Martha Baumberger, the first and only woman to serve as Hilton Head Island's mayor and as chairwoman of the Beaufort County Council, died Sunday at Hilton Head Hospital after a brief illness, according to her daughter, Linda Behling.
She was 98.
Baumberger, born in Poplar Bluff, Mo., served on County Council from 1983 to 1986. She ran for mayor of the four-year-old town the next year and served a two-year term.
Former Hilton Head Mayor Tom Peeples said Baumberger helped blaze a trail for female politicians in the area.
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"She was a very classy lady who represented our town extremely well," Peeples said. Becoming the first woman mayor of Hilton Head "was something of a feat, and I consider her to be a trendsetter in that regard."
Despite her career and success in local politics, she hated the term "liberated woman." She preferred instead to simply say, "I've just lived my own life."
Baumberger and her husband, Bob, moved to Hilton Head in 1978, and she quickly became involved in community affairs. In addition to her elected posts, she served as president of the Women's Association of Hilton Head and was an advocate for incorporating the town. She also served on the county Voter Registration and Election Commission.
Baumberger attended Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio, for two years. Afterward, during the Great Depression, she took a year off from school to work in New York City at the newly formed Family Circle magazine. She returned to school at the University of Cincinnati, graduating in 1935 with an English major and a French and economics minor. She worked for Procter & Gamble Co., promoting national contests, then as secretary to the Cincinnati planning commission.
She married at age 25 in 1938.
An avid pianist and organist, Baumberger said one of the greatest moments of her life was directing a benefit concert in Ethiopia, where her family lived from 1956 until 1959. They moved to Iran, where Baumberger taught English and piano until 1961. The family eventually moved to Evanston, Ill., where she worked as assistant civil defense director for the city from 1962 to 1970.
She was elected to the Evanston County School Board that year and served as its chairwoman.
She was named executive director of Zonta, a women's service organization and was a founder of the Hilton Head chapter of the group.
Baumberger once described her public service involvement as an addiction: "You get interested in public affairs, and you can't turn it off."
She said she would like to have run for the S.C. General Assembly but discovered that dream too late in life, at age 74, and decided two years as mayor of Hilton Head would be enough.
Former colleagues remembered her as a respected and motivated civic leader.
"She tried to run a pretty tight ship," said Deke DeLoach, community leader and former County Council member. "She was good at enforcing rules and adhering to administrative steps."
Baumberger was recognized as a parliamentarian and was a resource for many groups.
Hilton Head Mayor Drew Laughlin praised Baumberger's singular commitment to public service.
"She commanded everyone's respect and had credibility with everyone," Laughlin said. "She was someone with integrity and great intelligence, whose sole motivation was to improve this community."
Baumberger led efforts to open up public access to Hilton Head's beaches and advocated using accommodations-tax revenue for improving that access. "I can't think of anything more important to visitors, as well as to our residents, than being able to get to the beaches," she wrote in a letter to the editor in 1985.
Baumberger was recognized for outstanding service to her fellow citizens by the Hilton Head Community Association in 1985.
When new schools were needed because of growth, Baumberger fought for money. She raised concerns over continuing to allow septic tanks to be installed at the risk of polluting the creeks and groundwater instead of building public sewer systems.
She urged women to get involved in community issues.
When she turned over the mayor's gavel after her term, she listed the following accomplishments:
- A realistic capital improvement plan.- An acceptable Cross Island Parkway route.- A decision to nourish the island's beaches.- Building bus-stop shelters for commuting workers.- Money for a rural water district on the island's north end.
Follow Grant Martin at twitter.com/LowCoBiz.