Share this article

print logo

Ralph Wilson’s staggering final gift will have enormous impact in Buffalo

Until this month, Western New Yorkers never really knew how lucky they were that Ralph C. Wilson Jr. invented the Buffalo Bills and entrusted the team to their durable embrace.

While the team was not an immediate hit, people here took to the team in the short-lived American Football League. And, yes, their devotion is such that the possibility of losing the team to another, wealthier, city could have made Tums’ stockholders very comfortable over the past couple of decades.

But the team was also a business proposition for Wilson. He founded the team for $25,000, and this month his heirs sold it for $1.4 billion. If the fans loved the Bills, Wilson had reason to do so, as well.

Wilson, as has already been noted, was more generous than most people in the community knew, donating millions of dollars to programs for food and nutrition, cancer research, hospice services, pet care and other needs.

While he has been a quiet but influential benefactor to Western New York, it turns out he had something even grander in mind, something that wasn’t revealed until after the sale of the Bills, which came more than six months after his death. That gift has been described as a game-changer, and while details of the donation are still pending, the description seems well aligned with the facts.

Much of the $1.4 billion that Terry and Kim Pegula paid for the Bills is being directed to the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation, with instructions that the money be spent only in his hometown of Detroit and his adopted home of Buffalo. Thus, the Wilson Foundation will instantly have the clout to make a larger impact in Buffalo than any of this city’s other very generous, but smaller, foundations.

And the community was worried that Wilson, aging and unwell, might allow the Bills to slip away from Buffalo? This man not only helped arrange a restrictive new lease that practically cemented the team here, but laid plans to ensure that the sale of the team he brought to Buffalo, and which will stay in Buffalo, will benefit this re-energized but still poverty-stricken community in ways that, at this point, can only be imagined. It is a remarkable gift from a man whose original investment in the area has done nothing less than create a key part of the city’s identity.

According to the foundation’s website, its mission is “to provide support to charitable and educational purposes” and “to support nonprofit organizations that make a tangible positive impact on people’s lives.” In Buffalo, that has created almost unlimited possibilities for giving. Among the foundation’s major gifts over the past several years have been:

• $100,000 to the Hunter’s Hope Foundation this May for its annual family and medical symposium.

• $1 million given to the Orthopedics and Sports Medicine Department at the University at Buffalo in 2011.

• $1 million awarded to the Roswell Park Clinical Sciences Center in 2011.

Giving by the foundation is expected to increase dramatically from those levels once it has absorbed the money from the sale of the Bills. It stands to make a significant impact on the community and its ability to capitalize on its resurgence.

It is especially sweet that the Pegulas’ money will once again be recirculated in Western New York. The family is already investing its own money in the HarborCenter project downtown and now, a big chunk of the $1.4 billion it spent to buy the Bills will remain here to make a difference where the need is especially great.