Leading ladies blaze trails in Burnet, Llano counties

CONNIE SWINNEY • PICAYUNE STAFF

Llano County Judge-elect Mary Cunningham recently attended an event at Lakeside Park in Marble Falls along with Burnet County Judge-elect James Oakley. Cunningham is the first woman elected as county judge or to serve on a commissioner's court in her county. Oakley is replacing his county's first female judge, Donna Klaeger, who chose not to run again after serving for two terms. Staff photos by Connie Swinney

Llano County Judge-elect Mary Cunningham recently attended an event at Lakeside Park in Marble Falls along with Burnet County Judge-elect James Oakley. Cunningham is the first woman elected as county judge or to serve on a commissioner’s court in her county. Oakley is replacing his county’s first female judge, Donna Klaeger, who chose not to run again after serving for two terms. Staff photo by Connie Swinney

LLANO — A slow-paced rural setting might evoke images of “The Way Texas Used to Be” — as the motto for the city of Llano might suggest — however, recent election outcomes catapulting women into top leadership roles continue to defy that perception.

“You have female business owners, female mayors and county judges, female doctors,” said Nona Fox, Marble Falls’ mayor from 2003 to 2005. “I think we have great female leaders. I think attitude has a lot to do with it — attitude and desire.”

Among those female leaders is two-term Burnet County Judge Donna Klaeger and Llano County Judge-elect Mary Cunningham.

Cunningham not only sealed the Republican nomination for Llano County judge but made history in March by becoming the first woman on path to fill that role.

Without an opponent in the fall, Cunningham is the presumptive winner to be sworn in Jan. 1, 2015.

“I had always had this false perception that small towns were kinda closed. We moved up here (from Houston), and I didn’t find that at all,” Cunningham said. “If you show them you can make good decisions, you’re interested in doing a good job and you’re going to look after their money, they’re pretty much happy.”

In the Highland Lakes, historians have traced such sentiment as far back as the early 1900s, even preceding the 19th amendment giving women the right to vote that was ratified on Aug. 18, 1920.

In 1917, Ophelia “Birdie” Crosby Harwood of Marble Falls was the first woman ever elected as a mayor of a city of the United States by an all-male vote, according to “Burnet County History, Vol. I.”

“Moreover, in 1936, Mrs. Harwood was appointed Judge of the Municipal Court of Marble Falls by what was then an all-male City Commission and at the request of the citizens,” the excerpt states. “Her popularity as a public official covered a period of about 20 years, and her good example still serves as an inspiration to citizens even today.”

Burnet County Judge Donna Klaeger, the county’s first female administrative judge, recently participated as grand marshal in Spicewood’s Independence Day parade. Klaeger will complete a historic two-term stint at the end of 2014 on the commissioner's court after choosing not to run again for the position. Courtesy photo

Burnet County Judge Donna Klaeger, the county’s first female administrative judge, recently participated as grand marshal in Spicewood’s Independence Day parade. Klaeger will complete a historic two-term stint at the end of 2014 on the commissioner’s court after choosing not to run again for the position. Courtesy photo

“It shows the community is open-minded,” said Fox, who is a real estate agent with children and grandchildren in the community. “It’s always been open-minded.”

A lifelong Marble Falls resident, who also served as a city councilwoman for several years, Fox explained that women’s roles have evolved through history but still share a common set of values.

“In the ‘60s and ‘70s, the women were homemakers. If a female worked back then, you worked as a bank teller or a secretary,” she said.

As more women began expressing interest in politics in the 1980s and 1990s, local citizens appeared receptive, even as “out-of-towners” approached them with skepticism, she said.

“The out-of-town people were more surprised about a female mayor than the local people,” Fox said. “At out-of-town meetings, people would say, ‘You’re the mayor?’ I would have to say, ‘Yes, I’m the mayor. It didn’t matter to me if you were male or female. If you dream it, you can do it and not take ‘no’ for an answer.”

Klaeger and Cunningham, elected for county-wide positions, are two of 10 female administrative county judges among the 254 counties in Texas who wouldn’t take “no” for an answer and ran for an office typically occupied by males.

Both say attributes that helped them break into the “all-boys network” include traits such as being good listeners, being able to multi-task, carefully choosing battles and compromising.

“Men and women communicate differently,” Klaeger said. “Women are much more direct in stating what they want. Men, like our commissioners, maybe are not as direct. Communication is key, trying to listen first and hear them out. Even if you don’t agree with them, it’s OK because they just want to be heard.”

Klaeger’s past experience includes serving as the executive director of the Marble Falls/Lake LBJ Chamber of Commerce, the executive director of the Seton Fund and Burnet County treasurer and helping found the philanthropic Seriff Foundation.

She is a mother of two adult children and two grandchildren. Her husband, Robert, practices law in Burnet County and is a former county attorney.

“It’s very important to have a business background, and the nonprofit background helped immensely,” she said. “Our goal is to be efficient and collaborative, to serve the people and save as much money as possible.

“Having served as treasurer, I had known the commissioners for many years. Having a mutual respect for each other made it an easy transition.”

Mary Cunningham and her husband, Bob, a geologist, moved from Houston, where she practiced law for 21 years, including a stint as an associate district court judge. In 2011, they settled into what was once a vacation home in Llano County. They have two adult sons and a grandson.

She became a member of the Highland Lakes Republican Women, the STAR Republican Women of Horseshoe Bay and the Child Welfare Board.

As she campaigned for judge, Cunningham worked as the 424th/33rd Judicial District court-appointed attorney for cases involving Child Protective Services.

“I was somewhat used to entering a field where there was not a lot of women,” she said. “I was prepared for someone to make it an issue, but no one did. I think we’ve moved into the 21st century, and people are adjusted to that.”

Like Klaeger, Cunningham, as county judge, will be primarily handling issues such as comprehensive planning, roadway and water infrastructure and law enforcement facilities.

“I have absolute respect for Donna. She’s obviously shown people that women are capable of doing those jobs and doing them well,” Cunningham said.

As Klaeger passes the torch, she believes the younger generations can benefit from the example she has cultivated.

“I believe women have a very good analytical approach,” she said. “I have found, in government, woman are much more direct in making decisions and understanding we need to move forward. My message to young women is to get a good education but, at the same time, make sure you’re working in a field to get experience in and that you love. It is an incredible experience to be in a leadership position.”

Cunningham added that effective leadership entails adopting a broader focus as well as a staunch work ethic.

“Get along and make compromises. See the things you need to fight for and give up on everything else,” she said. “This whole four- or five-county area is full of people who are based on the American work ethic. They always want to chip in and do their part. For a long time here, people have measured people by what they see and the success that they have, not by preconceived notions about being male or female.”

connie@thepicayune.com

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