From The Vault: Bobbie Sterne, first full-term female mayor, was battle tested during WWII

Watch archive video
Posted at 9:54 AM, Nov 10, 2016

CINCINNATI - Bobbie Sterne served on a battlefield in World War II and again as the first woman to serve a full term as mayor of Cincinnati.*

From appearances, Sterne was two women in one. It was a dichotomy that served her well during the war and 25 years in City Hall.

On the outside, she was refined and impeccably dressed with an ever present handbag. Quiet, smiling, never ostentatious.

On the inside, she was tough, brave, a daredevil, a trailblazer.

Shortly after Pearl Harbor, as soon as she finished nurse's training,  the 20-something volunteered for battlefield duty in Europe. She found herself in a mobile hospital in Belgium.

"The enemy was buzzing the place constantly," she told The Enquirer in 1998 after retiring from City Hall.

Maybe "retiring" isn't the right word. She was 77, but she was still driving her racy 1978 Corvette – fast, too.  And still parasailing.

Sterne's political career was almost thwarted by her name.  When she was born in 1919, her given name was Lavergne. The first time she ran for council - in 1969 -  she petitioned to run under Bobbie, her nickname. The case went all the way to the Ohio Supreme Court.

Sterne lost her case – and she lost the election. So she had her name legally changed and won in 1971, running as a Charterite. She became mayor in December, 1976 (following the first black mayor, Ted Berry) and served two one-year terms – 1976-77 and '78-79.  At the time, a coalition of Charterites and Democrats controlled City Hall and traded the mayor's seat back and forth.

Then and during two decades on city council, Sterne brought dignity and stability to a council chamber that was a battlefield itself.  She didn't raise her voice often, but when she did – usually when younger colleagues broke into a harangue or a debate turned into a long war of words – the others listened.

"She gave a sense of calm and dignity to a place that was often more raucous than anything else," Gerald Newfarmer, who was city manager in the early 1990s, told The Enquirer.

The mayor's position was largely ceremonial at the time, but Sterne used it to advocate for causes others ignored. In 1979, during a police strike, she pushed for a minority recruitment program that brought more blacks onto the force. She also signed a proclamation declaring "Lesbian-Gay Pride Day." She was heavily criticized for that, but later won endorsements from Stonewall Cincinnati.

As a council member, she fought for funding for public health services and defended Cincinnati's city manager form of government. That meant resisting when council tried to interfere where she thought it shouldn't.

She lost her council seat in the 1985 election but regained it two years later.

Sterne's sudden resignation in 1998 came as a surprise, even though term limits were going to prevent her from running again the next year. Rather than make a scene, she walked quietly out of a council meeting and left a resignation letter behind.  When a court clerk read it in session, her colleagues were stunned.

Sterne wrote that she would have preferred to complete her term but she was leaving so Mayor Roxanne Qualls could appoint another Charterite, Jim Tarbell, to replace her.

The council proceedings stopped and members took turns paying tribute to Sterne.

"She is the grand lady of Cincinnati  City Hall," Tim Burke, county Democratic party chairman, told the Enquirer. "She is stubborn, yes; tough, yes. But she always carried herself with the utmost dignity."

Sterne will turn 98 on Nov. 27.

* The first female mayor of Cincinnati was Dorothy Dolbey, who filled the position in 1954 after Mayor Ed Waldvogel died.   

SEE more video and stories about Tri-State history in our "From The Vault" series.

Enjoy more of Cincinnati history and archive video by liking the WCPO Vault on Facebook!