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Former Niagara Legislature chairman William Ross looks back on long career as coach, teacher, lawmaker

LOCKPORT – From a gridiron in LaSalle to the Rose Bowl, from teaching on the Tuscarora Indian Reservation to a stint as a high school principal, and from a variety of town committees in the Town of Niagara to a record-setting 12 years as chairman in the Niagara County Legislature, William L. Ross has spent a lifetime moving ahead.

Now, at age 82, he’s finally dialing it back. Tuesday was his last meeting as Legislature chairman.

After 30 years in elective office, a career that ran simultaneously with his 47 years in the Niagara-Wheatfield Central School District, Ross is retiring.

Ross won’t disappear; his term on the Niagara County Community College Board of Trustees runs until 2018, and there’s little if any evidence that he’s slowing down. Colleagues continue to marvel at his memory for obscure dates and even numbers of Legislature resolutions from years ago.

One year, Ross wrote a State of the County address and forgot to place it on the lectern. No sweat. He went through the talk without a script and touched on all the points he meant to make.

“That’s the discipline I picked up in taking 40 (college) credits of history,” he said. “It couldn’t be 40 credits of math, or you wouldn’t be talking to me here.”

So why does Ross believe he was continually placed in leadership positions?

“I think they see fairness. Whoever I deal with, I’m extremely fair, regardless of what my thoughts may be,” Ross said. “I’m always open and I always will listen. I might interrupt you once in a while, I’m great at that, but I am listening to you. I do have my eyes on you and I am taking in everything,” he said. “I think I’m genuine. I think the integrity’s there. I do follow through, and I return every phone call.”

Ross left a big impression on those he encountered. Retiring Niagara County Clerk Wayne F. Jagow played on one of the football teams Ross coached in the early years at Niagara-Wheatfield and still can recite Ross’ team motto: “The difference between good and great is a little bit of extra effort.”

When it was noted that Ross apparently had never missed a Legislature meeting in his 22 years as a county lawmaker, he said, “I was late once in ’88. And there was something else in ’93 … ”

Ross said he inherited his work ethic from his father, who never missed a day of work in 38 years at the DuPont chemical plant in Niagara Falls.

Ross was at pains to deny a story told by former Legislator Lee Simonson, who in a profile of Ross for a local publication years ago claimed that Ross failed to make the LaSalle High School football team in ninth grade because he missed a practice.

“If you were a ninth-grader, you had to be 14 by Sept. 1 in order to get a uniform. My birthday was Nov. 25, so I went out and kind of fudged my birthday date,” he said. “When the coach checked school records and found out I wouldn’t turn 14 until Nov. 25, well, that was the end of my ninth-grade career. I didn’t miss a practice in my life. I remember standing there for one when I had the flu, but I was still watching.”

Ross started playing football as an end, but he was shifted to fullback after he showed speed while running the 100-yard dash. He made the all-city team in Niagara Falls, but he was thinking he would likely follow his dad to DuPont until a volunteer assistant coach at LaSalle, Matt Mazza, intervened.

“The difference-maker in my life was Matt Mazza,” Ross said. Mazza, a Michigan State alumnus who played pro basketball in the pioneer days of the National Basketball Association, suggested that he and a few others should visit his alma mater. Mazza also had written a letter to head football coach Clarence “Biggie” Munn about Ross and the others. So a father of one of the other boys drove them to East Lansing, Mich., in early May 1951.

“At the end of our two-day visit, they called us into the office, myself and another young man from Niagara Falls, and offered us a half-scholarship,” Ross said. He eagerly accepted.

“One man can make such a big difference in your life. What that did was open every door for me,” Ross said.

After a year on the junior varsity, Ross moved onto the varsity in his sophomore year, now on full scholarship. But he found that the foot speed that impressed fans in the Falls didn’t cut it in the Big Ten. “Your backs are as fast as your slowest lineman,” Munn said, so he converted Ross to guard.

“Biggie was loud. He was tough. I was scared of him,” Ross said.

In his junior year, 1953, Ross was a second-unit guard. In those days of one-platoon football, everyone had to play both offense and defense, so it was standard practice for the second unit to play a few minutes at various times during the game to rest the starters. In that capacity, Ross played in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, 1954. Michigan State had tied Illinois for the Big Ten championship, and the Spartans were sent to the bowl game in a vote of the conference athletic directors.

The Spartans defeated UCLA, 28-20, and Ross still can cite chapter and verse about how a blocked punt returned for a touchdown turned the tide after UCLA took an early 14-0 lead.

In his senior year, Ross made the starting unit but dislocated his right elbow in a preseason scrimmage. He tried to return wearing a brace in Week Five against Notre Dame, but an official ruled the brace was dangerous because it contained too much metal and barred Ross from playing.

Duffy Dougherty, who had succeeded Munn as Michigan State coach, asked Ross to return to campus the following year, as he still had a year of eligibility left because he hadn’t played in a game his senior year. Ross thought it over and decided to graduate instead.

Michigan State did pay for an operation to repair Ross’ nose, which he had broken nine times in those days of no-facemask football. But the helmets were plastic, not leather, he specified.

Ross also had joined the Reserve Officers Training Corps and had an Army commitment coming up. Ross put in six months in a tank battalion at Fort Knox, Ky., and then was shifted to the active reserve. He served 28 years in the reserves, ending up a lieutenant colonel.

Meanwhile, armed with a Michigan State degree in history and social sciences, Ross was hired at the brand new Niagara-Wheatfield district to teach fifth- and sixth-graders at the Tuscarora Indian School in 1956. The superintendent also named him football coach, although the school didn’t actually field a team until 1958.

Ross coached football for nine years and also became assistant principal of the junior high school, a post he held for 13 years. He became athletic director in 1978 and was thrilled to have a full-time sports gig.

“Except I wasn’t there a year and I was also the assistant principal of the senior high, in charge of two lunch rooms, attendance, buses and one-third of the (teacher) evaluations,” Ross said, laughing.

He continued in the double capacity until 1994, when he took over as high school principal. He lasted 14 months, but didn’t like having to be at school all day instead of going to other schools with the N-W teams.

“I was at community college for a meeting one day, and a guy calls me and says, ‘Come back! The school’s in a revolt!’ I got back there and I had to throw 18 guys out of school. They started fighting at the buses,” Ross said. “I said to the superintendent at the time, ‘I’d really like my old job back.’ ”

Ross’ wishes were granted until his retirement in 2003, after 47 years with the district.

Ross moved into the Town of Niagara at age 28, after his first marriage, and was interested in serving on the town Youth Commission, but he was a Republican and was warned, “This town is all Democrats.”

“I said to myself, ‘Well, I’m not that political anyway. What’s the difference? I can still vote for who I want to.’ So I turned Democrat,” Ross said. He served on a large number of volunteer town and county committees until 1979, when he ran for Town Board, winning a five-way Democratic primary.

Ross served four years on the Town Board, but he moved to Wheatfield and had to step down. In 1987, Legislator James Sacco, D-Town of Niagara, decided to run for town supervisor and recruited Ross to run in his legislative district, which included the Town of Niagara and western Wheatfield. Ross agreed, won, and served three terms, and served a year as chairman in 1989.

In 1993, redistricting threw Ross into the same district with fellow Legislator Arthur F. Kroening, a Republican, who defeated Ross in the election. Ross was on the sidelines for two years, but in 1995 he was elected to the Wheatfield Town Board and reregistered as a Conservative.

“If Art hadn’t decided to become highway superintendent, I wasn’t going to beat Art in Bergholz,” Ross said. But with Kroening changing offices, the Legislature seat opened. Ross obtained Republican support and won in 1999, and seven times thereafter.

His colleagues made him Legislature chairman again in 2004, and he’s had the job every year since, except for 2007.

“I’m going out with all good memories. I’ve had a great run,” Ross said. “I met some great people. I’ve had some good times.”

email: tprohaska@buffnews.com