Marge Battin~Trail Blazer

Marge Battin

By Jeri Zeder  |  Racine, Wisconsin, 1943. Margery Milne was a high school student with a summer job working in a tank factory that was in the throes of a labor dispute—of sorts. The local chapter of the United Auto Workers didn’t want to admit into its ranks students who were there just for the summer. But the national UAW was entitled to a percentage of local dues, so this didn’t sit well with union higher-ups. Walter Reuther, the famed UAW president, told the local to admit the kids or he’d call a strike. During war time! The local caved, and Marge joined the union. She was then elected vice president of the plant safety committee. At age sixteen.And that ought to be the punch line—but there’s more. Turns out, Cecil Paton Milne, Marge’s father, headed the company that made the tanks. And the leader of the local at the time, Stephen F. Olsen, later became Marge’s sounding board when she was Selectman in Lexington and he was the mayor of Racine.

Marge Milne Battin was born March 25, 1927, in Toronto, Canada, the oldest of three children of Milne, a businessman, and Mildred Conboy Milne (née Smith), a high school Latin teacher and homemaker. The family moved to Paris, returned to Toronto when Marge was five, and then relocated to Racine, Wisconsin, when Marge was in junior high school. In 1944, she came to New England to study at Wellesley College. There, inspired by her experiences with the UAW, Marge majored in Economics with a focus on labor. “I was going to be a labor organizer,” Marge says now. But she didn’t count on meeting Richard H. Battin.

“He’d seen my picture in the Wellesley portrait directory, which was ostensibly for the girls to get to know each other, but it always ended up at Harvard and MIT,” Marge says. “And he saw my picture and said, ‘That’s the girl I’m going to marry.’” Marge rebuffed his attempts to meet her. So one Sunday afternoon, Dick made his way over to Wellesley from

MIT and knocked on the door of her dorm. The girl who answered went off to find Marge. “She said, ‘He seems sort of nice, why don’t you come down and talk to him,’” Marge recalls. “So I came, and the rest is history.”

A young Margery Milne (front row center) at Webb Hall, Wellesley College, where she
majored in Economics. Photo courtesy of the Battin family.

A young Margery Milne.
Photo courtesy of the Battin family.

Like so many other young college men during World War II, Dick was in the V-12 Navy College Training Program. He graduated in 1945, and the couple married in 1947. Marge graduated with a B.A. in Economics the following year. Dick pursued a Ph.D. in Applied Mathematics at MIT. Marge set aside her dream of organizing migrant workers. “There was no place to labor-organize, nor was there a migrant worker in sight,” she explains. She briefly considered Harvard Business School. “They would hire me to write the cases. They would hire me to grade the papers. But they were not admitting women to Harvard Business School,” she says. She went to work for an investment firm, and when she became a mother, stayed home with their three children Tom, Pam and Jeff.

Marge and Dick moved to 15 Paul Revere Road in Lexington in 1953, where they remained for nearly 60 years. Early on, Marge dove head first into community affairs: she served as Den mother, Brownie leader, Sunday School teacher, METCO host parent, PTA board member, and Vice President of the Lexington League of Women Voters. She was on the board of directors of RePlace, a youth counseling service; the Lexington Visiting Nurse Association; and the Lexington Interfaith Corporation, a sponsor of low and moderate income housing. She helped organize Citizens for Lexington Public Schools and Citizens for Lexington Youth.

Dick, meanwhile, went to work for the MIT Instrumentation Lab, where he participated in planning a Mars probe. Guidance control became his specialty. For the Apollo 11 mission, which put the first man on the moon, Dick organized and led the staff who created the software that would navigate the astronauts through space. Marge says, “He really was in charge of getting them there and landing precisely within inches of where he had aimed them. Which is interesting, because the kids laugh hysterically: Dick and I have almost no sense of direction at all! I remember we were going to the movies with the kids and Dick got lost. The kids said, ‘Thank God the astronauts can’t see you now!’” After helping to achieve President Kennedy’s goal of “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth,” Dick, with Marge, traveled to the Soviet Union as guests of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

When young Dick Battin saw a picture of Margery Milne in the Wellesley “portrait directory” he said, “That’s the girl I’m going to marry.” Above, Marge and Dick on their wedding day. Photo courtesy of the Battin family.

It was Dick who got involved with local politics first. The neighborhood’s septic tanks were backing up; it was time to petition the town to hook the homes into the municipal sewer system. A neighbor who was a Town Meeting Member advised Dick to run for Town Meeting. “Dick grew up in Baltimore; I grew up in the Middle West, and municipal government was something you never paid any attention to, unless it was corrupt or something,” Marge says. “We didn’t even know what Town Meeting was about.” Dick also served as vice-chair of the Appropriation Committee. “When he came home, he’d be talking about it, and I started getting kind of excited. It was a lot better than talking about diapers and small children,” Marge says. Seeing her enthusiasm, Dick encouraged her to run. “I had never really thought about it; there were just a few women [in Town Meeting],” she says. But as an active member of Lexington’s League of Women Voters, Marge had become knowledgeable about town affairs. So run she did, and started serving in 1960. “I’m lucky. I found what I liked to do and was good at, and I just loved it,” she says. All told, Marge served Town Meeting for 49 years, just four years shy of Dick’s record-setting 53 years of continuous service to Town Meeting.

Lexington’s present form of government is the direct outgrowth of Marge’s hard work and leadership. She co-chaired the initial committee of the Town Meeting Member Association that looked at the structure of Lexington’s local government, and when Town Meeting decided to address the issue more formally, she chaired that committee, too. The resulting plan passed Town Meeting and was ratified by the voters. “We were the only town that when we took it to the voters, it went through the first time,” she says. The State Legislature approved the Lexington Selectmen/Town Manager Act in 1969.

At issue in the development of the Act was how to modernize the structure of the government of a town that was expanding services to accommodate its growing population and needed to be more nimble and sophisticated in addressing the resulting operational complexity. It was time to leave behind the old government structure that had citizens engaged in administrative, rather than policy, issues; that lacked well-defined areas of responsibility and therefore permitted too many items to fall through the cracks; and was too often inefficient and ineffective. Under the Lexington Selectmen/Town Manager Act of 1969, the Board of Selectmen became a policy-making body, with administrative duties centralized under the direction of a full-time, professional Town Manager. Over forty years later, Lexington still operates, and quite successfully, under this form of government.

Marge then ran for Selectman, a position she wanted in part to ensure that Lexington’s new government structure would operate as intended, and served from 1974-1986, including two stints as Board chair. She became the first women elected president of the Massachusetts Selectmen’s Association (MSA) and was the first woman president of the Middlesex County Selectmen’s Association. When she later became president of the Massachusetts Moderators Association (MMA), Marge attained the distinction of being the only person in Massachusetts history to be president of both the MMA and the MSA.And speaking of firsts: In 1987, Marge began her 22-year tenure as the first woman elected Town Moderator of Lexington. Anyone who ever saw her preside over Town Meeting will remember her professionalism, her exceptional command of rules and procedure, and her deft ability to keep 200 rugged individualists on time and on task. Marge credits the League of Women Voters and the Town Meeting Members Association with shaping how she operated as Moderator. One notable highlight: the time she had to convene a Town Meeting that no one could attend due to inclement weather. The Department of Public Works sent a heavy-duty vehicle to her house and whisked her off to Cary Hall so she, the Town Clerk, and then-Town counsel Norman Cohen could convene and adjourn the meeting and properly preserve it for another day.

Marge (center) with Bebe and Gary Fallick and Norman and Linda Cohen at one of the many Lexington events she attended and supported.

To list the number of organizations, advisory committees, and human services groups that Marge has served would fill more pages than this magazine can handle. She loves that local government is a place for citizens of all backgrounds to mix it up for the greater good, and she views those she works with, regardless of age or walks of life, as friends and colleagues. She sees the conduct of local officials and representatives—the way they can vehemently disagree with each other year after year and yet continue to respect each other—as a model that ought to be emulated on the national level. She is a fierce believer in the importance of municipal government, and maintains that it does not get the respect it deserves. “Neither the national nor the state level realize that we’re the ones that operate all their programs. They get operated where we are and we see what they’ve done, what works, what doesn’t work, and to ignore us, they do so at their peril, but they do. And they have no idea when they make cuts to local aid what they do to us. We can give them important feedback on what works and what doesn’t work, but they never looked at us as partners,” she says. She cites former Governor Michael Dukakis, State Representative Jay Kaufman, and State Senator Susan Fargo as rare and refreshing exceptions.


Marge with her husband Dick

At age 85, in a time of widespread cynicism toward government, Marge remains passionately idealistic about public service. “It is at the local level,” Marge reminds us, “where needs occur and services are delivered. You can immediately see the results of what government does or doesn’t do. You can see what works and what doesn’t work. You can then personally engage colleagues in local problem-solving.” Hers is an idealism based in actual experience, in the demonstrable difference she and her compatriots have made in this community.







Keeping the Library’s Lights On

Marge Battin is a staunch supporter of Lexington’s Cary Memorial Library, a cause that she traces back to events from her childhood. When her family returned from Paris and resumed living in Toronto, Marge was just five years old and a fluent French speaker. The other children teased her relentlessly for it. “I sort of withdrew and the school had a library,” she says. “That was my refuge and I escaped to another time and place.” Her love for libraries was reinforced by her family’s weekly ritual library visits. Eventually, Marge grew into a fast and voracious reader capable of devouring five books in a single day.

As Selectman, Marge was a member of the Library Board of Trustees. From 1998 to 2007, she served as a founding member of the Cary Memorial Library Foundation. As part of the massive fundraising effort for the Library’s recent renovation, Marge and a colleague were sent off to visit some prospective donors with instructions to ask for a donation amounting to a six-figure sum. “My voice was quavering, my hands were shaking,” Marge recalls. “I thought they were going to throw us out on our ear. But they said, ‘That’s what we were thinking about.’ And we got it! I went home and called my daughter and said, ‘I asked someone for [a six figure donation], and they gave it to us!’”

Marge remains committed to the Library as a volunteer to the Foundation, as an annual donor, and, because she has provided for the Library in her estate plans, as a member of the Maria Hastings Cary Legacy Society. With her town government hat on, Marge says, “The last light that should go off, if it has to go off, is the Library. I just think it’s absolutely crucial. And I think that’s much the feeling of just about everyone in Lexington.”



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