Jane Alexander, Bev Mackereth pioneering county women in state politics
After 50 years of practicing law, Jane Alexander’s longtime law office is filled memorabilia and 26-year occupant Jake ‘the Jerk.’ The bird is known to ask: ‘May I help you?’ Background posts: Who are York County’s most influential citizens? – Part II, List growing of high state officials hailing from York County and Strange pairings could help raise funds in York.
York County’s second female state legislator has decided to call it quits in Harrisburg.
Bev MacKereth, a four-term Republican legislator, is taking a position as the executive director of the York County Human Services Department.
Interestingly, in a legislative world of long terms, York County’s first female state legislator also served a relatively short time… .
Jane Alexander served from 1965 to 1969. She worked as a lobbyist, deputy state agricultural secretary and practiced law along the way. (With Mackereth departing, York County actually will still have a female state legislator. State Senator Pat Vance’s district covers part of northwestern York County.)
A profile of Alexander by Nicki Lefever (2/05) of the York Daily Record/Sunday News follows:
Jane Alexander leafed through stacks of file folders for a client’s paperwork. Her desk was piled high with papers, three mugs full of pens, knickknacks and a picture of her German shepherd, Gunther.
Among her numerous volumes of law books sat a pottery jar that said “Ashes of problem clients.” An ornery bird named Jake “the Jerk” squawked in the background.
“Don’t ever practice law,” she said.
She was joking. After 50 years of practicing law, everything has a place on her cluttered desk. And don’t mention retiring. She’ll tell you that’s crazy. Her family and general law practice is just the beginning of Alexander’s accomplishments.
Alexander was the only woman in the York County Bar Association for nearly 20 years, the first female member of the Dillsburg Borough Council, the first lady from York County to make it to the Pennsylvania Legislature and the first female Deputy Secretary of Agriculture in Pennsylvania. And she achieved all these things while raising four children, maintaining a successful law practice and exploring various business ventures.
But when people meet Alexander, it’s not her list of accomplishments that attracts them; it’s her personality — her way of making them feel like they matter.
“My biggest thing is that you truly have to be interested in people,” Alexander said from her Dillsburg law office.
Her office is crowded with numerous awards and photos signed by politicians. She pointed to one photo of a younger Alexander dressed elegantly with a lace
hat. She is shaking vice president Hubert Humphrey’s hand with an awkward smile.
“I have to laugh,” she said. “We were talking about something serious, and the photographer wanted to take a picture.”
Alexander wouldn’t smile at first, so with great emphasis, Humphrey told her to smile. As the photographer was about to snap the photo, Alexander said Humphrey pinched her butt.
“That is why I have that look on my face,” she laughed.
When you’ve bumped hips with Eleanor Roosevelt, Prince Rainier of Monaco, Humphrey and hundreds of other dignitaries and powerful politicians, you have to know how to relate to people and have a sense of humor.
Alexander keeps her cool. When she meets what she calls the whoop-de-doos of society, she doesn’t feel like she has to impress them. She doesn’t rattle off a list of accomplishments or titles she’s held. Alexander tells them she lives on a farm in Dillsburg.
“My friends ask me why I have to do that, but I get a kick out of it,” she said. “I am proud of it. My dad had a farm, my uncle had a farm. I enjoy the farm.”
Education was important to Alexander’s parents, Isaac and Marietta Lehmer. They had high expectations for Alexander and her younger brother, George Lehmer. Alexander remembers practicing the “Gettysburg Address” over and over in the kitchen while her father and grandfather critiqued her. She became a standout student through primary school and was eventually banned from speech competitions to give other students a chance to win.
One of Alexander’s biggest challenges was arriving at Dickinson College as a farm girl from Dillsburg when everyone else came from a long bloodline of alumni.
“I was just a small-town kid,” she said. “But then the competition kicked in.”
She took the three-three law program at Dickinson that allowed accepted students to finish undergraduate and law schools in six years instead of seven. While at Dickinson, she was named gavel girl for her outstanding debating skills at a Pennsylvania competition and also earned a spot as a student representative to the United Nations. She became interested in international law and participated in International Collegiate Government and other political conferences.
Alexander gives a lot of credit to the mentors she has encountered over the years — teachers, lawyers, politicians — including her parents and grandparents, who always expected her to move to the head of the class. Both of her parents were involved in politics at the local level and encouraged her to follow their footsteps.
After graduating from Dickinson School of Law, she became the first woman elected to the Dillsburg Borough Council. She served from 1955 to 1959.
Following her time on council, Alexander’s career continued to flourish.
Lorinda Krause, Alexander’s daughter, remembers running around the Capitol in Harrisburg and eating lunch with lawyers at the Yorktowne Hotel.
“She was away from home often,” Krause said. “But it wasn’t as if Mother was never there. When she was at home, she was just mom — she yelled at us, read to us, bought us our gifts and made meals just like any other mom. It was just that it was in the ’60s when most moms in Dillsburg were at home or working close to home, my mother was out doing things.”
The things she was out doing — making speeches, being quoted in newspapers, and having her picture taken — didn’t mean much to Krause at the time, but Alexander was racking up many firsts for a woman.
“A lot of things happen by accident,” Alexander said of her career. “I was just very fortunate along the way.”
But that isn’t what those closest to her would say. Alexander’s professional, courteous and respectful approach to her private practice, public politics and business ventures have set her apart.
“That is why we move ahead,” Alexander said, “to help others open doors. It is not about putting down men, heavens no, but it is about two brains partnering. Let’s get out and get working.”
Jessica Bowman, 22, has worked in Alexander’s office for the past eight summers. She is one year away from graduating from Dickinson School of Law. She plans to join Alexander’s practice after graduation.
“I really wanted to get my feet wet in law under her because she approaches it a little bit differently than most people,” Bowman said. “She maintains dignity. She is not cutthroat. And she runs an amicable practice.”
Alexander encouraged Bowman to take the three-three law program. With all the practical experience Bowman received in Alexander’s practice, she is giving her professors a run for their money.
“Everything she has done for women makes it possible that law classes graduations are half female. If it weren’t for people like her, it wouldn’t be near that percentage,” Bowman said.
Krause, a history teacher at Lewisburg Area High School, is also proud of all her mother has accomplished.
“When I am talking in a class at school about women and the ’50s and ’60s, I often use her as an example of a nontraditional woman of the time period.”
With Alexander’s love of law and agriculture, her latest endeavor is as an adviser for New Land for Peace: Constructing Prosperity in the Middle East, a project through The Center for Macro Projects and Diplomacy at the Roger Williams University in Rhode Island. She’d like to see the multiphase project, a city on the sea near the Gaza Strip, become a reality. The project is geared toward providing more stability to the area in the way of water, trade and various other factors to relieve political pressures.
In addition to her membership in many community organizations and her positions on boards and committees, Alexander is president and owner of J&J Agri-Products & Services Inc., which manufactures and distributes agricultural products and does consulting. She started the business with her husband, the late James A. McHale, in 1978. She is also vice president of Mesco Inc., a sewage disposal company, and is involved with real estate.
As time goes by, Krause is starting to see the things that annoyed her as a little girl about Alexander — being dragged around from one political event to another and paraded around as one of Jane Alexander’s children — are the things she has learned from most.
“My mother’s best lessons weren’t lessons about earning a lot of first titles, but lessons about life, learning to deal with people, and if all else fails, try to see the humor in something and keep on plugging.”