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Donn Esmonde's most memorable columns: 9/11, Super Bowl loss, the roots of Canalside

Buffalo News Columnist Donn Esmonde retires Aug. 7 after nearly 35 years at The News. Here, he takes a look back at his career through his most memorable columns.

Sept. 11, 2001: “Amid Ruins, Lives Lost and Changed" 

A quote from Virgil fills a wall of the National September 11 Memorial Museum. (Getty Images file photo)

A quote from Virgil fills a wall of the National September 11 Memorial Museum. (Getty Images file photo)

September 2001: Written after walking the streets of Lower Manhattan 24 hours after planes hit the towers. Having lived on Long Island/downstate until my late-20s, I’d been in Manhattan countless times. Seeing these streets empty of traffic and covered with ashes, and a vast gray cloud hovering where the Towers once stood, was nearly unfathomable.

It was a standard-size piece of paper, with Concord International Trade Corp., 1 World Trade Center, on the letterhead. On it was a price quote for an airline runway sweeper, basic unit, with a Turbo 115 hp engine, to be sent to Yunnan Airlines. Early Tuesday morning it was in an out box in an office in the monumentally tall tower. Wednesday morning, it was on a sidewalk, covered in gray soot, four blocks from the tall buildings. The tall buildings that are no longer there.

Nothing is as it is supposed to be. Not the gray-white smoke cloud that fills the air where the twin towers, overgrown symbols of muscular capitalism, once stood. Not the dusty piece of paper that ended on a Chambers Street sidewalk instead of on an executive's desk.

You come here and you see what it was like in London, the day after Hitler's Luftwaffe dropped their bombs. This time the "bombs" were two hijacked, fuel-laden passenger jets that hit the two towers 18 minutes apart on Monday morning. Within 90 minutes, both 110-story buildings were gone.

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Bills' first Super Bowl loss: “Long-Suffering But Loyal, Buffalo Deserved a Better Fate”


A dejected Scott Norwood leaves the field after missing the game-winning field goal in 1991. (James P. McCoy/News file photo)

January 1991: Twenty-five years later, this one still stings. I remember saying to my colleague Mike Beebe, as Scott Norwood – known more for accuracy than a strong leg – lined up for the game-deciding a 47-yard kick on a chewed-up grass field: “Just let it be long enough.” Well, it was long enough …

It ain't fair.

No way it is.

I mean, was fate taking a nap?

Was providence on a lunch break? Did the gods of equality, the guardians of psychic scale-balancing, take the day off?

If all of those entities were taking care of business Sunday, there's no way the New York Giants beat the Bills, 20-19, in the Super Bowl.

There's no way that a team from New York City, the land of the obnoxious, the abode of the overbearing, the place where arrogance is an everyday attitude, beats a squad from our burg.

These folks need a heavy helping of humility, not more wood for the ego fire. And there was Buffalo, the little city on the lake, the perfect ones to provide it.

This was supposed to be about the little place nobody pays attention to kicking the big city around. The humble smacking the smug upside the head.

And, finally, when it comes to not fair, there's Scott Norwood.

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Commercial Slip saved: “From Brink of Disaster, Canal Is Reborn”

Gov. Pataki shakes hands with Donn Esmonde after a news conference announcing the state had reversed course on the historic Commercial Slip. Esmonde wrote a number of columns urging the Pataki-controlled state agency to change its plan to leave buried the Slip and the surrounding building ruins. (Mark Mulville/News file photo)

Then-Gov. George Pataki shakes hands with Donn Esmonde after a news conference announcing the state had reversed course on the historic Commercial Slip. Esmonde wrote a number of columns urging the Pataki-controlled state agency to change its plan to leave buried the Slip and the surrounding building ruins. (Mark Mulville/News file photo)

October 2000: I wrote 16 columns over the course of 14 months urging the state to change its initial plan to leave buried the Commercial Slip, now the historic centerpiece of Canalside. The game had changed months earlier, when the state’s claim that the canal walls would crumble if exposed to winter’s freeze/thaw cycle – the infamous “Exploding Stones” theory – was revealed as a lie. It gave Joel Giambra, then county executive, and other elected officials the political cover they needed to oppose the state. Kevin Gaughan’s hastily arranged Canal Conference, where experts testified to the value of heritage tourism, helped to seal the deal.

There has never been a day quite like it.

It had nothing to do with the cannon fired under a cloudless sky. Or the late-October heat that had many on the deck of the USS Little Rock in shirt sleeves.

What happened Thursday afternoon was so uncommon, so commendable and -- until recently -- so unimaginable, it bordered on surreal.

Hand in hand, all together -- Republicans and Democrats, city and county, preservationists and the governor of the state they were suing -- skipped merrily through the looking glass.

The view from the other side was inspiring.

In less than five months, against all odds, the state did a near-complete turnaround on a now-$40 million public project. Buried on the downtown waterfront are the walls of the Commercial Slip, the western terminus of the Erie Canal. The state was hellbent on a plan that would have destroyed or left buried the 1839 slip walls and other historic remnants that tell not just our story, but a big piece of America's tale.

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Flight 3407: “A Prayer for Our Community”

Flowers and mementos left by mourners at a memorial for the victims of Flight 3407 at the Clarence Center United Methodist Church in Clarence Center the Sunday after the crash in 2009. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Flowers and mementos left by mourners at a memorial for the victims of Flight 3407 at the Clarence Center United Methodist Church in Clarence Center the Sunday after the crash in 2009. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

February 2009: Absorbing the pain of a communal tragedy. There are about two degrees of separation in Greater Buffalo. If you didn’t know someone who perished, you almost certainly knew someone who knew someone.

How does a community wrap its arms around itself?

Continental Connection Flight 3407. Newark to Buffalo. The name and number are forever set in the fixed concrete of history, in the frozen pain in our souls.

In a gruesome fireball, a plane filled with our neighbors is down. A house in Clarence is obliterated. Fifty people are dead. Fifty people, many of whom walked the same streets we do, shopped at the same stores, sent their kids to the same schools.

As the days pass, we will learn their names and we will hear about their lives. But there is a larger truth that, in a sense, will frame every one of those details: We are them, and they are us.

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Local tragedy: “Vincent Never Got to Say Goodbye to Only Home He Knew”

Ryan O'Neil, a 11th grade student at Bishop Timon/St. Jude, prays in the school rectory, after learning a close friend of his, Vincent Smith, was shot by Kansas police officers, after he had earlier killed and officer. PHOTO BY HARRY SCULL JR 3/2/00

Ryan O'Neil, a 11th-grader at Bishop Timon/St. Jude, prays in the school rectory after learning a close friend of his, Vincent Smith, was shot by Kansas police officers, after he had earlier killed an officer. (Harry Scull Jr./News file photo)

March 2000: Every parent’s nightmare, and a haunting, heartbreaking and incomprehensible story. I did a column on T.C. Smith when the renowned Buffalo street cop retired four years later. He said he fought the pain of his son’s loss by getting back on the street a week after the tragedy. He and his wife Maureen’s faith helped them to endure.

South Buffalo buried its boy Tuesday. Vincent Smith came home on a bright morning with birds chirping in the trees, the smell of early spring in the air.

He had left suddenly last week, with no proper goodbye. It wasn't how his parents taught their quiet, handsome son to behave, this boy who held the door open for girls at school and helped his next-door neighbor shovel his sidewalk.

You don't leave without saying goodbye, not ever, and especially not that last time.

So they brought him back to the only place he had ever called home. Back to the small world of a South Buffalo parish. The world he knew.

Not the world he had seen in such a rush last week, the world of wide Kansas plains and small towns and stubble corn and superhighways. He did not know that world; he was lost and alone in it.

He needed to come back to these streets, the streets that were as comfortable and familiar as a lullaby.

He had left in a hurry, taking his mother Maureen's car, this 16-year-old boy who had never driven before, who had no license or permit. He drove for a thousand miles, thoughts in his head only he will ever know, thoughts he had never told a soul.

Then this quiet Catholic boy who wanted to be a cop like his dad went and killed a cop, and was killed by cops. And no one will ever know why.

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Mean streets: “Wild West Coming Back to East Side”

A view from inside a burned out house on the corner of Peck Street and Ashley on the east side on 7/8/2003. There was no front door and nothing to keep people out of the house. Photo by Derek Gee FOR BUFFALO CITYSCAPE SERIES

The view in 2003 from inside a burned-out house on the corner of Peck and Ashley on the East Side. (Derek Gee/News file photo)

June 2003: Sadly, I wrote too many columns like this one over the years. A young man shot dead, and others not unlike him whose prospects are dim. They live in a different world than most of us know, a world with far fewer options and exits. The difference between victim and survivor is often a roll of the dice.

It was a crummy place to die. In a weed-strewn yard, next to a paint-flecked, rotting garage. In a patch of overgrown greenery barely larger than a living room.

Amir Harris lay in the middle of that sun-kissed patch, facedown, arms at his side. He might have been asleep, save for the hole in his back. He had chosen that day to wear an oversized white T-shirt and capri-length jeans, standard-issue gear for East Side youth. He didn't know they were the clothes he would die in.

Safety beckoned just a few feet away, through the shrubbery on the other side of a rusted cyclone fence. It was the promised land he never made, finding instead a different sort of salvation.

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Death in the family: “Memories Abide Amidst Her Clutter”

February 2011: Clearing out my mother’s apartment after her death. It was a heartbreaking honor, sifting through her stuff and finding remnants that helped to tell her story, and remind us of our own mortality.

The details of her life were clustered in closets and scattered in bureau drawers.

Evidence of existence was found in faces peering out from frayed-edged photos.

Proof of being was discovered on journal pages filled with small, precise handwriting.

Its listings were a litany of mundane events: A doctor's appointment from a decade ago.

A long-past visit to an out-of-town daughter.

The random recording of a walk to the bank on a sunny June day in 1999.

As I sorted through the drawers, I seized on the images and scraps of paper that spurred memories, large and small.

Each item was a reminder that the seemingly endless parade of appointments and conversations and encounters that fill our days -- month after month, year after year -- are, in fact, not endless.

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Pounding on a politician: “Mayor Can’t Paint Over the Violence”

Members of Mayor Byron Brown's's Impact Team do a "clean sweep" on Hirschbeck Street on the East Side , a day after five people were shot, two fatally, August 6, 2009. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Members of Mayor Byron Brown's's Impact Team do a "clean sweep" on Hirschbeck Street on the East Side , a day after five people were shot, two fatally, Aug. 6, 2009. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

August 2009: A politician’s ridiculously ineffectual response to the East Side shooting of five people, two fatally. Between Byron Brown and Tony Masiello, Buffalo to my mind has had a long run of nice-guy mayors long on style but light on substance.

I guess there is nothing wrong on Hirschbeck Street that a rake and a lawnmower cannot cure.

In the wake of Wednesday morning's horrific shootings that claimed two lives and left three people wounded, the mayor called in the landscapers.

If absurdity was a weapon in the fight against poverty, Buffalo would be riding high.

This could inspire a slogan for the mayor's recent, idea-deprived anti-poverty plan: When all else fails, tidy up.

Vacant lots on the bleak street were mowed, gang-related graffiti got painted over, bulldozers and backhoes scooped up debris. By noon Thursday, parts of the battered East Side street looked almost presentable.

All that was missing was a banner declaring "Mission Accomplished." The mission, in this case, is to make it look like the mayor is doing something -- particular with the primary election a month away.

I do not, however, think that Byron Brown is fooling anyone.

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Cynthia Wiggins: “Wiggins Legacy Larger Than Any Price Pyramid Could Pay”


Donn Esmonde, right, with former News reporter Kevin Collison and Johnnie Cochrane (one of Wiggins family’s attorneys in the civil case vs. mall).

November 1999: A teenage martyr to the cause of uncovering covert racism. It’s not as obvious as it was in the Jim Crow days, but it’s still there. It’s been 20 years since public buses from the inner city, in the wake of Wiggins’s death, have been allowed on Galleria property. There has been no Armageddon, as Pyramid officials apparently feared, just a safer trip for countless mall workers and customers.

DARK CLOUDS smudged a gray sky. A cold wind, an early warning signal from winter, cut through the gravestones like an avenging angel.

In a downtown courtroom, there was big news. Lawyers and the people with notebooks and microphones kept saying the name Cynthia N. Wiggins. Out here, though, where her body lies, there was no one early Tuesday afternoon. Just a gray sky and a bitter wind and a marker with the face of a black teen-age girl etched on it.

It is a flat stone, the least expensive kind, nearly hidden at the back of St. Matthew's cemetery just across the city line. Yet people find it. They have come, at least a few of them every month, for the past four years. In the past month, with the court case all over the news media and Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. in town, they came by the handful every day, more than 100 in all.

Most of them are black. They ask where her grave is, because they are not family and they did not know her. They come because of what she stands for, because of why she died. They will remember her long after the names of the men in suits, whose decisions led to her death, are forgotten. That's the upside, if you can call it that, to martyrdom.

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Timothy McVeigh: “In Pendleton, No Salve for the Wound”

Timothy McVeigh's father Bill in the living room of the Pendleton home where Timothy McVeigh grew up. (Derek Gee/News file photo)

Timothy McVeigh's father Bill in the living room of the Pendleton home where Timothy McVeigh grew up. (Derek Gee/News file photo)

June 2001: Tim McVeigh, our home-grown terrorist. Before the planes hit the Twin Towers, Oklahoma City stood as the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil. I stopped by the house McVeigh  grew up in, and where his father still lived, on the day of his execution.

I dropped off my daughter at kindergarten Monday morning. She had her hair in pigtails and carried a Winnie the Pooh lunchbox. It was the same as any other morning, almost. This time there was no quick peck on the cheek from Dad and a "goodbye" tossed over a departing shoulder. This time there was a tight hug, a big kiss and a look-in-your-eyes "I love you."

She seemed puzzled by the long goodbye. The name Tim McVeigh means nothing to her. The images on TV that morning, the slow scroll of 168 names and faces as the lethal injection worked its way through his veins, hardly caught her eye.

She is no older than some of the 19 children who left life in the day care center that day. Moms and dads dropped them off that April morning, with a quick peck and a "see you later," never thinking that later would never come.

Some of the parents were on TV Monday morning, broken people, standing at the memorial in Oklahoma City. Their mouths moved, words came out, but all I heard was pain.

America was gut-shot that April day. Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Rwanda, the Middle East. In these places, innocents are killed to punctuate a political point. Not in America. Not until Oklahoma City.

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Bass Pro exits: "Time to let the post-Bass Pro era begin"

September 2010: 'The unsung hero of Canalside, to my mind, is Johnny Morris. The Bass Pro CEO shuffled his feet for nine years, instead of letting us build him a $35 million store on the downtown waterfront with adjacent parking ramps. He clearly didn't think the business model worked for a big-box store normally sited on cheap land near highway interchanges. The Bass Pro-fixated Erie Canal Harbor board had no Plan B, creating a void soon filled by a citizen-driven 'Lighter Quicker Cheaper' development model that led to the current Canalside. I love happy endings.'

The death throes of this thing have been painful to watch. Obsession, denial and delusion should be the stuff of reality TV, not waterfront development. If I wanted drama, I would watch the Kardashian sisters argue over who gets the biggest bedroom. Instead, we bear witness to the agonizing refusal of the Erie Canal Harbor board to let go, to move on, to accept a reality that is obvious to the rest of us.

Nine years of Bass Pro 1 was followed by about nine hours of pre-rejection IKEA. That was succeeded -- at a recent Erie Canal Harbor board meeting -- by about nine minutes of Bass Pro 2. It was a dead-on-arrival attempt at revival, presumably prescripted between alpha board member Larry "Can't Let Go" Quinn and Mayor Byron Brown. Maybe now that hockey season is coming, Quinn -- managing partner of the Sabres -- can find a better outlet for his energies.

Given Bass Pro's definitive "No," the board-session revisit was kinda creepy. It reminded me of an endless effort to "friend" somebody on Facebook. Believe me, the 57th time isn't the charm.

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On turning 40: “It’s the Big Four-oh, and Time for a Harley and a Dye Job”

November 1992: Having hit a couple of milestone birthdays since then, I look back fondly on the days before gray hair and turkey neck.

Hide the Barbra Streisand albums, lock up the brandy, and stop me before I buy slippers again. The Rubicon has been crossed, the river of no return forded. If life begins at 40, yours truly is a wide-eyed waif.

It has been nearly a week now. To the presumed relief of all thirtysomethings out there, yours truly has experienced no sudden aching of joints, hardness of hearing or uncontrollable urge to purchase a Winnebago. We're not certain, however, what the next few months will bring.

It's a curious business, reaching a milestone birthday. One proceeds cautiously, as if in a foreign country. However, those who've treaded this way are all too helpful in defining the changes to come.

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On buying a minivan: “Boy Meets Girl, and Years Later, Man Meets Minivan”

March 1999: Buying a minivan is the complete capitulation to domesticity, the casting aside of any remnant of wild and crazy days. The good news is, once the kids are grown and gone, you can go out and buy a sports sedan!

The siren's song whispered in the wind, ever louder. It spoke of temptations sweet to the middle-aged heart: Room for seven, it sang. Three rows of seats, it cried. Sliding door, it murmured.

Several weeks ago we succumbed, crossed the final Rubicon to domesticity; cast aside the last remnants of individuality and cast our lot with the wind song (or Windstar, as it were) of practicality.

We bought a minivan.

It was surprisingly easy, cutting adrift the last vestige of a former life. That pre-homeowning, pre-kids, stereo-cranking, occasionally 4 a.m.-stumbling, sports-sedan-owning life. Like a pair of Woodstock-era jeans, it had slowly, by degrees, faded away.

So we did not go kicking, screaming and filled with bile through the minivan door. It was done willingly. Even eagerly.

It would not always have been so.

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