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Josephine S. Gildea-Lesko, longtime Mothers Against Drunk Driving activist, dies

Josephine S. Gildea-Lesko joined MADD after her son was killed by a drunken driver.
Josephine S. Gildea-Lesko joined MADD after her son was killed by a drunken driver.

Josephine S. Gildea-Lesko, who after her son’s death by a drunken driver became a longtime Mothers Against Drunk Driving activist and helped coordinate the first victim impact panels in Baltimore County, died March 9 of pulmonary hypertension at the University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Medical Center in Bel Air. The Joppa resident was 87.

Mrs. Gildea-Lesko’s son, Gary Hugh Gildea, was working as a respiratory therapist at what was then the North Arundel Medical Center, now the University of Maryland Baltimore Washington Medical Center in Glen Burnie, on the evening of Oct. 10, 1988.

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“It was Columbus Day and Gary had stayed late to help with a patient,” a daughter, Karen Gildea Pavelka of Forest Hill, said in a telephone interview. “This happened four days before he was to be married. I kept thinking I’m in a soap opera and I’ll wake up.”

Mr. Gildea was on his way home to Abingdon when his 1980 Ford Mustang was struck head-on by a 1985 Chevrolet driven by a drunken driver who veered into the northbound lane about 11:35 p.m. at the Francis Scott Key Memorial Bridge toll plaza in Baltimore County.

“My brother died on that highway all by himself up against a concrete wall,” another sister, Ann Marie Schucker of Bel Air, told The Evening Sun in a 1990 interview. “Every bone in his body was broken. It took them over an hour to cut him out of the car.”

“My sisters and I, along with our mother, joined MADD as a result of my brother’s tragic loss. We wanted to find a way to help other families avoid the shock and grief we experienced,” Ms. Pavelka wrote in a biographical profile of her mother. “Shortly after we became active, Baltimore County began a program called Victim Impact Panels. We were founding members of the Victim Impact Panel in Baltimore County.”

Those convicted of drunken driving, or given probation before judgment in Baltimore County District Court, are required as part of their court-ordered punishment to listen to a family member of the victim whose death they have caused.

“As part of their sentences, judges would require first-time offenders to attend these panels. These meetings were designed to help drunk drivers realize the tragic consequences that result from a decision to operate a vehicle under the influence of drugs or alcohol,” Ms. Pavelka wrote. “It was tough for Mom to hear the stories, including our own story of Gary’s loss. But she hoped we were making a difference and she wanted to do something that would continue to honor Gary.”

“Often I was the one who told Gary’s story at the meeting,” Ms. Pavelka said in an interview. “We always said if only one person left the meeting vowing never to drive again under the influence, then we had accomplished something.”

“I was the assistant prosecutor at the time and in charge of the auto manslaughter unit, and prosecuted the drunk driver who killed her son,” said Scott D. Shellenberger, Baltimore County state’s attorney, who has remained close to Mrs. Gildea-Lesko and her family.

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“Back in the 1980s, we were not so attuned as we are now with victim impact panels. She brought passion and compassion in helping educate law enforcement with the proceedings and keeping families informed as to court proceedings," he said.

“Mrs. Gildea-Lesko was extremely nice and just so kind, even when she was advocating and pushing her issues. She was always pleasant to deal with and always had a big smile for me.”

From 1990 to 2000, Mrs. Gildea-Lesko and her daughters continued to coordinate the victim impact panels, and she remained active with MADD until her death.

The former Josephine Stella Sudosky, daughter of John Sudosky, a coal miner, and his wife, Stella Krouse Sudosky, was born in Exeter, Pennsylvania, and raised in the anthracite coal region.

She attended Exeter High School until the 11th grade.

“She had to leave school because her father came down with black lung disease and she had to help care for her family,” Ms. Pavelka said.

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In 1950, she married Hugh “Sonny” Gildea, and after moving several times looking for better job opportunities eventually settled in Essex when her husband took a job at Bethlehem Steel Corp. as a machinist in its Sparrows Point shipyard. He died in 1993.

When their son was born in 1953 with “blue baby syndrome, the couple sought the medical expertise of Dr. Helen B. Taussig, who with her Johns Hopkins Hospital colleague, surgeon Dr. Alfred Blalock, developed a surgical technique to correct the lack of oxygen transmission in the bloodstream.

After her husband was unexpectedly laid off, Mrs. Gildea-Lesko launched herself on a more than 50-year career as a grocery cashier working at such stores as Gem, Pantry Pride and Shoppers, where she was often the recipient of “friendliest cashier awards,” family members said.

When she was 79, a torn rotator cuff injury forced her to retire, but after successful surgery and telling her family she was bored, she returned to work as a Chick-fil-A hostess, a job she held until retiring at 85 in 2018.

In 1999, she married Bernard Lesko Sr., a Bethlehem Steel Corp. steelworker, with whom she shared a love of polka dancing, and the couple volunteered for many years coordinating polka dances at the Battle Grove Democratic Club, whose proceeds were donated for scholarships for students attending local Dundalk schools.

Mr. Lesko died this year.

Since 2008, Mrs. Gildea-Lesko lived in Joppa but retained an interest in Essex, where she had lived for many years.

“She had so many tragedies in her life, but she did whatever needed to be done to care for her family,” Ms. Pavelka said.

A Mass of Christian Burial was offered Friday at St. Clare Roman Catholic Church in Essex, where she remained a longtime communicant.

In addition to Ms. Pavelka and Ms. Schucker, she is survived by another daughter, Linda Gildea Jackson of Bel Air; seven grandchildren; and 14 great-grandchildren.

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