Mary A. Pyles

[ Age 87 ] A tireless campaigner in Dundalk, she also worked at Bethlehem Steel and sewed stage costumes.

"She ... had a big heart for the needy," said former Rep. Helen D. Bentley, for whom Mrs. Pyles campaigned.

October 24, 2007|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,Sun Reporter

Mary A. Pyles, a well-known veteran Dundalk political campaign director who also enjoyed sewing theatrical costumes, died of renal failure Sunday at her grandson's home in Englewood, Fla. She was 87.

Mary Ann Zinach was born in Slovan, Pa., the seventh of 12 children. She was the daughter of Serbian immigrant parents, and later moved with her family to Weirton, W.Va., where she graduated from high school and attended community college.

In 1939, she married Ralph Pyles; seven years later, the couple moved to Dundalk when they both took jobs at Bethlehem Steel's Sparrows Point plant.

For 40 years until she retired in 1986, Mrs. Pyles was chief inventory control supervisor, and her husband, who died in 1985, was a steelworker.

Since 2006, the former Pine Avenue resident had lived in Englewood.

"While going to school in Weirton during the Depression, she took care of kids who needed things. She also liked sewing and made clothes for the needy," said Helen Delich Bentley, the former congresswoman and chairwoman of the Federal Maritime Commission, yesterday.

"She always said it was Franklin Delano Roosevelt who got her interested in politics because he helped the poor. She grew up during Depression days and had a big heart for the needy," Mrs. Bentley said.

Sally Visnic, Mrs. Pyles' sister and a Weirton resident, described her as "a real missionary in life, who never stopped extending her hand to anyone who needed a helping hand."

While Mrs. Pyles' political instincts may have been honed as a New Deal Democrat, she willingly rallied support for candidates, local, statewide, and nationally, who would competently meet the needs of the Dundalk community.

"She supported George Mahoney's 1974 campaign for Baltimore County executive, was a longtime supporter of Congressman Clarence D. Long and later Helen Bentley. It wasn't so much so about partisan politics that propelled Mary, but who could best help the people," said Connie DeJuliis, a former member of the House of Delegates and now a government relations consultant. "And she was insistent that, once elected, they do what they said they'd do."

"She was a real neat lady, but her gravelly voice could be awfully intimating to those who didn't know her," said Marge Neal, assistant editor of the Dundalk Eagle.

"But actually, she was a real softie who always asked, `What do you need, honey?' She always called everybody `Honey.' If she could give someone the world, she would have," Ms. Neal said.

"After Mary found out I was Serbian, she ran all of my Dundalk campaigns," said Mrs. Bentley, who described her as a "feisty woman who stood 5 feet 6 inches tall."

She recalled a 1991 redistricting proposal that would have removed Dundalk from the 2nd Congressional District, and how Mrs. Pyles "rallied four busloads of residents who went to Annapolis to scream about it, and it was eventually defeated."

Another time, when there were issues involving the port, Mrs. Pyles once again rose to the occasion and "easily loaded up four busloads that took off for Washington," Mrs. Bentley said.

"She could be as tough as nails but had a heart of gold. She was loved and admired by everyone but was a straight shooter," said Mick Small, who recently retired as principal of Riverview Elementary School.

"People would come by her house or call on the phone, and she'd sit and listen to their stories. She never let anyone down unless they were jerks, and I'm not so sure she even let them down," Mrs. Bentley said.

When then-U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson visited Dundalk for a 2002 lunchtime meeting with Mrs. Bentley and invited guests at Squire's Restaurant, Mrs. Pyles was in attendance.

With her characteristic candor and self-deprecating humor, she told Mr. Thompson, "I'm on five prescription drugs, I've got an inflamed sciatic nerve, somebody stole my car and my house burned down. What I want to know is, can I move in with you?"

Mr. Thompson cheerfully responded, "When can you move in? Are you going to help with the rent?" reported The Sun.

If politics and helping people were Mrs. Pyles' first love, the theater was certainly second. For years, she was an active member and board member of the Dundalk Community Theater and the Children's Acting Theatre, also in Dundalk, where she was the troupe's resident costume designer.

"She touched the lives of hundreds of children through the years," said Mr. Small, who worked with Mrs. Pyles at the theater and became a close friend.

"The costumes she made were just exquisite," Mrs. Bentley said.

Mrs. Pyles and Mr. Small enjoyed taking trips to New York to attend the theatre.

"Her favorite show was A Chorus Line and the song `What I Did for Love'," Mr. Small said. "It kind of sums up Mary's life."

A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 10 a.m. Friday at St. Rita Roman Catholic Church, 2907 Dunleer Road, Dundalk.

Also surviving are a daughter, Janie Kuvaja of Baltimore; a brother, Mike Zinach of Dayton, Ohio; another sister, Ann Whitehorn of Los Angeles; three grandchildren; four great-grandchildren; and many nieces and nephews.

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