Pittsburgh clerk Linda Johnson-Wasler retires after 20 years

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In the hours before Mayor Bob O'Connor died in 2006, city clerk Linda Johnson-Wasler got a call that she had to return to work. In the midst of the sadness and the shock that the city was facing, then-Councilman Luke Ravenstahl would be sworn in as mayor.

But first, there was paperwork that had to be signed. And the job of preparing it and filing it -- the steps that officially gave Mr. Ravenstahl the reins of the city -- fell to Ms. Johnson-Wasler.

"You're a part of history, and people don't really know those steps," she said. "It was certainly a solemn time."

For the last two decades, Ms. Johnson-Wasler has served the city from a chair just below the ornate dais reserved for the council president. Though she's lesser-known than her elected counterparts, she commands a respect that few others who have graced council chambers ever have. And the importance of her work cannot be overstated: She is a discreet but essential cog in the function of city government, presiding over sometimes-unruly meetings, carefully handling the papers that form the official record of legislation and ensuring that -- to the best of her ability -- the process functions smoothly and efficiently.

Tuesday will be one of the first council meetings in 20 years without Ms. Johnson-Wasler, 65, who retired Friday. She was one of dozens of employees who retired because of an early retirement incentive program created by Mayor Bill Peduto's administration. She will be succeeded by Mary Doheny, the current deputy city clerk.

Ms. Johnson-Wasler arrived in Pittsburgh via Omaha, Neb., to follow her first husband, Sylvester Johnson, whom she met at a business college in her hometown. She settled in Lincoln-Lemington and eventually became involved in the local political scene under the tutelage of the late Dock Fielder Jr., the legendary Democratic chairman of the East End's 12th Ward. She was elected a committeewoman there, giving her a first taste of how the city functioned.

She worked as a clerk for the Pittsburgh Board of Public Education and in the early 1980s, moved to the city clerk's office. She worked her way up the chain for nearly a decade and a half, ascending to deputy city clerk until 1994, when she was sworn in as city clerk.

Councilwoman Darlene Harris, who has been friends with Ms. Johnson-Wasler for 31/2 decades, said her friend keeps her home immaculately clean and brought that fastidiousness to council chambers. It's part of her charge to keep the chambers in order.

But it was her demeanor -- friendly but firm and impossibly tranquil even when council descended intochaos -- that made her stand out. When council members disagreed about procedure, they turned to their trusty city clerk, who held an encyclopedia of information about city procedures in her head. She was rarely -- if ever -- questioned.

"When council members disagreed on procedure and you could tell one member was trying to get an upper hand. ... Linda would give very quiet but reassuring guidance," Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle said. "Everyone would defer."

In a place where council members can be prone to tussling over minutia, Ms. Johnson-Wasler was a rare figure who commanded universal respect. Despite her background in politics, council members said she was deeply committed to being professional and impartial.

"Many times council members don't like each other. They don't work well together. They fight," Councilman Dan Gilman said. "I've never heard of anyone having a problem with Linda. ... She spoke without prejudice or politics. ... I've never seen her lose her cool."

After her first husband died, she married Phillip Wasler. Her two children from her first marriage joined his five from a previous marriage. But despite having seven children, she still found affection for her family on Grant Street.

Last Tuesday, as council members bid her a tearful farewell, she told them she enjoyed every minute of her time on council.

"I've never had a bad day," she said.

Moriah Balingit: mbalingit@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2533 or on Twitter @MoriahBee.

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