Over the years I've covered a lot of dinners. I seldom ever sat to eat at them. My job was to document what the event was all about, not get a free meal.
Since late last night I've been trying to remember what dinner I heard those word said to me. Last night I got a message that the person who insisted I sit with her and her friends for a meal, long-time Venango County Republican chair and the often center of attention at Venango County events, Martha Breene had passed away. This memory immediately came back to me.
As I stood hearing these words,I actually looked behind me to see if the person telling me this was talking to someone else. "Why me?" I thought. Martiy and I ddin't necessarily see politics from the same angle of sight. But there I was alone in the corner and those words were most certainly for me. You don't get to say no to Marty Breene. She would take out a rope and lasso you if she needed to, but you will eventually have to say yes.
She was a force.
Up until that dinner I had taken photographs of Marty a few times, once at the Venango County Fair under the republican tent where she sat holding court (I'll speak more about this later) and again during President Donald Trump's visit to Erie to stump for local republicans during the 2018 mid-terms. In Erie I had met her outside and learned where she was going to be inside. I had wanted to photograph our locals at this event and heard she was going to be there despite recent health problems. Dozens of people from all over Pennsylvania saw Marty there and came up to say hello as I chatted with her. She was in a wheelchair and embarrassed to be there in that state, but she was not going to miss this rally for anything. She asked me not to photograph her in her chair, but I admit I made a few photos that never ran in the paper, because I thought it was important that she was there and at that point I didn't know if I'd be able to find her in the crowd inside.
I did find her and I photographed her up behind the president holding a Mike Kelly sign. Marty loved the photos I took of her and her friend Mitra Reese that day.In the photos her face was as bright as can be and you'd never know she was ailing. This was her crowd, this was her event, this was what she worked so hard to be a part of through years of bleeding red for the party.
Mitra was the one who told me Marty insisted I sit with them at that dinner.
So I sat at this dinner and got to know Marty a little better. What a collection of thoughts she possessed and shared. Her conversation style is probably best described as a kaleidoscope or a Jackson Pollock painting. Swirling from one thought to another seamlessly. She reveled in art and beauty and could put down liberalism at the drop of a hat, but then laugh along with one sitting next her awkwardly eating rubber banquet chicken and rice pilaf. (During covid she even ordered up a truckload of dinners from the local democrat fundraiser during the holidays. - true story)
Marty was eclectic. And electric.
The first time I met Marty I didn't know who she was. I saw several Republicans I knew milling around the tent at the Venango County Fair. There was a woman sitting in an almost throne-like lawn chair telling everyone what to do. I jokinlg asked, as I always do in the heavily favored Republican county of Venango, so where is Democrat standing this year?"
It was my always tongue-in-cheek joke to emphasize I know that Democrats are almost on the endangered species registry in these parts. Marty loved this. I would walk up every year after that and ask the same question, each time Marty would laugh. I love how often we laughed actually.
Over the last few years I noticed one thing was a true statement, when Marty was in the room, she commanded it.
She held court in true lavish Marie Antionette fashion but with a stern Victorian leadership.
She would direct with a simple wave of a finger or a peering glance over a shoulder. I received a few of those glances after some snarky things I would say, then I would be put in my place and Maryy would show she was boss.
When the Republican national convention was going on Marty was told by Trump staffers out of the Northwest Pennsylvania offices, that Oil City was picked to be one of the featured towns to be shown on tv one of the nights of the convention. So with short notice she organized hundreds of Trump loyalists to hit Seneca Street in front of the Venango County republican headquarters. She messaged, called, got her friends to message and call me so that I would be there to take pictures. I was laid off already from the paper so she wanted to be sure I knew about it. She said she was tired of getting blurry pictures of the backs of people's heads and insisted I be there.
I said I'd come cover it for Eight & 322 and I'd share the pictures out so she could see them.I insisted I'd be there because it was news, not because she commanded me to be there, but to be honest, I'm now not sure. Like I said you didn't really say no to Martha Breene.
During the rally one of the Trump staffers approached me and said it was a closed event and press wasn't allowed. I explained that the event was outside in public and that he couldn't call it a closed event. I then also said, just go ask Marty. He wasn't happy with me but I walked right into the Republican Headquarters and talked to Martiy who greeted me with a big smile, a some of those finger waves because she then said, "I went on to your Facebook page, I had no idea you were a liberal." and we laughed. I told her what the Trump staffer said and she got this look of murder in her eyes.
She was already pissed because she said the staffer sold her a bill of goods and they weren't going to be a featured city on tv. But they went on with the rally anyway and riled up downtown Oil City with chants of four more years.
Over the next couple days I received several long text messages and three hours long phone calls from her as she was determined to get to the bottom of why this happened. I knew then I was glad I wasn't the Trump staffer who was on the other side of her ire.
Like I said before, Marty Breene held court and you do not upset the queen in her castle. And the Venango County Republican Headquarters was her Buckingham Palace.
She really liked Donald Trump and did everything she could for his campaign. She felt betrayed and she expressed this to me many times almost apologizing to me who needed no apology.
Marty and I were never going to see eye to eye politically, but that never stopped us from smiling when we saw each other or even giving each other a hug or in recent years a fist bump.Her opinion of a person didn't change if she found out they were a democrat, in fact many democrats I do know (yes there are more than one in Venango County) have great stories about Marty and tell them with laughs and affection.
I think this speaks a lot. She was a character, a sometimes eccentric but always nose to the grindstone republican leader. She led the leaders of this county and beyond.
Marty liked me and I liked her. I will miss her and I know the Venango County Republicans will miss her greatly. RIP friend and thank you for feeding this liberal.