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Mike Connelly: New columnist will share the stories of Buffalo

Sean Kirst is a Western New Yorker through and through.

“My story is the Buffalo story,” Sean wrote to me a few months ago. “A father raised in an orphanage founded by Father Baker, an orphaned mother from an immigrant family whose brothers worked on the waterfront.”

Now he has come home, to write a local news column for The Buffalo News.

For newspapers, columnist jobs are precious. Columnists tell the stories of people often overlooked. They hold the powerful accountable. Unlike news reporters, columnists get to have an opinion. That’s why we run their pieces with a commentary label.

Sean has been writing columns for more than two decades. He grew up in Dunkirk, spent his college years at SUNY Fredonia and cut his teeth at the Niagara Gazette. In 27 years in Syracuse, he covered local news, wrote sports columns, then spent 19 years as a metro columnist.

He won the Ernie Pyle Award in 2009, a national recognition given to one journalist a year for human interest writing. After the award was announced, Sean wrote about his parents: “On the day I told them I had a full-time job with a newspaper, my dad’s first words – honest to God, his first words – were: ‘I always liked Ernie Pyle.’ ”

BuffaloNews.com readers will be familiar with Sean. For more than a year, he has written a weekly online column. He told the story of Buffalo cops in the Blizzard of 1977 and wrote about one of the last Baker Boys who knew Father Baker.

Last week, he told the story of Alfonzo Whitehurst, who just graduated as “Mr. Utica College.”

“His mother was killed in Syracuse when he was a little boy,” Sean wrote. “He never met his father. With his younger siblings, Marcel and Oliesha, much of his childhood turned into moving from place to place, or staying with different relatives or family friends.”

Alfonzo was the first in his family to graduate from college.

“If you want one truth, his core motivation, Whitehurst said it is the memory of his mother,” Sean wrote. “It is within his power, he said, to make sure that she is more than a statistic, not just another casualty lost to random violence on the streets. It is up to him and his siblings, he said, to keep her alive – in the sense that the value of her life will be measured by the lives of her children.”

Sean’s column will be on Page One of Sunday’s paper, and online at BuffaloNews.com

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