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Electing to Blaze a Trail

Although Eleanor Kieliszek, AA’73 (T), BA’79 (R), won’t trumpet the fact, she is a pioneer for women and has set the bar for future generations of women politicians. “I did what most women of my generation were supposed to do: I got married and raised a family,” Kieliszek demurely says. But she did much more than that. She was the first woman to serve on the Teaneck Planning Board, the first woman on the Teaneck Township Council, serving 30 years; and the first woman mayor of Teaneck, serving from 1974 to 1978. She later served a second mayoral term from 1990 to 1992. “I had to stay on until I got it right.”

Since 1974, Kieliszek has seen a significant rise in the number of women running for office. She points to the current mayor of Teaneck, Jacqueline Kates, and the municipal manager, Helene Fall, MPA’85 (R), as examples of women foraying into politics. “Every year the door is opened wider for women in politics. When I began my political career, the ceiling was very low, and now we’ve had two women as U.S. secretary of state!”

Kieliszek says she “was influenced by the women’s movement of the late 1960s and early ’70s.” As a member of the League of Women Voters in the early 1970s, Kieliszek “attended town council and planning board meetings on behalf of the league. It was a wonderful way to become involved in local government.” She also found the closed-door sessions that the council and board members conducted before informing the public “did not serve the people in the best way.” She proudly points to her first tenure as mayor when Teaneck adopted the Open Public Meetings Act requirements before they became law in New Jersey. Open-door sessions, she says, allow citizens to “see what they can accomplish and let them know they count.”

A tireless supporter of “smart growth” before it became a popular issue, Kieliszek has been passionate about keeping a “well-planned community. Fairleigh Dickinson University is an example of our smart-growth initiatives.” She explains that Teaneck assisted in the development of the University, which had expanded to Teaneck and Hackensack when it purchased Bergen Junior College in 1954. “Teaneck worked with FDU in trading land; the University gave land on the east side of River Road to the township, and the township in turn gave the University land on the west side of the road.” These initiatives and others, she explains, helped “Teaneck avoid the ills of scattered University sprawl that plague many college towns.”

 
“I believe most problems can be solved with a great deal of talk and a good deal of work.”

Kieliszek also points to the growth and development of the Glenpointe Complex as an example of Teaneck’s smart-growth planning. “It was a bold, complicated action that cleared a blighted area in the community.” When the land was acquired in the late 1960s–1970s and was sold to a developer, the area was redeveloped with housing, hotels, office space, townhouses and planned-unit development. “It was a radical change with far-reaching accomplishments,” Kieliszek explains. “The positive tax consequences (for the town) as a result of redevelopment have been significant. Mayor Frank Burr got the ball rolling and I followed it up with Mayor Frank Hall, seeing it through with the groundbreaking.”

Kieliszek believes that local government offers “the most opportunities for women to become politically active.” A founding active member of the New Jersey Association for Elected Women and former president of that organization, Kieliszek is still contributing to Teaneck as a member of its planning board.

The future for women in politics is even brighter, she says. “I believe women have the innate talents required to work out compromises.” Traditionally, Kieliszek believes, women’s roles in the family and roles in society give women the natural ability for the “give-and-take” of politics. To that end, Kieliszek believes her own style of leadership lends itself to the quote from the Bible, “‘a soft answer turneth away wrath.’ I believe most problems can be solved with a great deal of talk and a good deal of work.”

Kieliszek is also a believer in nonpartisan politics, particularly on the local level. “I always fought to keep local issues nonpartisan.” She adds that local government decisions are based more on a personal level. “You see your constituency in the flesh at the supermarket or the PTA meeting.” Which is why, Kieliszek wryly explains, her husband no longer allows her to do the food shopping at the supermarket. “He says by the time I finish chatting with folks, the butter has melted!”

Her husband, Raymond Kieliszek, BS’64 (T), has always been a strong supporter. The couple has been married 55 years. Raymond is a veteran of World War II and attended Fairleigh Dickinson University on the G.I. Bill. “He gave me my first connection with FDU.” It was when she began her political activism and her four children started college that Kieliszek began her college studies. “I didn’t want to be left behind.” Additionally, she explains it was because of her involvement in Teaneck and its politics “that I saw the stellar level of FDU and decided it was the place for me.” She found a great deal of encouragement from the faculty and particularly remembers history professor Jean Willis. “She was a U.S. Constitution scholar and was very interested in women’s role in politics. I learned a great deal from her and found her advice to be very constructive.”

She also says the size of the University lent itself an “air of intimacy that allowed you to get to know everyone.” And because of her roles in the township, “the campus always had familiar faces. Students, faculty and administrators were always encouraging and helpful.”

Though officially retired, Kieliszek remains active with Planning Board meetings, gardening and family. Her four grown children “have given me seven beautiful grandsons,” and her family is her greatest source of strength. Still a steadfast supporter of women in politics she remains “a survivor both personally and politically. Public life involves a great deal of sacrifice, but there is a great sense of personal and professional accomplishment when things go well.”

M.D.

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