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Remembering a Perth County political pioneer – Stratford Beacon-Herald

Elsie Karges, the first woman elected to office in Listowel, is pictured on Dec. 8, 1981, shortly after she was elected as the first female warden of Perth County. (Stratford-Perth Archives, Beacon Herald Subject Files)
Elsie Karges, the first woman elected to office in Listowel, is pictured on Dec. 8, 1981, shortly after she was elected as the first female warden of Perth County. (Stratford-Perth Archives, Beacon Herald Subject Files)

Elsie Karges – the first woman elected to office in Listowel and, later, the first woman elected warden of Perth County – is being remembered as a political trailblazer whose legacy in the region has inspired a generation of community leaders.

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Among those leaders is Julie Behrns, a former North Perth mayor and Perth County warden who followed in Karges’ footsteps for nearly 30 years before leaving municipal politics after October’s elections.

Although their careers didn’t overlap, Behrns said Karges was often a “role model” and a “mentor” during her time in office, particularly after the amalgamation of North Perth in 1998, a full decade after Karges retired from politics.

“The last time I saw Elsie was probably about two years ago, and she still had the vim and vigour of someone who had been involved in politics for a long time,” Behrns said. “Let’s not forget she was very determined, very strong-willed.

“She was forceful in her opinions because she believed everyone’s opinion was important. I think that’s part of her legacy as well – to be a mover and a shaker and blaze a path, not just for women, but to show everyone that there’s a role here for (them) to play in building their community.”

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Karges died at Woodingford Lodge in Woodstock on Dec. 22, just two weeks before her 93rd birthday.

“She was a remarkable woman that enjoyed her friends and family, as well as walking, bicycling, curling and playing bridge,” her obituary said.

Current Perth County Warden Rhonda Ehgoetz acknowledged Karges Friday by announcing the county would lower a flag at its historic building in Stratford until a celebration of her life takes place at Trinity United Church in Listowel on Jan. 20.

“I think she’s a great example,” said Ehgoetz, the fifth woman to hold the position. “Who would have thought that in 1982 … we would have a woman warden? It’s great to follow in her footsteps.”

Karges’ son Donald said Wednesday his family is “taken aback” by the recognition of his mother’s work on town council and as a volunteer in Listowel.

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“(We’re) very appreciative of that gesture in her honour,” he said. “She was very proud of her accomplishments.”

Karges was born on Jan. 4, 1930, in Howick Township. She moved to Listowel, north of Stratford, where she married her husband, Oliver, in July 1949. They raised three children – Donald, Alan and Peter.

“The thing that always struck me about mom when she was in politics is that she was a very pragmatic person,” Donald said. “I wouldn’t say she was that much of a political animal, She was just kind of a common sense type of (decision maker). The way she’d make decisions about her family budget (is the way) she would make (decisions) when she was looking at (finances) for the county or for the town.”

Karges’ 16-year political career began in Listowel in 1972. She became a Perth County reeve – Listowel’s representative on that council – in 1976 and was elected by her regional colleagues to be the county’s warden in late 1981.

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Elsie Karges, the first female warden elected in Perth County. Stratford-Perth Archives, Beacon Herald Negative Collection, Dec. 8, 1981
Elsie Karges, the first female warden elected in Perth County. Stratford-Perth Archives, Beacon Herald Negative Collection, Dec. 8, 1981

According to an article in the Beacon Herald published on Dec. 8 of that year, the vote was unanimous. In a followup article Dec. 10, Karges was described as a “capable and diplomatic politician” known for “her thoughtful dialogue and a strong commitment to making decisions.”

Karges’ priorities at the time included improving housing for seniors and advocating for satellite offices for the Stratford-Perth Archives in Listowel and Mitchell.

“We have to show we are interested in preserving local history,” Karges told the Beacon Herald at the time.

Vince Judge, a former Listowel mayor and the first mayor of North Perth after its amalgamation, described Karges as a “very well-known” and “highly respected” member of the community.

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“The fact she was the first woman (elected in Listowel), it was a change in the structure, or a recognition you might say, of women having a role in our little municipality,” he said. “She was very fair with everybody, but you knew where she stood on the issues. If she had something that she wanted to see done, she certainly worked hard at it.”

Karges was a member of the Listowel council that moved forward with plans to build a water treatment plant constructed in the early 1990s. That project was important, Judge said, because it allowed the community to lift restrictions on new housing put in place to protect an overworked sewage lagoon.

Now, Listowel is among the fastest growing communities in the region.

“We were really shut down,” Judge said. “It has been, now, a few years since it was built, but it has been the catalyst for the expansion that has happened here in Listowel.”

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Judge’s daughter Kelly, a retired teacher who recently moved back to Perth County from Toronto, recalled Karges’ impact on young women in Listowel tuned into municipal affairs.

“Her successes showed me, as a young woman, that I had a voice,” she said. “She paved the way for us.”

Karges was also a longtime volunteer in Listowel who was very active at Trinity United Church. She sat on multiple boards and frequently fundraised for the March of Dimes Canada and the Canadian Cancer Society.

“I can’t say what the motivation was to get involved in being a volunteer, she just always was and that just seemed to be a part of her nature,” Donald said.

Elsie Karges
Elsie Karges jpg, SF

Karges was also an avid conservationist who spent many of her retirement years outdoors hiking and canoeing with Oliver, her husband. Oliver died in September 2020 at age 94.

“I always thought … they had kind of an unusual retirement,” Donald said. “When other people might be going on cruises and trips to Europe, they were going river rafting … and were canoeing in different areas. They very much enjoyed the outdoors and tried to keep nature undisturbed.”

Karges will be buried in a natural burial site in Woodlawn Memorial Park in Guelph. She has asked that memorial donations be sent to the Maitland Valley Conservation Authority to plant trees in North Perth.

cmontanini@postmedia.com