When Bernard A. Tolbert was growing up on welfare in a Buffalo public housing project, he had big dreams and small dreams for his future.
"I wanted to go to West Point someday, and become the president of the United States," he said. "But I also dreamed of the day when I'd just have a real house with a lawn, and a place to grow things."
Tolbert never became president, but his career became a source of pride and inspiration for others who live in the public housing facilities operated by the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority.
Now the chief of security for the National Basketball Association, the 56-year-old Tolbert was the keynote speaker Saturday at the Housing Authority's 70th annual gala dinner at the Hyatt Regency Buffalo.
Tolbert and 12 other former residents of Housing Authority housing -- all of whom became successful in the worlds of business and public service -- were honored at the event.
In an interview before the dinner, Tolbert recalled how his mother, Lisa Tolbert-Yokley, raised her five children on welfare and without the financial support of a husband in the Willert Park Projects, now known as the A.D. Price Development, on Jefferson Avenue. A hard worker in the city schools, Tolbert went on to graduate from the University at Buffalo. He then spent 21 years as an FBI agent, a career that included three years as commander of the agency's Buffalo office. After leaving the FBI in 2001, he took high-profile security jobs with Coca Cola Co. and a bank before taking the NBA position in August 2002.
"A lot of people look at growing up in public housing as a negative thing. It taught me a lot about people and helped prepare me for things I'd have to deal with later in life," Tolbert said. "I didn't know what I didn't have, so I never felt deprived."
About 500 people attended the dinner.
"Some of the great leaders of our community have grown up in public housing," Executive Director Sharon West said. "It shows you the greatness of our country. Anyone can come from any background and still accomplish great things."
Other former public housing residents who were honored included Stephanie Barber, vice president of the United Way of Buffalo & Erie County; Brian C. Davis, Ellicott Common Council member; Dr. John Fabian; Joel A. Giambra, Erie County executive; Dr. Mary H. Gresham, dean of the University at Buffalo's Graduate School for Education and a university vice president; L. Nathan Hare, executive director of Community Action Organization; Yvonne Hargrave, Buffalo Public Schools interim superintendent; George Johnson, a businessman; LeRoi C. Johnson, a Buffalo attorney; E. Jeanette Ogden, Buffalo City Court judge; Crystalea Burns Pelletier, deputy commissioner of the Buffalo Police; and JoAnn Tascurella-Tucci, real estate agent.
West hosted the event, and Brenda McDuffie, Buffalo Urban League president, was master of ceremonies.