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Shell shock dies hard as Giza era ends; Lancaster political icon reflects on service, loss

Robert H. Giza had never lost an election in his three-decade political career. Heck, he didn't even lose when he ran for the student council and class president in high school.

That may be why he is taking his defeat in the Lancaster town supervisor's race so hard.

How long did it take him to get over his Nov. 8 setback?

"I'm not over it," Giza responded. "I'll probably never get over it."

Saturday, Giza will end 30 years of service on the Lancaster Town Board, including the last 16 years as supervisor.

The last few weeks have been emotional for the 74-year-old Giza as he cleaned out his office and accepted accolades from members of the public and old colleagues for his years of service.

The Democrat lost a hotly contested race to Republican Dino J. Fudoli, with Giza blaming his defeat on the challenger's three ballot lines and, possibly, a sense among supporters that he didn't need their vote.

Giza's critics say he mishandled construction of a costly new police and courts complex and allowed spending and taxes to rise too much on his watch.

>Liked helping people

Supporters, however, say Giza did what he thought was best for the town, and they point to the successes of Westwood Park, construction of the Senior Citizens Center and Youth Bureau buildings and the merger of the town and village police departments.

"He put his heart and soul into this," said Donald E. Kwak, a fellow Democrat who served on the Town Board with Giza for 17 years before retiring in 1999.

Giza got into politics after years of service as a teacher and with the Boys Club, now the Depew-Lancaster Boys & Girls Club. The lifelong Depew and Lancaster resident, who married his Lancaster High School sweetheart, first ran for office in 1981.

He served on the Town Board until 1995, when Supervisor Lucian J. Greco gave up his post to run for Erie County executive. Giza ran to succeed him, won the job and held it for 16 years.

Giza reached across the aisle to work with then-County Legislator Ralph M. Mohr and then-State Sen. Dale M. Volker.

Mohr, now the GOP elections commissioner for Erie County, said he and Giza would support their respective party's candidates during election season. "As soon as it was over, it was over, and we'd get back to business," Mohr said.

Giza did endure a number of controversies as a Town Board member and as supervisor.

Vocal groups of neighbors tried to block the construction of a massive Tops Friendly Markets distribution center on Genesee Street and the Flix Stadium 10 movie theaters on Transit Road, packing meetings at Town Hall to raise their objections.

Giza ended up supporting both projects. He also pushed for the merger of Lancaster's town and village police departments with the help of friend William G. Cansdale Jr., the village mayor.

He clearly relished helping people who called to ask for assistance with a kink in a garden hose, for example, or flooding on their street.

Marsha Cox recalled when a fierce snowstorm hit Lancaster and Town Court was closed for the day, but only after most employees had made it to work.

Giza called and offered to come to the office and give a ride home to workers who didn't feel safe driving themselves.

"He'd give you the shirt off his back," said Cox, a court clerk-typist and president of the white-collar employees union.

>'Humbling experience'

On the Town Board, Giza enjoyed near-unanimous support from the other four Democrats, but he once engaged in legendary battles with then-GOP Councilman Richard D. Zarbo.

He briefly was the target of an unflattering website, "Gizawaga," and today is regularly criticized on another site, "Speak Up Western New York."

Now any dissent at board meetings comes from the audience.

This summer, Henry R. Gull, who started recording board meetings a decade ago with a camera dubbed his "truth machine," engaged in a stare-down with Giza from the podium in Council Chambers.

Giza said he won't miss sparring with Gull and other die-hard critics.

Contentions that the town wasted money on a long-delayed plan to build a new police and courts building dogged Giza in his last re-election bid.

The supervisor, however, blames his loss on newer town residents who voted for his opponent because they didn't know Giza well, possible complacency on the part of his supporters and Fudoli's three ballot lines to Giza's two.

Giza said the loss was "a humbling experience" that sent him into a deep funk; he had trouble sleeping and lost weight.

He gradually came around, calling Fudoli to congratulate him and getting back into the routine of town business.

Family, friends and colleagues packed the Dec. 19 meeting of the Town Board, with Giza joking that "it's a cross between a wake and a last meeting."

Giza said he researched the records of previous supervisors and learned that Stanley J. Keysa had the longest tenure at 23 years. "I didn't beat Stan Sr., but I tried," he said that night.

>A sentimental goodbye

For one night, even his sharpest critics were respectful.

"I know you're not going to miss me," resident Mike Fronczak began his remarks.

The mood was sentimental, with a small amount of teasing.

"When you first started with the town, I was in kindergarten," Councilman John M. Abraham Jr. told Giza.

Joseph L. Maciejewski, director of real property tax services for Erie County, was being raised by a single mother when he met Giza through the Boys Club. "You weren't like a father to me -- you are a father to me," Maciejewski told Giza.

When Giza wasn't with his family, he was on the job, and work took up many of his nights and part of his weekends, too.

He's proud of the fact that, by his own calculation, he attended 719 out of the 720 meetings held during his time on the Town Board. The one he missed came in 1994, when he was with his wife, Carol Anne, in Pittsburgh as she recovered from a liver transplant.

"The guy put in hours and hours and hours -- I've never seen anything like it," Kwak said.

After Saturday, Giza will have a lot of extra time on his hands. He doesn't play golf and doesn't have any other hobbies.

Giza said that he doesn't plan to run for office again and that he won't attend any Town Board meetings for a while because he wants to give Fudoli some breathing room.

"I'm not going to be a gadfly," Giza said.

But he clearly wants to stay involved, and he has told his successor and other board members -- more than once -- that he is available to answer any questions or give advice.

At the end of his final meeting, he told the audience, "I hope I left Lancaster and its residents better than I found them."