The color map in The Buffalo News exploded off the page. It pointed prominently to 770 Elmwood Avenue, and the proposal to demolish the office building there, to make room for a new restaurant. For me and my family, 770 Elmwood was not an address, but a name and the home of a great human story.
The article mentioned that the building was owned by a doctor. Yes. But it was built by an immigrant, carving out an American dream for himself, his children and generations yet to come.
George W. Walker, my grandfather, arrived in America in 1909 with a third-grade education and a carpenter's tool box swinging from his shoulder. Fascinating family stories, with puzzles unsolved to this day, led to his emigration from England to find a better life.
He quickly turned his carpentry trade into a major Buffalo construction business, surrounding himself with a melting pot of other skilled craftspeople.
There was Elmo Osterhoudt, who started as a carpenter and became a superintendent; Charlie Sacco, who became the state champion apprentice mason; Mike Mazurzak and Bill Mateke, who competed to see who could break up the most concrete in a single day; Emeric Boutin, a carpenter from France; and Orin Shepherd, perhaps one of Buffalo's first African-American construction tradespersons.
To my grandfather, ethnicity made no difference. What mattered was whether you could pour a solid foundation, miter a corner or lay a straight brick wall.
As his business grew, George W. Walker built an office building behind his house, at 770 Elmwood. His three sons came to work for him. They built factories, schools, churches and restaurants, thanks to wonderful teams of skilled workers who plied their trades with skill and pride. Employers and employees alike enjoyed steady work, prosperity and the abiding affection of a former carpenter who built a flourishing business by his wits and tireless labor.
Because he experienced such prosperity and opportunity, my grandfather became deeply patriotic. He knew that what he and his workers had achieved would not have been possible in class and birthright-driven England. Too old to fight during World War II, he risked his life driving a battlefield ambulance. But he survived and built his business still more.
When he died, back in the days when Catholics and Protestants were advised not to set foot in one another's churches, scores of Catholic workers -- who, like my grandfather, were immigrants and sons of immigrants -- poured into Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church to pay tribute. His youngest son, Stuart -- my father -- continued the construction heritage until his retirement in 1986, exactly 75 years after my grandfather incorporated his company at the age of 21.
That era is gone. On this last Labor Day of the 20th century, there seems to be much more stress and far less "family" in the workplace. Fewer skilled craftspeople are needed as mass production and other economies permeate construction, as they do other industries. More people seem to take laborers for granted and take America for granted.
And 770 Elmwood Avenue may come down. Construction families know that you cannot gain immortality from any edifice. But in our memories, they still stand as symbols of the American dream come true in thousands of iterations across the land.
So a new restaurant may be built at 770 Elmwood. If so, more power to the future: new families, new businesses, new dreams in the new millennium. If the restaurant venture comes to pass, surely my generation of Walkers will take George W. Walker's descendants to dine there. We trust the food and ambience will be fine. But it wouldn't matter, because, as we dine, ah, the stories we will tell.
GEORGE W. WALKER III is vice president for Student Services at Genesee Community College in Batavia.
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