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Outstanding Citizens

The News salutes the contributions of eight exceptional Western New Yorkers


Derek Gee/Buffalo News

Dennis C. Enser/Buffalo News
Lillian S. Williams, left, and Madeline O. Scott: Black history champions
It takes someone special to be named a Buffalo News Outstanding Citizen. 

The people chosen met a challenge, filled an often desperate need, helped out a struggling community. This year is no exception. 

Mark P. O'Brien met a monumental challenge. The Marine from East Aurora, who lost an arm and a leg in Iraq, overcame extraordinary odds to become an ordinary person. 

John Cooper and Merrell Lane successfully led the fight to keep the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station open. 

Dr. Lillian S. Williams and Madeline O. Scott were key players in getting early civil rights leader Mary Talbert inducted into the Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls. They also organized the Niagara Movement's centennial commemoration last summer that honored the impact this region had on the early civil rights movement. 

Chris Koch, head of New Era Cap Co., decided to bring his expanding company - and 240 jobs - to downtown Buffalo instead of relocating it and them out of state. 

Brian J. Lipke took time from running Gibralter Industries to head Buffalo's financial control board. 

And Rep. Brian M. Higgins became a good-sense advocate for Buffalo's waterfront, in the process confronting the New York Power Authority and winning $279 million for the region. 

These eight people have been chosen as the 57th annual Buffalo News Outstanding Citizens. They were selected from a field of 18 people nominated by members of The News staff. 

This year's honorees are a dedicated group who have shown their mettle. The News is proud to honor them. 

Mark P. O'Brien
Student, war survivor and therapist
Mark P. O'Brien is doing the things people do every day, like buying a house and going to college and planning a wedding. 

But the former Marine corporal is doing that less than 18 months after losing an arm and a leg in an enemy ambush in Iraq. And O'Brien, 23, has made it all look easy. 

"It's not as bad as it might seem," O'Brien said from his new three-bedroom ranch-style home in East Aurora. 

Since completing his rehabilitation at Walter Reed Army Medical Center last summer, buying that house has been the least of O'Brien's accomplishments. 

He has started studies at D'Youville College, where he plans to get a degree in occupational therapy. And he's gotten engaged to his girlfriend, Michelle Pierce; they'll be married on July 22. 

And those are just the latest installments of an inspirational story that began in November 2004, when O'Brien first saw his parents on his return from Iraq. Unable to speak, he scrawled a note to them that said: "I have no regrets." 

O'Brien's story appeared in The Buffalo News a week later, prompting a flood of e-mails from readers who were impressed with his courage. The News chronicled O'Brien's recovery over the next few months, culminating in another story in which he revealed his career goal: helping people rebuild their lives just as he did. 

"I've gone through all the frustrations myself," he said at the time. "Who better could there be to teach someone how to live one-handed?" 

Who better, indeed. After all, through sheer willpower and hard work, O'Brien has built a life that many 23-year-olds would envy. 

"It's kind of like a normal life," he said. 

- Jerry Zremski 

Lillian Williams and Madeline Scott
Black history advocates

The legacy of the Niagara Movement - considered the start of the modern civil rights movement - still looms large in and around Michigan Avenue more than 100 years after it took shape there. 

There's the Michigan Street Baptist Church, the first church in Buffalo built and owned by African-Americans. It also was a stop on the Underground Railroad. 

Toward the back and around the bend from the church is the restored Nash House, named for the Rev. J. Edward Nash, longtime pastor of the Michigan Street Baptist Church and one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. 

Legendary musicians Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie and Duke Ellington all performed at the Colored Musicians Club around the corner from the church on Broadway. So did Lionel Hampton, Billie Holliday and Ella Fitzgerald. 

The vacant lot next to the church is where Mary Talbert's house once stood. 

Born in 1891, Talbert laid the foundation for the Niagara Movement, precursor of the NAACP. An advocate for civil and human rights, she opened her home to W.E.B. DuBois and some of the nation's leading black activists for the first organizing meeting of the movement. She was vice president of the NAACP and national director of its anti-lynching campaign. 

Dr. Lillian Williams and Madeline Scott campaigned to get Talbert inducted into the Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls last October, a year after she was rejected. The two also organized the Niagara Movement's centennial commemoration honoring the impact this region had on the early civil rights movement. 

"I've always been a passionate, keen observer of social issues as they affect African-Americans," said Williams, chairwoman and associate professor of African-American studies at the University at Buffalo. "I always thought that if people understand history and the culture of African-Americans, they would be receptive to change." 

"This is not work for me. I do it for me," said Scott, president of the Afro American Historical Association of the Niagara Frontier. "We have to learn about each other." 

- Deidre Williams 

Chris Koch
Keeping jobs here

The money was in Alabama. His heart was in Buffalo. There were greener pastures down South. But his roots are here. 

Chris Koch (pronounced "cook") had to make a choice. His business sense told him to go. The better angels of his nature begged him to stay. 

Koch is chief executive officer of Derby-based New Era Cap. His grandfather started the company. It makes the wildly popular caps for Major League Baseball and other sports teams. Business is booming, the company has gone international, New Era is a buzzword with the 20-something male demographic that advertisers crave. 

The company needed a bigger headquarters. Expanding its satellite operation in Alabama was the cheaper way to go. But by the end of next year, New Era's headquarters will move not to Alabama but to downtown Buffalo. By filling the former Federal Reserve building on Delaware Avenue, Koch makes a statement and takes a stand for the city. 

"We passed up a significant amount of money in Alabama," he said. "But we've been here since forever, and this is a way to give something back." 

It's more than a civic boost for downtown. The company will add 240 jobs. It plans to create a destination cap museum at the headquarters. And it works both ways. New Era's new hires will work - and, some of them, live - in the heart of the city. 

"There's a lot to do in downtown Buffalo," said Koch. "It's a cool spot." 

New Era's coming makes it even cooler. 

- Donn Esmonde 

Merrell Lane and John Cooper
Air base saviors

Merrell Lane and John Cooper will never forget Friday, Aug. 26, 2005. 

Lane, chairman of the Niagara Military Affairs Council, a civilian organization fighting to keep the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station open, was in a room in Washington, D.C., with members of the Base Realignment and Closure Commission. The commissioners were deciding the fate of the 60-year-old base, home to the Air Force Reserve's 914th Airlift Wing and the National Guard's 107th Air Refueling Wing. 

Cooper, vice chairman of the military council, was at a rally at Niagara Falls International Airport, awaiting the decision. 

"They were moving planes around on a map of the United States," Lane recalled. "I could see the way it was going." 

At 3 p.m., Lane slipped out of the room and called Cooper on his cell phone. It was 85 degrees in Niagara Falls and the local leaders, politicians and media in the packed terminal were sweating. 

Cooper stepped up to the microphone, and his words rang loud and clear: "The base has been saved." 

The terminal erupted into cheers and applause. 

Lane, 58, is the second-generation owner of Lane Funeral Home in Niagara Falls. He and wife, Patricia, have two daughters, Jennifer and Deborah, and three grandchildren. Cooper, 47, is the third-generation owner of Cooper Sign Co. - Old Glory Flag and Banner in the Town of Niagara. He and his wife, Jennifer, have a 14-year-old son, John Jr. Both men have lived in the Niagara Falls area all their lives. 

"Cooper and Lane - are they the all-American story or what?" Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said during the official victory rally at the base in August. "They put their jobs aside and worked their hearts out to save the Niagara Falls air base, and we salute them." 

- Bill Michelmore 

Brian J. Lipke
Businessman and control board chairman

He grew a business in a problem-plagued industry that many thought was extinct in Western New York. 

When Brian J. Lipke was appointed chairman of the state control board that oversees Buffalo's finances last year, his hope was to tap skills he has honed as chairman and chief executive officer of Gibraltar Industries to help the city. 

Within weeks after joining the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority, he set up numerous meetings with Common Council members and union leaders. His message was unwavering: Buffalo's woes can be solved only if all sides come together. 

"I believe it's all about communication, consensus-building and finding common ground," Lipke said. 

A two-year-old wage freeze that affects all city and school district employees has fueled tensions between unions and the control board. Lipke has urged parties to look for ways to make "structural changes" that lower the cost of running government so the freeze can be lifted. 

"Believe me, we take no pleasure in (the wage freeze), and we understand the morale issue," Lipke said in February. "We saw the same thing in the steel industry for years." 

When the Lipke family acquired Gibraltar in 1972, it was a single steel-processing plant with $9 million in annual sales. Last year, sales were $1.2 billion in a company that has 92 locations and about 4,500 employees. 

In his role as control board chairman, Lipke has stressed that the panel has no desire to micromanage. 

"We're not here to run the City of Buffalo," he told Council members last year. "That's your job. What we want to do is work with you on big issues." 

- Brian Meyer 

Rep. Brian M. Higgins
Waterfront wonder-worker

The first hint of Brian M. Higgins' take-no-prisoners approach to Congress may have come as a graduate student at Harvard University. He wrote his masters thesis on Irish revolutionary Michael Collins. 

Higgins, like Collins, has an agenda, and anything and anyone who stands in his way is fair game. 

He started with the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, calling its stewardship of the 120-acre outer harbor a "disgrace and embarrassment." A few weeks later, he suggested the Buffalo Niagara Partnership was "irrelevant." 

And a few months after that, the freshman congressman referred to representatives of the New York State Power Authority as "thugs and bullies." 

Higgins' approach got everyone's attention. 

In July, Gov. George E. Pataki adopted Higgins' suggestion for a single agency with the clout and money to oversee development of Buffalo's stagnant waterfront. 

The agency, the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., is charged with delivering on the state's long-standing promise to revitalize the inner and outer harbors. 

Higgins won another major battle in December when the Power Authority agreed to set aside $279 million over 50 years - nearly three times its original offer - to help develop the waterfront. 

The agreement is part of the Power Authority's campaign for a new federal license to operate its massive plant in Lewiston. The current license expires in 2007. 

Not a bad start for the former Common Council and State Assembly member. 

- Phil Fairbanks 

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