It was Oct. 16, 1978, and the entire world was abuzz with the news that Cardinal Karol Josef Wojtyla had just become the Roman Catholic Church’s first-ever Polish pope.

“We need a local reaction piece,” barked my editor at the Morning Sentinel in Waterville. “Go find some Polish people.”

So I did what any enterprising young reporter would do. I grabbed the Waterville phone book and started circling any last name that ended in “ski” or “sky.”

As in Gwadosky.

“So … are you Polish?” I asked the soft-spoken young man on the other end of the line after explaining why I’d called.

“Yes, I am, but I’m afraid I can’t comment,” he replied. “I’m running for the Legislature and I wouldn’t want people to think I was using the pope to get votes.”

Smart move. Three weeks later, Dan Gwadosky, then just 23, won a three-way race for state representative from Fairfield with a 51-percent majority — and thus began a life of public service that ended far too soon this week with his death from pancreatic cancer.

We hear a lot these days about people who spend their entire careers in government — and much of it isn’t good.

All too often, they’re dismissed as the “good old boys” who “created this mess we’re in” and care only about “hanging onto their jobs” instead of “doing what’s best for the people.”

Dan Gwadosky was none of those things.

Throughout his 18 years in the House (including two as Speaker), his eight years as Maine’s secretary of state and, most recently, his six years as director of the Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations, Gwadosky was living proof that there is still honor in government service.

Make no mistake about it, he also was an astute politician.

In a 2002 interview for an oral history project at the Edmund S. Muskie Archives and Special Collections Library at Bates College, Gwadosky (whose uncle, Dick McMahon, was a close friend and adviser to Muskie) told the story of his fourth Election Day in 1986 — also, as fate would have it, the day his daughter, Jessica, was born.

Leaving his wife, Cheryl, and newborn baby girl at the hospital, Gwadosky made a beeline for the Fairfield polls to vote, press a little flesh and, of course, hand out cigars.

One cigar, of course, was reserved for his Republican opponent, Bill Hagerty, who had beaten Gwadosky to the polls by several hours.

“But I don’t smoke!” Hagerty said.

“Well, it’s a tradition,” Gwadosky said, inserting the cigar into the outside pocket of Hagerty’s jacket.

Upon Gwadosky’s return to the polls later that evening, his older sister, Bonnie Adams, told him, “The best thing you did was give Bill Hagerty that cigar.”

“Why?” asked Gwadosky.

“Because all day long people came by and saw that cigar in his pocket and they said, ‘Bill, I didn’t know you smoked,'” she explained. “And he said, ‘Well, I don’t, but Dan’s wife had a baby today and he gave it to me.”

Advantage, Gwadosky.

Many have spoken this week about Gwadosky’s razor-sharp wit, his focus on connecting Maine people with Augusta by leading state government (and its better-than-most website) into the digital age, and his low-key leadership style that contrasted sharply with that of Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, the longtime speaker Gwadosky replaced in 1994.

But two other things also stood out.

One was that in the 33 years since we first crossed paths, I never once saw Gwadosky behave as anything less than a gentleman.

Back in 2002, anti-tax crusader Carol Palesky of Topsham was deep into her third attempt to impose a cap on property taxes statewide. Secretary of State Gwadosky was, in Palesky’s view, the “evildoer” on whom she would heap revenge for past failures “even if I have to live to be 105 years old.”

I remember asking Gwadosky how it felt once again to be Palesky’s political punching bag.

“To be honest with you, I’m concerned about property taxes as well,” he replied.

That was it. Tempted as he might have been to return Palesky’s rhetorical fire, it simply wasn’t Gwadosky’s style.

“It didn’t matter how tough it was or who would go after him or the party, he would not react in kind,” said Martin, who greeted his protégé with “Hi, Fairfield” when they first met but would later go out of his way to assign Gwadosky the same seat in the House chamber once occupied by Muskie.

Gwadosky’s other hallmark was his uncompromising commitment to his family.

I’ll never forget walking into his Augusta office back in 2001, drawn by his blink-and-you’d-miss-it announcement that he was out of the race for Maine’s 2nd District congressional seat before he’d even gotten into it.

It was significant news at the time — many saw Gwadosky as a leading candidate, maybe the frontrunner, for the seat being vacated by soon-to-be Gov. John Baldacci.

“So why aren’t you going for it?” I asked him, settling into my chair.

Gwadosky got up and walked over to a table filled with family photographs, and extracted one.

“Look at this,” he said.

It showed Gwadosky, who was speaker of the House at the time, attending a campaign event for then-congressional candidate Pat McGowan. It also showed his little Jessica leaning hard toward her dad so she wouldn’t be obscured behind a “McGowan for Congress” sign.

Gwadosky stared at the photo for a few moments and smiled.

“An open congressional seat doesn’t come along very often in Maine,” he conceded, “but neither does my daughter’s high school career.”

Nearby was another photo of his son, Joshua, at Bill Clinton’s first inauguration in Washington, D.C. Sure, Gwadosky’s kids might be there for the big stuff, but he knew all too well that time spent in the nation’s capital would be time spent away from his family.

“I just don’t want to miss it,” he said.

And so he didn’t.

Nor did he stop serving the state that long will miss him.

“The guy never faltered. He kept going forward,” said Martin. “If you’re looking for a true servant of the people of Maine, there he is.”

Bill Nemitz — 791-6323

[email protected]

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