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Jeff Gay didn't originally want to go to York College; even when personal circumstances required him to stay home and study there, his intent was never to stay.

Gay wanted to go to Penn State, but the passing of his mother tied him home, where he commuted to the nearby York College, he said.

"I thought I'd go there for a year and then transfer," the Springettsbury Township resident said.

But everything changed when Gay in 1979, a freshman right out of high school, found himself sitting in Mel Kulbicki's American Government class.

"You meet someone like Mel and you just want to be there," he said. "He made me want to stay."

Kulbicki, a political science professor and former chair of the history and political science department at York College, inspired many students like Gay before succumbing to a yearlong battle with cancer Tuesday. He was 65.

Among those students was Rep. Seth Grove, R-Dover Township, who sat in Kulbicki's political science classes in the early 2000s.

"He was a wonderful professor," Grove said. "I took maybe three or four of his classes and I always enjoyed them; they were always so well thought out. His passing is a real loss for the community and the college."

Inspired: Gay, who has worked on many local campaigns including his wife, Pam's, bid for county coroner and Tom Kearney's bid for district attorney, continued on to take several of Kulbicki's classes, including State and Local Government.

"I developed such a keen interest in the local process through him being my instructor," Gay said.

Gay completed three years at York College until a "dream job" in Florida pulled him away for several years, he said.

"My intention was to finish on a part-time basis, and for a while I debated completing my degree at the University of Florida," Gay said.

Instead though, Gay returned to the college he never planned on attending to take more of Kulbicki's courses.

Internship: To receive a degree from the political science department, students are required to complete an internship, usually about a semester long in duration.

But in 1991, Gay, a York College student once again, was drawn to a unique opportunity to serve as the campaign manager for then 29-year-old Todd Platts, who had plans to run for the state House of Representatives in District 196, which had been moved to York County that year.

"Traditionally they wouldn't let you work a campaign like that," Gay said. "They wanted you to work in an office of a legislator. This wasn't some six-week internship, it was more like a 13-month project, so I asked for him to make an exception."

Kulbicki agreed, and Platts, with Gay working behind the scenes, went on to win the election, and from there went on to serve as a U.S. congressman for 12 years. Gay served on Platts' congressional campaign as the treasurer and then worked with him once again in his bid to become a York County judge.

"I'm not saying he wouldn't have got elected without me or anything like that," Gay said. "But for me it all started in (Kulbicki's) class and with that internship."

His students: The special attention and inspiration Gay received as Kulbicki's student was intrinsic to the professor's teaching style.

"He had time to give to any student," said York College's current chair of the history and political sciences department, John Altman. "There always seemed to be students lined outside his door."

Altman, who had worked with Kulbicki for 15 years, said the professor was always standing in the open doors of classrooms, ready to converse with whoever was willing to engage with him.

"Everyone in the department can relate to Mel standing in their doorway. He'd just stand there and chat away," he said, adding conversations he shared with Kulbicki ranged from discussions of political science to why "Breaking Bad" was the best show in television. "You could just talk with him for hours."

Grove said it was also Kulbicki's ability to push his students that made him unique.

"The great thing about the York College professors in the political science department, particularly Mel, is that they never forced their views on you; instead they would always argue the opposite of whatever it was you thought, to challenge and push you," he said. "He really took the lead there, and he instilled that in the department."

It was that love for his students, Altman said that kept Kulbicki in the classroom, even while struggling with illness.

"He'd been sick for a while — he discovered the cancer about a year ago — and a lot of people wondered why he didn't go on disability or retire," Altman said. "He hung in there through everything, a lot longer I think than most of us would.

"If we're trying to plumb the depths of why he didn't travel or just enjoy the rest of his time, I'd have to say it was because this was his life, and this is what fulfilled him; being there for his students and interacting with his students, that was just one of the most important things to him."

— Reach Jessica Schladebeck at jschladebeck@yorkdispatch.com.

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