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'Buffalo girls' bringing leadership to Vermont; Five WNY natives in state government

Mary Peterson still says pop, not soda.

And when she's not overseeing Vermont's tax policy, she roots for the Bills and Sabres and longs for an occasional Ted's hot dog and La Nova chicken wing.

Peterson's affection for her hometown -- she grew up in Amherst -- is essential to being one of the "Buffalo girls," a group of expatriates bringing local DNA to the Green Mountain State.

At last count, there were five of them, all women and all from Erie County, making a name for themselves in Vermont state politics at the state capital of Montpelier.

Don't look now, but Buffalo is exporting leadership.

"It may be a bizarre coincidence," said Alison Clarkson, one of the five women, "but it also may be a result of the value system so many of us grew up with."

Public service. Helping others. Giving back. Those are the phrases you hear when you talk to Clarkson, Peterson and the others about why they entered politics.

"Is there something in the water?" asked Diane Lanpher, a Lackawanna native and Vermont state representative. "We all have a passion for participation. An expectation of participation."

OK, but what about the connection to Buffalo?

Is it coincidence or is there a reason why five women from the same hometown who never knew each other as kids found their way to leadership positions in a strange state 350 miles away.

All five agree that family and religion are at the very top of the list.

"Our parents gave us the example of thinking about others," said Mollie Burke, the oldest of 11 kids. "Being Irish Catholic, the Kennedy election was also huge and that influenced me a lot."

Of the five, four are state representatives, the equivalent of an Assembly member in New York State.

The one exception is Peterson, an Amherst native who earlier this month took office as Vermont's tax commissioner. She was appointed by freshman Gov. Peter Shumlin.

The youngest of five children, Peterson was valedictorian at the former Bishop Neumann High School, and as a kid delivered the old Courier-Express, worked the candy counter at Sattler's in the Boulevard Mall and ran rides at Fantasy Island on Grand Island.

She left here on scholarship for St. Lawrence University, where she met her husband, Barrett, a native Vermonter who proposed their senior year with the hope they would settle in his home state.

Her only regret is the family and traditions she left behind in Amherst.

"The whole family gathers there every Thanksgiving, kicking off the weekend with the Turkey Trot," said the former Mary Neff, now Peterson. "I think we had upwards of two dozen runners some years, with even more at brunch at Kosta's following."

Talk to these five women and, to a person, you will hear them gush about what they do and why.

"We only represent 2,000 voters, so you know everyone," said Gail Courcelle, who was born in Buffalo and raised in Amherst. "It's a great experience, and what better way to help people and improve the lives of families?"

Like Peterson, Courcelle, whose maiden name was Pierce, grew up in Amherst. She got her degree from the University at Buffalo before moving to Vermont in 1968 to be with her new husband, Justin.

She spent 20 years teaching health and physical education in Rutland, Vt., and, during that time, raised two sons. After her retirement, she was approached about running for state office and took the plunge four years ago.

The others arrived after Courcelle and, like her, soon got the itch to serve their adopted communities.

Over time, they became aware of their common roots and, to this day, talk often about Buffalo and how it made them who they are.

For Clarkson, the biggest influences were her mother and father, Nan and Will Clarkson, former chairman and chief executive officer of Graphic Controls Corp. in Buffalo. Both are prominent community leaders to this day.

"They set an incredible standard," Alison Clarkson said. "They set a very high bar. The message was clear. 'To whom much is given, much will be required.' "

She grew up on the city's West Side, a "Delaware District girl," and attended The Park School in Snyder before moving on to Harvard College and later a career as a theater producer in New York City.

The move to Vermont came 17 years ago when her husband, Oliver Goodenough, joined the faculty of the Vermont Law School.

A similar journey awaited Burke, who grew up in Parkside and Central Park and went on to Marymount College, the London School of Economics and eventually Goddard College in Vermont.

An artist and art teacher, she met her husband, Peter Gould, in Vermont and, like Clarkson, eventually returned to one of her passions, politics and public service.

"We are a true citizen legislature," said Burke, now in her third two-year term. "I know a lot of my constituents, and they know me."

For Lanpher, the path to Vermont was far different. A product of Lackawanna's Second Ward, the former Diane McDonald grew up in a tight-knit Irish Catholic family just a block away from Our Lady of Victory Basilica.

She went from high school to Hilbert College and stuck around for 10 years before meeting her first husband and moving to Vermont. She divorced three years later but stayed in Vermont, in part because of her son Chris' dyslexia and special education needs.

Determined to get Chris the best possible education, she ended up suing the State of Vermont so he could attend the Gow School in South Wales, just 10 miles away from her hometown.

"If you told me in 1990 that I'd be doing this, I would have said you were crazy," she said of her time in Vermont's House of Representatives.

Now remarried, she and her husband, Jim, are confirmed Vermonters, although she confesses to missing her large family and all she grew up with.

"Nobody here understands a fish fry," she said.

To this day, she remains a Buffalo Bills fan and often has to resort to watching their contests with New England in a separate room, and sometimes separate house, from her Patriots-loving husband.

"Nothing ends our conversation quicker than my husband mentioning the words, 'wide right,' " Lanpher said.

Ask these women what they miss most and, more often than not, family, food and sports are the answers.

"What I really miss are the peanut sticks from Freddie's," said Courcelle of the now defunct doughnut store. "That and beef on weck. And when I come back on Memorial Day weekends, I always get a fish fry at McPartlans."

For Clarkson, a lifelong lover of the arts, it's more about music and theater.

"I need that Shaw Festival fix, that Irish Classical Theater fix and, of course, that Buffalo Philharmonic fix," she said of her visits home.

Burke, like Clarkson, misses the arts and architecture that set her hometown apart from so many other cities.

Even more so, she misses her family and friends, and the larger community that made her what she is today.

"It's very comforting to be there," she said. "There's a very strong feeling, a very strong bond. Buffalo was a wonderful place to grow up."

e-mail: pfairbanks@buffnews.com

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