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Sean Kirst: Father and son explain, on Thanksgiving, why Buffalo is Christmas

For Joe Spina, detailed memory is both a gift and a remedy from all illusions.

He was born in 1925, when Babe Ruth was still the greatest sports hero in the land, when a handful of merchants still used horses on the streets of Buffalo and when some elderly immigrants in his neighborhood still saw radio as a form of magic or witchcraft, carrying voices through the air.

Joe was raised in poverty, and he can close his eyes and see the West Side tenement where his immigrant family lived for a time when he was small.

It was on the corner of Jersey Street and Busti Avenue. There were four apartments and one tiny bathroom for everyone in the place.

"We lived upstairs," Joe said, "on the right hand side."

That was maybe 85 years ago.

He is not one for nostalgia. He grew up amid struggle. Looking back, he clearly sees both joy and pain.

It only adds to his perspective on Thanksgiving, and Christmas.

Joe and his wife Julie drove this week to Ohio. It is a second marriage for both. Joe's first wife, Dorie, died of leukemia in 1981. Years later, he and Julie met while Joe was visiting his mother in a nursing home. Julie worked there. Joe loved her voice on the loudspeaker.

Once they met and started talking, he loved it even more.

They're spending Thanksgiving with Eric Spina, 56, second oldest of Joe and Dorie's three children. He is president of the University of Dayton.

To Eric, his father's presence evokes a deep reaction.

When he thinks of the holidays, he thinks of Buffalo.

And Buffalo itself, to Eric, is intertwined with his father, a man he says always lived by the Golden Rule.

Joe, hearing that, tries to downplay his own role. He said the emotional connection between Christmas and your parents is the same, in memory, for most daughters and sons.

"Children remember things," he said. "The young mind scoops it up."

Maybe. Still, ask Eric to think about the yuletide, and what he sees, before all else, is his mother and father. He makes a point of saying that he's sure his memories are nothing special, holiday traditions and moments shared by countless Western New Yorkers who grew up in the decades after World War II.

That communion is exactly why they retain such power.

Like many of us, Eric remembers the childhood anticipation each December before an annual family journey to downtown Buffalo, a holiday ritual that always happened at night. He remembers coming down the Kensington, his father a quiet presence at the wheel of their station wagon, his mother alongside him in the front seat, Eric in the back with siblings Corinne and Chris.

Downtown Buffalo, yuletide, 1977. (The Buffalo News, file art)

They'd see the glittering skyline, Eric said, with the Electric Tower standing out in brilliant holiday red and green. They'd find a place to park and walk up and down Main Street, admiring beautifully decorated storefront windows. In memory, at least, there'd always be snow on the ground, and at some point in the night they'd stand in line for Santa Claus.

Usually,  it'd be at AM & A's, the old Adam, Meldrum & Anderson department store.

What stays with Eric, beyond all else, is a childhood realization that's never lost its sense of wonder.

"This is our city," he said, "and it feels like the biggest city in the world, and you're looking at the lights and you're walking hand-in-hand downtown with your parents, and it's snowing."

For many generations in Buffalo, that was Christmas.

Every year, as a family, the Spinas drove to Elma or Eden to cut down a Christmas tree. They belonged to St. Joseph University Parish, and they'd go caroling with other families from their church. Joe Spina was a teacher who became a school administrator, a principal, and one gift of that work was being on vacation at the same time as his three kids.

Early on Christmas Eve, Joe would collect Eric and whatever children were available. He'd head to the old Hayes fish market on Harlem Road, where a long line of Italian-Americans always spilled out the door. The wait was not a hindrance. It was part of the joy.

Everyone was there for the same purpose as Joe Spina. They were preparing for the annual Feast of the Seven Fishes, an Italian celebration.

Joe had already been busy in the kitchen. He'd spend much of the week preparing Christmas cakes, from scratch. Breadmaking was a craft he learned from watching his own mother, a ritual of touch and scent and patience that he describes as medicine for the soul, and the warm aroma of baking bread would spread through the house.

On Christmas Eve, the Spinas would take a ride and deliver the cakes to priests and nuns they knew, each delivery accompanied by a jug of wine.

Eric went to Canisius High School, then attended Carnegie-Mellon University and went on to graduate work at Princeton. Before arriving in Dayton, he served as vice chancellor and provost at Syracuse University. The trajectory that carried him to the presidency of a university springboards off his father's narrative, a tale that begins when Joe had no money, no possessions, no true home.

Both of Joe Spina's parents were immigrants. His dad was born in Italy, his mother in Scotland. They entered Buffalo early in the 20th century by walking across the Peace Bridge from Canada, and they settled on the West Side, the first neighborhood they found.

They had radically different personalities. Joe said his father was warm and personable and open, while his mother maintained a fierce Scottish reserve. They had no relatives, no family to help them in Buffalo.

Everything they did, they did on their own.

"My father was a cement finisher, a man of amazing skills," said Joe Spina, who at 92 looks and acts like a much younger man.

During the Great Depression, the central question was always finding the next meal. His father used rubber molds to create statues, typically religious ones, which he'd sell when people wanted that artwork for their homes.

Joe said his father refused any government assistance. Jobs were scarce, and he took whatever hard work he could find. The family often struggled, living "hand to mouth" and moving from place to place. That included one apartment where the little boy would lie in bed at night and hear rats behind the walls, a restless scrabbling noise that stays with him.

Their diet often consisted of beans, potatoes - and then more beans. Joe remembers how people in the neighborhood sometimes bought dandelions from an elderly woman who picked them at Front Park. Joe's mother used a frying pan, dandelions and olive oil and somehow, out of nothing, created a meal.

Joe was an only child. At Christmas, his mother would take him downtown to see wrapped gifts and Santa decorations behind blazing storefront windows, but he had no vision of finding much of anything on Christmas morning. If he was lucky, he might receive one toy, maybe some lead soldiers he'd play with on the floor.

The consolation, he said, was that most of his friends were equally in need, which meant none of them even realized they were poor.

Instead, playing games in the streets, they were happy.

Joe was drafted to serve in the Army during World War II. A friend's father drove the little family to the Central Terminal, where Joe said goodbye, a moment seared in memory. He went to Europe, survived combat that included the Battle of the Bulge, and finally made it home. He used the G.I. bill to attend the University at Buffalo, where his dream of becoming a doctor eventually shifted into a career in education.

"We knew what we wanted," said Joe, who built a life he could not have imagined as a child.

Today, the little boy who used to hear rats clawing in the walls is a 92-year-old retiree who'll eat dinner with his son, a university president. Eric Spina will tell you the holidays always make him think of Buffalo, but he knows it is really a little more precise, that Buffalo makes him appreciate a great and unbreakable example.

"I owe him everything," said Eric, who'll spend Thanksgiving with his dad.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

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