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Friends and colleagues Thursday recalled former Buffalo School Superintendent Albert Thompson's passion for family, children and the opera.

Thompson's quiet demeanor made him an unlikely pioneer, the first African-American to serve as superintendent of the city school system. Many recalled his skills as a fiscal manager. But all recalled his demeanor.

"He was the example of what we mean when we say Christian gentleman," said Joseph Murray, who with Thompson served as one of Superintendent Eugene Reville's top deputies in the 1980s.

County Legislator Judith P. Fisher, D-Buffalo, a former School Board member, recalled Thompson, who died Wednesday of a heart attack, as "a man of grace who was able to work with everyone."

"If I had one thing to say about him, it's that he was 'good people,' " said School Board President Marlies A. Wesolowski. "He had a lot of integrity. A lot of people were critical of Al and his leadership, but I never heard him say a bad word about anyone. He was always positive."

Thompson, 63, worked his way up through the system, starting as an industrial arts teacher and eventually rising to associate superintendent for finance. The School Board selected him to succeed Reville in 1989.

"Al came into the job during one of the district's most troubled times," said Philip Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation. "There was a School Board at odds with each other, and dire fiscal constraints. But he managed to get at least a working relationship with the board and chart us through the most difficult financial times the board has seen."

"Every superintendent has a strength, and his was school finances," said Mozella Richardson, a former School Board member. "There was no one finer in this country in terms of school finances than Mr. Thompson. I don't think people in Buffalo realized what they had in him."

Finance may have been his expertise, but his passions rested elsewhere.

"His overwhelming interests were family, the kids of the City of Buffalo and the opera," Rumore said. "Al was a man whose primary concern was with kids, whether they were his grandchild, whom he adored, or the students of the public schools.

Then there was opera.

"He knew opera chapter and verse," Rumore said. "He could hear a few notes from any opera, tell you what it was, and hum the rest of it."

Florence Baugh, another former School Board member, recalled the time Thompson gave her an opera program as a souvenir from his trip to the Far East. "I often teased him, 'What got crossed up in your genes to love opera so much?' "

Others recalled Thompson's quiet sense of humor.

"It wasn't a public sense of humor," Mrs. Fisher said, "but he knew when to smile and say something funny to change the tone of the room."

Thompson concluded his 41-year career in June 1996, retiring a year after being diagnosed with cancer. Friends say he appeared to be in relatively healthy shape since he stepped down. He and his wife traveled, and he remained quietly active on the city's school scene.

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