|1983: Mayor Barbara|
|By LAUREN M. BLACK / The Trentonian|
In 1983, Princeton elected as mayor a Southern belle whose charm and grace and style and courage would make her one of the most beloved politicians of modern New Jersey history.
Barbara Boggs Sigmund had played in the halls of Congress as a child, worked as a letter writer for President John F. Kennedy and danced with President Lyndon Johnson at her wedding.
She was the daughter of powerful Democratic Rep. Hale Boggs of Louisiana, and a mother strong enough to move into her husband's congressional seat right after his untimely death.
As much for the sharp political instincts she brought to Princeton and Jersey, Sigmund is remembered for working up to the final day of an 8-year battle with the cancer that took her life at age 51 in 1990.
Her father was a New Deal Democrat from New Orleans who hung out with LBJ and took pride in introducing little Barbara to the other big pols, diplomats and generals they met in the halls of the Capitol. When his friend JFK won the White House, Boggs got Barbara a job there.
After Boggs died in a plane crash off Alaska in 1972 following 31 years in the House of Representatives, his wife, Corrine "Lindy" Boggs, took over as the Congresswoman from New Orleans and held the post for almost 20 more years.
LBJ, the President of the United States, attended her wedding to political science scholar Paul Sigmund in 1964, and even had a spin with her on the dance floor. On that day, she would say later, she had "no notion in my head of doing anything except being an educated wife and mother.''
But politics was in her blood, and in 1972 Sigmund launched her political career with a winning campaign for a seat on the Princeton borough council. In three years she was a Mercer County freeholder.
In March 1982, just after announcing she would run in the Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate, Sigmund entered a hospital to have her left eye removed following a diagnosis of cancer.
Hours after the operation, Sigmund showed up for a campaign fund-raiser wearing a flattering red silk dress and a matching heart-shaped eye patch. She stood before the crowd, smiling broadly and drawled: "You all are a sight for a sore eye.''
Sigmund would use humor from that day forward to make people comfortable talking to her about politics as well as her condition. Despite growing statewide affection for her, Sigmund lost the senate primary race in 1982.
But she was a lock for election as mayor of Princeton in 1983. By the time of the campaign, Sigmund had an eye patch to match nearly every dress, hugs for anyone in ill health, and thanks for those encouraging her stay in public service.
Sigmund already had cut her teeth in local politics as the council member who convinced Jersey government to "Save the Dinky,'' the single-car train that links the borough to the Princeton Junction station a mile outside town. In those years, she had also established Womanspace, a shelter for battered women.
"Barbara had a blend of personal charm and chutzpah that nobody could stop,'' Regina Podharin, a former shelter director, said after Sigmund's death. "When that tall, blond woman walked into the room with that determined look on her face, you knew you would lose. You knew she would get what she wanted."
Campaigning for mayor, Sigmund joked that God had planned her "handicap" to distinguish her during political races. She referred to the eye patch she had to wear as "a real sign of recognition."
After winning the job, Sigmund joined with Mercer County Executive Bill Mathesius, a Republican, to fight for a moratorium on the building boom going on in those years along Route 1 outside the borough.
It was a fight to protect the quality of life in small-town and rural Jersey that they ultimately lost, but which inspired Sigmund to think about seeking higher office.
As mayor, she also added cancer charities to her list of priorities and spent much of her time and energy appearing before charitable organizations, sharing the story of her battle with cancer.
In a 1989 Trentonian interview she said, "As a public official and being so highly visible, I have a responsibility to make it very clear that those people who will have cancer at one point in their lives will be able to function."
Re-elected mayor in 1987, her cancer seemingly five years in remission, Sigmund entered the Democratic gubernatorial primary in 1989.
"I've got my eye on New Jersey" was her slogan. Sigmund distributed paper eye patches to voters to help them remember her.
Her sense of humor never left her, even when doctors told her in October 1989 that, despite the surgery of seven years before, the cancer had spread to other parts of her body.
She broke the news to the public, who often referred to her "Mayor Barbara" because they felt so close to her.
"The cancer, apparently, grew up and decided to take a field trip," she told one audience a few days after she got the bad news.
"You have no idea how sure everyone was at the time that the cancer would never reappear,'' Sigmund said without a hint of bitterness. "After seven years, you think you're home free. I was told that I had less of a chance of the cancer reoccurring than if I had never had cancer at all."
Her first reaction when she learned the disease had spread was to become more aware of "the exquisiteness of life," she said. "I wanted to tell everyone who I saw looking grim on the sidewalks, 'Smile. Smile. You are alive. It's wonderful.' So many people are walking around looking so grim all the time. I just never understand why. I just want to go up to people and say, 'smile.'"
In a 1990 interview with The Trentonian, "Lindy" Boggs noted that most of the sympathy letters she received after Sigmund's death conveyed feelings of kinship from people who only met her once.
"It's amazing the strength they seemed to gain from just some contact with her. It's truly amazing," said Boggs, by then the U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican. "She had a very personal way of reacting to people and interacting with people."
Boggs remembered telling Sigmund about all of the prayers from the community that came in cards, gifts and letters. Stacks of them crowded Boggs' desk and took hours to pour through.
"Barbara, you have to get well. I've never known anyone to have so many [prayers] said for her," Boggs told her daughter.
Sigmund replied, "Well, mother, either they will help me to get well, or they will help me die well."
Lindy Boggs resigned in 1989 to be by her daughter's bedside in the last months of Sigmund's life. Also at her side when she died on Oct. 10, 1990 were her husband and the three sons they had raised in Princeton: Paul Jr., David and Stephen.
Sigmund's funeral drew thousands, including the brother who went on to become a prominent Washington lobbyist, Thomas Hale Boggs Jr., and little sister Corrine "Cokie" Boggs Roberts, the ABC political reporter.
"Until we experience what it's like to be up against something, we don't realize that courage is a word of action," Barbara Boggs Sigmund once said. "You cannot wallow in a loss if you want to make a gain. You just go forward and do."