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A tribute to our area's quiet heroes

Not so fast. Before contemplating resolutions through the haze of a morning-after head, there is a year-past bell still to ring (I promise to toll it softly). The annual Esmonde Awards are an ode to ordinary folks who through a combination of conscience, circumstance and commitment -- did extraordinary things. They were motivated not by fame nor fortune. Their main reward was the satisfaction that comes with standing on principle -- and a little recognition, which we hope goes a long way.

*Carol Speser -- The ordained minister presided over the first legal gay marriage in New York, wedding Kitty Lambert and Cheryle Rudd just after midnight, July 24, at Niagara Falls. Aside from ensuring her a place in history, it marked a personal milestone in the battle for gay rights that has informed Speser's adult life.

Clinically classified as mentally ill in the 1970s because of her orientation, she first won the internal fight for self-regard, then took on the world. Her early-'90s Gay Pride rallies predated the annual parade and gave many the confidence to come "out." The marriage-equality triumph was tempered by regret for gay friends and colleagues who, claimed by AIDS or driven to suicide, did not live to see the day.

*Nettie Anderson -- If we awarded a version of the Oscars' Lifetime Achievement statuette, the 83-year-old grandmother would be first in line. She is the last survivor of a renowned group of female African-American activists that includes Zettie Young, Margaret Strasner and Rosa Gibson. The grandmother who, among other achievements, co-founded the Grassroots political group is living proof that activism is a lifetime calling.

The coda to decades of community involvement came last summer. Weary of staring at vacant lots in the neighborhood, she -- with dozens of others across the city -- took shovel in hand and transformed the eyesores into community gardens. Anderson was among the "outlaw" gardeners who, frustrated over delays from City Hall, turned the soil without getting a nonsensical official approval. The rightness of their cause, and Anderson's public profile, pressured the mayor into dropping objections. Mark another notch in the grandmother activist's belt.

*Occupy Buffalo Protesters -- Time magazine declared 2011 the Year of the Protester, so it's fitting to give props to the local contingent. Yes, it would be nice if -- as with the tea party -- the populist movement channeled its energies into specific causes and political campaigns. But it was high time that the widening chasm between the Super Rich and the Rest of Us provoked an organized response. It was equally encouraging to see folks rail against the abuses of Wall Street, the lax government regulations that enabled them, and the price many of us have paid.

*Kelly Cline -- Partly because of her one-woman crusade, Albany got it right and passed an anti-texting while driving law with bite. Cline's activism was activated in 2007 by the West Seneca driving-while-texting death of her son, A.J. Larson. Years of navigating the Albany maze and herding legislators paid off last June in legislation that catches up to common sense and saves lives. Look at it as a mom's fitting legacy to her son.

*Sheila Suggs-Barrons and Val Shropshire -- For more than a decade, the Buffalo cops have quietly played Santa to East Side families who caught a bad break. They reached into their pockets and collected from fellow E District officers to bring Christmas to kids on tattered streets whose parents were sideswiped by calamity. It is a reminder of the humanity behind the badges, and of a truth they understand: Even the worst streets are mostly populated by good people.