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In Riverside, sudden dismissal of longtime Boys & Girls Club director ignites uproar

Buffalo’s Riverside section has been roiling for the past six weeks, since the sudden firing of Robert “BobKat” Nowak, the beloved director of the Town Boys & Girls Club.

Nowak was unceremoniously dismissed June 10, after 46 years mentoring youth at two Riverside club locations. The exact reasons remain unclear, although Nowak said he was told by club officials, “We’re going in a different direction.”

By all accounts, Nowak was a respected and admired role model to three generations of sometimes-troubled youth.

“Kids count on me for certain things,” Nowak said. “If they’re in trouble they immediately run to the club for whatever – safety, advice. And I’m thinking, now what’s going to happen?”

Nowak’s unexpected departure has infuriated legions of past and present club kids in Riverside and beyond, igniting an uproar this summer in social media circles and on the streets of Riverside.

“It’s just like having a favorite uncle that, suddenly after decades or generations of having that, he’s no longer there,” said Jay Plachta, 48, who joined the club at age 9. “It blows my mind to even consider the thought of the club going on without him.”

When Nowak was called in for an early morning meeting at the club that Wednesday, he thought it was about plans for the annual summer camp.

Nowak says he had no indication anything was wrong. Just days earlier, he had helped raise thousands of dollars at an annual golf outing. But when summer camp begins in August, Nowak won’t be there.

Nowak, 68, said he was handed a folder containing a stack of papers. On the first page was the word “Terminated,” effective immediately.

“I was shocked,” Nowak said. “I didn’t know really how to respond to that and I certainly couldn’t read it because I was kind of shocked then.”

Robert O’Brocta, chief professional officer for the Northtowns Boys & Girls Clubs, which runs five clubs including the Town Club, declined to discuss the situation. “It’s more or less out of respect to our employees that personnel information is confidential and we really can’t disclose that at this point in time,” he said when asked why Nowak was fired.

Sources close to the situation say it was Nowak’s old-school philosophy and unorthodox style that eventually did him in. His reluctance to adhere to new regulations and procedures concerning how the club was run on a day-to-day basis – such as keeping certain doors locked – was seen as a possible risk to grant money, sources say. The shake-up is also seen as an internal struggle between the organization’s “old guard” and the new.

But Nowak’s supporters counter by arguing that he has been in the trenches for decades, successfully reaching at-risk kids, and he shouldn’t be forced to change now.

“He set me straight when I was screwing up,” said former club kid Joe Martin, whose son now attends the club. “He congratulated or rewarded me when I did good. He sat down and talked to me when I was having trouble. He’s just an all-around good guy. I can’t say anything bad about the guy.”

Nowak’s status at the club changed quickly in only a year.

Last year he was honored by the Northtowns organization at its annual “Bid 4 Kids” fundraiser for his 45 years of service. And O’Brocta had a glowing endorsement of Nowak in a 2014 Father’s Day profile of Nowak in The Buffalo News.

“It’s rare for someone to last that long because of the energy level required for that job,” O’Brocta said then. “As much as he can be old-school, he is a nurturer when he has to be. He’s the only guy who has been around that long. It almost seems like his energy level is picking up as he grows older. I don’t see him even thinking of retirement, he just loves what he’s doing so much. The kids keep him going.”

Nowak was fired almost exactly a year after the profile was published on June 15, 2014.

“When I first heard it, I was surprised, because BobKat had been a fixture in the neighborhood for almost my entire life,” said North Common Council Member Joseph Golombek, who represents Riverside.

Nowak, who said he earned $44,000 annually in the position, had planned to work two more years before retiring.

“We had worked together on the plan that had him working until age 70,” said Plachta, who is also Nowak’s financial adviser and now lives in Florida. “Then he’d have a nice, big going away party and sail off into the sunset into local folklore. But, as we know now, that plan got interrupted.”

‘Kat’s kids’

Stories abound of countless young lives upended by drugs, crime, divorce and pregnancy successfully turned around at the clubs Nowak ran. He’s become part of the fabric of Riverside and his personal generosity in the form of Christmas gifts and formal prom clothes is well known, supporters say.

The Town club, which mostly draws kids from Riverside and the Old Town neighborhood of the Town of Tonawanda, is nearly synonymous with the lanky “BobKat,” a nickname whose origins go back to a baseball game during Nowak’s first year at the club in the late 1960s. A young player wandered onto the field, and as Nowak, the umpire, ushered him off, the boy noticed Nowak’s hat said “TBC” for Town Boys Club. The boy called him “The Big Cat” and over time it morphed into “BobKat” to reflect Nowak’s standout basketball career at Erie Community College, where the mascot is the Kats.

Nicole Strzalkowski, a single mother to Tony, 6, said Nowak stepped into a father-figure role for the boy when he started attending the club in October.

“The impact he had on my son, I know he’s had that impact on thousands of other kids,” Strzalkowski said. “I don’t want to see any other kids lose out on that. He’s such a nice man. He’s very warm and very welcoming. It’s important for all the kids in this area to have that kind of role model in their lives.”

Colleen Mayfield, 30, is one of eight children from a Riverside family who grew up in the club.

Mayfield said she pulled her son, Gavin, 6, from the club’s summer camp in protest of Nowak’s treatment after his 46 years of working afternoon and evening hours for low pay.

“Anytime he picks up the phone and calls any of the alumni, we are here in a second, without question,” she said. “And the fact that they’ve lost that? That’s huge. They’ve upset their alumni. And unfortunately for them, it’s a lot of donation money and the donation money will go elsewhere.”

James Dickins agrees. He said he was previously employed as the club’s maintenance man until he was fired April 3 due to “cutbacks” after 13 years on the job. He describes his relationship with Nowak as “very close.”

“We were hand-in-hand,” Dickins said. “We were like brother and brother. Letting him go, the club is going to lose a lot, because he knew a lot of people that donated.”

Mike Farrell grew up during the late 1970s in a broken home in the Shaffer Village Apartments, a low-income housing project where Nowak spent 28 years working with youth at its club.

“The one good thing we have is the club,” said Farrell. “It keeps a lot of the kids off the street. I was a street kid, I still wound up getting in trouble. I would’ve been a worse kid without Bob.”

Nowak started a series of teen dances to keep kids off the streets and out of trouble, Farrell said. “My father wasn’t going to buy me new clothes,” he said. “Bob bought me new clothes, made it possible for me to come to these dances.”

Casey Burnett, 16, said he has spent half his life within the Town Club’s brick walls on Riverdale Avenue. Several years ago, his family found themselves in a tough financial position. “My mom and dad came down and talked to Bob,” Casey said. “Bob said, ‘Let me see what I can do.’ Bob got me and my family bags of gifts, presents, food, money, and for that I am really thankful.”

Nowak and his supporters also say their anger is compounded because they believe club staff has been directed to tell parents and kids that Nowak is absent only because he’s on a scheduled vacation, adding to the confusion and turmoil.

Mayfield said her son was told by club staff that Nowak was on vacation, while she had told him the truth, which confused the boy. “I don’t want to send him somewhere where he’s going to be lied to just because it’s convenient for the staff to not have to deal with a problem,” she said.

O’Brocta denied allegations that he instructed staff to tell people Nowak was vacationing. “There is no merit whatsoever to that statement,” he said.

Support for ‘Kat’

Now, it’s Nowak’s own life that has been upended, and three generations of loyal “club kids” are rallying around him. They’ve launched a campaign to either get Nowak reinstated in some capacity, or paid a decent severance package.

Nowak calls the campaign by “Kat’s kids” on his behalf “humbling.”

“How do you thank all these people now?” he asked. “A lot of them said, ‘You don’t have to thank us. You took care of us. We’re going to take care of you now.’ ”

The group has a social media hashtag, #justiceforkat. They’ve posted flyers with the heading “Lost Kat” in the neighborhood on utility poles and in front windows. They marched loudly in Riverside’s Fourth of July parade. Two online petitions to “bring back BobKat” each had nearly 1,000 supporters by late this week. They’ve been pressuring O’Brocta and other club officials with emails and phone calls.

Rosanne Braxton, president of the Northtowns Boys & Girls Clubs board of directors, did not respond to requests for comment.

Golombek said he has tried to act as an unofficial mediator in the dispute.

“I tried almost immediately to get both sides to sit down and very, very quickly there were walls,” Golombek said. “Understandably – and I’m not pointing fingers at anybody – but what ended up happening was people just got adamant that they weren’t going to talk. I wish calmer heads would have prevailed immediately.”

After Nowak rejected a proposed separation agreement, settlement talks broke down in late June and appear to have broken down again last week. Nowak said he would consider returning to the club in some capacity, perhaps as a figurehead, but only if changes are made.

An event to raise money for anticipated legal costs is being planned for late August or early September, Plachta said.

Gone fishing

Nowak said he’s spent the last six weeks fishing and puttering around his Cheektowaga home. “I’ve cut the grass seven times,” he said. “I tried to fix the gutter. I’m not Bob Vila.”

He said he’s nervous about his financial future and feels “wounded” by not being able to leave on his own terms. But he’s trying to keep the bitterness at bay.

“I just don’t want to say and do things that would be exactly against what I taught my kids to do,” Nowak said. “But when somebody goes out of their way to crush your dreams, it’s not right.”

After the June 10 meeting, Nowak returned to his director’s office in the club.

“I sat in the office looking at all the pictures of my children,” he said. “I just couldn’t believe this was happening. Forty-six years. You’ve got to be able to finish what you start.”