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AT YEAR'S END, A TIP OF THE PARTY HAT TO SOME UNSUNG HEROES

Most of them aren't household names. None of them is in it for money or glory. All of them, in different ways, went above and beyond the call of duty. We present our annual list of of unsung heroes -- a subjective, nonredeemable (no cash prize, no trophy), this-and-a-token-will-get-you-on-Metro Rail award to people who did the right thing for the right reasons. We admire them for their courage, grit and principles -- things any community can never have enough of.

Without further ado -- and promising not to mention the words "millennium," "Elvis" or "Y2K" -- we give you the Class of '99.

Dr. Deborah Richter -- People become doctors because they want to help the sick and it pays better than hauling trash. For Richter, the helping far outweighs the dollars. As head of an inner-city medical clinic, she treated a lot of folks who paid her with a hug or a handshake. She handed out free samples of drugs to patients who couldn't pay for prescriptions. She scoured the city for the inhalers and oxygen machines her asthmatics needed to breathe.

She watched sick patients wither because they couldn't pay for a test or treatment, and it killed her to know we let it happen in America. She took the fight beyond the office wall, publicly pounding away for national health coverage. When she relocated to Vermont a few months ago, she left a hole that can't be filled.

Helene Kramer -- As president of the Buffalo School Board, Kramer tried to inject accountability into an administratively dysfunctional school system. She was one of five board members who pressed Superintendent James Harris for answers in a filing blunder that delayed $8.9 million of school aid.

For her trouble, she was branded a racist (she and the other four board members are white, Harris is black) by black leaders who knew nothing about her years of civil rights activism, progressive votes on the board or personal life. Kramer was married to a black man, and their two children endured taunts of "high yellow" and were shunned by other neighborhood kids. The larger problem: a society where so few blacks are in power. Each becomes a symbol of years of exclusion and discrimination. Kramer and the others got caught in that emotional vortex, and paid a price for their principles. Yet the stand they took revealed how some black leaders use race as a political tactic, and how far we have to go before an African-American public official is measured purely on merit.

The Rev. Charles Biegner -- A lot of people won't venture to Doat Street, in the belly of Buffalo's inner city. You can't drag Charles Biegner away. For a quarter-century, Biegner -- a lean, salty-haired 60-year-old who looks 50 and acts ageless -- has been pastor of Resurrection Lutheran Church. He held onto his congregation while other inner-city parishes faded away. The parish building houses Head Start preschoolers and Narcotics Anonymous meetings. Time and again he slapped aside offers for softer suburban placements.

The past year was among his best. Largely because of dollars he raised, Habitat for Humanity -- helped by parish volunteers -- built two houses in a weeded lot across from the church. They were the first new-builds on these streets in decades. They're now home to families who couldn't have made the leap without the interest-free mortgage.

"The houses won't change the world," said Biegner. "But it's a symbol of something new and good."

Right. And Biegner stands for all the people of God who -- following Christ's example -- help those who need it most; who find reward, when it comes, in the crack addicts who get their souls back, in the fatherless kids who don't get lost on the streets. And in houses that become homes.

Patricia and Ralph Webdale -- They are the parents of Kendra Webdale, the Fredonia woman pushed in front of a New York City subway train by an unmedicated mental patient.

On a gray, chill Thursday in February, the Webdales left the cocoon of privacy in which most of us live and became crusaders for a cause. It was against their nature, and their first press conference was nearly their last; it took 20 minutes to coax them out of a back office, the state's attorney general at their side. Her eyes were wet; his hands were folded white-knuckle tight.

They spent the months following that speaking to media and lobbying state legislators for a law that would let courts order mentally ill people to take their medication. They did it so other innocent people would not become victims, so other parents would not have to mourn a child. The State Legislature passed "Kendra's Law" in August.

It would have been easier for the Webdales to grieve privately. For some people, life isn't about what's easier.

Ada Shipman -- She sets the bar for unselfishness higher than most of us can see. Twelve years ago, she took into her East Side home an infant whose bones are so brittle, they crack with a hug. She and her husband adopted him two years ago, so the system wouldn't take him after she contracted multiple sclerosis. This year, the Shipmans added one more, a blind crack-addicted foster baby nobody else wanted.

A happy new year to them, and to all who give more of themselves than the rest of us.

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