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WORKER TAKES A SHINE TO POLISHING HISTORIC BRASS

William Colbert polishes the four brass handles on the big front doors of Erie County Hall.

He lovingly manicures the brass lions' paws that support electric torches in the foyer where Grover Cleveland politicked before he went to Washington to become president.

He checks the shine of the brass griffin -- half eagle, half lion -- that crouches in escarole leaves above the corridor that leads out to Delaware Avenue.

Colbert is a happy man in the perfect job. He requested the assignment.

"I do all the brass in County Hall," he said.

For five hours a day, five days a week, the county maintenance worker polishes the furniture and fixtures placed in the building in the early 1870s. He used to do both City Hall and County Hall.

"Most of the things are antiques," said Colbert. "When I'm through, no black or blue or green will show -- nothing but gold."

As he spoke, Colbert brought out the letters in a circular plaque.

It says:

"Here lay in state

the body of

President William McKinley

the 25th president of the United States

Sept. 15, 1901"

Colbert said he sees children and people from Europe and Asia stopping to read it.

"This is the nation's history," he said.

McKinley was giving a boost to the Pan American Exposition here in 1901 when he was fatally wounded by the anarchist assassin Leon Czolgosz, who had stood in line to shake his hand. After an operation to remove the bullet, the president tried to recuperate in a mansion on Delaware Avenue.

As the shocked city and nation waited to see if the president would recover, the street outside was banked in straw to dull the sound of buggy wheels and horses' hooves.

The day after he died, McKinley's body lay on the spot of the medallion.

The line of people waiting to pay their respects was at times a mile long, police reported.

The McKinley medallion, burnished by Colbert, is a few feet from the brass plaque commemorating the 26th president, Theodore Roosevelt, who took office Sept. 14 in the Wilcox Mansion on Delaware Avenue.

Colbert already has polished that one. (No secret formula here: He uses a commercial cleaner that the county buys by the case.)

Upstairs, outside County Court, is a plaque connected to the villain in the McKinley drama. Leon Czolgosz went on trial there Sept. 23 and was convicted Sept. 24.

It took less time to convict Czolgosz, from the time of McKinley's death, than it will take Colbert to complete polishing the brass McKinley memorial in the floor.

Colbert not only polishes each letter, he uses tools to dig out any dust in the curves and angles of the letters.

A favorite subject is the brass Forfeiture Table, supported by six bowed but heavily ornamented legs. For thousands of Western New Yorkers it has been a scene of disaster, but Colbert said he admires it as a period piece of public furniture.

Colbert frequently restores the patina of the dozens of rungs on the two majestic staircases that sweep from the second to the third floors.

His hobby besides his work is picking up neglected antiques and restoring them.

"I like anything that is shiny," he said.

Colbert's efforts do not go unnoticed. A few County Hall regulars commented on the difference in the McKinley medallion.

"It used to be green," said defense attorney Robert M. Murphy.

"At least you can read it," said David Suttell, floor clerk in the County Clerk's Office.

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