Gary Graber seems like the kind of guy who’d fit in most anywhere.
The longtime Darien judge is also comfortable driving a commercial truck, teaching across the country, embracing the role of grandpa, serving on a variety of boards, charming honey bees, and mowing the enormous greens at Terry Hills.
Though he has already retired, his friends and colleagues want to wish him well with a retirement party next month.
He shared a piece of advice he received that seems to have worked well in his many endeavors.
“I had a fire chief one time, he told me when you're looking at that burning building, and you’ve got to figure out what kind of help you need as far as mutual aid, he always used to say, turn your back when you make the decision. Don't ever make the decision when you're looking at the fire,” Graber said during an interview with The Batavian. “I never forget that because, you know, it's just one of those things where it gives you a chance to take a breath and, you don't make that snap decision. So more than once during something, I just had to make sure that I did that.”
A Critical Move to Small and Rural
A native of Lancaster, Graber moved to Darien in 1970. He remembers watching the nearby missile sites and hearing hydraulics lifting missiles into an upright position. He was interested in the fire department and joined Darien Fire Company at 16, moving swiftly to assistant fire chief by the time he was 21. His mom moved him and five siblings to Darien after a divorce, shifting his school experience from being in a class of 365 kids to less than a quarter of that.
“For me, this town was something special, because I really question you know, when I lived in Lancaster, whether I would even make it through high school. When I came out here I went to a school that had 74 in our class, so it was really a big difference,” he said. “Folks took me under their wing, got me involved in the fire company. I did well with that.”
At the still-tender age of 24, he became a town justice when another justice also ran for town board, and that was a conflict of interest to hold both roles. So the other justice went on the board, Graber was asked to run for justice, and he jumped in with both feet, campaigned hard and won the justice seat by 150 votes. That job and the fire company position gave him valuable experience beyond his actual duties, he said.
“My heart is for this community; it gave me opportunities I don’t think I ever would’ve had,” he said. “People were good to me, they taught me things. I learned to be an early riser … how to just work hard.”
Training, and Adjustment
Hands-on training was a main factor in learning the ropes, he said, and there were yearly mandatory training courses to keep up-to-date on legal matters. Darien was more of a sleepy little town before Darien became a Six Flags theme park. The community really began to change then, he said.
“When the park exploded, I handled everything,” he said. “There were plenty of jury trials.”
He stepped back in time to when Pantera, a famous rock band led by Phil Anselmo, had a court case that stemmed from performing at the amphitheater. Every time there was a court hearing, “every kid in the world knew who he was, and they were looking through the windows,” he said. Anselmo came up from New Orleans and fully participated in the case, Graber said. Apparently, a guard had gotten hit by a microphone during a show.
How to prevail amidst the commotion of celebrity? As with any other case, “make sure you stay up on your education,” Graber said.
“Stop and look it up, review procedure,” he said. “As time went on, it changed. I just had an active interest in what we were doing. I just had a job you have to work at.”
Of all of the legal training he had taken, it was Leadership Genesee that possibly taught him the most. He never saw himself as a teacher, and the leadership class — he’s a 2005 graduate — brought out some hidden talents that had been under wraps, he said.
“It helped me to dig in there more to teach,” he said. “It was such a life-changer; it pulled out things I never thought I had in me.”
A year later he was nominated for Outstanding Alumnus, sort of “fell into being a commercial truck driver,” and become a truck terminal manager in 2008. That hands-on work certainly equipped him to teach about commercial truck driving law, ensuring that convictions were being properly recorded.
That all culminated in teaching for National Judicial College, which took Graber to 15 states. As time went on, he said that it became apparent that the Court Clerks Association could also benefit from his lessons. As a member of the state Magistrate’s Association since 2003, Graber was appointed as vice president, president and director during his four-plus decades with the group.
“We did a lot of legislative work for the benefit of our courts,” he said. For 11 years, he had an issue in particular — focusing on underage drinking — that was never successful in a legal sense.
“All we wanted to do was to get those involved to take alcohol awareness classes,” he said. “I learned a lot with that; we wanted to be more restorative than punitive.”
One year there were 800 people cited for underage drinking, he said. Restorative justice, through Genesee Justice, and Drug Court evolved out of those efforts. Those underage kids weren’t put in jail, but had to pay a $50 fine and take the class, he said. Most of the time, “their parents would make sure it got done,” he said.
In his 42-year career, Graber never lost an appeal, and his decisions were always upheld. That is something he is proud of, he said. His constant objectives were to be open-minded, remain current on the law and keep up with related education, especially regarding commercial truck licenses and accidents.
A Busy Retirement
“I’m proud to serve my community. And I’m going to do that as an ambassador of the University of Nebraska. I just enjoy it, to go out and talk to these judges and clerks, I just absolutely love it,” he said. “This is all about reducing crashes and saving lives. Last year crashes were up by 13 percent. It gives us a chance to look at things a little differently. We want the public’s trust and confidence.”
"Education, education, education" is the most important thing to keep in mind, he said. Don’t try to take shortcuts.
“We’re the folks that people see more than anyone else; they’re going to remember that,” he said of town justices. “Just handle each case individually. Look at each defendant and decide their case individually, and not to be appealed in criminal cases.”
Graber, who has a partner, Kathy, lives on seven acres of property that blooms “lots of sunflowers,” zinnias and the like — anything that might keep his honey bees and butterflies happy. He has two sons, Matthew, a retired sergeant of the U.S. Army, and Jason, a battalion fire chief. There’s likely to be travel in the future, to visit Graber’s two grandchildren in Tennessee.
His hobby of mowing at Terry Hills golf course puts that early riser in him to good use: from 3 to 7 a.m. three days a week, and periodically with a couple of baby foxes keeping him company; a new role as a board member of GCASA, plus remaining on the County Parks Advisory and Tonawanda Valley Federal Credit Union boards ought to occupy some of his remaining free time.
He doesn’t consider any of it work: it’s just “giving back.” Graber’s philosophy, as an elected official, has been to remember “who we’re doing these jobs for.” “We’re public servants,” he said.
He enjoys his community and has appreciated working in Genesee County with “a good group of criminal justice agencies like Genesee Justice,” he said.
“Because of the options, maybe someone could take a plea when otherwise they would have gone to court. I was just happy to be in this county,” he said. “Tomorrow, I’m going fishing for the first time since I was a kid.”
File photos of Gary Graber in his Darien Town Justice role being sworn in with the state Magistrates Association and laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Snippets from Gary Graber's Bio ...
Justice Gary Graber has served as the town justice for the Town of Darien, New York, since January 1980. He is a past member of the Town and Village Court Education Curriculum Committee and has taught criminal and administrative courses for the New York State Judicial Institute and the New York State Office of Court Administration.
Justice Graber continues to be very active in the development and training of topics relating to commercial driver’s licenses and commercial motor vehicles, including the development of sentencing charts that assist the New York courts in properly disposing of cases that involve commercial motor vehicles equipment violations. As an alumnus and faculty member of the National Judicial College since 2008, he continually instructs judicial personnel both in their home states and virtually on all matters related to the commercial driver’s license.
He is an honorary member of the New York State Magistrates Court Clerks Association. He has received many awards, including the Leadership Award from the Genesee County Magistrates, the 2005 Magistrate of the Year Award, the 2006 Criminal Justice Award from Genesee County Alcohol and Substance Abuse, the 2006 Leadership Genesee Outstanding Alumnus Award, and the 2013 Kevin E. Quinlan Award for Excellence in Traffic Safety.