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List of nicknames is big hit at reunion

If someone as famous as Gen. Bill "Wild Bill" Donovan, who founded the forerunner of the CIA, couldn't escape the Old First Ward without a nickname, there wasn't a chance that someone who had 14 kids wouldn't end up being called "Diapers."

"Billy Riordan was always changing diapers so that's what they called him," Mike "Cats" Catanzaro said Saturday afternoon at a reunion of the Old First Ward at nearby DiTondo's on Seneca Street.

Several hundred Old First Warders gathered for an afternoon of food, beer and memories as they read through a list of more than 600 nicknames that came out of the Ward over the past 50 years.

Ray "Tippy Toes" O'Brien was quite the dancer. Former Erie County Sheriff Tom "Slim" Higgins was a tall drink of water growing up. A retired homicide detective, John "High School Harry" Montando, could never escape the bow tie he wore to school one day.

And then there were the tags that followed people around to their chagrin. Nicknames like Pie Face, Bunny Ears, Bushelhead, Hosenose, Hooknose and Stinky.

"I suspect it went back to Ireland, when everyone was named Pat or Tim," Joan Graham-Scahill said of the Ward's penchant for giving everyone a name other than the one their parents called them.

Cut off from the rest of the city physically by railroads, canals and grain elevators, the Old First Ward developed into a mostly Irish enclave where large families grew up in small houses, the men worked in the grain elevators, the railroads or the docks, and each Sunday everyone went to Our Lady of Perpetual Help or St. Brigid's.

"The Ward was very unique" said Graham-Scahill, one of three women who run a museum called Waterfront Memories and More at 208 Elk St. "It's like a little town in a city."

Tim Bohen, whose family lived in the Old First Ward from 1849 to 1949, is writing a book on that period in the community's history and shared stories with those at the reunion.

"There's a rich history of the Ward," said Bohen, amazed at the tales he has come across in his research.

Besides Donovan, the founder of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the Ward also spawned Jack "Kegga" O'Brien, the Broadway columnist; Jimmy "Slats" Slattery, the one-time light-heavyweight champion; William "Blue-Eyed Billy" Sheehan, a lieutenant governor and a leader of Tammany Hall; and of course there was Jimmy "Mayor" Griffin.

Most of those gathered for the reunion were gray-haired. Many moved out of the Ward long ago.

But the memories are still there, and so is the laughter as many of those gathered looked over the list of more than 600 nicknames and roared at them.

Richard "Erk" Donovan, the undersheriff of Erie County, was one of three Buffalo Police commissioners to come out of the Ward, along with Michael Reagan and John B. Myers.

"Erk?" where did that come from, Donovan was asked.

"You know I don't really know," Donovan said and laughed.

"I've called you that since I was 13, and I don't know either," laughed Tom "Zeke" Szczygiel.

e-mail: mbeebe@buffnews.com

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