Mary Mazurek Heslin

Mary Mazurek Heslin is the “grande dame” of Polish American political and community activists in Connecticut.  Her long and distinguished career in public service began with a successful run for Hartford City Council in 1969, followed by election to the post of Deputy Mayor of the City of Hartford in 1971 and 1973. In 1975 Governor Ella Grasso appointed Mrs. Heslin Commissioner of Consumer Protection for the State of Connecticut, a post she held until 1990, making her by far the longest serving commissioner.  In this role she was active in supporting a variety of consumer protection bills passed by the Connecticut General Assembly, most prominently the 1982 Lemon Law protecting automobile buyers.   Her professional life includes several other public service posts for the City of Hartford, the State of Connecticut, and National Associations.

Mary Mazurek Heslin was born in Hartford to Polish immigrant parents.  It is to her parents, especially her mother, to whom she credits the values she was raised with and her commitment to public service.  Both of her parents Ms. Heslin describes as “honest, free and open thinkers” who raised their children without prejudice and were committed to education as the path of advancement for all of their children. Although the Mazureks were a poor family growing up in the Depression years, they never thought they were poor.[1]

Ms. Heslin recalls that her interest in politics and public service came when she was in the fifth grade at Kinsella Middle School when she was asked to speak in front of her classroom.  From that point on, she says she loved public speaking and being at the center of attention.  It gave her the confidence to speak with people from different backgrounds and present her positions eloquently supported by facts.  She developed a sense of inner strength and courage, and was willing to take risks being, “not afraid of anybody or anything.”[2]

Ms. Heslin attended the Hartford public schools and graduated from Buckley High School.  After attending Albertus Magnus College for one year, she graduated from the University of Connecticut with a BA degree in English.  While at UCONN, she met her future husband, Thomas P. Heslin.  After marriage in April 1952, the Heslins began their family and pursued their careers.  Thomas Heslin engaged in private practice as a lawyer.

Mary Heslin began a teaching career in the Hartford public schools eventually teaching at Weaver High School.  When starting her teaching career, she remarked that there were few women in secondary education at the time.  Many women went into teaching elementary grades.  But that didn’t seem to bother her nor did she fell alienated being one of the few women there.  Over time, the numbers of women increased.  This sensibility would also echo during her political and public service career.  During that time, she and her husband raised four children and Ms. Heslin earned an MA degree in History from Trinity College.   She credits her success in juggling the careers of teacher and mother to the close bonds of love and support from her husband Thomas. [3]

By 1969, with dramatic changes occurring in the U.S., Ms. Heslin entered public life and politics.  Having taught politics, economics and U.S. History at Weaver High, the time was right to test the lessons she had been teaching her students for many years.  She entered the Hartford City Council race and ran in the fall as a Democrat, but welcomed the competition of a third party in the race:  “I’d rather see the excitement of a third party, have the criticism and discussion that will make people get out and vote than an apathy as to what will happen to the City of Hartford.”[4]  Gaining the endorsements of fellow teachers and former students, Ms. Heslin won her seat.

Taking an active role in Hartford City politics earned the respect of her colleagues on the Council.  She ran again in 1971, was re-elected to the City Council, and then was elected Deputy Mayor by the Council with the support of Republican Councilwoman Margaret Tedone.[5]  As Deputy Mayor, Ms Heslin took a proactive, but practical approach to addressing the problems of Hartford in her time.  She earned the respect and support of the voters and her colleagues to be re-elected in 1973.

With the election of Ella Grasso, Connecticut’s first woman governor, in the fall of 1974, attention was brought to who would fill key administrative posts, and many pointed to the accomplishments and abilities of Mary Heslin. Considered for more than one post, Governor Grasso tapped Mary Heslin as Commissioner of Consumer Protection for the State of Connecticut.  Admitting to not knowing a great deal about the many agencies and bureaus under her aegis, Ms. Heslin was forced to learn quickly her responsibilities. She was lucky or blessed in that she worked with highly qualified professionals. [6]

As Commissioner of Consumer Protection, Ms. Heslin was responsible for insuring the health and safety of food, medicines, toys and other manufactured products to services that were sold in the State of Connecticut.  These ranged from everything from meat processing, to health and fitness clubs, to charities. As Commissioner, she was also responsible for insuring inspections of Weights & Measures on all commodities.

Ms. Heslin took on a proactive role taking on consumer fraud and deceptions in prosecuting a variety of cases.   Yet, she also became the public face of consumerism and consumer rights in Connecticut, speaking to any and every group that would host her.  Her energy and enthusiasm on consumer issues led her to publish articles in popular and professional journals throughout her career.  As a consumer rights educator, she presented Consumer Commentaries on the Hartford CBS affiliate Channel 3 between 1975 and 1977.

One of her more interesting duties was regulating the sport of boxing.  This she did with World Featherweight champ and Middletown native, Willie Pep who served as a state boxing inspector.  This responsibility took on significance following the death of Charles W. Newell in 1980.  Additional regulation of the sport to insure the health of boxers took place with the introduction of drug testing before and after bouts. [7]

Most significantly, she promoted legislation on a variety of issues protecting consumers.  Her point of pride is the “Lemon Law” passed by the Connecticut Legislature in 1982.  This provided protections for automobile consumers should there be any defects in their cars.  The “Lemon Law” was expanded in 1984 that created arbitration panels to settle disputes between consumers and manufacturers.[8]

During her tenure, Ms. Heslin also served at the Federal level at the National Consumer Products Safety Commission, the National Metric Coordinating Council, and was a delegate to the White House Conference on Drugs and Prescription Misuse in 1980.

Deciding to leave office in 1990, Ms. Heslin continued her professional pursuits in Consumer Rights and Protections.  She served as Executive Director for Public Policy at the Association of Food and Drug Officials (1991-1997) and attended numerous professional conferences and gatherings and continued publishing in her field.

Yet, Mary Heslin was always a Hartford girl.  Not only active in her profession, she was giving of her time to a host of civic and local organizations: the St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center; the Executive Board of Riverfront Recapture, Inc.; the Polish American Congress; the Pulaski-Kosciuszko Parade Committee; the Polish National Home in Hartford; the Polish Women’s Alliance; the Kosciuszko Foundation among other groups close to her heart.

An active member and past president of the Polish Cultural Club of Greater Hartford, she contributes generously of her time, seemingly boundless energy, and wisdom to numerous Polish American organizations and initiatives.  Currently a member of the Advisory Boards of CCSU’s Stanislaus A. Blejwas Endowed Chair in Polish and Polish American Studies, as well as the Polish American Foundation of Connecticut, Inc., she has also served on the Board of the national American Council for Polish Culture and was awarded the Founders Award for her service.  She chaired the Community Advisory Committee for the establishment of the Kosciuszko Squadron Exhibit at the New England Air Museum, and was instrumental in raising funds for this project.[9]  And most notably, she played a key role in the campaign on behalf of Poland’s accession into NATO.

She has received numerous awards for her service to the State of Connecticut and the Polish American Community.  But for all her high positions and honors, she remains grounded in her faith, her family, and an abiding humility which has her singling out her years of service as a teacher at Weaver High School as perhaps her most significant work.  Her values and personal warmth have also made her a most approachable and “no-nonsense” politician and government official.  “I’ve had a good time and I’m still having a good time.”[10]

[1] Phone conversation with Mary Heslin, 18 November 2013

[2] Ibid.

[3] Phone conversation with Mary Heslin, 18 November 2013

[4] The Hartford Courant, 2 November 1969.

[5] The Hartford Courant, 5 November 1971.

[6] Phone conversation with Mary Heslin, 18 November 2013

[7] The Hartford Courant, 24 January 1980, 23 September 1983, and 28 March 1986

[8] The Hartford Courant, 22 September 1984.

[9]       Pinkowski Files, Poles in America Foundation, Inc., Cooper City, Florida.

[10]  Phone conversation with Mary Heslin, 18 November 2013