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Not the same without Irish Paul Higgins

The parade will be smaller this year smaller not just by one person, but smaller by one presence.

There's a difference. The effect that Paul Higgins had on people vastly exceeded his 5 feet, 8 inches and 230 pounds. He embraced the world, never closer than on the holiday of holidays for any devoted Irishman: St. Patrick's Day.

The annual parade rolls through the Old First Ward, the Irish-American enclave bounded by the Buffalo River and railroad tracks a few blocks from downtown. The houses are boxy wood frames that seem too small for a family. Most of them have a glorious view of the hulking, long-abandoned grain elevators that mark Buffalo's better days.

Folks here live shoulder to shoulder, which is why they knew in the Ward long before Hillary Clinton caught on that it takes a village to raise a child. The Higginses live in the house built by Paul's father in the 1920s and blessed by Father Nelson Baker, which, to any true believer, makes it sacred ground. Given Paul's irrepressible congeniality, it was no surprise that the house on Kentucky Street morphed on St. Patty's Day into a neighborhood staging ground/social center.

"People would stop in to get out of the cold or to use the bathroom; that's how it started," Mark Higgins told me, as the family gathered on a recent morning. "My father would grab them a beer and start talking, and they just stayed."

The "guest list" grew in time from a trickle to a tidal wave. In the eye of the festive hurricane was Paul Higgins, sitting in his recliner in an oversized green leprechaun hat. Milling about were his four adult kids, various cousins, uncles, aunts, 10 grandsons, in-laws, neighbors, friends, friends of friends, people he knew from his years working at City Hall, people he met during back-surgery stays at Mercy Hospital and, last year, some kids from UB that no one knew.

Congregating there were members of South Buffalo's political royalty, ranging from Griffins to Keanes to Whalens to (other) Higginses, all of them checking any intramural grudges at the door.

Faces changed; the story stayed the same. Family matriarch Carolyn Higgins spent days cooking more than 100 pounds of corned beef. Paul made and bottled his secret-recipe Irish cream liqueur. Friends and neighbors left cases of beer on the porch. Five painted, wooden cutout leprechauns stood sentinel on the lawn. People stopped in before, during and after the parade.

Underneath it all was a way of life that elevated our similarities above our differences. The door of the house was always open to tear down the invisible walls of separation among us.

Paul planned to be there Saturday. He had gallbladder surgery six weeks ago and was doing fine. Carolyn came home for their daily lunch date about a month ago and found him dead of natural causes. The funeral was up the block at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church, where he was baptized 66 years ago.

The door to the Higgins place will be open Saturday for the parade. The corned beef will be out. The beer will be cold. The lawn leprechauns will greet visitors. It will be the same as ever, except for one person, one presence. Paul Higgins would have loved to be there. Of course, in every laugh and in every story and in every welcoming hug and handshake, he will be.

e-mail: desmonde@buffnews.com

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