Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Thousands of Slavic refugees and their descendants who have carved out a better life in the United States may owe their lives to western Pennsylvania’s Judge Blair F. Gunther (1903-1966). After Poland faced horrific Nazi brutality during World War II and the murder of thousands of the country’s army officers by the Soviet secret police, Gunther fought to expose the atrocities and worked tirelessly to help Slavic immigrants find freedom in America. He was also unapologetic in fanning anti-Communist paranoia, particularly in the Keystone State’s western region.

The Commonwealth’s judges are affiliated with partisan politics while campaigning for election, but upon being sworn in, most exercise bi-partisan judicial discretion and attempt to keep their personal lives out of the news. Two maverick state appellate court judges, however, garnered more than their share of state and national headlines.

Perhaps best known was Italian ­American Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice and Democrat Michael Angelo Musmanno (1897-1968). A native of Pittsburgh, he served as an infantryman during World War I, as a high ranking officer during World War II, and as the military governor of Southern Italy after the Second World War. Voters elected him to the General Assembly of Pennsylvania. He served as a member of the defense team for Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti during their controversial murder trial in 1921. He was one of the judges for the International War Crimes Tribunal at Nuremberg, Germany. A fiery orator who wrote twelve books, he was also a fanatical Communist hunter.

Blair Frederick Gunther was the other newsmaker. He was part-German and part-Polish, but claimed his primary ancestry as Polish. Like Musmanno, he was the son of a western Pennsylvania coal miner and characterized as fanatically anti-Communist. Unlike Musmanno, Gunther was an ethnic Republican with a non-Polish surname in a state where the majority of Slavic voters were registered Democrats.

Gunther was born in Hastings, Cambria County, Pennsylvania, on June 20, 1903. Named Boleslaus at birth, his early exposure to several Slavic lan­guages was an advantage to become a multilingual campaigner. He attended public school in Hastings until age nine and parochial school in nearby Barnes­boro until age fourteen. He graduated from St. John Kanty Prep in Erie in 1922 and received a bachelor of laws degree from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh in 1927.

Admitted to the Allegheny County Bar in 1928, he became a law clerk for Allegheny County Court Judge Frank A. Piekarski (1879-1951). Appointed by Governor Gifford Pinchot in 1933, Piekarski helped shape Gunther’s career. Active in Polish American affairs during World War I, Piekarski helped famed Polish pianist and statesman Ignacy Jan Paderewski (1860-1941) recruit volun­teers in the United States for the Polish Army. Piekarski also organized the sale of Liberty Bonds and, in 1929, served on the Pennsylvania Pulaski Sesquicentennial Committee honoring Kazimierz Pulaski (1745-1779), a Polish military hero in Europe, who was mortally wounded while fighting for the Ameri­can side during the Revolutionary War.

Piekarski had great confidence in his novice attorney and introduced Gunther to political and ethnic leaders. In 1932, Gunther married the judge’s daughter, Mary Piekarski. Gunther’s father-in-law eventually persuaded him to change his registration to Republican, but not before his first election defeat.

Gunther was deputy state attorney general from 1935 to 1939 during the administration of Governor George H. Earle, a Democrat from eastern Pennsylva­nia. Charges of graft and macing against members of his administration and the high unemployment rate during his term enabled the Republicans to take back the governor’s office with Arthur H. James, of Luzerne County, in the election of 1938. Republican John McDowell defeated Gunther in the race for Pittsburgh’s 31st Congressional District.

When Judge Piekarski resigned for health reasons, Gunther, appointed to succeed his mentor and father-in-law, was sworn in on December 18, 1942. Endorsed by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Judge Gunther, by then a Republican, was elected to a full term on the county bench in 1943 by defeating the Democratic candidate, Premo Columbus, a federal assistant prosecutor. Gunther, active in the New American division of the Pennsylvania Grand Old Party, was one of the few Republicans to win in the Democratic landslide in Allegheny County.

With his demanding schedule, Gunther was rarely home for dinner with his three sons. Mary Gwither was understanding and supportive in her role a a mother and wife, but she was also an activist. Her student days at the University of Lwow, Poland, located today in the Ukraine as the city of Lviv, left an indelible mark. In Pittsburgh, during World War II, she worked to promote the sale of war bonds and helped acquire a trolley (painted red, white, and blue) from the Pennsylvania Railroad Company in 1944 on behalf of Mr . Francis P. Tamopowicz’s Nationality Group for the War Finance Committee.

The mobilization of twelve Slavic nationality groups in the United States brought historic unity among Slavic Americans who agreed on a common cause. Although they fought one another in Europe, they were united against Adolph Hitler’s Nazi war machine and the communist Soviet Union. Gunther became embroiled in the Red Scare in western Pennsylvania where the Communist Party claimed six thousand members in the 1940s.

Population experts believe that in 1940, about one-third of the population of Pennsylvania was of Slavic origin and about 51 percent of Pennsylvania worker during World War II were of Slav heritage. Gunther understood the credo that there is strength in numbers, especially among registered voters, and this group became his targeted audience for issues concerning the homeland. Speaking in their native tongues, he inspired immigrant and ethnic workers. His son, Frank Gunther, recalled that as a high school student, he drove his father to political rallies in Munhall and Homestead where the senior Gunther addressed the crowds in Polish, Czech, and Slovak.

When the American Slav Congress (ASC) was organized in 1942, Gunther gladly agreed to become chairman of its board of trustees. Originally called the All-Slav Congress when it first met in Pittsburgh in December 1938, its aim was to galvanize Americans of Slavic descent against Hitler. In 1942, the ASC claimed its greatest membership in the metropolitan areas of Pittsburgh and Detroit. The New York Times reported that twenty thousand people attended an ASC rally in Kennywood Park, just southeast of Pittsburgh, on June 20, 1943. Gunther presented a resolution condemning a proposed work stoppage by the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). The resolution expressed sympathy with the miners’ efforts to obtain wage increases, but Gunther believed that a work stoppage would have worked to the advantage of the Axis powers. The ASC unanimously approved Gunther’s resolution. The miners defied the wartime no-strike ban anyway, resulting in President Franklin Delano Roosevelt ordering a mine takeover until the UMWA agreed on a contract.

Gunther dramatically reversed his support of the ASC and quit when he believed it had been infiltrated by the Communist Party. He testified before the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) on April 25, 1949, that the ASC was the most dangerous fifth-column operating among the Slavic population. Although strongly denying these accusations, the ASC was included on U.S. Attorney General Tom C. Clark’s list of subversive organizations. Gunther testified: “Its chief aim is to subvert millions of Slavic Americans working in our basic industries in order to cripple our national defense apparatus. It gives every evidence of Moscow direction and control.”

Gunther became involved with Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) informant Matt Cvetic (1909-1962). Between 1941 and 1950, Cvetic infiltrated the Communist Party and confided in Gunther about his knowledge of the organization in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia. Cvetic’s secret activities ultimately cost him his marriage and alienated his father and son.

Cofounder of Americans Battling Communism, with Harry Sherman in 1947, Gunther helped arrange for Cvetic to break cover before the HUAC where his dramatic testimony broke the back of the communist organization in the tri­state region. His experiences were the basis of the motion picture I Was a Communist for the F.B.I. which premiered in Pittsburgh on April 19, 1951, and Cvetic’s own autobiographical account, The Big Decision, published in 1959.

Cvetic alleged George Dietze, a jewelry engraver in downtown Pittsburgh, was a communist. Dietze’s building was used for communist meetings, but he also was an FBI undercover agent. When Dietze revealed his true identity, he, too, went to Gunther to arrange an appearance before the HUAC. Gunther’s support and encouragement of Cvetic and Dietze highlights a period of fervent anti-Communist sentiment, especially in western Pennsylvania.

In 1950, Governor James H. Duff appointed Gunther to the Pennsylvania Superior Court after the resignation of John S. Fine, who had successfully run for governor. Gunther later won election to a ten-year term. For Republicans this was a tactical victory because Gunther’s elevation from county court to the Superior Court provided a broader constituency of Slavic voters across the Commonwealth that the state committee could influence.

On the Superior Court, Judge Gunther wrote 425 opinions and eighteen dissent­ing opinions. His fellow jurist, Judge Robert E. Woodside (1904-1998), observed that Gw1ther was known primarily for his political strength rather than for his legal knowledge. Woodside recalled an occasion when Governor David L. Lawrence, during his tenure as leader of the state Democratic Party, told him he regretted that he could not keep Gunther in the Democ­ratic Party. Woodside remembered Gunther “as a personable associate who generally went along with the majority and seldom took any personal any legal position. Woodside recalled that not only once Gunther asked him to ghostwrite which her later filed as his own.

Judge Gunther argued against the Commonwealth’s blue laws­ – extremely rigorous laws to restrict certain activities, services, and sales on a Sunday -in his dissenting opinion in Commonwealth v. Earl Taber in 1958. Gunther wrote that Taber, while engaged in a turkey shoot in Susquehanna County, was wrongly convicted of violating the penal provisions of the blue laws that prohibited hunting and shoot­ing, among other Sunday recreations. “The concepts of the life under the atomic power age should not be confused with the concepts of the horse drawn carriage age,” he wrote.

In the election of November 1950, the Polish Business and Professional Men’s Association (PBPMA) of Erie went against the political grain and endorsed the Republican slate for state offices. Erie’s Poles supported Fine for governor, Duff for U.S. senator, and Gunther for Superior Court judge. Gunther held a special fascination for the PBPMA which sent him a congratulatory note after his victory.

The experience with the ASC and Cvetic strengthened the fervor of Gunther’s conservative politics. In radio broadcasts heard in Braddock, Washington C01mty1 he urged his listeners to be vigilant against communist organizers in labor unions. He joined forces in. 1947 with Justice Musmanno and Victor Alski, editor of the Pittsburgh Polish weekly newspaper Pittsburczanin, to form the core of the Committee to Stop World Communism. This political action committee, sponsored by the Polish American Congress (PAC), operated on the principle that the Cold War justified the eradication of communism. Further, the federal Smith Act of 1940, upheld by the Supreme Court in 1951 (Dennis v.United States), removed the necessity for the government to show a “clear and present danger” to convict Communist leaders in highly publicized trials.Communists could be tried for simply “conspiring to teach to advocate.”

Walter A. Baran, Governor Dick Thornburgh’s Polish American secretary of the Department of General Services from 1979 to 1987, noted in his memoir, Feet First, that his mother was a Democ­rat in early twentieth-century Schuylkill County as was just about everyone in Frackville. The Schuylkill County of Saran’s youth repre­sented a microcosm of the statewide Slavic community. Gunther became infused with the goal to break the prevailing mindset that “Slavic Pennsylvanians are Democrats.” But he only partly suc­ceeded.

Even though this group had overwhelmingly voted Democratic in the presidential elections between 1932 and 1948, dissatisfaction was widespread; many of these voters believed that they were betrayed at the postwar Yalta conference and that the Democrats failed to repudiate the Sovietization of Eastern Europe. In February 1945, at the Crimean resort of Yalta, on the Black Sea, Presi­dent Roosevelt, England’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and the Soviet Union’s Josef Stalin consigned Poland, already under the control of the Red Army, to forty-five years of Soviet
subjugation.

Like his father-in-law, Gunther became a leader in the Polish National Alliance (PNA), one of the most influential national organizations in the Polish community following World War II. He used the platforms of the PNA and the PAC to harshly criticize President Roosevelt’s concession of Poland. His influence among Poles expanded when he was elected as censor of the PNA in 1947, 1951, and 1955, with oversight of publications and various activities to insure the PNA remained consistent and true to their public goals and objectives. In 1955, he was elected president of the National Republican Committee of Americans of Polish Descent. But Judge Gunther did not escape criticism and detractors.

Henry Dende (1918-2001), editor of Scranton’s Polish American Journal, criticized the Republican committee as an exercise in self-aggrandizement and power-mongering among a self­ appointed group of twenty-one Polish Americans who had gathered in Wash­ington, D.C., at the urging of a Detroit Polish newspaper editor. Dende argued that the Republican congressmen of Polish descent, among them Republicans

Alvin O’Konski of Wisconsin and Edward J. Bonin of Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, should be the leaders of Polish American Republicans, similar to congressional Democratic leadership of Clement Zablocki of Wisconsin and John Dingell of Michigan.

Gunther’s battle cry was to rally Slavic Pennsylvanians against communist “enslavement.” He was convinced that a vote for the Republican candidate in 1952 was a vote for the promise to liberate Eastern Europe. Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower was nominated to challenge Adlai Stevenson in the presidential election. From the beginning, Gunther refused to endorse Eisenhower. Together with Wilkes-Barre native Charles Roz­marek {1897-1973), founding president of the PAC, president of the PNA, and a staunch anti-communist Chicago lawyer, Gunther supported Robert Alphonso Taft (1889-1953), son of President William Howard Taft.

Eisenhower’s acquiescence chagrined Rozmarek and Gunther. During his tenure as president of Columbia University, Eisenhower accepted a $50,000 endowment from the Polish communist government to subsidize a chair of Polish studies at Columbia. Gunther believed Eisenhower had sanctioned the validity of the Polish Soviet puppet government and was slow to endorse the liberation doctrine. After Taft lost in the primary election, Rozmarek and Gunther pragmat­ically decided to support Eisenhower in the general election, a choice that proved critical to rally the Polish American vote for the Republican Party’s presidential candidate. At the same time, Gunther and Rozmarek became allied with Arthur Bliss Lane (1894-1956), a Republican operative whose main agenda was to write into the 1952 Republican platform a repudiation of the Yalta agreement and an investiga­tion into Soviet atrocities against Poles. Gunther lobbied PNA members in Illinois, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and other states with large concentrations of Polish American voters to influence the party platform.

Gunther delivered speeches during rallies held on Polish Constitution Day, observed on May 3, to disavow President Roosevelt’s “betrayal.” The Polish Constitution of May 3, 1791, is a seminal document that espouses a democratic spirit memorialized as a national holiday in Poland. At a rally on May 3, 1953, in Chicago’s Humboldt Park, Gunther addressed a crowd of one hundred thousand people. “The Polish soldiers fought for your freedom and mine during the First and Second World Wars and, as a token of gratitude, for their sacrifices, the Allied armies should have carried freedom into Poland, but they did not,” he said. “They could not because the road to Poland was blocked. rt was blocked at Yalta. A prison wall was erected around Poland and the rest of Central and Eastern Europe by those who forgot what we were fighting for.”

Judge Gunther helped expose the massacre of captured Polish army officers. At the Katyn Forest near Smolensk, Russia, in 1940, the Soviet secret police murdered and buried en masse forty-five hundred Polish army officers considered threats to the Stalinist regime. The officers were captured when the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany divided Poland in 1939. When their mass graves were exhumed in 1943, the Soviets insisted that the Nazis were responsible for the slaughter.

At the second national convention of the Polish American Congress in 1948, Gunther was selected chair of the Committee for the Resettlement of Polish Displaced Persons. Created in anticipa­tion of passage of the U.S. Displaced Persons Act, permitting thousands of war refugees to enter the United States after World War TI, the committee assisted in resettling more than thirty-thousand Polish refugees and veterans of the Polish armed forces. Gunther was also a member of the Pennsylvania Commis­sion on Displaced Persons chaired by Lebanon Valley College president Clyde A. Lynch (1891-1950).

Dissatisfaction over the silence, evasiveness, and obstruction surrounding Katyn led to the formation, in 1949, of a private American committee, backed by the PAC, to investigate the massacre. Chaired by Lane, committee members included Gunther and Clare Booth Luce (1903-1987), a fomter congress­woman, journalist, popular playwright, and women’s rights advocate. The group’s lobbying led to congressional hearings in Washington, Chicago, London, and Frankfurt, Germany, from October 1951 to November 1952. The fruit of these investigations and fact-finding was not realized until 1990, however, when Soviet leader Mikhail Gor­bachev gave Poland’s president, Wojciech Jaruzelski, the documents that proved that the Soviet secret police was responsible.

Although Gunther was a leading advocate for Polish immigrants, he stressed a conservative theme of self-reliance in his 1951 report to the Pennsylvania Commission on Displaced Persons. “Everyone,” he believed, “must realize that he who comes to the United States must work hard for his daily bread and cannot look for charity. Nor should he look for the continued helping hand of voluntary organizations. What is especially important even before immigrating to America, he must learn the English language and learn some trade. This he must do if he wishes to find a better opportunity in America.”

In 1956, President Eisenhower summoned Gunther to the White House to interview him for a vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court. The interview might have been an attempt to curry favor with the voters in Michigan, Illinois, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania who knew Gunther’s name. Eisenhower, instead, selected New Jersey Democrat William J. Brennan.

Undeterred, Gunther continued his leadership in ethnic affairs. He was chairman of the board of trustees of the four-year liberal arts Alliance College, established in 1912 for students of Polish descent in Cambridge Springs, Crawford County, and endowed by the PNA. (The college closed in 1987 and, in 1990, the campus was purchased by the Commonwealth and converted to a minimum-security prison for women.) While serving as chairman of the PNA, Gunther was named president of the newly-formed National Confederation of American Ethnic Groups, in 1957. Made up of fifty-two organizations, the goal was to use the combined numbers to increase their influence and promote fair treatment of ethnic groups.

After ten years on the Superior Court, Gunther ran for election in 1959 to a vacant seat on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. He lost to Democrat Michael J. Eagen (1907-1987), a Lackawanna County Court of Common Pleas jurist. Eagen, who later became chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, won by 120,000 votes, a preview for the Democratic sweep in the presidential election of 1960. Gunther lost Philadel­phia by 195,000 votes and Allegheny County by 35,000 votes. His Slavic advocacy lacked the power to override his GOP affiliation. His judicial career may have ended, but certainly not his political involvement.

In 1960, he was named to the state advisory committee of the U.S. Commis­sion on Civil Rights, and three years later Allegheny County voters elected him county commissioner. His higher vote count over fellow Republican John M. Walker assured him a seat as a minority commissioner.

The incumbent commissioners, Democrats William D. McClelland and John E. McGrady, were accused of stonewalling implementation of a county salary classification program and dragging their feet on an issue regarding the collection of garbage in the county. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorialized that the “time has come to clean house” and remove McClelland and McGrady, whom the newspaper labeled “indecisive, uncooperative, and resistant to change.” With a Democratic margin of 213,000 voters, the Walker-Gunther duo could not defeat the incumbents, but Gunther prevailed and earned a place in Allegheny County politics.

One of the upcoming leaders who sought Gunther’s advice was political novice John Heinz (1938-1991), elected to the United States Senate in 1976. Gunther also attracted the attention of newspaper reporters. “We need more go-go girls and things like that to make [Pittsburgh] a big convention city,” he quipped at one meeting. He also urged the 5 percent sales tax on bridal apparel be removed. He remained active in party politics and was one of four Pennsylvania delegates to vote for Barry Goldwater at the 1964 Republican National Convention in San Francisco, despite the majority of the Commonwealth’s delegates throwing their support behind Pennsylvania’s favorite son, Governor William W. Scranton.

In 1966, Gunther again bucked the state Republican Party by entering the primary election race for lieutenant governor, but lost to Attorney General Walter E. Alessandroni (1912-1966), by 645,757 to 385,694 votes. Alessandroni died in a mall airplane era h near Connellsville, Fayette County, before the primary election, but won it posthumously. Party loyalist Raymond J. Broderick was chosen to serve as lieu­tenant governor under Governor Raymond P. Shafer.

Soon after his defeat, Gunther announced his candidacy for a second four-year term as Allegheny County commissioner. Among his goals were to complete projects related to community colleges, juvenile court improvements, and airport expansion. Before he could realize his dreams, he died of a heart attack on December 23, 1966, at the age of sixty-three.

Perhaps Gunther did not attain the celebrity stah1s of Michael Musmanno, partly because Gunther was not a World War I veteran, a member of the General Assembly of Pennsylvania, or a state Supreme Court justice. Justice Musmanno was better known as an orator and author. However, Gunther and Mus­manno shared a mission to raise the ethnic consciousness on issues of public policy. Musmanno did it as a Democrat; Gunther as a Republican. Regardless of their party affiliation, both men made themselves understood by immigrant voters in their native tongues. Blair F. Gunther stood among the few judges involved in the public sphere during their tenure on the bench.

 

For Further Reading

Baran, Walter A. Feet First: A Memoir. Philadelphia: Xlibris Corporation, 2003.

Burstin, Barbara Stern. After the Holo­caust: The Migration of Polish Jews and Christians to Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1989.

Jenkins, Philip. The Cold War at Home: The Red Scare in Pennsylvania, 1945-1960. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1999.

Lane, Arthur Bliss. I Saw Poland Betrayed: An American Ambassador Reports to the American People. Indi­anapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1948.

Leab, Daniel J. I Was a Communist for the F.B.I: The Unhappy Life and Times of Matt Cvetic. University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000.

Musmanno, Michael Angelo. Across the Street from the Courthouse. Philadelphia: Dorrance and Company, 1954.

Pienkos, Donald E. For Your Freedom Through Ours: Polish-American Efforts on Poland’s Behalf, 1863-1991. Boulder, Colo.: Columbia University Press, 1991.

 

The editor acknowledges the assistance of Judge Gunther’s son, Frank K. Gunther, Chagrin Falls, Ohio, who graciously lent photographs to illustrate this article.

 

Thomas Duszak, of Harrisburg, is head of the cataloging section at the State Library of Pennsylvania. He is a member of the American Library Association, Pennsylvania Library Association, and Polish American Historical Association.