CHAUTAUQUA — Chautauqua County Executive PJ Wendel spoke on the foundations of his character and personal history in Western New York at the Turner Winter Series on Tuesday.
The topics raised by moderator Greg Peterson ran the gamut, covering everything from Wendel’s prolific wrestling career at Brockport University and beyond to his Eastern European family history.
Born in Kingston, Pa., Wendel’s family roots stretch back to present day Ukraine around the time of the Russian Revolution. During a time of unprecedented class struggle close to the collapse of the Russian Empire, his great grandmother hailed from a family of wealthy aristocrats while his great grandfather was a Cossack from much further down the social ladder.
The family endured social persecution after moving to Kingston, where they and other Eastern European immigrant families set up blue-collar roots.
Originally Wendel’s father worked for Mack Trucks, arriving in Chautauqua County after taking a job with Cummins Engine in 1977.
That family journey fits well with Wendel’s vision for the future.
“Cummins engine brought us here, so I’ve always had that unique link to Cummins,” said Wendel. “I think when you look at, again that is what brought us here, so I’m always excited about new businesses. Businesses coming here.”
After graduating from Brockport and obtaining a master’s degree from Edinboro University, Wendel returned to the area to pursue a career in education.
“I had grown up at Southwestern (Central School). My whole career had been there,” said Wendel. “When Falconer had the opportunity I took it, never realizing I would be there 19 years. But like anything else that goes back to, kind of my persona. I just don’t walk away from things.”
The discussion then turned to Wendel’s career in local government.
“So you were assistant majority leader in 2014, majority leader 2016, elected as chairman of the legislature in 2018,” said Peterson.
Wendel was approved to be the new county executive following former County Executive George Borrello’s, R-Sunset Bay, special election victory last fall.
In that position, Wendel and his colleagues have already addressed a number of key local issues, including the operation of county airports as well as the various maintenance projects taking place on Chautauqua Lake.
Regarding airport operation, Wendel shared some positive news with the audience concerning Centric Aviation taking on the role of a fixed-base operator for both the Dunkirk and Jamestown airports.
“They just started this week so they are going to take over in Dunkirk I believe Thursday,” Wendel said of Centric.
This week, the company was able to assist a state medivac helicopter that was having an issue with its deicing fluid.
“That is the first time Centric was able to come in and render assistance. I think that’s great, they’re here couple of days and already they are making an impact of helping out. Showing their willingness to work with the community, and they were able to get the helicopter back up and operational,” Wendel said.
Regarding the progress that has been made towards cohesive lake maintenance, Wendel was also optimistic.
“People have left the bitterness. They have started to work together,” he said. “We’re still working. It is not easy because the lake is so passionate. There is so much passion involved in Chautauqua Lake. It’s an ecosystem, it’s a biological life, it’s everything economically we have here in the county.”
Connecting his goals as county executive back to his own family history, Wendel expressed a desire to make the county an economic destination again, as it was for his father and others at Cummins.
“What I want to do is bring back that economy, bring back that excitement. Bring back those opportunities for our kids once they leave to look around and see what we have here in Chautauqua County,” he said.