Grace and grit

Running Coos Bay’s downtown association in the 1980s, Joanne Verger went to a lot of city council meetings. Eventually, she came to a conclusion:

“I could do that,” she thought. “In fact, I could do it better.”

Turns out, she could – not only in City Hall, but in Salem as well.

“She had all the pieces,” said state Rep. Caddy McKeown. “Grace and charm and intellect and spine. She had it all.

“Half the people, they didn’t know what hit them.”

Sen. Verger’s 22-year career in public service evokes the Louisiana Creole custom of lagniappe. Pronounced “lan-yap,” the term describes a merchant’s gift to a customer – something extra, like the 13th doughnut in a baker’s dozen.

You could say politics has been Sen. Verger’s lagniappe to her South Coast neighbors. At age 60, with four children raised and the family auto business secure, she undertook something extra.

Her lagniappe can be seen in the boardwalk built under her mayoral leadership. It’s in the water system she helped to create. It’s in the airport expansion she championed, the railroad she fought to reopen, and the many community leaders she recruited and coached along the way.

“She’s done a lot for this community,” said Joe Benetti, who followed her as mayor.

Elected in 1990, Councilor Verger became Coos Bay’s first female mayor two years later. She oversaw projects including the boardwalk and a politically sensitive transition of wastewater management to an outside contractor. Then came the New Carissa.

The ocean freighter’s 1999 grounding was an impromptu education. Mayor Verger dealt with federal authorities, public relations people, and the ship’s insurer.

“It taught me to be very careful about what I heard and what I said,” she said.

Since leaving office, Sen. Verger has tackled multiple writing projects, including a memoir of her Louisiana upbringing. A political book is percolating.

Meantime, she presides over a robust family circle in the Southern style, frequently gathering her children and grandchildren in the Coos Bay home she shared with Lawton.

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