Marine Corps platoon commander Dennis T. Gorski directed convoys during the Vietnam War.
County Legislator Gorski campaigned door-to-door in 1974, visiting 15,000 homes to win a seat in the State Assembly.
Town Justice Gorski today takes each case to heart as he sits on the bench in Cheektowaga Town Court.
At age 73, the former three-term county executive, county legislator and state assemblyman enjoys a reputation built on hard work and disciplined administration. But on this late afternoon, as he prepares to take the bench for a night of non-stop traffic court, retirement plans are on his mind.
"My wife and I were talking about my 32 years of public service," Gorski said. "Public service strikes me as an obligation, but I have an obligation to my family, too."
Gorski, who decided not to seek re-election as town justice, will step down on Dec. 31, the final day of his four-year term. In doing so, he closes the book on a political career that began in 1971 when he was elected to the Erie County Legislature.
"I genuinely enjoy court," said Gorski. "You see the human travail. It's very eerie when you know you have the capacity to put people in jail, to fine them, to have them do things they don't want to do. You wonder many times if you did the right thing. You think about things like that."
Court is a challenge, Gorski admitted, especially in a busy town like Cheektowaga, where two justices – Gorski and Paul S. Piotrowski – disposed 23,485 criminal, traffic, civil and housing court cases in 2017, according to court records. Cheektowaga court adjudicates misdemeanors and has preliminary jurisdiction over felonies.
On one night of Vehicle and Traffic Court, Gorski had 140 cases on his docket. As he prepared for the short walk to his courtroom, he reached for his judicial robe, one of three hanging in the closet of his chambers.
"It's an awesome responsibility," Gorski said. "And you have to be very committed to doing the right thing."
From Kaisertown to Vietnam
Gorski grew up on Pierce Street in Kaisertown. He attended Our Lady of Czestochowa School, where as a seventh grader he played on the school baseball team.
"He was a catcher and I played third base," said Paul Tokasz, 71, a former assemblyman who managed two of Gorski's campaigns for county executive and succeeded Gorski in the State Assembly. "Dennis was a very good defensive player, but he wasn't that good of a hitter."
The two friends also played on a Little League team with William M. Skretny, who is now a senior U.S. District Court judge.
After Gorski graduated from Bishop Timon High School, he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. His first duty station was in Quang Tri Province, where he commanded the truck platoon.
"I was no hero in any way; I did my duty," said Gorski, who served as 2nd lieutenant. "I drove convoys along the South China Sea. We got ambushed a couple of times, but I made it through unscathed."
Gorski came from a political family led by his father Chester Gorski. During a 40-year political career, the senior Gorski served one term – from 1949 to 1951 – in the U.S. House of Representatives. He also served on the Buffalo Common Council as councilman and president during intermittent periods from 1946 to 1974. In 1960, he lost the first-ever county executive election.
Jerome Gorski, Dennis' older brother, worked as an attorney in private practice. He was elected Supreme Court justice in 1989, re-elected in 2002, and he served in the Appellate Division until his retirement in 2012.
Dennis Gorski studied law briefly in Chicago at John Marshall Law School, but it was only a matter of time before the young man who was called "Tiger" by his father would enter politics.
Rath Building and beyond
In 1971 Gorski filled a seat in the County Legislature vacated by Frank C. Ludera, who had been convicted on bribery charges.
One year later, he met his future wife in Old County Hall, where she worked as a secretary in the county attorney's office. They married in 1974, and Mary Jo Gorski received a crash course in campaigning.
"We started campaigning right after we were married and it went through November," Mary Jo Gorski said. "Running for State Assembly was a pretty big thing. Nobody gave him a chance, but when Dennis makes his mind up, he is very committed. I think that's from being a Marine.
"He went to 15,000 homes in Cheektowaga and Lancaster," she continued. "I'd drop him off in a neighborhood, and after six to eight hours I picked him up. He didn't want to take his car because that would tempt him to leave early. I also hand-wrote thank-you notes for the people who opened their doors. That was my job."
Gorski ended up defeating a one-term political incumbent and served 13 years in the State Assembly 143rd District.
By the time he started his first term as county executive in 1988, Gorski and his wife had three children under age 5. In winning the county's top job, Gorski became the first Democrat elected to the seat, something his father was unable to do.
During 12 years in the Rath Building, Gorski became a Democratic power who trimmed a $75 million budget deficit and was a key proponent in bringing the World University Games here in 1993. In 1991, Gorski had a hand in creating the now defunct Horizons Waterfront Commission. The construction of the $26 million Family Court Building began during his third term.
After leaving office, Gorski worked nine years as a senior vice president for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Western New York. During a three-year stint with McCullagh Coffee Co., Gorski traveled to Laos, where he advanced sustainable coffee brands.
When Gorski declared his candidacy for Cheektowaga Town Court in March 2014, it was not an easy decision.
Piotrowski served as a mentor for Gorski, who is not an attorney. Piotrowski and Gorski share judicial duties, alternating workweeks throughout the year.
"You don't have to be a legal scholar to be a judge," said Piotrowski. "You need a panoramic vision. You have to see the world with big lenses and give a great deal of thought about how to administer justice.
"People would be surprised to know how much thought goes into the imposition of a sentence," said Piotrowski. "Judges who care lie in bed at night twisting and turning at times thinking about what they will do in the morning."
Next year, Gorski will no longer labor over decisions as town justice. He said he's looking forward to a spring vacation in Cuba with his wife, his brother and sister-in-law.
"The last time I was out of work, I was a volunteer for Hospice," said Gorski. "Now I want to see Cuba before the Coca-Cola signs go up, before the hotels are built. I want to see Cuba like it's 1959."