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Russell J. Salvatore donation hoped to be game changer for Lancaster schools capital project

With a $300,000 check in hand, Russell J. Salvatore, one of the region’s most prominent restaurateurs and generous philanthropists, was driven in his turquoise Bentley to the Lancaster High School fieldhouse.

And hundreds of students went wild.

The 82-year-old owner of Russell’s Steaks, Chops, and More was at the fieldhouse to present the donation toward an alumni foundation’s $1 million capital campaign to help pay for the expansion of the fieldhouse and construction of a multi-use turf field.

The campaign has been dubbed “Change the Game,” and Salvatore had just become the Lancaster School District’s game changer.

“I don’t know what to say. Life is funny. I know you guys have had ups and downs,” Salvatore said, referring to the mascot controversy that has overshadowed the district for the last several months. “Life is good to me, and I feel it’s important to give $300,000 to kick off the campaign.”

Salvatore also offered some words of wisdom.

“Leave the past behind. Look forward,” he said. “I’ve had my ups and downs. Don’t look back. Why look back? Go forward. There’s a reason for everything. There’s a future. Don’t look back and keep talking about the past. This is ridiculous. This is what starts wars.”

Salvatore’s donation comes just four days before what is expected to be a divisive vote for two school board seats, a nearly $100 million budget and the $57.3 million capital project. The base capital project includes $49.6 million for health and safety renovations and a new transportation facility. An additional $7.7 million targets enhancements for athletics and music facilities, including the turf field and fieldhouse expansion.

The fieldhouse improvements call for a regulation-sized indoor track, capable of hosting sectional events. Work also would include music suite renovations. The hitch is that the $7.7 million component would only be undertaken if the foundation’s “Change the Game” campaign can raise $1 million over the next year to offset the portion of the project not covered by state aid.

That’s where Salvatore, who moved to Lancaster in 1968 and whose three children graduated from district schools, comes in.

“I’m here just to help a little bit. I wish I could do $1 million,” quipped Salvatore, who at first kidded by saying he was donating $30. “I’ve gotta raise my prices a little tonight, but I don’t want to raise ’em that much.”

Salvatore also used the moment to stump for the district’s budget approval next Tuesday. Some say the budget could be in jeopardy due to backlash from the mascot controversy.

“Tell everyone to pass the budget. We have to pass that budget, or I’ll be so disappointed,” he said.

School Superintendent Michael J. Vallely was ecstatic. “Mr. Salvatore doesn’t do anything small or poorly,” Vallely said. “His name represents quality and class.”

Vallely looked at Salvatore and said: “Your support means the world to this district and to all of our students.”

Julie Buccieri, a special education teacher and the girls’ lacrosse coach who is active with the alumni foundation’s fundraising efforts, expressed gratitude. “It’s amazing. We’re just thankful to have our dreams come true for the fieldhouse,” she said.

Salvatore and district leaders seem confident the top-shelf improvements will become reality. The School Board already is poised to vote on June 8 that the fieldhouse be named after Salvatore, who told The Buffalo News he is pleased the district will name the fieldhouse after him.

That’s not unusual when Salvatore donates large sums of his money. The rebuilt Depew-Lancaster Boys & Girls Club is being named after him, as is the new fitness facility at the Lancaster Police Department. He also has sponsored the New Year’s ball drop at First Night Buffalo and July 4th fireworks at Delaware Park and more recently, at Canalside.

Salvatore reveled in the spotlight Friday, receiving a plaque and red marching band uniform jacket as well as a Lancaster football jersey with his name on it and number 1. Student leaders thanked him, and School Board President Kenneth Graber said: “You’re number one in Lancaster.”

Graber said he plans to sponsor the resolution to name the fieldhouse after Salvatore and carry it to a board vote on June 8, the same night the board is expected to vote on a new mascot recommended by students.“A lot of people in this community are upset and want to do something constructive,” Graber said. “Are we supposed to refuse his donation? That would be stupid.”

Parent Toni Kaminski attended Friday’s ceremony. “I’m thrilled because my kids are the ones who will reap the benefits of the improvements,” she said. “I think Mr. Salvatore has definitely set the precedent for more donors to come forward. This is definitely what we need.”

The crowd in the fieldhouse sang the school’s alma mater as its final show of gratitude to him.