Trentoniana Photo Series: Arthur R. Sypek
Throughout the mid to late 1900s, former (and first ever) Mercer County Executive Arthur R. Sypek held a number of legislative positions within the city of Trenton. From Trenton Central High School (TCHS) grad to WWII hero to successful relator, former County Executive Sypek left a historic leadership legacy for Mercer County to sustain.
“To be involved and accomplish anything, you’ve got to like people” said Sypek in an interview with Mercer Business Magazine in November of 1986. “When you’re active in organizational or leadership work, everyone calls on you to give a hand because they know you can get the job done. You sacrifice a lot of personal time, but it’s always worth the effort.”
In those few words, Sypek summed up his life. Since 1917, the year he was born, Sypek has made an effort create success in all aspects of his life. After graduating TCHS in 1936, Sypek moved directly on to Rider University and received his bachelor’s in accounting by 1940.
After pursuing an education, Sypek did what was common for young men to do in their early 20’s in the early to mid 1900’s; he went to war. For about five years, Sypek joined the US Army Signal Corps to assist in military intelligence. There, Sypek was involved in the Battle of the Bulge and suffered from a shrapnel wound to the torso. When finished serving, he was awarded five bronze medal stars and a Purple Heart.
In 1945, Sypek returned to Trenton and married his wife Sophie Dembinski, who also a former TCHS grad and a life-long parishioner of St. Hedwig’s Church in Trenton; the same church Sypek was involved. It is likely the two met there.
Outside of Sypek’s drive for success was his love for his community. Sypek was heavily involved in St. Hedwig’s Church. Both himself and his wife were supporters of the Catholic War Vets organization. Sypek also formed and directed St. Hedwig’s Church first men’s choir. Priest Henry Bogdan, the fifth member of the men’s choir, said in a 2002 interview with The Times that Sypek was “a man of distinction, a man of great stature, a man of great ability… He taught me how to play the accordion.”
Sypek had a lifelong passion for playing music, especially the accordion and organ. According to his son, Arthur R. Sypek Jr., his father recorded music for Columbia Records in the early 1930’s and was part of a popular local Polish-American band called the Joe Tye Band. His close community friends knew his through his organ playing at the Sunday church service.
Around the time Sypek returned from war, he became involved in two active rolls in the county. Between 1945 and 1951, Sypek was he Assistant Controller for Lenox Inc. At that time, he also became Director of Mercer Savings and Loan Association, an organization Sypek’s politician father founded in 1911. Sypek served as the Director for Mercer Savings and Loan Association for 41 years and President for 20. He remained a chairman from 1985 until the end of his life in 2002.
It was estimated that the Mercer Savings and Loan Association, at one point under Sypek’s leadership, financed anywhere between one-third and one-half of all homes in the North Trenton Area and a significant number in South Trenton. Mercer Savings and Loan Association was also considered a “skarb polski,” or Polish Treasury, and played a major role in Slavic and Polish communities of Trenton having the ability to purchase homes and beautify their neighborhoods.
Sypek told Mercer Business, “Many of the people we loaned money to from 1911 on into the 1950’s came to Trenton directly from Poland. They were expert in trades like carpentry. Everyone in a given Polish family would be working at something, and as a result the family paid off a mortgage in only four or five years. They were the best risks you could have.”
He continued, “Those were exciting times. It was an honor and pleasure to serve and assist so many people, particularly blue collar workers, who believed so strongly in home ownership.”
In the 1950’s, Sypek became even more involved with Mercer County and the Trenton area. He became the Trenton Housing Authority Director in 1955 and opened up a successful insurance agency with Ben Sandford called Sypek & Sandford. The organization still operates today.
By 1959, Sypek had made a name for himself in the Trenton area. That same year, he was elected as a County Commissioner (formerly called a Freeholder). He held that position until 1975, when he beat former Mayor Arthur Holland in the primary elections and became the first ever elected County Executive.
During his time as a commissioner, Mercer County underwent a change in government. Before, it was a commission structure. Under Sypek’s time in office, the county adopted the elected county executive model. In the new process of operations, the County Executive would serve as a “mayor-like” figure and the commissioners would serve as legislators.
Because the updated form of government was new, the system had flaws. One major problem the county ran into was the fact that they enforced the new goverent structure before developing an administrative code. Without this code, it was unclear where the lines were drawn for those with authority, like Sypek.
Some county members referred to the switch in government as chaotic. Edward F. Meana III, the former chairman of Mercer County Charter Study Commission told The New Mercer Government publication in 1976 that, “the architects of the (charter change) law made a glaring error in allowing the new government to come into effect on January 10 without having an administrative code until May 1.”
He continued, “As a result, you’re seeing chaos down there…the people through no fault of their own are floundering. We should have waited until a code was adopted to start the new government.”
Despite the confusion, Sypek was able to pull through. He did not back down from his duties as County Executive and spent the next four years in his position working towards the progress of Mercer County and the city of Trenton. He said, “I like to see things happen and get things done.”
Sypek worked tirelessly to , in fact, “get things done.” In the 1970’s, Sypek focused heavily on education in the area. During that time, Mercer County Community College was built as well as its’ sister vocational schools, one of which was named after Sypek. In addition, the Mercer County Special Service School for the handicapped was also developed.
Although successful in his many leadership positions in Mercer County, Sypek remained a humble man. At 69 years-old, about seven years after his defeat for re-election in 1979, Sypek said, “There’s a favorite saying of mine: Roughly 80 percent of all work in a community is done by 20 percent of the same dedicated people. I may have been in positions of leadership, but I certainly didn’t work by myself.”
On April 23, 2002, Arthur R. Sypek was laid to rest at 85 years-old. A County Commissioner at the time, Mercer County’s current Executive Brian M. Hughes was present at the funeral. According to Hughes in 2002, the passing of Sypek marked “the passing of a great leader for the county.”
In a modest response to the press, when Arthur R. Sypek Jr. was asked about his fathers legacy on Mercer County, Sypek Jr. said, “He led a full life.”
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