Date: February 1st, 2005
Bernice Gorell recently missed a couple of days of work. The 93-year-old had cataract surgery on a Thursday and didn’t go back into her office until ... Monday.
When Gorell doesn’t go to work, people miss her. She is an immigration counselor with her own business in suburban Chicago. She has helped people with citizenship and immigration status issues for more than 40 years, and has developed a reputation for dogged determination, intellectual curiosity, and fearlessness that make her very good at what she does.
She does not advertise her business, but instead relies on word of mouth to bring in more clients than she can handle. Once, she says, her daughter was helping a new customer who told her how he found their business.
“He said he had somebody else do his papers for him and send them to the embassy, and the embassy looked at them and said, ‘Take these over to the Polish lady on Pulaski,’” Gorell said.
“I never run out of things to do.”
Few people who come in to Gorell’s office have any idea how old she is, and she is proud of this fact. She has no interest in looking - or acting - her age.
“Most people, when they get a little bit older, they don’t dress the same way and stuff like that. I don’t like that. I wasn’t brought up that way,” she said.
Gorell may have a leg up because of some fantastic genes - her mother owned a bridal shop and worked until she was 80. But Gorell’s appearance of youth is mainly about attitude. She is insatiably curious and passionate about the people she helps.
“People don’t keep themselves busy when they get older. I never run out of things to do,” she said.
Gorell has made every effort to pass this attitude on to her children as well.
“She always says you have to have something to get up in the morning for,” said her daughter and coworker, Kathleen Goraleski. “You put on your face, put on your jewelry, and get dressed even if you’re staying in. You don’t just hang around in sweats. If you look good, you’ll feel good.”
Gorell’s family could not afford to send her to college after high school because her brothers were already in school. She wanted an education, but she made do with a few night classes at first. Since then, however, Gorell has taught herself what she needed to know at every step of her colorful career.
During the late 1950s, Gorell and her husband owned an insurance brokerage. Somehow the insurance business evolved into an immigration counseling service as she helped Polish customers with their immigration papers as well.
She and her husband both spoke some Polish, and while they initially knew nothing about immigration and citizenship, Gorell called consulates and immigration offices until she found the answers she needed to complete the paperwork. Word spread and other families came to her for help.
“I was just born with a natural curiosity. If I don’t know something, I check up on it to make sure I get the right answer,” she said.
Tunneling under brick walls
A little empathy borne of life experience doesn’t hurt either. In her 20s, Gorell was likely discriminated against when she applied for a job using her “foreign-sounding” birth name. Undaunted by that first disappointment, she used another family name at her next interview and landed a job where she stayed for 11 years.
Such a move is typical of her mother’s style, Goraleski said. When it was suggested that - if faced with a brick wall - her mother just might find a way to climb over it, Goraleski added, “or tunnel under it.”
For her immigrant clients, Gorell puts that tenacity to work writing letters and logging phone calls, either making pleas on their behalf, or seeking answers to their many questions.
She is also personally passionate about public policy, and does not fear approaching officials with her opinions. She has written to the Pope, Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, and former Attorney General Janet Reno, to name a few. She does not always get a response, but a response is not always her goal.
“She feels all she has to do is plant the seed,” Goraleski said.