Terry Werling got his start in politics sweeping floors at Republican headquarters in DeKalb County in the early 1960s.
His father-in-law, Eugene Browand, was DeKalb County Republican Party chairman at the time. “He said 'you'd be a good candidate,'” Werling recalled.
At 80, Werling has cemented his legacy in New Haven politics. He is running for his ninth term on the City Council. He is completing his seventh consecutive full term.
He was first elected in 1975, representing New Haven's 3rd District. In 1978, Werling was appointed mayor after Herbert Brudi resigned. He was then elected mayor in 1979.
Although Werling lost his re-election bid in 1983 to Democrat Eugene C. Taylor, he won an at-large council seat in 1991 and has been re-elected six times.
If you haven't noticed his work in Allen County's second largest city, you've probably bought clothes from him over the years. He has worked in the men's department at Macy's, formerly L.S. Ayres, in Glenbrook Square since 1992. He also owned his own clothing store, Werling's Men's Wear, in the 1980s, and was manager of Maiers men's clothing store in Northcrest Shopping Center in the late 1970s.
“I don't know where he finds the time or his energy,” his son, Andy Werling said last week.
Local officials agree Werling is one of the longest-serving elected officials in Allen County, but they aren't sure who has served the longest.
This is Werling's 36th year in office counting his years as mayor and councilman. That ties Don Schmidt's tenure of 36 years, all on the Fort Wayne City Council.
Werling is unopposed so far. Democrats and Republicans have until noon Wednesday to nominate candidates for local offices if no one ran for them in the May primary.
Any efforts to run against Werling would be futile, Allen County Republican Chairman Steve Shine said.
“He is the undisputed dean of New Haven city government,” Shine said.
Werling has tenure and “an inherent knowledge of how the job works,” Shine said.
Terry McDonald is finishing his fifth and final term as New Haven mayor, but some people, he said, still call him him “Mayor Werling.”
“Over the years he has been a wonderful mentor to me,” McDonald said. “To say he's a fixture doesn't do him justice. He's always believed in the city, believed in the government, believed in the people.”
McDonald remembered when Werling organized an Up With New Haven event at New Haven High School when International Harvester closed its local truck assembly plant in 1983. Many people who lived in New Haven worked at Harvester, including Werling, who was a company accountant for 81/2 years. Werling left the job, he said, afraid the stress would shorten his life.
“I couldn't imagine being mayor the last 20 years without Terry on council,” McDonald, 59, said. “It's guys like him that youngsters like me depend on.”
Politics, Werling said, is “98% kick in the butt, 2% pat on the back.”
His goal has always been improving New Haven's quality of life.
Some of the city's accomplishments under his mayoral watch, he said, were connecting New Haven's sewers to Fort Wayne's wastewater treatment plant and hiring the first company to provide ambulance service in the late 1970s.
New Haven's wastewater treatment plant was inadequate, Werling said, and the city was dubbed “the worst polluter in the state.” Fort Wayne still treats New Haven's sewage.
Long before he was mayor, McDonald was an EMT for Medifare, the firm contracted to provide ambulance service for New Haven and Adams and Jefferson townships in 1979. Before that, Harper Funeral Home provided ambulance service, Werling said.
When Werling became mayor, three of the five council members were Democrats. But partisanship took a back seat – “the political parties went away,” he said.
Werling has seen New Haven's population grow from about 9,300 in the 1980s to about 15,000 today.
Although he lost his bid for re-election in 1983, Werling got a second chance when an annexation created a second at-large seat on the City Council in 1991.
He decided to run but told supporters he wouldn't go door-to-door and wouldn't put up yard signs.
He won anyway.
“I don't do things to win an award,” he said. “I do things because they're necessary.”
Werling said he'll continue his busy schedule as long as his health holds up.
In the fall of 2017, his lower leg was amputated after a trailer ramp fell on his foot. At the time of the accident, he was working for TAT Lawncare Co., which he and his family own. He has since reduced his duties to administrative work for the company, he said.
In November, his wife of 58 years, Carolyn, died at age 79. She served several terms as Adams Township assessor. The couple's four children are Tim and Andy, both of New Haven, Tom of Hamilton and Elizabeth Bruick of Bakersfield, California.
Andy recalled that after his father's leg was amputated, he received loads of support from family and friends, including a neighbor who called Werling “an inspiration.”
When he's not attending meetings in New Haven or working at Macy's, Werling enjoys spending time at his Hamilton Lake cottage, Andy said.
If he knew where his dad got all his energy, Andy said, he would have bottled it.
“He's always made time for the family, but public service has always been his calling.” he said.
• Elected to New Haven City Council, 3rd District, 1975
• Appointed mayor in 1978 after resignation of Herbert Brudi
• Elected mayor in 1979
• Lost re-election to Eugene C. Taylor in 1983
• Elected to City Council at large 1991
• Re-elected 1995, 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011, 2015
Has worked at Macy's, formerly L.S. Ayres, in Glenbrook Square since 1992