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Outstanding Citizens of 2011; The News salutes the contributions of eight exceptional Western New Yorkers

In the end, it's about passion. Look at the list of winners of The Buffalo News 2011 Outstanding Citizens awards, and what unites them is not age, sex, race, profession or any other standard demographic. The common golden thread that runs through these winners is passion for a public cause. In pursuing that passion -- which may or may not coincide with their profession -- these eight people are making a difference in the quality of life in Western New York.

These are this year's winners, different from last year's and those from the year before. What that tells us is that, when it comes to citizens willing to step up, this region is blessed with abundance. Whether it is a professional like John R. Koelmel, chief executive officer of First Niagara Financial Group, or an activist like Samuel L. Radford III, president of Buffalo's District Parent Coordinating Council, the individuals on this list bring to their work a rock-solid commitment to making a difference.

Communities need people like these -- visionaries who pursue their goals over, around or through the obstacles they face. That's leadership. That's passion. That's what these eight individuals bring to the table every day, and Western New York is better off because of them.

>Clotilde Perez-Bode Dedecker

It's not often that countless suburban parents find themselves envying their counterparts with children in the Buffalo Public Schools.

But that's exactly what happened in December, when Say Yes to Education announced it was partnering with the city's schools.

The piece of the announcement that caught parents' attention most: a college tuition guarantee.

For the next 20 years, anyone graduating from a district or charter school in Buffalo and admitted to a SUNY or CUNY college will have his or her tuition paid.

That guarantee, although associated with Say Yes' partnership with Buffalo, will actually be funded through private donations raised locally, not through Say Yes itself.

The woman behind that $100 million undertaking is Clotilde Perez-Bode Dedecker, president and chief executive officer of the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo.

"The success of Buffalo is directly tied to the success of Buffalo's children," she said. "We've come together to answer the question: What can we as a community do differently to help all the children in the Buffalo Public Schools live up to their God-given potential? Together we will help all Buffalo students succeed."

In the 10 months prior to the Say Yes announcement, Dedecker and others lined up $15 million in commitments from private donors interested in supporting the tuition guarantee.

That kind of hustle proved to be a key factor in Say Yes' decision to partner with Buffalo, rather than any other district in the state.

"Buffalo did a lot of work while we were still debating these cities," said George Weiss, chairman of Say Yes.

-- Mary Pasciak


>Eva M. Doyle

Eva M. Doyle's voice has been heard in the Western New York community not just for years -- but for generations.

It's true: Her columns have appeared in the pages of Buffalo's Challenger and Criterion newspapers for 33 years straight.

In all that time, Doyle, a retired public school teacher who loves researching and talking about history, has never missed a week -- spanning 1,500 columns in all.

"My goal is to educate people," Doyle told The Buffalo News earlier this year. "To get them talking about history."

Doyle's longevity as a writer stems from her passion for African-American history and culture, and her ability to connect long-ago events to modern-day situations, with candor and charisma. She has written about figures from Warren Harding to William Wells Brown to Whitney Houston -- filing her columns by fax from her dining room table.

Doyle, the daughter of a plant worker, grew up in Niagara Falls. She credits her parents with setting an example of hard work and persistence. She loved learning, and spent more than 30 years as a teacher in Buffalo elementary schools, including 25 years at Campus West.

Among her accomplishments: opening an African-American Curriculum Resource Center in the Buffalo School District, which she filled with items from her personal collections of historical and educational materials, and ran until her retirement.

Today, Doyle lectures frequently around the community, talking to groups -- including many schoolchildren -- about history and culture. She also sponsors essay contests in which young Buffalo students can write about historical figures and topics for a chance to win prizes and scholarships.

For Doyle, contributing to the community isn't a far-off goal; it's an everyday agenda.

-- Charity Vogel


>James R. Kaskie

James R. Kaskie arrived in Buffalo in 2004 as the chief operating officer of Kaleida Health, and in 2006 assumed the chief executive officer's job.

Since then, to say that the St. Louis, Mo., native has played a key role during a period of change is an understatement.

Looking back, his tenure has been marked by a major transformation of Kaleida Health and Western New York's health care landscape.

He's accomplished it, too, in a style that colleagues describe as approachable, including a policy of personally responding to the emails from the hospital system's 10,000 employees.

A key turning point occurred in 2007, when a state commission directed Kaleida Health to close Millard Fillmore Hospital as part of a larger hospital restructuring recommendation that included aligning with Erie County Medical Center and building a heart-vascular center.

Kaskie saw the commission's conclusions as an opportunity to create a new vision for health care delivery here, and that vision is becoming a reality.

In 2008, for instance, Kaleida Health and ECMC reached an agreement to operate separately but align their services under a unified governing board.

And, in 2009, construction began on the Gates Vascular Institute on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, a $291 million building that opened this year. The joint project with the University at Buffalo consolidates Kaleida's heart, stroke and vascular services; houses UB's Clinical and Translational Research Center; and includes an institute to test new medical products and bring them to market.

There is more. Under Kaskie's leadership, Kaleida Health built a new nursing facility on Michigan Avenue, expanded Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital, brought in the Cleveland Clinic to consult on cardiac care and moved forward with plans for a new Women & Children's Hospital.

-- Henry Davis


>John R. Koelmel

John R. Koelmel says he's "playing offense" and "playing to win" every day. And that's not just for his bank; he wants the entire region to do the same.

The chief executive officer of First Niagara Financial Group has led the Buffalo-based bank to explosive growth during the past few years, first expanding across upstate New York in 2004 and 2005, and more recently taking the bank into both eastern and western Pennsylvania, and then New England.

It has also showed its commitment to Western New York, first by acquiring Greater Buffalo Savings Bank in early 2008, and now with its purchase of 195 HSBC Bank USA branches across the state. In doing so, First Niagara will supplant HSBC as one of the leading banks in Buffalo, Rochester and other markets, joining rival M&T Bank Corp. as a big player.

"We're here to stay, here to play, here to win," he said.

Koelmel is leading in other aspects of the community, as well. He moved First Niagara's corporate headquarters from suburban Pendleton to downtown Buffalo's Larkin at Exchange Building, and he has teamed up with the "mayor of Larkinville," Howard Zemsky, to revitalize the historic industrial district east of downtown.

As chairman of the Kaleida Health board of directors, Koelmel is helping steer the region's largest hospital system through a series of transformations, some mandated by the state and some by overall changes in health care.

And he has taken vocal positions on the need for local civic and business leaders to step up and collaborate to revamp Buffalo's schools, strengthen the region's focus on health care and education, and embrace new economic development efforts.

"We have to deliver," he said. "We as a region need to get behind and help."

-- Jonathan D. Epstein


Samuel L. Radford III

Buffalo's District Parent Coordinating Council has been around for quite some time, but the group has become far more vocal recently under the leadership of Samuel L. Radford III, demanding -- and often getting -- a seat at the table.

Radford stirred controversy a year ago, when he proposed a one-day student boycott of the Buffalo Public Schools to draw attention to problems in the district and push for parents to be taken seriously during discussions on critical issues. Buffalo's dismal four-year graduation rate, about 50 percent overall and 25 percent for black males, became a rallying point for parents.

Participation in the boycott fell short of major proportions, with attendance on that half-day only slightly lower than usual. But district and community leaders -- as well as state officials -- started including Radford and other leaders of the parent group in key meetings and conversations.

The district included a parent representative on the panel reviewing applications from outside groups wanting to run the low-performing schools last summer, for instance. And when state Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. comes to town, Radford is often on his list of people to meet with.

In December, Radford quarterbacked the district's first Parent Assembly, which sought to draw a parent representative from every homeroom in the city. Attendance fell far short of that -- 200 instead of 1,300 -- yet state and federal officials said it was the largest gathering of parents they had ever seen in an urban district.

Radford, now the president of the parent group, has been focusing much of his attention lately on the millions of dollars the district has failed to secure over the past two years for its low-performing schools.

Of late, he and Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore have often gone head-to-head over the impasse regarding a teacher evaluation agreement. Radford plans to mount a campaign this summer to encourage parents to exercise their rights to transfer students out of low-performing schools.

-- Mary Pasciak


Catherine Schweitzer and Robert B. Skerker

Architectural monuments were the main attractions at last October's National Preservation Conference, but two other pillars of the community also shined brightly -- Catherine Schweitzer and Robert B. Skerker.

The conference co-chairs' tireless efforts -- together with the convention and visitors bureau, dedicated volunteers and donors -- played a decisive role in making the prestigious National Trust for Historic Preservation Conference, the first set in Buffalo and the first to be binational, an unqualified success.

The two first worked together when Skerker was chairman of the Erie County Cultural Resources Advisory Board, and Schweitzer was vice chairwoman. They learned then that each other's work styles, work ethic, and strengths and weaknesses were a good fit.

Schweitzer, the daughter of philanthropist Burt P. Flickinger Jr., executive director of the Baird Foundation and a longtime civic volunteer, became involved first. A June 2007 event she emceed in honor of the National Trust president saw him enter Kleinhans Music Hall to 430 enthusiastic people -- and leave town hours later smitten with Buffalo.

Buffalo was tapped five months later to host the 2011 conference.

Skerker, whose efforts started in July 2010, eventually found he was devoting so much time planning the conference that he resigned his longtime job as chief executive officer of Robinson Home Products to join Schweitzer.

As unpaid volunteers, they helped coordinate, recruit, fund raise and problem solve, with an essential trace element of inspiration.

Both were heartened by the high-water attendance mark of recent years set in Buffalo, and the exuberant praise heaped on the city by conference attendees.

Six months later, both Schweitzer and Skerker are still riding a high.

"On a scale of one to 10, we were aiming for 10 but we got to 25," Schweitzer said.

-- Mark Sommer


Howard Zemsky

Howard Zemsky appeared busy enough running the development company that has transformed the former Larkin warehouse district into a new urban hub, until he raised his hand to volunteer.

A laid-back leader, he was immediately drafted by boards and agencies to help move things forward. He has served or serves on the boards of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, Buffalo State College, the Martin House Restoration, the Richardson Center Corp., and Buffalo Place, and he has been an active Democratic fundraiser.

But his biggest volunteer job came in 2011, when Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo tapped him, along with University at Buffalo President Satish K. Tripathi, to lead the Western New York Regional Economic Development Council. In that job, Zemsky helped lead a competition against other councils across the state for up to $100 million in state aid.

That success was followed by the big bombshell: the Cuomo administration pledged $1 billion in economic aid to the Buffalo region in January, and tasked the council led by Zemsky and Tripathi with how to spend it.

Zemsky called the $1 billion "a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity" for the region to get the economy going in the right direction.

It's hard to imagine a person devoting more of his time and energy to improving the region. Zemsky moved to Buffalo in 1981 from the New York City area to run his family's company, Russer Foods. When the company was sold in 1999, he focused on development and the region's betterment.

"I couldn't imagine, frankly, living anywhere I felt wasn't worthwhile investing in," Zemsky said last year. "Why live somewhere with no sense of hope or optimism?"

His sense of optimism and his work ethic make Zemsky a truly outstanding citizen.

-- Grove Potter