Peggy Warner says: ‘Our country gives people the right to choose’

The Enterprise — Marcello Iaia

Peggy Filkins Warner

 

BERNE — Peggy Filkins Warner says she learned to be independent from her grandfather.

“That’s where I got my attitude,” she said of her father and his father.

She was born in the Filkins farmhouse on Joslyn School Road in 1930, in an era when not a lot of women were involved in politics.

Warner, however, became the longtime chair of Berne’s Republican Committee and also served as vice chair of the Albany County Republican Committee.

Dan O’Connell controlled all the Hilltowns and everybody had to be a Democrat,” said Warner of the political machine that dominated Albany from 1922 until the 1970s. “It really made a difference in your tax assessment.”

Warner first got involved as an election inspector. “I had to go to school, learn the law, and be an inspector …,” she said. “They tried to control the election and I wouldn’t allow that,” she said of the machine.

Describing her commitment to the Republican Party matter-of-factly, Warner said, “I knew that things were not right in Berne. And so I just started doing what you should do. You know, I firmly believe that everyone has the right in the United States to choose the party they want to be part of. And that’s the way it should be. But, at the time that I grew up, you had to be a Democrat in Albany County.”

Although party enrollment to this day remains heavily Democratic in Berne, year in and year out, Warner’s committee would put up candidates for election. The GOP had just a handful of wins in Berne elections over the years until, with the 2016 Donald Trump candidacy, a red wave swept over the rural Helderberg Hilltowns.

Warner said she was finally able to step away from her role as committee chair. “My goal was to get a Republican town board and we do have one now,” she said.

What carried her through all those years, Warner said, was a rock-bottom belief in what it means to be a citizen of the United States.

“I strongly believe that our country gives people the right to choose however they want to believe in any possible way from politics to religion,” she said.

That core belief and her lifelong will to pursue it came from her upbringing, she said.

“Being the oldest in my family, I guess I had the responsibility,” she said of leading. Warner also said of leadership, “It was something that was taught to you” and that she had “some real fine teachers” at Berne-Knox.

As a young girl, Warner lived in her grandparents’ home with her father and mother, whose family came from Hungary. “Her mother took her back to Hungary for her baptism,” said Warner of her maternal grandmother.

The Filkins family had a small farm with their own cow for milk and their own chickens for eggs. “All week, the farm was getting ready to go to market for Saturday morning,” Warner recalled. “I can remember wrapping butter and cottage cheese for the people who wanted to buy it.”

Sometimes, she accompanied her grandfather to his market stall in Albany where she recalls seeing an African American for the first time. “They’re very hardworking people,” her grandfather told her.

Warner said she felt safe growing up in the Hilltowns, where neighbors looked out for one another. “You knew, if you did something bad, whoever caught you was going to smack you and tell your parents — and they were going to smack you,” she said.

As a young girl, Warner learned to hunt. “My father wanted a boy … so he took me hunting,” she said. “I learned to track every animal that we have up in the hills way before I ever had a gun.

“And the first year that I was able to shoot with a shotgun, my grandfather — he was pretty tough — he taught me: If you don’t know where everybody is, you don’t shoot. And, if you can’t take the first shot, there’s always tomorrow.”

Warner was taught to kill a deer with just one shot — in the neck.

Now in her nineties, Warner can’t shoot anymore because of macular degeneration in her eye. Instead, she buys corn, which the wild turkey and deer come to eat. She also has a family of five crows that she feeds every day.

“So I sit there watching these things and I think, ‘I used to hunt you all … but now I don’t let anybody hunt you because it wouldn’t be right,” she said of the animals she has tamed.

As a girl, Warner liked playing in the five-story grist mill in East Berne, which is no longer standing. “If the miller wasn’t busy, he’d let us come in and go all the way up and look out the top window …,” Warner said. “We had never been up that high, you know, and then he took us down to show us the inside of the waterwheel, and that was amazing.”

In the 1940s, her parents bought a house near Warners Lake. “We had a cow and pigs, like everybody,” she said. Describing the small-town way of life then, Warner said, “It was free. We had the real independence of the United States of America. At that time, there were not a lot of rules and regulations that you couldn’t do this and couldn’t do that. People just took care of things and did everything right.”

Warner started school in the first grade and through her senior year attended classes in the same brick building in Berne that now houses just the elementary grades. She graduated in 1948 with 17 classmates.

“We were all buddies,” she said, regretting that she has outlived her classmates as well as her sister and brother.

“I can’t find anybody around anymore,” said Warner.

Warner was president of her class and also president of the student council. Her favorite class was gym; she loved being on the parallel bars and was inspired by her coach.

Warner described the war years as “very scary.”

“I can remember they’d have air-raid drills and we’d get under our desks in school,” she said. “But we never were terrified … We just knew things were not good.”

Her cousin was a tank driver in the war and her uncle was a German prisoner of war. After her uncle recuperated in a veterans’ hospital, she said, “When he came home, he was so skinny, I can’t imagine what he must have looked like when they first brought him home.”

No one talked about post-traumatic stress, she said. “They didn’t make a big fuss over it. You know, they just accepted life as it was.”

After graduating from high school, Warner worked for the New York Telephone Company as a long-distance operator. She first lived with an aunt and uncle in Albany and then had her own apartment on Second Street above Clinton Avenue near the Palace Theater.

She felt safe in the city and walked alone to and from work.

Her brief stint of city life ended when she married Carl Warner in 1950. The boy she had played with as a child, a year older than she, became her sweetheart during her senior year of high school.

They were married in the Lutheran Church in East Berne with a reception afterwards in the original Maple Inn.

“We just had a good 54 years of marriage,” she said. “And I miss him so terribly.”

Her husband supported her work in politics. “He financed everything I did and he didn’t say I had to stay home,” she said. “The only time he said I had to stay home is when I became pregnant. I was told I wouldn’t have any children and we got pregnant and I was excited.”

Soon after their son was born, the Warners had a daughter. “I took care of my kids,” she said.

Highlights of her work in politics included invitations to the White House for presidential inaugurations. She was pleased to find the important people that she met were not “the big-shot types”; rather, they were “ordinary, real people,” Warner said.

Back home in Berne, while Warner was committed to giving residents a choice at the ballot box, she was always willing to listen to varied viewpoints and decries the current polarization.

“Some of my best friends have completely different ideas than I do, and we discuss them but we don’t get angry at each other …,” she said. “It’s fun to debate your ideas and then you might get a good idea from somebody if you listen.”

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