January 23, 2012 by Linus Ormsby
Utica native Stephen D. Gerling never set foot on the Niagara University campus until the start of the fall semester in 1960, when he arrived to begin classes. Though his arrival was essentially by happenstance, he readily admits he could not have chosen a better school. His collegiate experience, he says, is what prepared him to meet the challenges that awaited him as a U.S. Army officer in Vietnam and as a U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge for the Northern District of New York.
Since neither of his parents were college graduates, there was no pressure on young Steve Gerling when it came time to decide what college to attend. His mother’s only expectation was that it would be Catholic. Enter happenstance.
As a student at St. Francis de Sales grammar school in Utica, Gerling played on an intramural basketball team named for Niagara. “Thus, NU popped into my head in attempting to follow my mother’s direction,” he fondly recalls.
Majoring in history, Gerling studied under a well-respected faculty that included Dr. Frank Mogavero, Dr. Zenon Sahan and professor Daniel McGuire. “All three made learning history very enjoyable,” he recalls.
His other major pursuit was ROTC, which meant military service would be a part of his future. That inevitability, however, was postponed when, upon graduation in 1964, Gerling received a deferment to attend law school at St. John’s University. Three years later, with his juris doctor degree completed, the Army second lieutenant reported for duty with the Armed Forces Police Detachment at the Brooklyn Naval Yard. The next year, he was in Vietnam.
Feb. 25, 1969, stands out in Gerling’s consciousness as if it were yesterday. Prior to that fateful day, he had been coordinating the work of armed propaganda teams in the Mekong Delta. Their mission was to try to convince Viet Cong soldiers and their sympathizers, through psychological warfare tactics, to come over to the side of the Vietnamese government. Approaching the village of Xuan Dong in Dinh Tuong province on the day in question, Gerling’s team was ambushed and pinned down by enemy fire. After a brief firefight, the enemy unit was routed. Gerling, who was by then a captain, was awarded the Bronze Star for his actions during the encounter.
Returning to Utica in 1969, Gerling began his career as a lawyer, serving over the years as assistant Oneida County attorney, special attorney for the town of Whitestown and assistant counsel to the speaker of the New York State Assembly.
Gerling’s entry into the field of bankruptcy law, again, was a matter of happenstance, beginning when the senior partner in his first law firm “volunteered” him to serve as a bankruptcy trustee. Up to that point, he had never handled a bankruptcy case. He did, however, become quite accomplished in the field, eventually gaining appointment to the U.S. Bankruptcy Court bench in the Northern District of New York in 1985. He became chief judge in 1994, and served on the board of governors of the National Conference of Bankruptcy Judges for three years. He spent another five years as an adjunct professor at Syracuse University’s College of Law.
While the jurisdiction, “Northern District of New York,” may conjure up images of an outpost, and with Albany and Syracuse as the only major cities, one might get the impression that not much happens in bankruptcy court. Gerling, however, says the cases he handled over the years made for a most interesting career. For example, he handled the bankruptcy of The Hotel Syracuse ¬¬– not once, but twice. Vernon Downs racetrack and the Mohawk Valley Prowlers, a minor league hockey team, were other bankruptcy cases he heard. There was even a hospital mixed in with the more mundane corporate and consumer cases. And he presided over the Chapter 11 case of the Bennett Funding Group, which was called the largest Ponzi scheme in U.S. history, when it was filed in 1996.
Comparing that to recent cases involving Bernie Madoff and others who have cheated investors, Gerling says that most Ponzi schemes seem to start out as legitimate business enterprises, not as criminal activities. “Then at some point greed enters the picture and the need to make more and more money takes over,” he says.
Given his years of experience, Gerling is able to offer bankruptcy advice that is both sound and balanced. “Bankruptcy has serious consequences and should not be sought out as a remedy except in the most dire of financial situations,” he says. Yet he acknowledges that situations such as loss of employment, catastrophic medical expenses, failed businesses, divorce, and misuse of credit often can leave people facing the prospect of bankruptcy.
Gerling notes that circumstances such as those are exactly what the Founding Fathers considered when they included the need for legitimate debt relief among the articles of the Constitution.
When he retired in February 2009, colleagues praised Gerling for his brilliance, fairness and common-sense approach to issues – qualities he readily admits were nurtured during his four years on Monteagle Ridge.
“When I look back on those years, I have to admit that I learned a great deal about discipline and respect for other people,” he says. “I have a soft spot for NU. I couldn’t have gone to a better school.”