Etna manager shows hometown pride over 42 years of borough employment

Sunday, August 11, 2019 | 12:01 AM


The solar-powered Etna welcome sign on Route 28 features a blue heron symbolizing the borough’s environmental commitment in an area the steel industry left polluted. One of the wading birds moved to Etna more than 10 years ago, which Manager Mary Ellen Ramage said is evidence of the community’s improvements to its waterways.

When Ramage, 60, needs a break from the management position that she has held since 1990, she heads to Dougherty Veteran’s Nature Trail along Pine Creek.

“It’s not long before I see a kingfisher or a turtle, or, you know, I’ve seen beavers or the blue heron,” she said about the changes in the area. “I grew up here. My parents had to take me in a car for me to see anything like this. To North Park. To the zoo. To the aviary. Now, less than 500 to 800 feet away from Route 8 some kid in this community can just go down to that nature trail … and sit there and feel like they’re in a whole different environment.”

She considers the trail, completed in 2009, one of her proudest accomplishments.

The borough is partnering with the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania to re-establish the area surrounding the Etna Riverfront Trail and Park as a habitat for migratory waterfowl. Officials broke ground on the park in June.

Following her graduation from Millvale’s Mt. Alvernia High School, she accepted a job in 1977 as a borough receptionist.

Today, she recalls a phone call from a resident named Edna impacting Ramage’s career trajectory. Edna called the borough office to explain that when public work crews plowed snow, they pushed the precipitation into her basement apartment’s window well, which leaked, causing her bed to get wet. Ramage, then-17, asked the public works director and manager if there were any solutions to the issue. While they agreed the situation was unfortunate, they said the borough still needed to plow the alley.

“So, I just went on my lunch hour to shovel it out,” Ramage said. “And it sort of got a little crazy after that. I knocked on the door to tell her that it was taken care of, and she was virtually blind, couldn’t hear very well. I went in her apartment. Her refrigerator was open. She didn’t know it was open because she couldn’t see very well. She had burners on the stove on that was to help with heat.”

Edna, who is now deceased, began corresponding with Ramage through letters after she benefited from Ramage’s kindness.

“The difference it made in her life made me feel really good about what I was doing. While I kind of came here to just figure out what I wanted to do, because I’ve always been fascinated with the ocean and whales and biology, I just became hooked on the residents.”

Ramage worked her way up to water and sewage treatment biller, payroll controller and finance manager and assistant manager in 1982.

She is proud of Etna’s evolution, some of which she has witnessed.

The borough was incorporated in 1868, once home to the Spang Chalfant steel mill. The company provided its employees with doctor’s and dentist’s offices, a hospital, restaurant, grocery store and indoor and outdoor pools.

In its heyday, Etna was home to 11,000, compared to today’s 3,500. Population decreased when the steel mills closed in the late 1950s and early 1960s. During the same period, Route 28 dissected the community and eliminated 400 homes. In 2004, Etna lost another 40 properties to Route 8’s construction.

Moreover, 20% to 25% of Etna is in a flood plain.

“We sit at the bottom of a 67-square-mile watershed, which means everything in those 67-square-miles drains here,” Ramage said. “We’re 810 of a square mile ourselves. I mean that’s phenomenal.”

The borough has devoted more than $1.5 million on flood-specific projects since 2004’s Hurricane Ivan and nearly $2 million on its municipal separate storm sewer system, or MS4.

In 2014, the community adopted a green master plan and Ramage worked with the North Hills Council of Governments to pass a multi-municipal storm water management ordinance.

In 2018, Etna community members initiated the Etna Ecodistrict planning process by educating themselves about water, mobility, air quality, energy, food and equity. The Etna Ecodistrict joins Millvale and Sharpsburg in the Triboro Ecodistrict project sponsored by the Henry L. Hillman Foundation. The Triboro Ecodistrict is a New Sun Rising initiative.

“I just feel blessed that something that was just a tiny little seed just keeps blooming bigger and bigger and bigger and to be a small part of that I just feel blessed,” she said of the ecodistrict planning process.

“I know for certain Mary Ellen has managed to get Etna through many challenges and is managing Etna towards a bright and secure future,” Mayor Thomas Rengers said.

“She’s done a fantastic job. There is no more dedicated person in Etna to her job than Mary Ellen is. She works it, lives it, to her job, 24 hours a day,” said John Winschel, whose family has owned Winschel Hardware in Etna since 1888.

In addition to serving as manager, she provides borough council with the education to make their decisions and fulfills their requests. She furnishes council with biweekly packets containing finance reports, agenda discussion and voting items, local news and future considerations.

“Mary Ellen always comes prepared to explain, refer, dissect, any issue that pertains to Etna Borough’s past, present or future. I believe she prepares do diligently because of her intense loyalty – love — for her hometown,” Rengers, mayor since 2004, said.

Ramage met her husband of 22 years, Pete, on the job — he has served as a councilman for nearly 50 years and is current president.

When the two were reviewing a meeting agenda, Pete, a widower of many years, asked Mary Ellen out for dinner after saying that he was tired of cooking for one or having food delivered.

“We went to dinner and we never talked about the borough. And the restaurant that we were in, they were putting the chairs up and saying, ‘You two need to go, we closed 20 minutes ago,” she said.

They got married less than a year later. Ramage’s family grew to include Pete’s adult children and their spouses. They share many grandchildren.