(HOST) VPR is observing Women’s History Month – and the Champlain quadricentennial – by honoring five women who contributed to the history and culture of the Champlain Valley. Today, Julia Lewandoski* has the story of Sadie White – Winooski mill worker, long-time state legislator, and preservationist.
(LEWANDOSKI) When the Burlington Beltline was first conceived in the 1960s as part of Route 127, it was going to displace a chunk of the Old North End’s residential neighborhood. Due primarily to the efforts of Sadie White, a State Representative from Burlington’s Ward 3, the Beltline was re-routed, and the neighborhood remained intact, saving more than 20 houses from destruction.
Re-routing the beltline is perhaps Sadie White’s most famous accomplishment, but it’s just one example of her life-long efforts on behalf of low income and elderly Vermonters.
Sadie White was no stranger to hard work and poverty. Born in 1901 to dairy farmers near Underhill, Sadie Lucy Tatro was one of seven children. After 10th grade, she left school and home to work in the American Woolen Company mill in Winooski. She began in the weaving room, running one loom and working for her board and weekly pay. By the time the mill closed in 1954, Sadie White was running six looms at once.
She met her husband, William, in the weaving room, and they were married in 1923. Both were involved in organizing the first union at the mill in 1943, and William White served as its president. The victory spurred the organization of unions around Vermont.
And when the woolen mill closed, White worked briefly as a pastry and meat cook, and then began her career in politics. She was already a labor organizer, a VFW volunteer, and an inspector of elections when her mentor, State Senator Jack O’Brien, urged her to run for state representative in 1965.
Sadie White represented Burlington’s Ward 3, which includes the western side of the Old North End, and parts of downtown Burlington. A fiercely independent politician, she was a fiscally conservative Democrat whose issues included expanded at-home nursing; care for veterans, the elderly, and the disabled; and support for the poor.
White was a fighter, but she also made powerful friends, including Senators Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders. It’s said that she won close elections by personally collecting absentee ballots from the elderly and disabled – going house to house on her way to the polls.
White served as state representative until 1984, with the exception of a two-year term in ’81 and ’82, when she served on Burlington’s City Council. She broke ranks with her fellow Democrats by throwing her considerable support behind an upstart socialist running for mayor named Bernie Sanders at the start of his long political career.
At the end of her last term, Sadie White was 82 and the oldest serving member of the state House of Representatives. She continued to serve as a Justice of the Peace into her 90s. On August 29, 1992, the city of Burlington celebrated Sadie White Appreciation Day.
White died in 1999, at age 98, but her legacy continues to shape Burlington’s Old North End, and perhaps to influence Vermont’s representation in Washington.
Note: This series is presented in celebration of Women’s History Month and the Champlain Quadricentennial.