This is a tribute to Gary Kretchmar, a good man who died much too soon on Valentine’s Day in 2019. In life, he did much for whatever community he spent his energy, brainpower and dogged determination on.
We met in 1988 in a Pennsylvania prison. I asked if he would participate in the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanna. He said no because he had filed an appeal and had firmly believed he would be home before then.
He wore so many hats; I will do my best to portray the full extent of his life. First, Gary embraced Judaism, kept kosher dietary laws and helped men, who also followed this diet. Gary was an active congregant who served as president of the Jewish Congregation Men’s Club for more than a decade. He interfaced with staff and volunteers daily, so our community remained current. This was no easy feat and often a thankless position, but he was a professional in all interactions.
Gary’s compassion for others led him to volunteer in the prison hospice program. He had witnessed too many once vital men become terminally ill, marginalized, and then cast away to the far reaches of the prison hospital or transferred far from home.
Gary spent countless hours tending to the needs of men no longer strong enough to care for themselves. Gary wrote letters, read letters, helped the guys eat or do whatever was necessary, always without complaint. He respected the dignity of each person until the end came.
He earned a state certification in hospice care and as a certified peer supporter (CPS) in order to provide his best possible service.
Gary also volunteered his peer support expertise to the men residing on Death Row. Gary made certain these men received everything permitted by the corrections department. His hard work and dedication was appreciated and respected by every member of this group. Word of this work also spread as the condemned had their death sentences overturned and joined us in the general population. Gary continued to help them once they entered the general population.
For the Lifers Inc. prisoner organization, Gary did many things too. The primary mission of the organization is to secure legislative action so inmates sentenced to life imprisonment in a Pennsylvania prison could get a parole review. One of his many successes was the grant writing work he did for this group that enabled the creation of a documentary advocating for changes in the commutation process. His last project was advocating for a more meaningful medical release law.
Gary allocated his time and energy trying to get our local legislators to pass a parole eligibility law for Pennsylvania lifers. Gary understood that the pendulum was finally swinging the other way after 31 years, and this could be their golden opportunity to have our plea for mercy be heard. He channeled this energy into helping the roughly 5,450 lifers in the state to be considered for parole.
On a personal note, we shared many of the same passions. Both of us cared about maintaining our religious practice, and I too held office in the synagogue. We shared a passion for Philly sports teams, especially the Eagles football team and 76ers basketball team. We worked on compassionate release legislative reform, parole for lifers, exercise, yoga and various programs. I admired his determination to gain his freedom and feel deeply saddened that Gary’s outcome could not have been as we hoped.
His legacy will live on through the multitude of good acts he performed on a daily basis. Gary’s life had meaning and he was a role model for others. I miss my dear friend. Be at Peace!
To honor Gary’s lifelong dedication of service to others, may I humbly request you support one or more of his projects or causes by contacting your local state senators and representatives to support parole eligibility for lifers, a meaningful compassionate release law, and earned time?
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.