A life well lived — Remembering 'Doc' Gunther

I first met State Senator George “Doc” Gunther my freshman year of college when I was interning at Shelton City Hall. Picking up the phone one day, I heard a man say: “Who the hell is this? Where’s the mayor?” When I asked who he was, he laughed and said, “Why it’s the greatest State Senator in the world! At least I tell myself that every morning.” I knew right away (as did everyone who met Doc) that this was not your typical politician.

Doc passed away last weekend at the age of 92, leaving behind a tremendous legacy. He was the longest-serving legislator in the history of Connecticut, with 40 years in the State Senate representing (at various times) Stratford, Shelton, Monroe, Seymour and Milford. But Doc’s impact was not just in the longevity of his service — it was in how he spent those years. He had a huge impact on environmental and healthcare policy in Connecticut, achieving bipartisan support for many of his initiatives. He shaped many local events as well, influencing the fate of Sikorsky Airport, the Stratford Army Engine Plant and Shelton’s downtown revitalization. But most of all, Doc did all this with a down-to-earth, tell-it-like-it-is style that so few political leaders have.

Before Doc arrived in the state Senate in 1966, he already had a full life. He had moved to Stratford from Bridgeport, set up his naturopathy practice, and married the love of his live Pat (who he would be married to for close to 70 years). Doc had served on the Stratford Board of Education and town council, where he established the first municipal Conservation Commission in the nation.

In the Senate, Doc immediately introduced bills that would come to redefine environmental policy for our state. He wrote the first legislation to preserve tidal wetlands, which would evolve over 40 years to the concept of “smart planning” to balance development needs with environmental protection. He supported the concept of recycling way before either political party made it part of their platforms, and authored our first bottle recycling bill. All of this was first-in-the-nation legislation, making Doc one of the first “environmentalists” before the term even existed. Doc led on issues from the fate of lobsters in Long Island Sound to hunting rights and regulation. He also used his medical experience for forty years on the legislature’s public health committee to guide the ever-changing healthcare landscape. Most striking is how bipartisan Doc’s career was. While he was a Republican in his core beliefs (in the mold of Teddy Roosevelt), he always ensured he had bipartisan support for his ideas. He judged others’ ideas by how good they were for the people, not which party they came from.

Doc’s influence in the past 40 years of the greater Bridgeport region has also been immense. He saw major changes to our region over his career, from the decline of heavy manufacturing to the growth of corporate business in our region. He battled red tape to make progress on some of Stratford’s intractable issues like the Army Engine Plant and the Shakespeare Theater. He formed organizations to protect the Housatonic River, and fought against natural gas terminals being build in Long Island Sound. Doc was passionate about aviation, fought to preserve the legacy of Igor Sikorsky and founded the Connecticut Air and Space Center. It’s impossible to describe everything Doc touched in forty years in office, but his impact can be felt in almost every major issue of the day in our region.

Beyond all the policy and local impact, what most people remember about Doc is how he lived — with a sense of humor about himself and the world that permeated everything he did. Doc greeted every person he met with a different joke, and usually the type you could not reprint in the newspaper. For years, Doc would end each state Senate session with a “rubber chicken award” to the state legislator or lobbyist who was full of the most BS during the session — cutting through the tension that so often exists in politics to get folks to laugh at themselves. If you wanted a meeting with Doc, you would find him smoking a cigar and would almost definitely offer you some German beer.

Doc didn’t mince words, ever. “I’d be the worst diplomat in history,” he would say. “Being right is what’s important, no matter who you piss off.” Doc was that rare person (in life, nevermind in politics) who just told you what was on his mind in an unfiltered way. I think his enduring popularity was not due to his policies and achievements; rather, it was because of the strength of his character that people loved him. Because in addition to being blunt and straight-forward, Doc cared about people and wanted to help them however he could.

I was just one of thousands of people for whom Doc Gunther made a difference for over the years — whether his family, his constituents, his patients or all the citizens of Connecticut who benefited from his service. For nine decades, Doc brought wit, wisdom, and caring to everything he did and made us as individuals and as a community better off. That is a life well lived. We will miss you Doc.

Dan Debicella succeeded Doc Gunther in the State Senate, serving from 2006-2010 — a 10th of the time Doc served.