Greg Gifford has spent a lifetime gathering historic bottles and deeply satisfying thank-you letters
Published in 2010 Pennsylvania Super Lawyers magazine
on May 20, 2010
Updated on May 21, 2010
It’s 17 degrees and windy and plaintiff’s attorney Greg Gifford is smiling. He’s about to tunnel 14 feet down into a historic 1830s-era Northern Liberties construction site and look for bottles. This is what he does for fun.
Bottles, hand-blown and representative of a period in history, fascinate him. Sometimes when he’s in the city on a legal case, he’ll get a call from a friend in the construction business. “Hey Greg, we might have something for you, get here quick.” And he’ll be there. It’s why he keeps overalls, gloves, a flashlight and a shovel in his car at all times.
Gifford’s favorite collecting era is the 1830s to 1860s. In that period Philadelphia was a town with a tavern on nearly every corner and lots of soda, as well as patent medicine sales; there were lots of bottles disposed of. Many survive today in earthen graves. Gifford intends to find as many as possible.
At one site, Gifford, with Lansdale-based Rubin, Glickman, Steinberg & Gifford, had a copy of a map from 1858 that showed positions of the houses at the time, which in turn told him roughly where the privy, or outhouse, would be. Digging slowly and hauling dirt up by the bucketful, Gifford and two friends carefully, over a period of 12 hours, unearthed dozens of bottles. “I just love it,” he says.
Gifford still remembers his first dig. “When we were 11 or 12, my friends and I would go to the golf course and search for golf balls in the woods and sell them back to the golfers for a quarter, and then go and play mini-golf all afternoon,” he says. “One afternoon we found an old farm dump in the woods with a bunch of old glass bottles that had names embossed on them. A golfer came by who happened to be a collector and started telling us how old they were and what the names meant. We were fascinated. Something about the strange names and different colors embossed on them—they were different than anything I had seen before. It was neat.”
A lifelong passion was born.
He’s also had a lifelong passion for law. “I guess you would say I was very idealistic growing up,” he says. “I had a good aptitude for math and science, and some of the teachers talked to me about medical school, but I wanted to get into the law because that was where I felt I could make a difference.”
He did his undergraduate work in political science with a history minor at Ursinus College, graduating with honors. From there he went on to Villanova University School of Law, joining Lansdale in 1984. He does personal injury and criminal defense work as well as practices municipal law and serves as solicitor for the Lansdale Zoning Hearing Board, the Hatfield and Lansdale Police Benevolent Associations, the Skippack Township Zoning Hearing Board and the North Wales Borough, and the Pennsylvania Juvenile Officers Association.
“I love being in a profession where I can help people take care of matters that have caused them great stress,” he says. “Whether it’s criminal or real estate or personal injury, a lot of people have never dealt with a lawyer, and it is so much fun being able to take the burden off them.”
Gifford doesn’t just collect bottles. He has more than 600 thank-you notes from clients carefully archived in his office. From a young man wrongly charged with indecent assault (“It didn’t occur,” Gifford says, “and it could have ruined his life.”):
“I want to thank you for all the work you have done … My senior year in high school is going well … I have straight As … I’m the worship leader at my church … I enlisted in the Pennsylvania National Guard …”
From a young man who mistakenly brought a weapon onto school property (it was a hunting knife used on Boy Scout trips, but in the wake of Columbine it triggered charges “that would have just destroyed him,” Gifford says):
“One last thing I want to point out is how much I respect and admire you … you have done with me in your own way what I plan do with my career when I am done schooling and that is save a life.”
From an elderly woman who was arrested for shoplifting who he helped get treatment for kleptomania:
“… I will try to remember you by doing at least one thing for somebody each and every day—if it is just saying something to make somebody smile.”
That is, in fact, something Gifford asks of his clients—pay it forward. “Do something kind for someone else—that is how you can thank me.’”
Or write him a note and put it in a bottle. Chances are one day he’ll find it.