Sherry Capello was raised by a father who never treated her differently because she was a girl.
So it was kind of jarring when someone didn’t, the Lebanon mayor recalled.
One summer when she was 16, she was helping out at her dad’s construction business and he asked her to pick up a specific type of nail at a hardware store. When she walked up to the store counter and said what she wanted, the male clerk asked: “What does a pretty girl know about penny nails?”
When she told him what they were needed for, he quickly filled her order.
This experience, however, was the exception rather than the rule as she entered the workforce, Capello said, eventually winning elective office for the first time 10 years ago.
Other female leaders in conservative Lebanon County say the same. For them, the glass ceiling has been broken. Lebanon County has a history of electing women to high-profile positions, including the state House (Rose Marie Swanger and Mauree Gingrich), District Attorney (Deidre Eshelman and current DA Pier Hess Graf), and several times as mayor.
A Republican, Capello is in her third term as mayor. A graduate of Northern Lebanon High School, she described herself as a “country girl gone city.”
Her first taste of working came at age 12 when she started helping her father in the summer.
“He taught me very valuable lessons, including a good work ethic,” Capello said.
But there have been some cringe-worthy moments along the way. During one of her first job interviews after college, she was asked if she planned on getting pregnant; a question that today would get employers in hot water.
Capello worked in the private sector, and when those companies kept going under or merging, she moved on to government.
For almost 10 years, she was Lebanon County’s chief zoning officer. Then she became Palmyra borough manager for about 11 years, and then served 18 months as assistant director of the Derry Township Community Planning Department.
While at the planning department, she decided to run for mayor of Lebanon, a city of 25,000-plus where she moved with her family in 1997.
“I didn’t plan on being in politics,” she says, but she had some concerns about an ongoing issue, and a lot of her friends pushed her to run. Capello was elected Lebanon’s fourth female mayor, after Betty Eiceman, Jackie Parker and Trish Ward.
“I love my job,” she said. “It’s definitely very challenging with COVID-19.”
Capello said she thinks her experience and self-confidence have helped her. Her skills as a multitasker and good listener come in handy, too, she said.
“Individuals have different strengths,” Capello said. “Gender shouldn’t matter.”
Used to responsibility
Jo Ellen Litz is in her sixth term – and fifth consecutive – as a Lebanon County commissioner after first being elected in 1995. A Democrat, she has a business background as the owner of Lebanon Body Shop and then other companies. Litz was an employee of the body shop and was then asked to buy it by her male co-workers because they liked how she organized things.
“They saw something in me I never would have seen myself,” she said.
Owning a body shop was a “very nontraditional” role for a woman, but she had people in her corner, including a lender, to make the purchase a reality, she said.
Among her strengths, she said, is an ability to take smart risks, which allowed her to succeed. In 1993, Litz received the ATHENA Award from the Lebanon Valley Chamber of Commerce.
A graduate of Cedar Crest High School, Litz earned an associate degree from Lebanon Valley College and took computer courses to get a bachelor’s before online education was popular, she said.
In addition to the county commission, she’s taken numerous leadership classes and done advanced training for county commissioners. “I went further then I ever dreamed,” Litz said.
When she got involved in the local Democratic Party, someone told her at a meeting, “You’re not afraid of men.” Her response: “Am I supposed to be?”
She became party chair and was encouraged to run for county commissioner.
“I’m used to responsibility,” said Litz, who helped raise her younger siblings. “I’ve handled many crises.”
They key is to stay calm and follow a plan, she said. “The bottom line is I get to help people – protect children, serve families, secure justice, manage emergencies and safeguard elections,” which is the stated mission of a county commissioner, Litz said.
Right now, the biggest emergency to manage is COVID-19, she said.
Her philosophy, Litz said, is to put service above self, like the Rotarians teach, and to always look seven generations ahead, following an Iroquois proverb.
“I’ve always taught that a good idea stands the test of time,” she said.
Leading in business
Karen Groh ran her own graphic design marketing company, IA Design, for more than 20 years before becoming president and CEO of the Lebanon Valley Chamber of Commerce.
She moved to Lebanon in 1990 to take a job at the Lebanon Daily News.
In college at SUNY Oswego, she had a double major in elementary education and art. “You start somewhere, you change direction, that’s OK,” Groh said.
She taught for a few years and worked at a newspaper in upstate New York before relocating to this area, she said.
Groh was an active member of the chamber for many years and incoming board chair, when she was asked to step in as interim president/CEO.
“The more I was in as the interim, the more I realized how much I loved the strategy and working with the community,” she said. “Having the title gives more leverage to get things done.”
Groh applied to fill the job on a noninterim basis and was chosen in 2017.
She described her work as “multifaceted,” half of her time in meetings with individual businesses and the other half devoted to workforce development, economic development, business advocacy and connecting schools to business.
As a woman in an often male-dominated field, there have been times “where you do feel someone’s talking around you, but that’s really rare.” Sometimes, however, she’s the only woman in a meeting, and wonders why that is.
Groh reached out to another strong female leader in the community – Kim Kreider Umble, president and CEO of Lebanon Family Health Services – for guidance. “I really valued the way she carried herself,” Groh said.
Susan Eberly, president/CEO of the Lebanon Valley Economic Development Corp., said in an email that her diverse background helped her grow her business knowledge and been an asset as an economic developer. That background includes business courses in high school, after-school jobs in the business field, an associate degree in business studies, a bachelor’s in organizational behavior and applied psychology and a master’s in marriage and family therapy.
“All of my life experiences led me to appreciate the many aspects of business,” she wrote. “I also had my own marriage and family practice, which helped me to appreciate the entrepreneurial field.”
She has been with the organization for 23 years and president/CEO since May 2013. “(I) have enjoyed every minute of my career in economic development,” she said.
“My role as president is to assist the business community with their retention, recruitment and expansion efforts,” she said. “To be the conduit for processing and promoting requests for state financing, incentives, economic stimulus tools and other business services. To coordinate and serve as a promoter of workforce development initiatives and incentives. To work with state, regional and local officials to ensure that the county has a thriving economy. Assisting and companies with finding resources.
“It is like dealing with a bunch of different puzzle pieces to make a satisfactory whole,” Eberly explained.
Asked what it has it been like to be a woman in that role? “My mainly male-dominated board has been respectful, encouraging and supportive.”
She said her father always encouraged her to think beyond gender, to work hard at her goals and “to be the best that I could be.”