Camilla Wiener, a 91-year-old Narragansett resident, is among the state’s most steadfast members of the League of Women Voters, and can accurately tell a particular story about her commitment to the non-partisan political organization by honestly beginning:
“It was a dark and stormy night.”
She wouldn’t be melodramatic in doing so.
It really was a dark and stormy night in 1984 when as a South Kingstown/Narragansett League member, Wiener helped to gather election results for a newspaper by delivering vote totals from Exeter voting machines.
“Oh, it was terrible,” she whispered to a friend Saturday at a tea held in her honor at the Westerly Public Library, as that stormy night was re-lived in opening remarks.
It was so terrible, that her car slid off the road into a ditch, and she and her husband, Frank, in those pre-cell phone days, walked to a house to use a telephone not just to get help, but also to contact another League member, Joan Rizzo, who was still at the polls, so they could ask her to gather the election results in Wiener’s absence.
Despite the weather and the circumstances, Wiener had made a promise to fetch the results, and “when you say you’re going to do something, you have to do it,” she later told then-Providence Journal Bureau Manager Gerry Goldstein, who had assigned the task to the local League volunteers.
“Cam was and is an inspiration to League members,” her daughter, Elizabeth Candas of Peace Dale, told the gathering.
Her mother was then presented with a plaque by Linda Bongiolatti, president of the local League chapter.
“Camilla is an inspiration to all women because she cared about her right to vote and express her opinion,” Bongiolatti said.
“Cam exemplifies all that the League has done and continues to do – monitor town meetings, attend town workshops and hold political forums,” added Candas.
Wiener and her late husband had six children in the 1950s, the time period when she joined the League. The almost century-old organization is dedicated to educating the public regarding voter issues, and Wiener joined, she said in a magazine interview several years ago, “because I thought women should be involved in politics.”
But it was a time when few women held political office or even worked outside the home if they had children – though she did – working as an elementary school teacher for many years. Wiener became League president, and as her daughter said, spearheaded the printing of a booklet about town government, organized candidate forums, registered voters, and organized poll runners to report votes, as she did on that stormy night in Exeter.
All these years later, her strong feelings of League support continue.
“The League of Women Voters gives women – and men – the opportunity to participate in the political process in positive ways. Today, the political climate seems polarized and sinking to the lowest common denominator,” Wiener said. “The League gives people a positive choice of participation.”
During those five decades of League commitment, Wiener also was a Jonnycake Center volunteer, DAR official, and as her daughter noted, “reached out to foreign students attending the University of Rhode Island.” She also traveled great distances to support her own children as they moved around the nation and the world starting families and careers.
Two of Camilla’s daughters have held office in the League of Women Voters and the DAR and grandchildren have also taken part in events for both.
With about 50 in attendance, Wiener accepted the award Saturday saying:
“I’m overwhelmed, I’m embarrassed and I’m so happy.”
An Ohio native who started college there before marrying at age 20, she finished her education at what is now New Jersey’s Kean University and came to Narragansett as a faculty wife in 1949 when her husband took a teaching position at the University of Rhode Island. She has since lived in Narragansett.
Describing her mother as “a woman of commitment, community and civic integrity,” Candas reminded the group that during these past 50 years, “Cam always said, ‘Let’s have fun together. We can’t just keep working. If we don’t have fun, who wants to be a member?’”
Despite the fun, recruiting new members into any organization is challenging. According to Bongiolatti, the South Kingstown/Narragansett group recently decided to include members from Charlestown, Richmond, Hopkinton and Westerly and going forward will be called The League of Women Voters South County.
“The League of Women Voters is a very important organization, especially during this election of 2016. Communicating the issues and the importance of voting is going to be vital for the future of this state and the country,” Bongiolatti said.
The League had its roots in the suffrage movement. In early 1920, the National American Women’s Suffrage Association became the National League of Women Voters and in August of that year, the 19th amendment giving women the right to vote was ratified and became part of the Constitution.
The local League in its early years had more than 80 members. About two dozen make up the membership this year, Candas said, including her mother who often attends Narragansett Town Council meetings to express her opinion about a topic or to lend her support to a project – her age notwithstanding.
“Camilla Wiener has been a loyal and devoted member of LWVRI and LWVUS for over 50 years,” wrote Jane W. Koster, president of the League of Women Voters of Rhode Island, in an email, adding there are four other state members in their 90s, and one who is 102, and their memories of being part of the organization are being recorded as part of the League history. For more information about the Rhode Island League of Women Voters, call 339-9766 or visit lwvri.org.