MARION, Ohio (AP) — When Mary Ellen Withrow first ran for public office, she was not allowed to have a credit card in her name. In 1969, credit cards were for men only.
Today, the 92-year-old Democrat’s signature appears on more U.S. paper currency than that of any other person. Just check the Guinness Book of World Records.
The story of the journey that carried Withrow from her first school board seat in rural Ohio to county, state and then U.S. treasurer is told in a new collection on permanent display at the Marion County Historical Society. The Marion native is the only person to have been treasurer at all three levels of government.
The Mary Ellen Withrow Collection, which opened in June, celebrates not only one woman’s accomplishments, said Brandi Wilson, the museum’s executive director, but places Withrow within Ohio’s history of raising groundbreakers — from inventors and presidents to tycoons, astronauts and feminists.
“Ohio has just always been forward-thinking and progressive and inventive,” Wilson said. “So, I think that she’s part of that. She just shows that anyone is capable of doing anything they set their mind to.”
In an Associated Press interview, Withrow said she began exploring a permanent home for her memorabilia collection as she grew older, figuring “I’m not going to live forever.” She’s recovering now from a broken leg, but said she’s otherwise healthy and active. A slice of her collection had been on display at her retirement facility in Marion, but the sheer volume meant more room was needed. The history museum, which is open from spring to fall, seemed a perfect fit.
For the museum display, she’s chosen a representative cross-section from her political career. Her collection includes bumper stickers, T-shirts — even a nail file — from her campaigns throughout the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, awards and commemorations, photographs, newspaper clippings, office nameplates and a copy of the 1993 pop art poster of former President Bill Clinton by Peter Max. Also on display is the outfit Withrow wore to be sworn in as U.S. treasurer by Clinton in 1994. She served in the role until 2001.
And money. Signed money, shredded money, uncut money, and a $20 bill — bearing both Withrow’s signature and her autograph — that the late John Glenn, a friend and fellow Ohio Democrat, took with him when he returned to space in 1998. A necktie on display serves as a reminder of the innumerable money-themed gift items out there — children’s paper money, mugs, puzzles, beach towels — where Withrow’s name randomly shows up.
The certificate for her Guinness world record is also here, as is the pair of scissors with which she cut the ribbon when the Cleveland Federal Reserve released the redesigned $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100 bills that helped her achieve it.
She also included in the display the cardboard target at which she took aim during her federal law enforcement training. It proves Withrow an excellent shot. “Yeah, they said I didn’t need a security (sign), just put that on the porch,” she laughed.
For the younger Wilson, Withrow is impressive in other ways. She said putting together the exhibit has been eye-opening. Besides not being able to own a credit card in her name, Withrow was known only as “Mrs. Norman Withrow” in local press coverage of her first run for office.
That was not so long before Wilson grew up and was taught that girls “could do anything, it was limitless.”
“So she was a trailblazer that did things to make it easy for the next generations to kind of move along in their career,” Wilson said.
Withrow said inspiring younger people is part of the point of putting her history before the public. She remains active in politics — she backed Marion Mayor Scott Schertzer in his unsuccessful 2022 bid for state treasurer — and urges others to get involved.
“I hope if they are interested in running for something and they get excited about it and they want to do it, I think they should do it,” she said. “You shouldn’t be afraid, and you shouldn’t wait until everything’s perfect, because it’s never going to be perfect.”