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Kevin Gaughan: Past leaders fueled today’s turnaround

When winter finally left us, it took with it prominent Buffalo attorney Bill Schapiro, who passed away at age 82, having lived a full, meaningful life replete with professional and personal success. Bill was a man of fierce intellect, and even fiercer devotion to his wife, Susan, a brilliant educator who changed the lives of countless young Western New Yorkers.

Erich Segal’s novel and the Hollywood film it spawned convinced millions that Ryan O’Neal and Ali McGraw were the Harvard “Love Story.” But the real-life Cambridge romance was Bill and Sue Schapiro. They began chatting one day as students at Harvard Law School, and their conversation, joyous and loving, lasted for more than half a century.

Along with many leaders of his generation, Bill was devoted to Buffalo Niagara, and he expressed that commitment in several contributions to community and cultural life. And as it was for all his peers, the times Bill inhabited coincided with consistent, seemingly endless decline of our city. It was not easy to believe in Buffalo from the 1970s to recent times. But for folks like Bill, their faith never wavered, and they never flinched.

His passing reminded me that the streets of heaven are lined with Buffaloes, those whose love for our city remains long after they’ve gone. From Burt Flickinger, the Rev. Bennett Smith, Peggy Balbach, Austin Fox and Bill Greiner, to Rosa Gibson, Paul Koessler, Dann Stevens, David Koch, Paul Beltz and Seymour Knox.

These leaders plowed the rows of our academic, business, spiritual and cultural life when our soil was rocky and barren. They began their stewardship when the steel industry era ended, endured the collapse of savings and loan banks and Adelphia Cable and completed their tenure as Bass Pro died.

Their triumph was one of hope over experience, but they didn’t get to enjoy the fruits of their faith. They never saw thousands flock to Erie Canal Harbor on a summer evening, never heard music at Larkinville and never felt storybook snow falling on a bustling Elmwood Village at Christmastime. For them, the Lafayette Hotel was forever an abandoned eyesore.

But make no mistake. It was their holding firm to Western New York’s light, even in the darkness of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, that made possible the small beginnings of our great community turnaround. When I began my government reform work some 15 years ago, I received a note from Bill in which, paraphrasing Oscar Wilde, he wrote that “while too many of us in Buffalo are in the gutter, it’s good to know that you see us among the stars.” I take a peek at that note anytime I feel blue and immediately feel ready to have another go.

If any of these giants were with us today, they’d be pleased with how we’ve made ours a more collaborative, less combative community. But looking upon our continued tragedies of poverty, failed public education, youth exodus and feeble employment would make them weep. Keep moving, they’d counsel; don’t confuse development with growth. And don’t give up until our population grows, jobs are plentiful and the afflicted among us have the same opportunity as the most comfortable. That is the Buffalo for which they strived. And when that day arrives, we will think of all those who have gone before us, and we will feel their presence.