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Real-life George Bailey touched countless lives

It's sure to happen in the next few days -- Frank Capra's holiday classic "It's a Wonderful Life" will find its way onto my television screen. For anyone who has never seen it -- if such a person old enough to read exists -- the movie centers around George Bailey, a true believer who is pushed to the brink on Christmas Eve. During this all-important evening, George gets to see what life would be like if he was never born. It is through this experience that George realizes just how many lives he has touched and changed forever.

I enjoy this movie a great deal for many reasons, not the least of which is that it reminds me of my real-life George Bailey.

My father, Ed Pantano, was an ordinary man who impacted the lives of others in extraordinary ways. Outside of his family, Dad's passion was helping the sick, handicapped and underprivileged children of the area, most notably through the Variety Club of Buffalo, for which he volunteered countless hours.

A city employee who never graduated from high school -- though he did earn his GED -- Dad may not seem like the type of person you would picture raising millions of dollars for Children's Hospital and other organizations. Yet what he lacked in schooling, he more than made up for in heart and determination.

Through the late 1970s and early 1980s, he served as chairman of the Variety Club Telethon and two terms as the organization's Chief Barker. He helped kick-start the popular Kids Day promotion with the Courier Express, which The Buffalo News has since carried on, and helped the club secure the $100,000 Sears Award in 1980. That award led to the building and completion of the Variety Tower section of Children's Hospital. I often think about how excited Dad was the day he received that phone call, walking around the house screaming, "We got the hundred thousand!"

I shared his excitement because, as a 6-year-old, I thought "we" meant our family. But reality did not dampen my spirits much. I was still happy for my father.

Dad was later named an Ambassador to Variety International, the first person from the Buffalo club to be so honored. However, no story reflects my father's George Bailey-esque qualities like the story of Leiten Corchado.

In the late 1970s, Leiten was a boy of 5 or 6 who lived in Puerto Rico and was stricken with a serious heart condition. The surgery he needed was not available in Puerto Rico, and his mother could not afford to travel to the United States to have her son treated.

After hearing of Leiten's situation through the Variety Club of Puerto Rico, my father called every businessman he could get in touch with. In February, Leiten and his mother were flown to Buffalo where Leiten would have the surgery he needed at Children's Hospital, performed by the hospital's renowned Dr. Subramanian. The money was taken care of. Leiten returned to Puerto Rico a healed, vibrant boy.

It will soon be 20 years since Dad passed away. Many of his friends and those with whom he worked are gone now, too. But as long as there are those who were touched by his example who can share it with others, Ed Pantano will never be far from us.

So, as George Bailey once again realizes that he is indeed the richest man in town, I'll sit back, smile and think of my own George Bailey.

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