George Gekas | Life After Congress

Posted May 6, 2013 at 2:24pm

The same men George Gekas knew in grade school are the ones who lobbied him when he was a public servant, first in the Pennsylvania General Assembly and then in the House of Representatives. Today, they all play golf now that he’s returned to the quiet life of an attorney handling cases in Harrisburg, Pa.

“It’s a wonderful gang of people with which I’m associated,” the Republican former congressman said. In a recent phone interview, he shared a story in which these friends welcomed him home on the Friday after the House banking scandal of 1992. He recalled with some pride that while hundreds of members of the House had overdrawn their accounts at the House bank, including Doug Walgren, a nearby Democratic home-state colleague, Gekas was among the few who had kept his books straight.

When he walked into the pool room that he and his Harrisburg compatriots frequented, they all patted him on the back and said, “We knew you wouldn’t be involved in all of that.”

Well, all of them except one: a jocular fellow with a knack for teasing. “‘Of course Gekas didn’t have any bad checks. He never paid anybody,’” Gekas quoted him as saying. “That was very derogatory, to be accused of that in a pool room.”

Gekas served in the House for 20 years, beginning in 1983 and ending with his upset in the 2002 election at the hands of Democrat Tim Holden, whom he faced in a redistricting-triggered, member-vs.-member matchup. Although Gekas didn’t discuss whether the defeat had been a disappointment, his language seemed to say it all.

“I’m a stick in the mud,” he said. “As soon as I came back home a free man, having been released from the shackles of Congress, I reestablished my law office.” Even when he was in Congress, he came home every weekend, and that’s right where he went after losing to Holden.

Gekas’ law practice takes him where he wants, from immigration to possible larceny from a church. He does torts, contracts and mixed cases — whatever comes to him where he thinks he can help, and especially anything that leads to a trial by jury. That’s his favorite. “I think I like to argue,” he said.

He described his law work as fulfilling, enough to keep him from taking a long-delayed trip to Greece, the birthplace of his parents. Although he meant to go several times while his father was living, “so that he and I could tramp the woods together over there,” he lives with what he called an everlasting regret for letting close that window of opportunity.

“I consider it,” he said. “I dream of all that, but at the same time, I seem to be glued to my desk.”

The 83-year-old measures his words as he says them through his thick baritone voice, one custom made for courtrooms. He’s still very old school. He doesn’t have an email address. Instead, he takes phone calls, speaking slowly and making use of turns of phrase well-rooted in the variances of his generation. Congress, for instance, was often “the” Congress, and his parents had made their living operating a cafe, emphasis on the second syllable.

That was the Locust Cafe, just one of many Harrisburg eateries owned and operated by Greek immigrants. His parents were immigrants who met each other within Harrisburg’s then-nascent Greek community. Gekas, who spoke only Greek before entering grade school, started out as a paperboy in 1936. He went door to door to all the Greek-owned restaurants downtown, from the New Yorker to the William Penn Hotel to the Coney Island Lunch (“a pure hotdog wonder house”) to the Rainbow Restaurant to the St. Moritz Cafe to Pomeroy’s Tearoom — “I can go on and on,” he said.

None of these restaurants showed its Greek heritage on the menus for a long time, Gekas said. Instead, they served the bill of fare that the streets and working eaters demanded: hot dogs, hamburgers, baked beans. After World War II, the number of restaurants multiplied and the options came to include Greek specialties. “I remember those days so well,” he said. The restaurants went from just bread and butter to bread and tzatziki.

Today, Harrisburg’s Greek population has become large enough that Gekas’ church has gained the status of a cathedral in the Orthodox hierarchy, he said. What’s more, the local Greek festival sponsored by the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral draws thousands of visitors every year, according to a release for this year’s festival, which is scheduled for May 19.

“I’d have to say that the Greek immigrants, among them of course my beloved parents, became assimilated 20 minutes after they started working in the towns,” Gekas said. “We have a nice history.”

CQ Roll Call’s Life After Congress is designed to answer the question “Where are they now?” If that’s something you’ve asked yourself about a former member or members, drop us a line. We’ll do our best to track them down.