Tamaqua residents are lamenting the loss of one of the town's most outspoken and colorful leaders.

Word reached the community Saturday afternoon that Councilman John "Sonny" Trudich Jr., 81, passed away in the morning after a lengthy, valiant battle against illness.

Trudich was a cancer patient, had undergone surgery, and was receiving care at Lehigh Valley Health Network, according to Sandy Moerder, Trudich's devoted companion for the past 22 years. Moerder and her family had been caring for Trudich since last November when his health began to turn.

The loss of the public servant will be felt widely, she acknowledged.

"He was a man for the people," Moerder said Sunday.

Trudich, former council president, was known for his involvement in large community projects, such as Tamaqua Bungalow Park and the South Ward Playground and Elm Street program. He devoted his life to public service, dating back to his days as supervisor for Rahn Township, a municipality annexed by Tamaqua Borough in 1971.

Trudich had a heart of gold, say those who knew him. Yet his stern, businesslike approach occasionally gave the wrong impression.

"On the outside, rough and gruff, but beneath that armadillo shell he was a big softy," said Mayor Chris Morrison. "John was that guy that would give you the shirt off his back."

Another spoke of Trudich's generous nature.

"John was a good man who would do anything to help someone who needed it," said Micah Gursky, council president.

"He worked so hard for the people of Tamaqua, often behind the scenes. He was strong minded, proud and feisty but his big heart was so full of love for people and especially his pets. Hearing him talk about his pets would just melt your heart," added Gursky

Many say Trudich will be remembered most for bringing the national spotlight to Tamaqua close to 20 years ago during the "Elsie the Cow" controversy.

Elsie was Trudich's highly visible Guernsey which he'd adopted when she was only six months old. The sweet, docile bovine grazed at Trudich's estate, a pastoral setting alongside the roadway in lush Owl Creek Valley. There, children stopped to feed and pet her.

But in the 1990s, a faction of Tamaqua Borough Council began to see peaceful Elsie as a code violation. They pushed for her removal on the basis that cows are livestock, not permitted within borough limits according to the letter of the law.

Trudich challenged the interpretation, pointing out that Elsie was a family pet and not used for farming purposes. Therefore, he claimed, Elsie should not be classified as livestock.

Battle lines were drawn. The community rallied behind Trudich and his unique pet. Neighbors and friends drew up petitions demanding that Elsie be allowed to remain in Owl Creek.

Cow mania

The hoopla spread like wildfire and Elsie became an overnight sensation.

In just days, the fascinating battle of Tamaqua's carefree cow hit the national media. Elsie became the poster child for animal rights activists who backed her plight in force.

The high profile controversy sent municipalities across the U.S. poring over their own ordinances as a preventive measure.

The widespread publicity made Elsie famous. She appeared in newspapers and on television. Everybody knew Tamaqua as home to Elsie, the lovable, cud-chomping cow that only wanted to stay put and not be bothered.

"I heard from media all across the country," Trudich told the TIMES NEWS in an interview.

The case eventually was settled when Trudich appeared before the zoning hearing board, paid $225 in costs, and won the right to keep Elsie on his property.

"I would've gone to court if I had to do it," he said.

Sadly, Elsie passed away on May 4, 2000, at age 9 1/2. Elsie had broken a hip in a fall and had to be euthanized.

A year later, Trudich decided to run for borough council. He felt it'd be his way of helping others with their own problems and concerns. Riding the momentum of his Elsie the Cow platform, Trudich rallied the public and they responded, electing him by the second highest number of votes.

Trudich served on council ever since, serving as president for several years.