Mary Pawlak served on the Utica Village Board for decades and steered the village through good times (record revenues and tourist visits) and bad (floods, a fatal tornado). Her long service ended Tuesday, on what also was her 77th birthday.
Pawlak, a sitting Utica village trustee with more than 30 years service (and an election judge for much longer), died following a short illness. Pawlak was remembered for her long service and her role in the village’s extended recovery from the 2004 tornado.
“Mary was to Utica what Queen Elizabeth was to England.”— Mike Brown, former Utica Village Trustee
Mayor David Stewart said he was “very saddened” at Pawlak’s passing – “I have known Mary my whole life” – and praised her for her long service to the village.
“Mary was an integral part of Utica, and always willing to help in anyway she could,” Stewart said. “She will be remembered for her love of this community and the residents within it.”
“Mary has been a staple of the Utica community and her recent passing will be difficult for all who were fortunate to meet and know Mary throughout her years,” said former Mayor Matt Jereb. “Whether through her service as a village trustee, or that warm welcome she exhibited when she would see you around town, her heart was always about enjoying life and helping others.
“The countless hours that Ron and she spent helping the community, including through the days immediately following the 2004 tornado, showed firsthand her love of Utica; she will be sorely missed.”
Pawlak’s long tenure included steering the village through multiple natural disasters, including floods of both Clark’s Run and the Illinois River, but most notably the tornado that claimed 10 lives, including eight in the collapse of the Milestone Restaurant and Lounge.
The storm destroyed the village offices and set off a massive rebuilding project that drew widespread acclaim. While no single individual bears credit for the turnaround, Pawlak helped:
Boost tourism, resulting in a nearly four-fold increase in retail sales taxes since the aftermath of the tornado
Press the state to realign Route 178, clearing the way for Mill Street to be closed for festivals and, recently, outdoor dining.
Construct a new village hall (now the Utica Police Department) and, recently, refurbishing the Utica Grade School into a municipal complex.
Hold taxes in check. Utica’s municipal tax rate is lower than it was 10 years ago and the total tax rate (schools, library, etc.) has inched up just 5% since 2012.
“Mary was to Utica what Queen Elizabeth was to England,” said former village Mike Brown, who served 16 years with Pawlak on the Utica Village Board. “She always gave 100% to everything she did and she was involved in.”
“Mary loved Utica and all of its residents,” said Herb Klein, Utica’s longtime village attorney. “That feeling was shared as she never lost an election and often received the most votes. She would do anything she could to help anyone in need.
“Utica will miss her greatly and, having attended countless Utica meetings for the last 20-plus years, it will feel very strange to not have Mary present at the Board table.”
Former Mayor Gloria Alvarado recalled Pawlak was accessible to all her constituents, who held her in high esteem.
“I loved Mary,” Alvarado said. “She was always so good hearted. If you ever needed anything, she was the person to talk to.”
It was a measure of Pawlak’s enduring popularity an attempt to remove her from the ballot last year proved a failure. Two objectors tried to remove Pawlak, Stewart and trustee Debbie Krizel from the 2021 ballot over alleged filing errors. All three withstood the ballot challenges and Pawlak was the top vote getter in spring 2021.
Her final term of office took a tragic turn when fellow trustee Ron Pawlak, her husband of 47 years, died in October after years of declining health. Mary Pawlak remained an active member of the Village Board until the end.
Burgess Funeral Home in La Salle is in charge of arrangements.