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
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
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
"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
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
"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
- Brian Meyer
Rep. Brian M. Higgins
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
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
Not a bad start for the former Common Council and State Assembly member.
- Phil Fairbanks
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