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Recognizing those who made community better

The passion of ordinary people doing extraordinary things propels the community. I’m happy to annually recognize, acknowledge and applaud people I’ve encountered who, in ways larger and smaller, helped to make Buffalo a better place. There is no plaque, no cash award, no certificate. Just a few words of thanks on this public bulletin board.

Lorraine Pierro – Long before the broader community embraced our glorious industrial identity by projecting light shows on a Canalside grain elevator. Long before we built apartments and restaurant/entertainment complexes amid the concrete behemoths along the Buffalo River. Long before it was cool to kayak or boat past the 19th century monoliths. Long before any of that, Pierro – the petite but iron-willed daughter of a dockworker – screamed from the top of any concrete silo that our massive collection of ‘dinosaurs’ are not eyesores and embarrassments. They are identity-stamping, brand-making icons of a proud industrial past to be embraced, promoted and celebrated.

It took a few decades but, finally, the broader community caught on.

I’m happy that Pierro, 71, who beat back cancer a few years ago, lived long enough to see it. I’m happy that her Industrial Heritage Committee, once dismissed by many as crackpots, now look like visionaries. Like the long-barren waterfront and our stock of neglected downtown 19th century buildings, the resources for revival were right in our midst. Pierro was among the few who knew it all along.

Akron High School Lacrosse Team – Sitting in silent disapproval accomplishes nothing. Standing up to be counted can change everything. That was the lesson learned – and taught – by the team, which included numerous Native Americans. They leaped into the Lancaster High School “Redskins” debate by refusing to play the school whose nickname they saw as a slur. The stand on principle fast-forwarded the opposition movement (Lake Shore High School quickly followed) and pushed the Lancaster School Board to jettison the nickname in favor of a students-chosen alternative. Sometimes the biggest victories don’t happen on a playing field.

Brian Berg – The Chicago-based businessman has long considered the Chautauqua Institution his second home. Which made him a natural to lead the opposition to the planned demolition of its 1893 Amphitheater, the iconic structure where presidents have spoken and luminaries performed. Berg saw the proposed demo – with its replacement by a pale “replica” – not just as an unconscionable destruction, but an affront to the Institution’s spiritual and moral underpinnings. Indeed, the anti-preservationist bent of Chautauqua President Tom Becker seems not just out of touch with our preservation-appreciative era, but contrary to the enlightened sensibility the Institution supposedly fosters.

The Berg-fueled opposition movement boasts more than 10,000 signatures on anti-demo petitions, has the backing of historic and architectural heavyweights and produced a forward-thinking save-but-improve alternative. All of which tightened the squeeze on Becker, who nonetheless seems so destruction-intent he may drive the bulldozer himself. Although the odds of saving the Amp seem long, the battle is not yet over.

Eric Mihelbergel and Protesting Parents – By standing up, speaking out and – by the thousands – having their kids opt out of standardized tests, a legion of statewide parents loosened the grasp of Common Core; sideswiped a teach-to-the-test mantra that was making students’ (and teachers’) lives miserable; and likely deep-sixed a test-centric system of school and teacher evaluations. Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s retreat this month from hard-core reforms was reflected in a loosened educational grip in Washington – and a tacit admission that Common Core standards partly contradicted common sense.

Mihelbergel, a financial planner who co-founded NYS Allies for Public Education, was a local leader of what amounted to a national parents’ crusade for saner education policy. They got it – to the good, I think, of our kids.

Justin Rooney – I’m not sure whether diversity fuels sensitivity, or simply feeds common sense. Growing up near the Tonawanda Indian Reservation, counting Native Americans among his high school friends and football teammates, the Irish-American Rooney never thought in stereotypes.

So when the student of history read about the dark side of Christopher Columbus’ adventurism – the rape, enslavement and murder of the people the Spaniards encountered – he wasn’t keen to join the celebration of the explorer/conqueror. Rooney convinced his fellow members on the Newstead Town Board to create the alternative of Indigenous Peoples’ Day. The inaugural October celebration, perhaps the first in the state, was a success – further encouraging Rooney to take the Columbus-alternative message statewide after leaving the board next month. Aside from anything else, it’s an enlightened antidote to the tribe of R-word defenders apparently still roaming the Lancaster plains. And a movement, to my mind, worth getting behind.