‘She has no idea how to be retired’
Media personality and former Judge Penny Wolfgang
remains a force in the Western New York community
Maybe it’s her unique name. Or the fact that Penny Wolfgang was regularly in the news cycle when she presided over high-profile cases as a New York State Supreme Court Justice.
You might know her as a media personality, where she tackled legal issues on Channel 7, beginning in the 1970s, and currently broadcasts a weekly radio show called “On Target with Penny Wolfgang” that airs at various times across multiple stations. Perhaps you recall her once-fiery red hair.
If you’re a student of pop culture, you might even remember her cameo role in the love-it-or-hate-it 1998 cult movie Buffalo ’66, filmed locally, in which she played herself.
All these experiences have made Wolfgang a household name around Western New York. Although it wasn’t her intention, Wolfgang has unwittingly broken many barriers in her long and varied career.
Wolfgang, now 81, retired from law in 2016 after having been granted extensions to the mandated 70-year age limit for a judge, and remains an active member of the community. She is a proud supporter of anything to do with Buffalo.
“People are shocked that I wasn’t born here,” she said. “I’ve been here so long and I’ve been in the public eye, so they just assume. Over the years, I can’t tell you how many people have said, ‘I think you were in my high school class. Were you at Kenmore East?’”
Born Henrietta Joan Moonelis in New York City — her childhood nickname Penny is now her legal first name — Wolfgang never anticipated thriving in Western New York.
“In my last year at New York University Law School, a friend who was involved in politics in New York City asked if I wanted to go to a Young Republicans meeting in Albany,” she said. “I wasn’t even registered to vote, but she told me there were very eligible guys who were part of this group, so we should go and check it out. With all bad intentions, and no interest in politics, we went to Albany.”
There, she was introduced to Michael Wolfgang, a Niagara Falls native 11 years her senior, who practiced law in his hometown and had just become an Assistant Attorney General in Buffalo. He was the state chairman of the Young Republicans.
“It was love at first sight,” she admitted.
The couple married in 1964, and Wolfgang moved to her husband’s hometown. She has remained in Western New York since. They have one daughter, Robin, and a granddaughter, Karen, who attends high school in Williamsville. Michael passed away in 2016, but his influence on her life and career cannot be overstated, Wolfgang said.
“People in the women’s movement get mad at me for saying this, but Michael was responsible for all the success I had in my life,” she reflected. “If it wasn’t for him, I never could have done what I did. Becoming a judge was his idea. He ran my campaigns and was supportive of me for my entire career. He didn’t need the spotlight and was happy for me to have success. He was very remarkable in that way. They say behind every man is a great woman, but for me, that’s vice versa.”
Becoming a judge was never part of Wolfgang’s long-range plan.
“My father, Edgar Moonelis, was the most motivating and important person in my life, until Michael, and even after Michael, in many ways,” Wolfgang said. “He was the most loving and supportive father you could imagine, to both me and my sister. He wasn’t book smart or educated, but he had common sense. He told me that law would be a good career for women coming up. There were so few women lawyers practicing when I went to college. Every step my sister and I took in life, he helped and advised and was behind us.”
Now that she is retired, Wolfgang has no intention of leaving Western New York. Before her marriage, however, living here wasn’t something she had considered.
“I had planned to work for the Federal Communications Commission in Washington, D.C.,” Wolfgang said. “I had always been interested in communications, but I wasn’t going to work in Washington and be married to someone from here. So instead, I got hired by Jaeckle, Fleischmann, a private law firm that had a presence in New York City and in Buffalo.”
At the time, the firm had only one other female lawyer, who filed real estate closings. While having women on staff in the 1960s promoted the notion of equality, firms weren’t eager to allow women lawyers to try cases in court, or interact with clients.
“It was at the point where women weren’t doing much in law, but that was changing,” Wolfgang reflected. “The firm knew they needed more women, but it took me several years to get into a courtroom and be accepted.”
“Back when she went to law school, there weren’t many women in law,” said Daniel Weinstein, Wolfgang’s longtime law clerk. “Fact is, she’s a brilliant attorney.”
Media leads to public office
Early in her career, Wolfgang gained experience working alongside Herald Price Fahringer, a famous civil rights lawyer; clerking for a trial attorney; and completing public service at the Legal Aid Bureau — a non-profit organization that assisted low-income residents with legal concerns. Wolfgang quickly became head of the Criminal Appeals Bureau there, and oversaw other women lawyers who were beginning their own careers.
“I’ve known Penny since 1972,” said Rose Bailey, a retired justice for Erie County Family Court.
“I applied for a job at Legal Aid for the summer of my second year in law school, when I was getting nowhere,” Bailey recalled. “Firms were not very welcoming to young aspiring women lawyers. But when I met Penny for an interview, she was the opposite. She said, ‘I’ve always wanted another woman lawyer working here.’ After I graduated, she offered me a job.”
Under Wolfgang’s tutelage, Bailey honed her skills writing legal documents and arguing in court.
“She wasn’t just a boss, she was a mentor,” Bailey said.
In the 1970s, the Erie County Bar Association approached Legal Aid for help developing announcements about criminal rights and landlord-tenant issues. Knowing she was media savvy, Wolfgang was asked to take on the role.
“There was an arrangement set up with the Bar Association and Channel 7,” she said. “I went over to the TV station and talked to the director. They had to do certain public service announcements to maintain their license. I did a legal spot once a week on Dialing for Dollars. They then needed something for WKBW radio, and I did that for a few years. It wasn’t hard for me. I love the media and I love talking to people. Ultimately, being on Channel 7 is how I became a judge.”
After several years of media visibility, Wolfgang’s husband suggested she could become a judge. She had been practicing law for more than ten years, but wasn’t active in politics and initially had no interest in running for office.
“I was talking with Phil Beuth, the director of Channel 7,” Wolfgang said. “I told him what Michael suggested. Phil said, ‘you could definitely get elected judge. You’re the most well-known lawyer in Erie County at this point.’ I wasn’t sure. Phil put out a ratings poll that month with my name to see if there was favorable or unfavorable recognition. He came back and said that people recognized Irv Weinstein, Tom Jolls, and me.”
Initially, she didn’t get much political backing, but with Michael leading a team of volunteers, they undertook a county-wide grassroots campaign, garnering signatures. With two openings for six candidates, Wolfgang was the only woman on the ballot. On primary day, she came in first on both the Democratic and Republican lines.
“Talk about total shock,” Wolfgang laughed. “That was the first time I had ever run for anything in my life. It was a bipartisan win, and we did it with volunteers.”
Her mother and father traveled from New York City to assist with the campaign. Her father enjoyed going door-to-door asking people to support his daughter. He loved baseball games at War Memorial Stadium and even became friends with Buffalo Mayor Jimmy Griffin.
“He was a salesman and he was so friendly,” Wolfgang recalled. “The night I won, I’ll never forget. He was so proud, so excited. He said, ‘Nothing like this has ever happened to anyone in our family.’”
Wolfgang was later elected State Supreme Court Justice for the 8th Judicial District. During her second term, her law clerk took another job, so she contacted Daniel Weinstein, a former colleague from Legal Aid, and asked if he would take on the job.
“Every judge has a law clerk that is the court’s lawyer,” explained Weinstein, now 77. “When legal questions came up, my job was to research them and present information to the judge to finalize. It was lawyer heaven to me. It took me about 10 seconds to say, ‘Absolutely, I accept the job.’”
Wolfgang has always supported the arts, acting in community theater and patronizing professional theaters like Road Less Traveled, the Irish Classical Theatre Company, and Shea’s. She’s also a board member for the Buffalo History Museum.
In 1997, a friend called with news that Buffalo native Vincent Gallo, an actor and former model, was casting a movie — Buffalo ’66 — that would be filmed locally. There was a role for a judge, and Wolfgang would be perfect for it.
“An audition was set up at the Great Arrow Building on Elmwood,” Wolfgang recalled. After being given a script in which a judge sentenced a character to jail, she performed a cold reading before Gallo and two assistants. Gallo commented that the performance felt realistic. He had not known she was a justice, although the assistants did.
“I got the part,” Wolfgang smiled. “I got permission to film on a Sunday in my courtroom on Franklin Street. There was a trailer and I had to go in for makeup. I only had to learn a few lines: ‘You’re guilty. Ten years.’ It wasn’t hard.”
Once filming began, however, Gallo altered every line, and shot several takes during the course of the day. Wolfgang recalls being on set from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
“It was all day for one courtroom scene. We did every scene 20 times. We’d do a take, then go back because he didn’t like one little thing someone did. He’d tell an actor to stand up quicker or turn here. I guess this is common.”
Buffalo ’66 premiered in early 1998. Wolfgang and other local actors were invited to a party held at Recckio’s Bowling Center on South Park Avenue, where scenes had been filmed. Stars Christina Ricci and Anjelica Huston attended, Wolfgang recalled.
“It was so much fun,” Wolfgang said. “I got to be in the union (the Screen Actors Guild) and was paid $100 or something. For the next year, I’d get checks for $20. That was hysterical.”
When her daughter Robin honeymooned in Paris, she and her husband noticed a billboard promoting the movie on the Champs-Elysees. Gallo has since been critical of his upbringing in Western New York, publicly disavowing Buffalo, but that doesn’t dampen the memory for Wolfgang.
“I had so much fun playing myself,” she said. “It was a very dark story, and people either liked it or hated it. (Gallo) fell out of favor, but I think he was talented.”
Today, Wolfgang remains visible in Western New York thanks to her radio show, which highlights people and events around Buffalo. (In fact, Buffalo Tales was featured on the show last January. You can listen to the interview through the link “About Buffalo Tales” at the top of this page.)
“I just love everything about Buffalo,” Wolfgang said. “The people are so accepting and diverse, but have such a feeling of community about living here. I love the architecture and cultural events. I wasn’t born here, but feel like I was."
Reflecting on her long career, Wolfgang is reluctant to call herself a trailblazer. But she acknowledges that the number of women practicing law has grown exponentially from when her career began, and she is proud to have mentored many of them.
“I just happened to come in at the right time, when women were getting involved in the field,” she said.
“I can’t speak highly enough about her,” said Bailey, the retired Family Court judge and Wolfgang’s former colleague. “She was the first woman to head a division at the Legal Aid Bureau. She was given a ‘Lamplighter Award’ by the gender committee as someone who opened a door for people to follow. When the door finally opened for women, it opened quickly.”
Weinstein, her law clerk, still marvels at Wolfgang’s spirit and energy.
“She is hard working, brilliant, and indefatigable,” he said. “She never gets tired, ever. I didn’t have to keep up with her, but I still could not believe her energy. Even now, with her radio show, she has no idea how to be retired.”
© 2021 by Jeff Schober
Check local radio listings to hear new episodes of “On Target with Penny Wolfgang.” Many stations air the show on Sunday mornings.
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