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Griffis killed in Zoar Valley fall; Beloved arts educator, son of noted sculptor dies while hiking alone in Town of Persia

Simon P. Griffis, the local arts educator killed in a hiking accident Monday in Zoar Valley, was remembered Tuesday for his innate talent for helping children from Buffalo's poorer neighborhoods realize their potential.

Griffis, son of the well-known late sculptor Larry W. Griffis Jr., served as executive director of the Ashford Hollow Foundation, which operates both the Griffis Sculpture Park and the Essex Street Art Center on Buffalo's West Side.

He also founded the Griffis Studio for Youth, where he taught art and life skills to thousands of children through local Boys & Girls clubs.

Surrounded by the sculptures of Griffis Studio students outside the Essex Street center, his brother, Mark, credited him Tuesday with building their father's foundation into the educational institution it is today.

"If you touch one student, and they go on and do something great, that's so important for a teacher. But he's touched thousands of kids," Mark Griffis said. "When he goes into a school, all the kids love him, all the kids relate to him."

Simon Griffis, 48, of Essex Street, fell to his death Monday while hiking alone near the Deer Lick Trail in Zoar Valley in the Town of Persia, the Cattaraugus County Sheriff's Office reported.

Sheriff's officials said Griffis fell off a cliff about 150 feet into the gorge.

Two hikers found his body shortly before 3:45 p.m. Monday.

"He was walking on a cliff that overlooks the southern branch of Cattaraugus Creek," Sheriff's Capt. Robert Bucchardt said. "It appears to be an accidental fall."

A preliminary investigation by sheriff's investigators and state Department of Environmental Conservation officers revealed no apparent suspicious circumstances, sheriff's officials said.

With his shock of white hair, perpetual grin and easygoing demeanor, Griffis left a lasting impression on many of those he met in the local arts community.

Paul Hogan, a friend and vice president of the Oishei Foundation, which funds the education program, called Griffis a fiercely dedicated arts educator.

"The work that he was doing was always about trying to convince kids that had no reason to believe that they were creative or good that they were creative and good," said Hogan, who met Griffis about seven years ago.

"Among anybody that I've seen do this work, he was the best," Hogan added.

Zach Boehler, who has worked with Griffis' education program for four years, recalled their first meeting.

"I met Simon when I was doing an internship at [Buffalo State College]," Boehler said. "After the week I was supposed to volunteer there, I never left. He blew me away. There was nobody like him."

The same applied to Griffis' students, who would assemble outside the Essex Street center -- founded in 1969 by Griffis' father -- even when no classes were offered, Hogan said.

"He would get there some mornings, and there would be half a dozen kids just sitting outside the studio that just wanted to hang out there," Hogan said. "They couldn't get in or do anything, but they just loved it. They loved him, and they just wanted to keep being part of it."

Authorities say there are one or two hiking deaths per year in Zoar Valley.

"This is a natural area owned by the state of New York," Bucchardt said. "It's not a state park. It's beautiful, but it can be a very dangerous place to be if you don't know what you're doing.

Griffis died amid the natural beauty of the outdoors enjoyed so much by his family. His father died in 2000 at age 75.

"It was my dad's legacy that he started Griffis Park," Mark Griffis said. "It was Simon's legacy that he really dedicated the majority of his adult life to continuing that vision of my father's and expanding the vision into arts and education and touching so many souls."

e-mail: cdabkowski@buffnews.com and gwarner@buffnews.com

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