Mary Ann and Hersch Sangster
As far as Hersch Sangster knew, he was attending the Keizer First Citizen Banquet to deliver a speech on recent developments in the Salem-Keizer Area Transit District.
“I was going over my notes and adding stuff and it wasn’t until I heard Vickie (Jackson) say bicycle that I realized what was going on,” Hersch said.
“And I was wondering when they were going to call him up to give his speech,” added Mary Ann Sangster, Hersch’s wife of 44 years. She was just as in the dark about the reason the couple was there.
While Hersch was the named recipient of the First Citizen award, anyone who knows the longtime Keizer couple will be unsurprised to learn that they feel the journey was a joint venture. Mary Ann is in charge of where the clock Hersch received will be placed in the Sangster home.
Hersch and Mary Ann have been involved with school-related groups since their oldest child was in fifth grade, and stayed involved long after their youngest had graduated. They are a pair of the most stalwart members of the Salem Bicycle Club as well as co-founders of the Monster Cookie Metric Century Ride, which is now the oldest group ride in Oregon. In addition, Hersch has served on a number of committees and boards that advise and make recommendations to the Keizer City Council.
Hersch and Mary Ann met on a double date, but they weren’t dating each other that fateful night. Hersch grew up in Keizer, Mary Ann grew up in Salem and they had attended school together for a short time at St. Vincent’s in Salem.
Hersch had seen his mother, a nurse, get involved with the community in a variety of ways, but credited a former civics teacher, Vic Backlund, with helping infuse him with the desire to volunteer. Mary Ann had watched her father engage civically through the Lions Club. The couple found their own motivator to get involved when the Salem-Keizer School District sought to classify their son as developmentally disabled.
“At the time, my mom was still a nurse, Mary Ann’s father was a guidance counselor and I was a disability specialist. That was what got us going. We said, ‘No,’ and stepped up to get involved,” Hersch said. “We wanted to watch our own kids, but we also wanted to get to know their teachers one-on-one.”
They started off by attending and later leading, parent-teacher groups at elementary and middle schools. By the time their oldest was graduating high school, the Sangsters were leading the McNary High School Athletic Booster Club and Mary Ann was the volunteer coach of the school’s equestrian team.
“We had to have a calendar on the wall and pencil in everything. Working with the students becomes a priority and there’s a lot of quick reshuffling to make sure you can do it,” Mary Ann said.
The couple were such fixtures of Celtic life, a former athletic director, Mike Magan, awarded the couple varsity letters in return for their service.
Mary Ann said her time with the equestrian team was the best of all her years as a volunteer. One year, her team won a highly-coveted sportsmanship trophy.
“It was a good experience and I did it for about three years, but the payoff went on for a lot longer,” Mary Ann said. She jokes about it being an undertaking with hormones coming at the team from both sides of the saddle.
Both said working with students in a variety of capacities gave them a renewed appreciation for teachers and the gargantuan obstacles they overcome daily.
By that time, Hersch had already started getting involved in city government. The Sangsters lived on Maine Avenue off River Road North for 38 years and their home became the epicenter of discussions when the city started planning what types of shops might be placed at the intersection with River Road. Herch and Mary Ann hosted an informational gathering at their home with then-mayor Dennis Koho, and the city manager at the time.
Koho took a shine to Hersch and told him it was time to get involved on a larger scale. Koho was instrumental to getting a bikeways committee established in the city and Hersch was one of the first appointees.
Cycling had long been a way of life for Hersch. Growing up when Keizer was still a rural community on the outskirts of Salem, the primary mode of transportation was by bicycle or hopping onto a flatcar of a passing train. (He had a technique and this story is not meant as an endorsement of such shenanigans.)
Cycling around Keizer led to membership in the Cycling Club at Oregon State University and, later, the Salem Bicycle Club. For Hersch it’s still his preferred mode of transportation.
While Mary Ann’s greatest sense of accomplishment came from the equestrian team, Hersch’s, unsurprisingly, has to do with bikes and it’s represented by the 2002 Alice B. Toeclips Award in a trophy case at the Keizer Civic Center.
The award was given by the Bicycle Transportation Alliance in appreciation for starting a free bike helmet program in Keizer. Hersch was chair of the Bikeways Committee when the program began in 1997.
“I was talking with David Dempster, who has been part of that same group for a long time, and we think we’ve given out somewhere around 6,000 helmets since the program began,” Hersch said.
Hersch was humbled to be honored as Keizer’s first citizen, but he’s not planning on halting his involvement anytime soon. He’s got plans to install a bike repair station at Kennedy Elementary School and he’s still chasing his own great white whale of a project: getting new bike racks installed at McNary High School.
“The racks that are there are the same ones we had when I was a student in 1972. It’s going to happen,” Hersch said.
If the first citizen moniker gets him a bit more traction to reel the beast in, so be it.