What is the common golden thread that unites thriving communities? Jobs are important, of course, as are educational opportunities. But what produces those assets? In the end, exceptional people are the key. They make good things happen and they make a difference when bad things happen. They are the lifeblood of all successful places, and Buffalo is blessed with more than its share.
Once again, The Buffalo News has selected a slate of Western New Yorkers as its Outstanding Citizens of 2016 and, once again, the task is challenging. How do you winnow down the list of worthy citizens – and there are dozens – to just a few? It’s not easy and in that is revealed the truth that the list is not exhaustive. Too many selfless people live here. Lucky us.
This year’s honorees are J.P. and Ulla Bak, founders of the tablet computer business they started on Michigan Avenue; Cedric Holloway, a police officer and after-school volunteer in the program he created 18 years ago; golfer Jim Horne, who provides free lessons that have helped students win college scholarships; Candace Johnson, the creative and driven leader of Roswell Park Cancer Institute; Paul Maurer, the co-founder of Re-Tree WNY, formed in the aftermath of the October 2006 surprise snowstorm; and Dr. Othman Shibly, a native of Beirut and of Syrian origin who, when he is not directing the dental studies program at the University at Buffalo, is likely to be found in the Middle East, tending to Syrians affected by the catastrophic war there.
These exceptional individuals are well deserving of the thanks of the community that is their home.
J.P. and Ulla Bak
J.P. and Ulla Bak aren’t your typical business people.
To be sure, they want the tablet business they started on Michigan Avenue to grow and succeed. But not so they can make a lot of money.
They want the business to thrive so they can hire more people, and bring more jobs to disadvantaged segments of the Buffalo Niagara region, to immigrants, refugees and people without high school diplomas.
It’s the Baks’ version of social entrepreneurship, and so far, it’s brought about 80 jobs to the Bak USA factory on the top two floors of the Compass East building.
The Danish-born attorneys came to the U.S. and co-founded several companies, including EMX Corp., a California business that came up with a way to neutralize electromagnetic radiation emitted by cellphones. After selling that business, the Baks were wealthy and had retired when Haiti was devastated by an earthquake in 2010.
The Baks wanted to help. They set up a foundation to help build houses in the Caribbean nation. And then, with help from a $200,000 grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development, they created a business, called Surtab, that makes low-cost tablets for customers, mainly in Third World nations.
“We had our business in California. We were part of the corporate America, Silicon Valley kind of thing, which was great,” J.P. Bak said. “But it was so bad when we went to Haiti, that we learned after the earthquake that there are other things in life than being corporate and maximizing the profits. There’s also something about creating a value in other people, and thereby creating value in yourself.”
The Baks sold Surtab in 2014, and they set out to do the same thing in Buffalo, launching a technology company where highly educated engineers and doctors work in close proximity to assembly workers with far less schooling.
“There is a designed pathway so if you start as an operator you can move up in the system if you want to,” Ulla Bak said. “This can start in an entry level job and end up as a supervisor.”
J.P. Bak thinks the notion that a successful business can have a social conscience is going to catch on. And for Bak USA, that would be a good thing.
“The future is not just going to be profit, profit, profit,” he said. “The future is going to be a lot of values: The way you treat the environment, the way you treat your staff, the way you treat the neighborhood, and so forth. All of that will have a value, and we’ll be able to work on, and show that to be an advantage.”
– David Robinson
Cedric Holloway works with teenagers in an all-volunteer after-school program he created 18 years ago at the Johnnie B. Wiley Amateur Athletic Pavilion. The three-day-a-week program is a far cry from Holloway’s day job, where he’s a detective sergeant for the Buffalo Police Department.
But it’s what Holloway sees when donning the blue police officer’s uniform that spurs him to help kids succeed on the East Side when social and economic forces can align against them.
He conceived the Omega Mentoring Program to lead black youths away from the perils of gangs and drugs.
“With a little influence and a little guidance, these folks can be steered in a correct direction,” he said. “This gives them focus, direction and purpose.”
Daniel Bolden, assistant director, said the mentoring program was vital during his teen years. He called Holloway “a father figure” to the kids. “He has done a lot of amazing things in this building, and saved a lot of lives.”
Holloway is one of the late Wiley’s seven children. Wiley was revered for his dedication to help children, and the athletic facility was named for him in 1997. Holloway wasn’t close to his father, but recognizes he has continued in his father’s footsteps anyway.
“It must have trickled down in the DNA, because without his influence, this is what I chose,” Holloway said. His office in the Dodge Street tower is full of framed citations that include a Community Service Award from President Barack Obama and an NAACP Human Relations Award.
“Cedric is following in his father’s footsteps by mentoring and helping kids in the community, said Michael J. Billoni, a former Bisons vice president and general manager.
Holloway’s longtime push to renovate the Wiley facility is also about to become a reality. The Brown administration plans to add second-floor bathrooms and an elevator to the tower building, make improvements to the baseball field and track and field, repair and paint the complex and add historic markers to commemorate the former War Memorial Stadium site that was home to the Bills and the Bisons.
– Mark Sommer
Jim Horne taught himself as a young man to be a scratch golfer. He’s spent his retirement teaching children how to swing a golf club – without anything in return, except the knowledge that some of his students won scholarships to play golf in college.
“Right now, I have two at Medaille, one at Niagara University and one girl at Northern Georgia,” Horne said.
Since retiring in 1991 from a job with the state Department of Labor, Horne, 85, estimates he’s taught “a couple hundred” kids how to play the game. He charges nothing for the lessons and provides golf clubs and other equipment for kids who can’t afford them.
Most of the kids are from Buffalo, and many are African-American, learning a sport that historically was inaccessible to them. Horne, who is black, has taught plenty of white, suburban kids, too.
“The word of mouth is I teach golf to any youngster who wants to learn it for free,” he said.
Ultimately, his students learn more than just a game. Golf itself is the real instructor, said Horne, and it teaches discipline, hard work, honesty and accountability.
A Buffalo native, Horne grew up playing basketball and starred at Emerson High School and the University of Buffalo, where he set 11 school scoring records in the 1950s. His coach at UB, Malcolm Eiken, introduced Horne to golf. He spent seven years as a Harlem Globetrotter, until the traveling convinced him to hang up the high-tops.
“It was fun in the beginning, but after a while it became a job,” he said.
Horne switched to more conventional work as a contracts negotiator, and he channeled his court prowess to fairways and greens. He stills plays three rounds a week, but teaching has become as much of a passion as playing.
“Golf is a different animal,” he said. “Somebody must teach you. You can’t just pick up a club and go play.”
Horne’s first student, Angel Mines, won a golf scholarship to Jackson State University. And more than a dozen other Horne students parlayed golf into a college degree, including Horne’s son, Jamal, who played at Hampton University.
In 2016, Horne launched the Jim Horne Golf Foundation to help raise money for greens fees and equipment for the kids he teaches.
In the winter, he spends six days a week inside the Wehrle Golf Dome dispensing nuggets of golf wisdom. In the summer, he’s usually at the Airport Driving Range. He also runs a summer program for about 30 kids in conjunction with Canisius College.
– Jay Tokasz
(Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)Candace Johnson has had a big impact on Roswell Park Cancer Institute ever since her arrival in 2002, playing a leading role in defining the cancer center’s scientific pursuits.
Initially, she headed the pharmacology and therapeutics department. She received additional duties in 2014, when the institute named her deputy director. Then, in 2015, she rose to the top job on a permanent basis, becoming the first woman and first non-physician to serve as chief executive officer.
Johnson manages a nearly $700 million budget and more than 3,000 employees trying to prevent and treat cancer in an era of rising costs and shifting payment systems. Financial support remains one of the biggest issues facing the institute.
“The challenge that’s always with us is the need to secure resources to fulfill our vision for innovation and meet the needs we see in the communities around us. We draw funding from a lot of sources, and we can make a strong case for why we’ve earned those grants and donations and will put them to good use, that we’re responsible stewards for the trust our community invests in us,” she said.
Roswell Park and other cancer centers face a challenge. Their federal funding for cancer research and clinical programs has flattened or decreased over the last two decades, especially when adjusted for inflation.
“The fact that we’ve generated incredible growth despite this climate underscores how much we’ve achieved,” she said.
Johnson described her management style as one that makes a priority of empowerment and leading by example.
“One of my greatest successes so far has been recognizing team members who had leadership potential that maybe wasn’t fully tapped before, putting them in a role where they can do what they do best and providing them with the proper support so they can really perform,” she said.
“And being a leader who demonstrates the same values and behaviors that I’m asking of all my team members, I think that’s absolutely critical for a chief executive. My colleagues have to know I’m who I say I am, and they have to see that in my actions every day,” she said.
– Henry L. Davis
Like many who witnessed the devastating snowstorm of October 2006, Paul Maurer was distraught.
The radio station marketer saw more damage from the freak snowstorm than most while delivering coffee and doughnuts to out-of-town work crews helping to restore power. The early storm dropped 22.6 inches on Buffalo Niagara International Airport, nearly four times the previous record.
“I never saw anything like it before,” Maurer said. “A lot of mature trees that were around for decades – and in some cases, more than 100 years – were just destroyed or would need to be taken down.”
An estimated 57,000 trees were lost on public streets and parks in Western New York. To get to work replacing them, Maurer and David Colligan founded the all-volunteer Re-Tree WNY.
“I thought, with my background in marketing and sponsorships, maybe we could go to companies and individuals to help pay for the reforesting without all of it coming from taxpayer money,” said Maurer, Re-Tree’s chairman.
Now in its 11th year, Re-Tree WNY hopes to reach its goal of planting 30,000 trees, with an equal amount matched by 18 hard-hit municipalities, in November 2018.
The current number stands at 29,512. There’s only money for about one-third of the 1,488 trees left to plant, so Maurer is banking on more people stepping forward to help reach the goal.
Maurer grew up in the Kensington section of Buffalo, and didn’t spent much time hiking or enjoying the outdoors when he was younger. But his appreciation for the environment has grown since the devastating storm.
“As a result of this, I’ve become much more interested in trees, natural parks and the beauty of nature,” Maurer said.
– Mark Sommer
Dr. Othman Shibly
Dr. Othman Shibly is skilled at fixing teeth. The 57-year-old director of the dental studies program at the University at Buffalo is also good at mending hearts and sowing peace in some of the most dangerous places on the planet.
Shibly, a native of Beirut and of Syrian origin, leads multiple missions to improve the daily lives of Syrians affected by war.
At least twice per year, he visits refugee camps on the Lebanese side of the border with Syria.
There, Shibly brings messages of hope and peace to families, English-language supplies to refugee schools and free dental services for refugees and orphans. It started as his own small effort. Now, it has a name – Miles4Smiles – as others eagerly followed his example, and his pleas.
“We travel miles to bring smiles to people,” Shibly said.
Some involved are Muslim like Shibly. Others are Christians from Lebanon’s St. Joseph University. And some are Jewish at Henry Schein Inc., a downstate dental supply company. Religion doesn’t matter to Shibly. It’s about helping people. With the help of a couple dozen dental students from the Catholic university, Shibly’s group treats a refugee school of about 250 children every day.
“Humanity united us all to do a noble cause,” Shibly said. “The person who shares with me my values is closer to me than a person who prays five times a day.”
Dr. Eric Schroeder, Shibly’s colleague at UB, said his compassion is driven by a sense of nobility.
“He’s called ‘the man with the biggest heart,’ ” Schroeder said. “He has a very highly developed sense of nobility toward others.”
Schroeder added: “It doesn’t matter what religion they are. He doesn’t care. You are a human being.”
Shibly said he strives to invest all his energy in helping others, but regrets that time limits him from doing even more.
“We don’t live for ourselves in this world,” Shibly said. “If we don’t make a difference in the world, there is no value in our life.”
– T.J. Pignataro