Wednesday, January 11, 2012

James R. Williamson: First Democrat Mayor in West Lafayette

James R. Williamson served as mayor of West Lafayette for two terms from 1964-1971.  Perhaps what is most notable about his place in the history of the city is that he was the first Democrat ever elected to that position.  Not only was he the first Democrat mayor, but prior to his defeat of the Republican candidate Emmett Koehler, no Democrat had held public office in West Lafayette.  Although he was victorious, he was surrounded by an all Republican panel.  His defeat of Koehler by a final tally of 1,955 to 1,807 votes is of significance in our city's political history. 
        "Williamson trod through his eight-year term as the first Democrat to ever win a West Lafayette office."--The Purdue Exponent, January 12, 1971.

Who was James R. Williamson?
      Williamson was from Tippecanoe County and went to Montmorenci High School.  He then attended Purdue University and graduated with a degree in Agricultural Education.  During World War II he was a pilot and Squadron Commander, serving for roughly four and a half years.  He was a former school teacher and also operated a family farm in Tippecanoe County.  Even after being elected mayor, he continued working on his farm causing the Journal and Courier to refer to him as the "farmer mayor" from time to time.  During his time as mayor, Williamson was named the Chairman of the North Central Mayors Roundtable on August 22, 1969.  He also became the President of the Indiana Association of Cities and Towns in September of 1969.

Major Accomplishments
      Street renovations, the building of a swimming pool, full-time recreation programs, a new city hall and a secondary sewage plant as "among my contributions as mayor."--Mayor Williamson quoted in The Purdue Exponent on January 12, 1971.
  •       Construction of City Hall located on Navajo Street (current location)
    • Prior to this building, city hall was a small annex to the fire station on the corner of Northwestern in the Village.  Firemen had to vacate their bedrooms just to provide enough room during meetings.
    • Construction cost roughly $614,000.
    • Broke ground on May 29, 1969.  Opened August 26, 1970.
    • Williamson stated in the Journal and Courier that it was "disgraceful that a city as wealthy as this one has never had a city hall."
  •       First City-Owned Municipal Swimming Pool
    • Now known as Happy Hollow Swimming Pool.
    • Construction cost roughly $210,000.
    • Opened May 28, 1966.
    • Single Admission was 35 cents for children and 50 cents for adults.
    • A season pass was 5 dollars for children and 7 dollars for adults.  That's almost what it is today for a single ticket!
One of the Safest Cities in the Nation
      During Williamson's administration, West Lafayette was considered one of the safest cities in the nation.  In his first year in office, the city won four traffic safety awards.  On July 30, 1965, the city won its fourth straight Pedestrian Safety Citation from the American Automobile Association.  This award was given in recognition of the city's efforts to save civilian lives.  It was only one of one hundred awards presented to various cities and nine states throughout the country. 

Growth and Progress throughout the City
      "West Lafayette is a city on the move.  Growth and change over the past decade are characteristics of this city."--Williamson in the Journal and Courier January 28, 1969.
  • Growth during Williamson's Administration 
    • 1969 West Lafayette Street Improvement Program.  This included the construction of new sidewalks and the resurfacing of many roads around the city in an attempt to make the city safer for both pedestrians and cars.  Among the resurfaced roads were Sunset Lane, Meridian Street, Rose Street, Stadium Ave., and Chauncey Ave.
    • New building for the West Lafayette Police Department.
    • Secondary Sewage Plant installed as part of a Sanitary Plan for the city enacted by Williamson.
    • Creation of the first full-time Parks and Recreation Department in July of 1967.  Glen Ekey was the city's first Director of Recreation.

*All information came from articles published in the Journal and Courier and The Purdue Exponent between the years 1963 and 1971.  These articles were collected and saved by Mayor Williamson's wife and are stored at the West Lafayette Public Library. 

*Posted by Mason Farr

1 comment:

  1. James R. Williamson married Margaret Mae Cunningham of Hollis, Oklahoma. They met while Margaret was employed at Frederick Army Air Corp Base in Frederick, Oklahoma and he taught pilots. She was the daughter of Jesse Thomas Cunningham and Lucy Amelia Fenn Cunningham. They introduced my parents, William V. Gasser and Mary L. Cunningham. I still miss Uncle Jim! Having grown up traveling to West Lafayette 2-3 times every year, I was more than a little aware of the esteem in which Uncle Jim was held. I learned a lot from him and always enjoyed my time in West Lafayette! Thank you for providing this information on-line. - Carol A. Gasser Moore, Lakeland, GA