BERLIN – Good people in general, and good politicians specifically, are often required to give of themselves until it hurts, and in the case of the late Berlin Mayor Tom Cardinale, who died last Saturday afternoon of a cardiac arrest at the age of 69, the affable leader might have paid the ultimate price for his tireless love of the town and its people.
Cardinale reportedly went into cardiac arrest around 1 p.m. last Saturday at his home in the Henry’s Green community. EMS crews responded but could not revive him and he passed away a short time later just one week away from his 70th birthday.
Berlin Council Vice President and interim Mayor Gee Williams helped organize Cardinale’s first campaign for mayor in 2004 and worked closely with him during his nearly four-year term as Berlin struggled with complex issues.
“He was very passionate about the town,” he said. “Not being in public life before, he wore his heart on his sleeve.”
In the end, it was that same heart that failed him as he geared up for a run at a second term.
“He had a very big heart, but, unfortunately not a strong one,” said Williams. “It truly bothered him when he couldn’t make somebody happy. Sometimes, it was a very heavy burden. The fact he was so outgoing masked the fragile health issues he was dealing with.”
Local attorney and Berlin native Joe Moore often came before the Mayor and Council on official business and developed an unofficial relationship with Cardinale over the years. Moore this week agreed the late mayor’s relentless dedication to the town often came at the expense of his own health.
To illustrate his point, Moore recalled a recent conversation with Cardinale about an issue he had brought before the council during which Cardinale told him he could not sleep at night because he was so concerned about it.
“The idea that he would be so affected that he would lie awake at night worrying about it says all there needs to be said about Tom Cardinale,” he said.
Long-time friend and County Commissioner Bud Church agreed Cardinale had a difficult time separating his job as mayor from his personal life and often took the baggage of official town business home with him.
“He worried too much,” he said. “He really worried about the people of Berlin and I’m not sure that it didn’t hasten his demise by worrying so much about the town.”
Like most transplants to the area, Cardinale often came to Ocean City with his family over the years and decided to relocate to the area later in life. He and his wife, Kay, discovered Berlin several years ago and settled in to the Henry’s Green community. He quickly became a fixture at council meetings, taking the elected figures to task over a chronic flooding problem that plagues his neighborhood and the entire town.
“Tom came to town and got involved because of a single issue,” said Williams. “When he became mayor, he had an absolute dedication to the welfare of the town.”
It was the flooding issue that got Cardinale involved in the town’s politics at the start, but he soon started questioning other issues. In 2004, Cardinale ran on a platform for change and won in a landslide.
His victory as a “come here” signaled a remarkable change for a town with a long history of mayors born and raised in Berlin.
“I don’t recall a person who put more effort into the town’s welfare than Tom Cardinale,” said Moore. “John Howard Burbage had a feel for the town, as did Ron Bireley and Rex Hailey, but they were all long-time residents of Berlin.”
Berlin resident and local developer Troy Purnell spent countless hours in front of Cardinale and the council plodding through complex water, sewer and other issues related to his various projects. While Purnell didn’t always see eye to eye with the mayor, he did develop a tacit respect for him and his dedication to the town.
“He cared more about the town of Berlin than anybody,” he said. “He put more time and effort into the job than anybody before him in my memory.”
Amid some grumblings of too much, too soon, Cardinale, with the support of the council, began tackling the serious issues facing the town as it transitioned to the 21st century. Perhaps the most symbolic battle was the effort to disband and sell off the town’s municipal electric company. Now Cardinale is gone and the ancient plant still chugs away, but his willingness to at least challenge it is symbolic of the spirit of change under his administration.
Williams said the fact Cardinale was somewhat of an “outsider” often worked in his favor.
“There were obvious advantages of having someone see things from an outside perspective,” he said. “He was always saying ‘let’s look at things in new ways.’ He was brave enough to poke the sacred cow, which has always been the electric company.”
While Cardinale may have started as an outsider, he understood successful politics were forged in relationships and his ability to reach out to people, listen to their concerns and take their concerns to heart quickly changed the public’s perception of him, according to long-time Councilwoman Paula Lynch.
“He was interested in people. He had time to listen to them. He was on the street. He was visible,” said Lynch. “Clearly, he was an outsider, and he became an insider very well.”
While not always at ease behind the dais in town hall, at least in the beginning, Cardinale’s strength as mayor was clearly his ability to relate to the people he served and to those who served under him.
“He definitely fell in love with Berlin and genuinely cared about the people in the community,” said Williams. “He genuinely enjoyed interacting with people and was at his best when he was talking to people one on one.”
One of his strengths was his ability to reach out to the minority segments of the town and welcome them along the road to progress, according to life-long resident and Berlin Planning Commissioner member Phyllis Purnell.
“He was very instrumental in getting us involved in the government process,” she said. “He made sure everybody had a voice and made sure everybody in town was involved. … Over these last four years, he was able to get more done than I’ve seen in my lifetime.”
Inclusion was a catch-word under Cardinale’s watch. He often hosted periodic informal town meetings and strived to bring the town’s business into the sunshine.
“Things changed much for the better around town hall,” said Troy Purnell. “He included everybody. He was a positive asset for the town of Berlin.”
Beyond the many weighty issues, Cardinale clearly enjoyed being mayor of Berlin.
“I never saw anybody who took more joy and pride out of being the mayor as Tom Cardinale,” said Williams. “He really enjoyed being the mayor of Berlin, particularly many of the ceremonial duties. I’ve never seen anybody so happy to cut ribbons and hand out coins and preside over special events.”
One of his early projects was ordering the special Berlin pins that he always wore on his lapel and encouraged his colleagues to do the same. He was also instrumental in engineering a bit of a face-lift for the façade of Town Hall.
“The things that will always make me remember Mayor Tom are the flag poles and lights on town hall,” said Council member Ellen Lang. “You used to have to hang out the window to put the flags. It was terrible.”
Another pet project was distributing bicycles to the town’s needy children at Christmas. What began three years ago with the help of a private donor has become an annual holiday tradition and will likely continue. Donations in his memory are being directed to the Mayor’s Bike Program.”
Despite some of his self-admitted shortcomings, Cardinale will likely be remembered for his relentless devotion to the town and its residents, according to Church.
“He truly, truly, truly loved Berlin,” Church said. “Berlin lost a hero.”