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Daemen College receives $1 million gift from Tonawanda Coke executive

A $1 million gift to Daemen College to promote environmental sustainability efforts comes from the chief executive officer of a Tonawanda company with an environmental record that a federal judge once described as “singularly inexcusable.”

College officials on Tuesday announced the gift -- the largest private donation in the college’s history -- from Paul A. Saffrin, CEO of Tonawanda Coke Corp. and president of Vanocur Refractories, an affiliated company.

The gift will be used for the college’s Center for Sustainable Communities and Civic Engagement, which the college created in 2001 to provide students service learning opportunities that promote civic responsibility and environmental sustainability.

Saffrin said in a telephone interview that the gift was not connected to his position at Tonawanda Coke, which was fined $12.5 million after being found guilty in 2014 of criminal charges in connection with illegal release of pollutants at its River Road facility. Saffrin took over the company when his grandfather, J.D. Crane, stepped down in 2014. Crane had owned the coke manufacturing plant since 1978. Neither Crane nor Saffrin was personally charged in the case.

The gift was made through the Paul A. Saffrin Foundation, formerly known as the Crane Family Foundation. Saffrin, 39, spent most of his life in the Midwest and moved to Orchard Park only in recent years. He was introduced to the college a few years ago by Daemen President Gary A. Olson and has been a member of the college’s Community Board of Advisors.

“Everything I had seen about Daemen College I was impressed with,” Saffrin said. “It was really kind of an easy sell, because they had done all of the hard work.”

Olson said that Saffrin has become a "true friend of the college" who made it known he "believes in what we're doing."

The Crane Family Foundation, created in 2007, made previous donations quietly and without any fanfare, mostly to organizations that benefit children, and Saffrin acknowledged that he was reluctant to be public about the Daemen gift because it is not in his nature. But he agreed to do so because he felt so strongly about the work of the college.

“It’s an important gift for Daemen,” he said.

Olson described it as being powerful and transformative for the entire college.

“Mr. Saffrin’s gift will enable us to advance the center’s exceptional work and help foster the spirit of civic responsibility in our students, faculty, and staff, while improving the sustainability of our communities for generations to come,” he said. “We are profoundly grateful and indebted to Mr. Saffrin for his gift, which is a historic moment in the life of our college.”

The money will go into an endowment for the center, which "does so many things in underprivileged areas in Buffalo," Olson said.

A graduate of Bradley University who studied international marketing and psychology, Saffrin never envisioned himself at the helm of a company that produces foundry coke for use in making cast iron.

“I thought I’d give it a shot, and once I got involved in it I really enjoyed it,” he said.

The gift targeted to the Center for Sustainable Communities and Civic Engagement dovetails with Saffrin’s own personal interest in environmental sustainability and community building, he said.

In 2014, Saffrin issued an apology in court for Tonawanda Coke’s environmental transgressions, saying “we tried but we failed.”

On Tuesday, he acknowledged again the past failures of the company. But he also said things have changed under his leadership and the company has made huge improvements.

“We’re certainly I think in better standing than we have been in the past,” he said. “I would say, 'Here’s a list of things and come out and take a look at things.' ”

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