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West Side Rowing Club wins in court the victory banners it won on water generations ago

The West Side Rowing Club of Buffalo took home its first victory banner in 1913, a year after it was founded by Irish Catholic laborers on the banks of the Niagara River.

This week, the club won the banner again, after taking its case to state Supreme Court.

The banner – commemorating West Side’s win in the 140-pound championship fours race at the Perry Centennial Regatta – is one of seven that Justice Diane Y. Devlin on Thursday ruled must be returned to the walls of the rowers’ clubhouse after a 40-year odyssey.

The trouble began with a devastating fire and continued through decades of misunderstandings, competing priorities, hard feelings and time’s inevitable toll – the deaths of several members.

It is a story that lawyers have characterized as a “soap opera,” the equivalent of a family quarrel that culminated with a lawsuit by West Side Rowing against the longtime girlfriend of a now-deceased member who took possession of the banners years ago and refused to give them back.

The tale begins in 1975, when the wood-frame boathouse housing the club on the south end of the Bird Island pier was gutted by fire. The group salvaged all it could, distributing banners and other items among members for safekeeping.

William J. Cotter, who was club president at the time of the fire, said in a court affidavit filed in April 2014 that member Russ Sherman volunteered to take charge of restoring seven large, smoke-damaged banners – the 1913 victory award, five other victory banners and a Gold Star banner commemorating West Side members who died in service to their country.

Meanwhile, the then-homeless rowing club began the long process of rebuilding – eventually acquiring property at the foot of Porter Avenue on land renamed Cotter’s Point. Five years later, the replacement clubhouse, which still is in use, was substantially completed.

Cotter, who died in April of this year, wrote in his affidavit that, once the club was ready to move into the new facility, Sherman went to James Schaab, then club captain, to discuss how he wanted the restored banners displayed.

“Much to Mr. Sherman’s annoyance, displaying the banners was not a priority for Mr. Schaab,” Cotter wrote. “As club captain, he had numerous, more important duties to attend to, including repairs to the many rowing shells the club owned.

“Mr. Sherman took umbrage at Mr. Schaab’s attitude and felt that neither he, nor the effort he had undertaken to restore the banners, were being given proper respect,” Cotter continued.

Feeling frustrated and unappreciated, Cotter testified, Sherman reached out to another club member, Alexander Drapanas, who offered the banners as decoration to the Broderick Park Inn, a rowing-themed restaurant on the corner of Niagara and West Ferry streets, owned by the Robert Rich family.

The rowing club members supported the publicity this gave their group, Cotter wrote, adding, “We were told by a representative of the Rich family that the banners were there for display purposes only and would be returned to West Side.”

The inn eventually closed and was demolished. But before then it switched to a baseball motif and the rowing banners came down. In 1991, rowing club member Douglas L. Turner, The Buffalo News Washington columnist, wrote to Rich requesting return of what he said was the club’s property.

In a cordial response, Rich wrote that it was his understanding, back when the banners were offered to the inn, that Sherman owned them.

“Russ said that he wished to give the pennants to Alex and me, and he specifically did not want these pennants to be given to the West Side Rowing Club for some very well-defined reasons,” he wrote.

Saying that he understood the position of the rowing club, Rich added that he believed a compromise could be worked out and said he and Drapanas would be happy to meet with members of the club about disposition of the banners.

That was 25 years ago.

Sherman died after handing over the banners to Drapanas, and Drapanas was steadfast in his refusal to give the banners to the club until he was confident Sherman’s work in saving them would be honored.

Cotter’s deposition states that the club expected that “at some point, Dr. Drapanas’ concerns would be satisfied. If nothing else, we anticipated that, upon Dr. Drapanas’ passing, the banners would be returned to the club.”

Alex Drapanas died in January 2013 having made no provision for the banners to be returned.

Deborah Robbins, executrix of Drapanas’ estate and his sole beneficiary, also refused to turn over the banners.

“Apparently she feels Dr. Drapanas has been insulted, and she shares Dr. Drapanas’ dissatisfaction with the manner in which the rowing club planned to display the banners,” Cotter wrote in the affidavit a year after Drapanas died.

He concluded: “Although we acquiesced in Dr. Drapanas’ possession of the banners, we are not prepared to do so with respect to Ms. Robbins, a stranger to the Rowing Club.”

He then asked the court for “the return of the banners to the true and rightful owner, the West Side Rowing Club.”

Robbins was not swayed.

In response to the West Side lawsuit, she said in her own affidavit that the banners were lawfully hers and were being safely stored. She also made it clear that she was well aware of Drapanas’s feeling about the banners and the club.

“Mr. Cotter alleges that I am a ‘stranger’ to the club,” Robbins said in her affidavit. “While I am not sure how or why this is relevant, even if true, I was clearly no stranger to Dr. Drapanas, having been his longtime girlfriend of over 20 years, and I am certainly no stranger to the dispute between various club members over these banners, which has been going on since the mid-1980s.”

She scoffed at the club’s contention that awards won by club crews are club property “by way of tradition.”

She declared that Cotter’s description of Sherman’s and Drapanas’ feelings and actions regarding the banners “are not at all based in fact” and calls them “nothing more than pure conjecture and surmise.”

Robbins also suggested that the club deliberately waited until Sherman and Drapanas were dead and unable to present their version of the events, and she told the court that the club “should not now be permitted to ransack the estate of Dr. Drapanas.”

The value of the banners also became part of the discussion.

The West Side Rowing Club first went to state Surrogate’s Court shortly after Drapanas died to request the return of its personal property that was “held for safekeeping by the decedent.”

Court papers then put the value of the banners at $3,000 each, except for the 1913 banner, which it valued at $5,000.

The club dramatically adjusted that estimate for its Supreme Court filing, asserting the total value of the banners was a mere $300.

Robbins and her attorney pounced on the discrepancy and charged that the conflicting statements “call into doubt the credibility of the club’s proponents. The only thing clear here is that the banners were a source of strife and argument for over 30 years.”

Despite those arguments, on Thursday, Devlin issued a summary judgment giving the banners to the club.

Attorney Gabriel J. Ferber, who represented the club and who also is a West Side member, said Friday that the banners have no real value in the general market but have great personal value to the rowers.

“They are part of the historical fabric of the club,” he said.

He also lamented that the issue of ownership became so bitter and went on so long.

Had it not, he said, “We would have made this guy (Sherman) a hero.”

Once the banners are returned, the club plans to display them proudly. The 1913 banner will hang alongside a photo of the four handsome crewmen and club president posing with their newly awarded victory banner 102 years ago.

“West Side was a relatively small club and this was an achievement,” Ferber said. “These were poor Irish kids that were excluded from other (rowing) clubs so they started their own.”

As Carlton L. Flynn wrote in his history of the club, “West Side Oars,” the members were “sturdy young men who, for the most part, engaged in manual labor for a livelihood and rowing was the main diversion for many of these young athletes.”

The club later branched out to youth programs, some affiliated with local high schools, and it started a women’s rowing program in 1978. Its members have competed in the Olympics, the Pan American Games and scores of other regional, national and international events.

Trophies and plaques from those competitions cover the walls of the Cotter’s Point clubhouse. None will be more treasured, however, than the seven lost banners when they return to honor the young men who won them.