Huntington Hero Susan Gombert: Public Justice’s Wizard Behind the Curtain
By Karen Ocamb, Director of Media Relations
For nearly 25 years, Senior Meetings & Events Manager Sue Gombert has organized the galas, meetings, and external affairs webinars that help keep the work and exchange of progressive ideas flowing at Public Justice. Too often unheralded, on July 18, 2022, Gombert received this year’s Huntington Hero Award during the 40th Anniversary Gala and was greeted with an enthusiastic standing ovation in the near-capacity Four Seasons Ballroom in Seattle, Washington.
“OMG! I did not expect that,” Gombert, a self-described “conflicted Leo,” said later. “What an amazing thing! That seriously felt great.”
The almost giddy gratitude started with introductions by Rose Kohles, presenting the award on behalf of Huntington Bank, and former Public Justice Board President Eric Cramer, Chair of the Berger Montague law firm. The annual Huntington Hero Award is given to a Public Justice staff member nominated by their peers as someone who exemplifies Public Justice’s mission and Huntington Bank’s commitment to “looking out for people.” In addition to the recognition, $10,000 is donated to the Public Justice Foundation in the name of the honoree.
“We are very pleased tonight to present this award to someone that many of us know very well and is actually the architect of tonight’s event — Susan Gombert of Public Justice,” said Kohles.
“It’s been said that 90% of life is showing up,” said Cramer. “The rest of what makes life worth living is about what we do when we show up. And that in turn depends on where we go to do it and how we can effectively communicate when we do. And it’s that 10% that makes all the difference. Can we get all on the same page and move forward together? Well, we can’t do that unless we can get in the same place, go to the right rooms, sit in the right seats, have working microphones when we do and be able to speak to each other across the room and across the internet and for Public Justice, that person, the person who makes all that happen and more, that takes us from 90 to 100 is Sue….She’s been the true wizard just behind the curtain, orchestrating our meetings and events and we’re fortunate and grateful to have her in that role.”
Gombert tried not to be too overwhelmed. “It’s particularly exciting and a little terrifying to be speaking from the podium while making sure the gala still stays on track,” she said, promising to kick herself off stage if she went too long.
“I love what I do,” Gombert said. “Seeing everyone in this room after two years of virtual galas (due to COVID) feels like a real triumph. I also have the privilege of working with some of the smartest and most dedicated people I know,” prompting a huge laugh when she then asked for donations.
“This gala is a celebration of the best of the trial bar,” Gombert said later. The Huntington Hero Award celebrates staff. “Their support is tremendous and I’m thankful to have it. Even if I wasn’t the award winner, it’s a really nice way to recognize a staff member. Not all of the staff members get recognition. Having the ability, because of Huntington’s award, to recognize a staff member is really important. It’s a nice thing for them to do for us.”
Who is this highly regarded, “too often unsung” honoree?
Sue Gombert was born in the city of Philadelphia in the mid-sixties but grew up in the suburbs until age 10 when her father moved the family to Pittsburgh for a new job. “Pittsburgh has a more Midwest kind of atmosphere,” Gombert says. “People are just nicer. It doesn’t matter who they are. They’re just friendlier people. You had a lot of Polish people and good Polish food. It’s really delicious. The perogies are just spectacular. Who doesn’t love potato stuffed in dough and then pan-fried and buttered?”
Gombert watched Pittsburgh’s transition from an ugly old coal and steel city where the polluted Monongahela River would catch on fire to a city noted for its engineering, medical advances, and art galleries.
“I think art opens your world to seeing things in different ways, different possibilities. I spent most of my high school taking art classes at Carnegie Mellon University,” she says, striving to be a better artist. “Seeing that art and being able to witness the transformation of a city that really could have failed and instead found a way to thrive — it was important. It was really motivating.”
Gombert attended American University in Washington, DC, minoring in Art History with a major in Political Science. “I started studying politics and was drawn to political consulting, doing media.”
It was 1988. Gombert interned with a political consulting company that turned into a “go-fer” job. Then came the 1988 presidential election. “Yeah, no,” she laughs. “I’m not doing that again. It was just so intense and nasty and I didn’t like what they were doing ethically. It seemed a little bit shaky. That’s just not me. I am a rule follower. I feel like I’ve got a fairly high standard for myself.”
Gombert then took a receptionist job and left to work for headhunter. “I actually really enjoyed that because I got to talk to people all day long about what they wanted to do and what they were interested in,” she says. “It gave me so much pleasure finding the right job for the right person.”
The recession hit in the early 1990s and Gombert wound up sharing office space with the Society of Professionals and Dispute Resolution association. Eventually, she joined SPDR where she worked in membership for eight years, helping produce their annual conventions. When Gombert wanted to move on, she answered an ad in the paper for Trial Lawyers for Public Justice thinking she could “find my dream job. And lo and behold, I found my dream job without really thinking about it.”
Gombert was hired as the membership coordinator, doing events for “a small smidgen of my time.” She liked her job and the people and when the job was split, she chose to produce events. “There’s something very satisfying about seeing an event go from just an idea to being fully executed, that whole process. Again, when it all comes together, it’s a nice feeling for me to see, that completion,” she says.
At first, Gombert didn’t pay much attention to the organization’s mission. “But once I learned what Public Justice was doing, once I saw all the cases that they were handling and how they were affecting the environment and helping people — that was very appealing to me. I feel like being an event planner for Public Justice is my way of being an activist. Being able to bring people together to further the mission of the organization is really important or to celebrate the work of the organization.”
Gombert is moved by how Public Justice operates. “There’s a lot of empathy in this organization. People understand. They get it. They’re standing up to what they claim to be,” she says. “I want to be a good person and I feel like Public Justice helps me down that path of being a good person by allowing me to bring everybody together, to continue our work and celebrate our mission.”