When Seneca County Judge Dennis Bender retired Friday after 25 years on the bench, he did so as the longest-serving jurist in the county’s 214-year history.
That’s a pretty good run for a man who heard a very different calling many years ago, one that also involved wearing a robe — albeit of a different color.
“Frankly, my original intent was to be a priest,” Bender said during a recent interview in his chambers at the county courthouse.
Born in Pennsylvania, Bender was 12 when the family moved to Seneca Falls in 1964. His father, who worked for Sylvania in Pennsylvania, was transferred to the company’s Seneca Falls plant. Bender graduated from Mynderse Academy in 1970.
He had no intention of going into law when he enrolled at St. John Fisher College. Hoping to be a priest, he did volunteer work in college with the Rochester Interfaith Jail Ministry, which spurred his interest in the law.
He earned a bachelor’s degree from Fisher in 1974 and a law degree from University at Buffalo Law School in 1977. He passed the bar exam a week later and a month after that married Mary Ann.
The young couple spent a year in Cincinnati, volunteering with VISTA (now AmericaCorps VISTA), a domestic Peace Corps. He later applied to various legal aid organizations for a job.
“I didn’t necessarily have plans to come back (to Seneca County), but I needed a job … and a Department of Social Services job came open in 1978. That is a funny story in itself,” Bender said. “I went for the interview and my wife said ‘What are you going to do if they offer you the job?’ That was on a Wednesday. I said ‘They aren’t going to offer me the job on the spot.’ Well, they offered me the job on the spot … and I told them the next day I would take it.