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Middletown council's newest member has managed art museums, resettled Burmese refugees

By Dan Miller

danmiller@pressandjournal.com

717-944-4628
Posted 12/6/18

She has helped resettle political refugees from Burma, launched an afterschool program for at-risk youth, revived Communities That Care and taken charge of finding new life for downtown …

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Middletown council's newest member has managed art museums, resettled Burmese refugees

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She has helped resettle political refugees from Burma, launched an afterschool program for at-risk youth, revived Communities That Care and taken charge of finding new life for downtown Middletown’s former thrift shop.

Now, Ellen Willenbecher is the newest member of Middletown Borough Council.

Council voted 5-0 Dec. 4 to appoint Willenbecher to fill the vacancy created by the resignation of former President Damon Suglia, who stepped down effective Nov. 16.

Willenbecher, of the 500 block of Spring Street, is to serve on council through the end of Suglia’s term expiring Dec. 31, 2019. She can run for election to a full term in 2019 that she would start serving Jan. 1, 2020.

Willenbecher was the only borough resident to apply for the seat.

Despite all her activities, Willenbecher said she doesn’t plan on pulling back from any of them now that she is on council.

“I see them all as one piece for me. The common thread is trying to contribute to improving the quality of life for kids and family in our community,” Willenbecher told the Press & Journal on Dec. 5.

Councilors interviewed Willenbecher in public before appointing her. She was sworn in by Mayor James H. Curry III.

She fielded about a half a dozen questions from Curry and councilors.

Council President Angela Lloyd asked Willenbecher to expound on her community involvement. Vice President Mike Woodworth asked Willenbecher to talk about her budget management experience, and how that would help council in developing the budget for 2020.

Curry asked Willenbecher the same question he poses to all applicants seeking appointment to borough council — what do they see as Middletown’s biggest asset?

In her answer, Willenbecher reflected on the routine banter that had occurred earlier between herself and others in the audience, as they were waiting for council to emerge from a closed-door executive session.

“People just talking about how much they love Middletown — remembering where Klahr’s Photography was, that there might be a tailgate party, that so-and-so knows so-and-so. That tight-knittedness is a real asset. I think we have many others, but it just came right here while you were right there,” Willenbecher said.

“That was the answer I was looking for,” the mayor responded.

Her late father, Edward C. Willenbecher, served on council in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and was council president.

The elder Willenbecher served with present council member Robert Reid, who began his first term in 1968.

“It’s always wonderful to walk in here and see his photograph back there standing beside Mr. Reid,” she said. “I feel I have long roots here in Middletown.”

Willenbecher left Middletown shortly after high school. Married to her husband in the Navy, she spent more than 25 years managing art museums in places such as Washington, D.C., San Francisco and San Diego before the couple returned to the borough in 2005 to care for their parents. She referenced her experience running the museums in response to Woodworth’s question about budget management experience.

Willenbecher ran and lost for council in 2009.

“It was probably the best for everybody, because I had just come back. I wasn’t deeply engaged with the community as I am now,” she told council.

She described her involvement with political refugees as the start of a personal evolution that continues today.

“That began for me a look at folks who didn’t grow up in Middletown the way I did — some insights into the fact that while we are Dauphin County’s oldest community, not too far below that historic character of our town are folks who have challenging realities around them.”

Among concerns that drew her to council is the future of the borough swimming pool, and doing something with recommendations council received from consulting architects in 2015 for how a “historic overlay” can help preserve history in Middletown.

“We have a historic character that is a major asset,” Willenbecher said.

Willenbecher told council she believes “strongly in collaboration and teamwork, and the only way to do that is through communication.”

“My approach is I just try to like everybody,” Willenbecher added. “That might make me sound not very judicious, but I just find it makes life a whole lot easier.”

She is the third member of the seven-person body appointed after resignations this year. Diana McGlone resigned in March, followed by Ben Kapenstein stepping down from council May 1. Lloyd replaced McGlone, and Woodworth replaced Kapenstein.