of her projects was the repaving of Schrage Avenue, a major street through the town. Her attempts to modernize the city through building a fire station, installing water meters on homes and businesses, and paving alleyways were a mixed bag as far as her constituents were concerned.
Bercik died in 1996 at the age of 82. One of her sons, Robert, would go on to follow his parents in local politics, serving as mayor from 1988 to 2003. Sadly, since her election, Indiana has lagged behind many other states in the election of women mayors, but if 2018 is a sign of the future, that might be changing.