Sunday, May 24, 2015

A bittersweet exit for Lower Merion's beloved Brenda Viola

Public Information Office Brenda Viola's last day with Lower Merion Township is May 4. Viola has been on township staff for more than 10 years.

A bittersweet exit for Lower Merion's beloved Brenda Viola

Those who frequently attend the Lower Merion Board of Commissioners meetings are familiar with Public Information Officer Brenda Viola, who kick offs the televised meetings and manages broadcasting. Viola´s last day with the township is May 4.
Those who frequently attend the Lower Merion Board of Commissioners meetings are familiar with Public Information Officer Brenda Viola, who kick offs the televised meetings and manages broadcasting. Viola's last day with the township is May 4. (courtesy Brenda Viola)

Brenda Viola knew from the start that she wanted to pursue a career in communications.

“Since I was young, I would tape record interviews with my family and I always loved writing,” Viola, 48, said. “I envisioned I’d get discovered and become the next Diane Sawyer.”

She hasn’t become the next Sawyer, but the Aston resident is more than elated with her roller coaster ride through communications, working briefly in radio and as a QVC host before landing the position of public information officer for Lower Merion Township.

After working more than a decade with the township, Viola submitted her resignation April 13. Her last day, May 4, marks the end of a long and happy journey with Lower Merion, as well as the beginning of a similar job with a medical supply firm much closer to her home.

“I’m thrilled for Brenda, as this new opportunity represents a tremendous personal achievement and will be a wonderful opportunity,” Board of Commissioners President Liz Rogan wrote in an e-mail message.

Rogan added that it was a sad the township was losing a key player who did everything in her power to serve the residents, business and property owners of Lower Merion. The departure is just as bittersweet for Viola.

 “We had what will be my final staff meeting today, and I cried so much I was tearing make-up away,” Viola said in an interview on April 18.

Viola’s journey to get to Lower Merion was nearly as long as it was leaving it.

After graduating Glassboro State College (now Rowan University) in 1986, Viola was employed as a producer and host for Washington Township, New Jersey’s Channel 13, where she worked on a segment called “Talk of the Town,” for $75 a week. Viola eventually was promoted to an anchor spot, which got her pay raised to $300 per week.

Viola was grateful to have the experience as well as to be on-air, but at that point her broadcast dreams reduced to two options – go to a small media market in the mid-west or down south to work her way up, or abandon the dream for a local alternative.

“I dreamed of being on-air and still being in Philly,” Viola said. “I grew up in the Philadelphia market, I have family here. I didn’t want to leave.”

In 1988, as she was ready to completely toss broadcasting in the trash, QVC, which started production two years prior, was hiring and Viola’s mom begged her to audition.

For her first audition, Viola had to sell a No. 2 pencil for 10 minutes. For her second audition for the home shopping network, Viola had to sell a blank videotape for 10 minutes. The then-23-year-old Viola was called back yet again, and was eventually given a hiring offer for the network located in West Chester, Pa.

Viola said the salary was double what was currently making at the time, so she accepted the offer.

“All of the sudden, all my journalistic ambitions went out the window,” Viola said.

Viola’s altered on-air dreams involved hosting QVC from 2 a.m. to 5 a.m., selling Craftsman tools.

Three months in, Viola was part of QVC’s lay offs affecting almost 50 percent of the staff.

“Everyone has TV war stories, you’re in one day, then you’re out the next,” Viola said. “There I was, in my 20s stuck with a lease and too proud to go home.”

Viola waited and served coffee at a diner in West Chester to make ends meet, and was out of the industry for almost a year before she received a job offer to write, produce and manage the public access channel for the cable television company, Harran Cable.

In 2000, she was laid off from her job.

Not too long after, Viola stumbled upon the job description for Lower Merion’s public information officer. Everything in the description spoke to her – writing, broadcasting and public speaking – so Viola wasted no time in submitting her resume. 

After going through four sets of interviews, Viola was hired in July 2001.

For more than 10 years, the public information officer became a familiar and friendly face for residents who attend the meetings in the Lower Merion Township Building, as she oversees the broadcasts.

Viola also fielded questions from the press, composed and sent out newsletters and reports, hosted programs on LMTV and coordinated with Comcast and Verizon, Lower Merion’s two cable providers.

Two work accomplishments that stick out in her mind include the township’s emergency preparedness booklet she helped to develop after September 11 happened, and the tagline she came up with for Lower Merion – “A first-class township.”

The tagline can be seen on Lower Merion’s website, and is posted on signs throughout the township, as well as its display along with a mural on the second floor of the township building.

Without her job at Lower Merion, Viola wouldn’t have met her husband, Duane. In 2002, Viola handled a printing contract for which her husband was a successful bidder.

“One day, he walked into my office and introduced himself, and I remember thinking he was the most handsome man I had ever seen,” Viola reminisced. “Three months later, we were engaged.”

The week Viola leaves, she and Duane will celebrate their ninth wedding anniversary.

The communications position she’s filling at the medical supply firm was created specifically for her, and will allow her to create policy and procedures for aspects such as social media, getting press coverage, employee appreciation and making over the company’s website.

Viola said she will miss many aspects of her work with Lower Merion, especially working with Township Manager Doug Cleland.

“I learned so much from him about local government and critical thinking…he taught me how local government should be,” Viola said.

The feeling was mutual for Cleland.

“Brenda has been a fabulous public information officer for Lower Merion Township and she will be greatly missed,” Cleland said via e-mail to Neighbors. “She has made a big difference in the lives of the citizens we serve.”

One aspect of public information officer Viola won’t miss is the late night board and committee meetings. Regardless, frequenters of those meetings express they’re sadness to see her go, but wish her the best of luck.

“She was one of my ‘go to’ people and someone I always counted on,” Rogan said. “I’ll miss her beautiful smile and unfailing support, especially during some of our longer, more challenging public meetings.”

Commissioner Jenny Brown said she will also miss Viola.
“Brenda is someone who brightens every room she enters,” Brown wrote in an e-mail. “She did her job very well. I am sorry to see her go and wish her the very best in her new endeavor.”

Brown said the Board must now consider whether it will replace Viola at this time or split some of the public information officer functions among senior staff members if the economic conditions indicate otherwise. Brown added that staff will give a public presentation on the matter before discussion takes place on whether or how to fill the position.

In an interview with Main Line Times, Rogan said the board will look to Cleland’s recommendation. Cleland told Main Line Times that the recruitment process is underway.

If and when a replacement is found, Viola doesn’t want them to feel intense pressure.

“A new public information officer will embrace the job with fresh eyes and new vitality,” Viola said. “I’m rooting for this person to be a great success.”

“I hope they have great memories,” she added. “I’ve been fortunate to have so many wonderful memories…I know a part of me will always be here.”

About this blog
Josh Fernandez is a 2011 graduate of Temple University where he studied journalism and gender studies. He was a writer and editor for The Temple News, and has interned at Philadelphia City Paper and the Philadelphia Daily News. Josh lived in Aston, Pa. in Delaware County before moving to University City in Philadelphia.

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