When he saw the list of previous winners of the John F. Kennedy Medal, the highest honor conferred by the national Ancient Order of Hibernians, this year’s honoree Bob Gessler had what anyone who knows him would call a predictable response.
“I felt like one of those characters on Sesame Street—you know, ‘Which of these things is not like the other?’” confesses Gessler, the founder of the Hibernian Hunger Project, a charity that grew from a tiny project of AOH Division 87 in Port Richmond to a statewide and now a nationwide AOH program to provide food for the needy.
He was referring to some of the well known recipients of the JFK Medal: Gemini and Apollo astronaut James McDivitt; actor Pat O’Brien; Archbishop of New York John Cardinal O’Connor; Boston Mayor Raymond L. Flynn; Nobel Prize winner John Hume, member of the European Parliament and leader of Ireland’s Social Democratic and Labour Party; and Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein.
And this year, a guy who started a project in 1999 that has since fed hundreds of thousands of people across the country. Gessler, a Temple grad from Kensington who runs his own commercial real estate appraisal business, was president of AOH Div. 87 when the idea occurred to him. “I was in the middle of raising money for the Irish Memorial in Philadelphia, a $1.2 million project that became a $2 million project and I kept thinking, how can we as an organization justify spending all the money on a memorial about the famine and not do something for the people who are hungry today.”
He spoke to some of his AOH members. “I was blessed with a core of about 25 people who first said, ‘Are you out of your damned mind? What is wrong with you?’” Gessler laughs. “Then they said, ‘You’re serious,’ and they all sat down and said, ‘how can we get it all done?’”
If you know Bob Gessler at all (and in the interest of full disclosure, I serve on a board with him), you know that’s either his family motto or his mantra. Or maybe both. He’s the proverbial “irresistible force” you’ve always heard about, a guy who’s never met a worthwhile project he isn’t willing to push, pull, cajole, yank, or ram to fruition, with the occasional flash of Irish temper, but mainly with dogged persistence and a ready sense of humor that he’s always poised to turn on himself.
Ask how he gets so much done and he jokes that it’s his heritage. Not his County Mayo heritage (his mother was a Walsh), but his father’s side of the family. “We’re from County Munich,” he deadpans. “Do you know the story of William Tell? Gessler was the name of the evil burgermeister who forced William Tell’s father to shoot the apple off his head.”
But, when he’s not joking, he also believes it’s his heritage—and his upbringing. “I think the Irish people have a special affinity for people who are hungry. Our people lived through that,” he says. “I think it’s important to help others. My Dad was for the most part disabled when I was growing up in Kensington. We didn’t have a whole lot of money. Back then it was a rough neighborhood, rougher now. When I was growing up houses were nicer and the cars were worse; now cars are incredible but the houses are really bad.” He laughs. But he’s made his point. When you’ve been through adversity, you have two choices: Become angry and bitter, or develop some empathy for others. He’s chosen the latter. His experience in the Irish community has convinced him that the Irish have too.
Under his leadership of AOH Div. 87, founded in 1898, membership grew from 90 to 700, a junior division was launched at North Catholic, and the AOH became an even greater force for good in the community. “I really thought that community involvement was the way to go,” says Gessler. “At our meetings, we did things. It wasn’t just ‘come out on a Tuesday night for a meeting and then have a beer. ‘ We did a lot of that, but we really take pride in ourselves because of our service.”
The Hibernian Hunger Project gets its biggest fundraising push in March in part because Gessler wanted to shift the focus that month from “green beer, stupid hats, and getting plastered on St. Patrick’s Day” to something that didn’t feed the Irish stereotype he hates so much.
“There’s nothing wrong with having a good time,” he says. “But that can’t be the be-all and end-all of the Irish experience in March.”
The culmination of the fundraising is the Irish equivalent of an Amish barn-raising. Hundreds of people come out every year to help prepare meals for Aid For Friends—a charity that provides meals to the elderly and to shut-ins. The first year, it was 1,500 meals. This year, 160 people prepared, wrapped, and froze more than 6,000, all meals made from food the Hibernians collected over the year . Right beside the AOHers are the Ladies AOHers.
“When I picked up my award [in New Orleans on July 26] they told me I had three minutes to speak but I went over,” he says. “I decided I had to be true to myself and I told the national group that AOH and LAOH are equal partners. Nothing would get done if it were otherwise. Hibernians are bound by our motto, ‘Friendship, unity and Christian charity.’ My feeling is, if you follow those precepts, you’re a Hibernian.”
And right beside Bob Gessler is his wife, Kathy. When she was a student at Holy Family University, she volunteered for Aid For Friends and suggested the charity as the logical recipient for the AOH largesse. She was also by his side when, in the Hunger Project’s first year, he and a few other hardy souls braved the bitter cold to collect canned goods from bins scattered around the St. Patrick’s Day Parade route. ”We got a few canned goods and whole lot of half-eaten Whoppers,” laughs Gessler. “We never did that again.”
The two met when they were teenagers and have been married for more than 18 years. “It sounds cliché, but I am so lucky to have someone who supports me all along the way,” he says. “It’s not easy. Never once did I ever hear, ‘When are you going to stop?’ I do occasionally hear, ‘Can we go out with anybody but Irish people tonight please?’”
And when you hear what else Gessler does, you know it’s not easy to be Mrs. Gessler, which is why she’s often at his side at meetings. Though they work together, she might not see him much after hours. Gessler also founded and chaired the Hibernian Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit corporation which renovated homes for first time buyers and new families. He has also started scholarship funds for local high school students, hosted the 2004 AOH/LAOH National Convention in Philadelphia, is a former board member for the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians and served on the Quality of Life and Travel and Tourism subcommittees for Mayor John Street’s Transition Team.
He currently serves on the board of the St. Patrick’s Day Observance Association and is part of a committee developing plans for an Irish Film Festival in Philadelphia.
And what does Gessler do to relax? On any given weekend, he and Kathy might pack a bag, throw it in the car, and go wandering. “We like to wander,” he laughs. On their way to New Orleans to pick up his award, they decided to drive the long way, meandering along the Gulf Coast, which had been devastated by Hurricane Katrina. In one little town in the process of rebuilding, they came across a small Catholic school. . . .And yes, the Gesslers’ “do unto others” genes kicked in, even though they were on vacation. They’ve since been in touch with school officials to find out if there’s anything they could do.
“Hey,” he says, “one of the things I’ve learned is that it helps everybody if you help people. And the big surprise for most people is that it helps you too. No matter what happens, you can feel really good about yourself.”