Every year The Buffalo News chooses a few Outstanding Citizens who have contributed to our community in many different ways. This year, we have an especially diverse group of honorees.
The Rev. Kenyatta T. Cobb, Police Department chaplain and committed activist, puts people first. Bonnie Brusk is devoted to helping the young campers at Cradle Beach. Angelo M. Fatta is helping assure the long-term health of the Buffalo Philharmonic.
Dr. Myron Glick is bringing health services to the inner city. University at Buffalo basketball coach Reggie Witherspoon turned a struggling program into UB's most successful sports team. Mary Kate O'Connell lightens our hearts and informs our minds with her theater troupe.
When Alphonso O'Neil-White's business needed to move, he could have headed for the suburbs. Instead he showed his commitment to Buffalo by choosing to move to a long-vacant corner of downtown. Harvey Garrett fell in love with the grand Victorians on Buffalo's West Side and became a dedicated housing activist.
These eight people have been chosen as the 56th annual Buffalo News Outstanding Citizens. They were selected from a list of 20 persons nominated by members of The News staff.
This year's honorees have shown leadership and proved their commitment to our community and its people. The News is proud to honor them.
THE REV. KENYATTA T. COBB,
PASTOR AND ACTIVIST
The Rev. Kenyatta T. Cobb is a pastor and community activist who is known for helping the people he meets -- from criminals and police officers to inner-city youths and suburban residents.
Born and raised in Buffalo, Cobb, 45, is pastor at Hananiah Lutheran Church on Sycamore Street. He also is a chaplain for the Buffalo Police Department, Erie County Medical Center's trauma unit and Grace Manor Nursing Home and a former chaplain of the Erie County Detention Center and Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority. He is working with the Erie County Sheriff's Office to develop a chaplaincy program for its officers.
Armed with his favorite motto, "I'll see you on the battlefield," Cobb ministers to and assists the people he meets in the city's hospitals, courts, on the streets and at crime scenes. He often consoles grieving people who have lost their loved ones.
A year ago, Cobb brought five young men from street gangs into his home for one year. He raised them as if they were his own children and gave them a father's love, despite death threats and a barrage of bullets that he managed to escape.
His other roles include: founder of the Western New York Law Enforcement Chaplains' Association, president of the board for the City's Weed and Seed Federal Initiative, member of the Buffalo Lutheran Employment Advisory Board and member of the U.S. Attorney's Office advisory board for the Project Exile program.
-- Vanessa Thomas
HEART OF CRADLE BEACH
For 34 years, Bonnie Brusk has been part of the Cradle Beach spirit that has touched thousands of lives. When campers return to Cradle Beach as adults, the most common question they ask is, "Does Bonnie still work here?"
Following a successful 2004 summer season that saw hundreds of disabled and disadvantaged youth enjoy the fresh air and fun yet challenging programs, Brusk has successfully brought Cradle Beach into the 21st century by meeting the distinctive needs of these two groups of children.
With Brusk as director of youth services, there are no "off seasons" at the Angola facility, which is key to spreading the message of what Cradle Beach has to offer to Western New York.
Working with the Board of Trustees and staff, she has helped to increase the year-round use of Cradle Beach's facilities. Now, community organizations and schools hold retreats, social activities, team building and recreational functions during the fall, winter and spring. Currently, Brusk is collaborating with staff on a new program, funded by the John R. Oshei Foundation, that will offer leadership training to adolescents in Erie County.
-- Sue LoTempio
ANGELO M. FATTA,
PHILHARMONIC BOARD CHAIRMAN
At a time when most successful people would be content to kick back and enjoy retirement, Angelo M. Fatta has done the opposite -- taking on not one but two new challenges in sharply contrasting arenas.
In 2001, after retiring from ACTS Testing Labs, the consumer products testing company he co-founded, the chemist-entrepreneur agreed to take charge of BuffLink, a nonprofit booster group formed to nurture the area's embryonic life science sector in hopes of filling the economic gap left by smokestack industry.
And then in 2004, as if creating jobs in Buffalo's perpetually stalled economy were not a sufficiently daunting task, Fatta also took the reins of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra just as BPO management seemed in danger of unraveling.
Though developing a life sciences identity has been "a slow process," he predicts that BuffLink's hard work will pay off once UB's new Center for Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences opens on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus downtown.
In terms of job development, said BuffLink's unpaid president, "there is a lot else going on" -- enough to boost Buffalo into the top 20 among 80 or more cities that are life sciences competitors. "People are taking us seriously," he said.
Donning his other hat -- Philharmonic board chairman -- Fatta said the restoration of some Erie County funding, combined with private gifts, has left the orchestra "in good shape for the coming year. The real challenge is going to be 2006. We're going to plan as if there will be no county funding, which means taking a hard look at expenses."
-- Tom Buckham
DR. MYRON GLICK,
HEALTH CARE ACTIVIST
A new doctor's office doesn't usually merit much attention, but Dr. Myron Glick's expanding practice is different. He is part of a small yet energetic trend in this region of physicians and churches banding together to provide care to the uninsured and underinsured.
These efforts share a common theme: an increasing concern over the pervasive health disparities, especially among minorities and the working poor.
Seven years ago, Glick opened his Jericho Road Family Practice on Buffalo's lower West Side, proving that a doctor willing to make a few sacrifices could succeed in a poor neighborhood.
But he had something bigger in mind -- a faith-based network of medical offices that serve the city's neediest communities.
In 2004, that dream began to take shape. With the help of Resurrection Lutheran Church, he opened a second office at Genesee and Doat, in a neighborhood where a doctor's office is an endangered species. This office is the hub around which the church is building a host of other services.
Glick is collaborating on one other faith-based East Side health center project that began last year, and is considering an additional office in partnership with his church, RiveRock, which serves the Black Rock and Riverside communities.
Glick named his practice after the biblical Good Samaritan story. He sees himself as an interested and earnest citizen, not as a saint or super hero.
"I'd like to say that what we are doing will make a difference, but the problems are much bigger than us," he said. "All you can do is take a step forward."
-- Henry Davis
UB BULLS COACH
Back in 1999, the University at Buffalo could have used a cosmetologist with paranormal powers because the extreme makeover of the men's basketball program was going to be a phenomenal undertaking. The school turned to Reggie Witherspoon, a born and bred Western New Yorker.
He was handed a program that was in the middle of a player revolt, was on the NCAA's short list for probation because of indiscretions under the previous coach and was arguably the worst program in all of Division I. Not only was Witherspoon hired in the early part of the season, but just days after he accepted the job, he had to prepare the Bulls to play nationally ranked North Carolina.
Clearly, this was an assignment that called for a Mike Krzyzewski or a Lute Olson, or at least one of their many proteges. Certainly, it wasn't a job for Witherspoon, who was barely removed from his high school days as a coach at Sweet Home. Twenty-four wins in his first four seasons had many convinced Witherspoon wasn't the man for the job.
But a funny thing happened along the way to basketball purgatory: Witherspoon started winning.
In 2004-05, Buffalo was expected to win and did just that and while the Bulls came up short of qualifying for the NCAA Tournament, even Witherspoon's critics had to admit that his coaching throughout the season -- they won a school record 23 games -- was as good as any in recent Western New York history.
Over the last two seasons, UB is 40-22. Attendance is up in Alumni Arena, the student section is boisterous, and the program is one of the most respected in the Mid-American Conference.
Off the court, Witherspoon performs charitable acts without much fanfare. He's active in the nationwide Coaches vs. Cancer program, started in memory of former North Carolina State coach Jim Valvano, and he is also a member of the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame Board of Directors.
After the Witherspoon makeover, UB has never looked better.
-- Rodney McKissic
MARY KATE O'CONNELL,
FOUNDER OF O'CONNELL & COMPANY
Singing and acting come naturally to Mary Kate O'Connell, founder and artistic director of O'Connell & Company and local musical theater's leading funny girl for more than three decades. So does doing good.
"Your heart really dictates what you do in life, and I always loved music and plays," said O'Connell, who was drawn to the stage at Holy Angels Academy and Rosary Hill College. She later polished her talents with small professional companies and a quartet that roamed from restaurant to club to home. "We were sort of gypsies," she said.
Though her first foray into producing was at Lancaster Opera House in the 1980s, O'Connell hit her stride with O'Connell & Company, founded in 1995. After settling into Cabaret in the Square seven years ago, the company staged its first production of "Nunsense," starring O'Connell as Mother Superior. She owns the role.
"People call me Sister when they pass me on the street; they think they owe me homework," said O'Connell, who may be faster with a one-liner than anybody in local theater.
Then five years ago came "Diva by Diva," now the longest-running production in Western New York history. O'Connell's brainchild features an ever-changing cast of strong real-life women who relish doing monologues about life and love, triumph and disappointment.
Much of O'Connell's endless energy gets donated to charity. Since 1995 her troupe has raised more than $150,000 for various causes, including Cornerstone Manor, a shelter for women and children. Giving, she said "is part of my makeup."
-- Tom Buckham
HEAD OF HEALTHNOW
Buffalo matters. That was the approach of Alphonso O'Neil-White as he began the difficult task of finding a new headquarters for HealthNow, the insurer that had only recently made him its leader.
HealthNow, parent company of BlueCross BlueShield of Western New York, is already located in Buffalo, on Main Street next to Canisius College, which plans to expand into the company's current building by the end of 2007.
Needing to find new space for the company's 1,200 employees, O'Neil-White launched a search that sprang from a premise different from some other recent corporate relocations: He recognized that as a business leader in Buffalo, he has civic responsibilities in addition to corporate ones, and what is more, he believed those duties might be compatible.
After researching more than 130 locations in Buffalo and its suburbs, the company came up with a plan that meets its needs and gives the city a welcome economic jolt: Not only will those 1,200 workers stay in the city, they will move downtown. Not only will the company occupy a long-vacant piece of land, it will reclaim a brownfield site, rehabilitating and returning to productive use one of the city's many contaminated parcels.
In less than three years, those HealthNow workers will be showing up at 249 W. Genesee St., a site known for the ornate facade of the former Buffalo Gas Light Co.
The 160-foot-long stone wall is all that remains of the 19th century company. It will be incorporated into the design of the 21st century business that comes to downtown with a leader who holds to some old-fashioned ideas of community, responsibility and building for the future.
-- Kevin Walter
WEST SIDE HOUSING ACTIVIST
Harvey Garrett, a Michigan native and computer whiz, came to Buffalo seven years ago to work for a high-tech firm. He fell in love with the grand Victorians of his West Side neighborhood and joined the fight to revive streets fallen prey to slumlords, lax courts and a lackluster City Hall.
When his firm relocated to Nashville, Garrett stayed. He traded his hard drives and six-figure salary to battle blight in the streets.
What separates Garrett from many others is that he comes from a goal-oriented, business culture. He is interested in results, not rhetoric. He figures out what needs to be done, then -- with help from others -- does it. He's not satisfied with "nice try." And he has the successes to prove it.
Working with other activists and backed by enlightened Housing Court Judge Henry Nowak, Garrett in six months reclaimed Essex Street from a slumlord's 20-year death grip. He pushed a no-plea court policy that reclaimed 19th Street from dealers and criminals. He leads the activist posse that is retaking Massachusetts Avenue.
Every step restores people's faith, convinces homeowners to stay and attracts new blood to old homes. The 38-year-old activist makes just a fraction of what he earned in high tech, but -- as Garrett put it -- "this is more fun."
The more fun he has, the better the West Side looks.
-- Donn Esmonde