Since March is Women's History Month, I wanted to write about a woman who was important to the history of Greenwich. I decided to research Ms. Ruth Sims, who I call the "First Lady of Greenwich".
Ms. Sims was a First Lady for several reasons:
2. She was the first woman in 72 years to actually hold the position, and
3. She was the first full-time First Selectman
You could also say she holds another distinction: Sims was a Democrat who was elected in a prominently Republican town!
Ruth Sims was elected in 1977 after two recounts and a second general election. In the first election, she led by 6 votes. A recount gave Mr. Vernon a 1 vote advantage. After challenging the recount due to discrepancies in the count of absentee ballots, a new election was held. Sims defeated Republican incumbent Rupert Vernon by a wide margin of 13,962 to 9,361 votes. In 1979, she defeated Albert F. Varner, Jr. by fewer than 200 votes.
Ms. Sims was born Ruth Bodman Leiserson in Rochester on March 4, 1920, in Rochester NY. She was the fourth of seven children. Ruth attended Oberlin College in Ohio, where she studied English. After graduating, she worked for Senator Harold H. Burton in Washington DC. Sims worked in the Division of Defense Housing, a part of the Federal Works Agency. In 1941, she married Albert G. Sims. Ruth joined the League of Women Voters in 1953, and even became a local and state president. Later she became a member of the National League of Women Voters. In 1954, she and her husband moved to Riverside, and she worked as a director of the Southern New England Telephone Company.
Active in community affairs, she served on the Riverside, Eastern Junior High School and Greenwich High School PTA. Ms. Sims also served on the Community Council and Community Chest. From 1975 to 1976, she served as the Vice Chairman of the United Way. She was the chairman of the Commision on Compensation of Elected State Officials and Judges, served on the Committee to Reorganize State Government, and the Regional Planning Association and the 1983/1984 Charter Commission. Nationally, Ms. Sims served on the United States-South African leadership Exchange Program.
COURTEOUSY OF THE NEW YORK TIMES
Ms. Sims developed an interest in politics when she was a national director of the League of Women Voters. She served 2 terms on the Board. Having served on the national and state level, she eventually decided she wanted to serve on the local level. Ms. Sims decided to run for the First Selectman position in 1977 to effect real change. The first hurdle was securing the Democratic nomination by winning a primary. She was opposed by favorite William Morris and Sheila Arnaboldi. This brought much needed attention to her campaign in the Republican stronghold. In this first election, she challenged Rupert Vernon. Initially, it was reported that she had won by six votes. Then there were subsequent recounts, and the results gave the election to the Republicans. While the voting machines showed no evidence of tampering, there were some discrepancies with the absentee ballots, which were easily accessible. After a two-week hearing with a judge, a tie was declared, setting the way for a new election. In the followup election on Decmber 29th - three days before the new person was to start as First Selectman - she won by about 3500 votes.
As a peace offering, Ms. Sims asked Republican Everett Fisher, Chairman of the Board of Estimate and Taxation, to swear her in. He agreed, but cooperation between the two parties was still strained. She decided to make her inauguartion a public affair by having it on the Town Hall front stairs. To improve communications, she established weekly meetings of department heads to share information. Ms. Sims had a new centralized phone system installed to reduce costs, and centralized all office functions ( word processing, duplicating, microfilming) under an Administrative Services department. A Labor Relations Officer was added to handle grievances in a timely manner.
Her most noteworthy accomplishments as First Selectman include converting the Cos Cob Power Plant from coal to oil to reduce pollution, establishing subsidized housing for the elderly, initiating traffic calming, and preserving the residential nature of the community. Perhaps the most important accomplishment was demonstrating that a full-time Selectman was more efficient and productive than a part-time Selectman. Ms. Sims also made a case for women being able to perform the same work as men, and doing that work efficiently and professionally.
She would not be the last woman to serve as First Selectman. Ms. Rebecca Breed followed Ms. Sims from 1981 to 1983, and Lolly Prince served from 1999 to 2001. Still, others served on the Board, although not as First Selectman. These included Lin Lavery (2007-2009), Penny Monahan (2001-2007), Stephanie Sanchez (1997-1999) and Cindy Rubicam (1985-1987). Hopefully, these won't be the last women to serve on the Board of Selectmen. There are many talented women also serving on the many commissions and Boards of the town, as well as the Representative Town Meeting. Greenwich is indeed fortunate to have such dedicated women (and men) willing to serve the community.
Ruth Sims at Town Hall: An Oral History Interview; Oral History Project, Friends of the Greenwich Library, 1984.