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Sean Kirst: In Craig Lehner's hometown, memories of a favorite son

The hugs were explosive, spontaneous. Abigail Eckerson Estevez, Sadie Glenn and Whitney Eckerson hurried straight toward Joe Lucenti on Wednesday after they spotted him weaving through a sea of blue uniforms in the lobby of KeyBank Center.

"Mr. Lucenti!" Estevez shouted, throwing out her arms.

Lucenti, Akron's longtime high school principal, was in charge when Estevez graduated in 2001. For an instant, in that crowded lobby, there was no need for words.

The embrace itself was both grief and tribute for Craig Lehner.

"He was kind and genuine, the sweetest person, the wisest old soul," said Sadie Glenn, who stepped forward next to hug Lucenti.

In Akron, a community of green fields and winding two-lane roads, Glenn and Estevez were both classmates of Lehner's. After high school, bit by bit, they drifted apart. That connection was rekindled last summer, after Estevez's family built an outdoor volleyball court and started hosting informal but competitive games.

Lehner, 34, became involved by sheer chance. Estevez ran into him at Canalside on a summer night, her high school friend transformed into a Buffalo K-9 police officer. He was with his new partner, clearly his pride and joy, a 4-year-old German Shepherd he'd named Shield.

Estevez, delighted, told him about the volleyball games. She said he was welcome to take part, but she had a question that made him laugh:

Was he any good?

"He was fantastic, the best," said Estevez, astounded now that she even asked.

Lehner began showing up every week. He was a veteran officer, a tattooed National Guardsman who'd served in Iraq. Yet Whitney Eckerson, Estevez's younger sister, said he had the subtle gift of making people around him feel better about themselves, a way of finding the right thing to say when someone was feeling down.

The result was made clear Wednesday, when thousands of mourners poured into downtown Buffalo for his funeral.

Whitney Eckerson, Abigail Eckerson Estevez and Sadie Glenn - all friends of Craig Lehner's at Akron High School - spoke Wednesday of Lehner's kindness and inherent decency. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Lucenti, 62, felt he needed to attend. He brought with him four teenage officers from the Akron student council. In Lehner's honor, students in Akron Wednesday wore blue to school. But Lucenti was in search of something more lasting, a message he's felt in the air since Lehner's death almost two weeks ago in a Niagara River diving accident.

His impression was reinforced by speaker after speaker at the service. Each address, wrapping in Lehner's career with the police and the Army National Guard, reaffirmed a point made by Glenn, his Akron classmate:

"He had seen so much in his life, but when you looked in his eyes, all you saw was the goodness in the world."

Retired Sgt. Major Mark Sorrentino of the National Guard spoke of how Lehner, a veteran of deployments to Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, always projected "a sense of being part of something bigger than yourself."

And Tom Champion, Lehner's longtime partner with the Buffalo police, recalled watching Lehner respond to a landlord-tenant dispute in the city, how Lehner paused to really hear the distraught tenant's concerns, how he responded with compassion, rather than impatience.

It was all part of what Champion called "the humor, beauty and brilliance of my partner."

Akron High School Principal Joe Lucenti brought four Student Council officers to the funeral of Craig Lehner, left to right: Julianna Kieffer, Abby Nunn, Emma Sage and Mattie Klein. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Lucenti wants to be sure those qualities still resonate at Akron. On the football team, Lehner would "play all over the place, anyplace I asked him to play," remembered Ken Stoldt, his coach of 17 years ago, who still teaches physical education at the school.

Health teacher Julie Constantino recalled him as "a gentle kid," while Estevez said her lasting childhood image is of a guy with an unforgettable smile in "white baggy jeans, a teal silk shirt, his hair parted in the middle."

Craig Lehner graduated from Akron High School in 2003.

Music teacher and band director Mark Flynn said Lehner played the tenor saxophone for six years. He was never afraid to stand up and try a solo, Flynn said — even if the song was difficult, or one he'd had little chance to practice.

"He was a really nice kid," Flynn said, "but he was also a risk taker."

As for Estevez, she has a tale she sees as emblematic. When Estevez was 20, she had an argument with a roommate and had to leave her Buffalo apartment, fast. She mentioned the problem in a matter-of-fact way to a friend, Joe Avellino, who was close to Lehner.

That day, unknown to Estevez while she was working, Avellino and Lehner went to the apartment, packed her things, took apart her bed, grabbed her furniture, loaded everything into a truck and drove to her family home in Akron, where her belongings awaited her once she was done with work.

"It was the kindest thing anyone's ever done for me," she said.

To Lucenti, that is the legacy that matters. Lucenti was raised in South Buffalo, and his father was a laborer at the General Mills plant. As part-time work, both his parents mopped floors at the police station. They had little in the way of material goods, but they provided a lesson Lucenti sees as bedrock Buffalo, a lesson he fears is too often lost in an overwhelming time.

Officer Mitchell Schultz of the Akron police salutes a fallen officer from his hometown at the start of Wednesday's funeral for Buffalo K-9 Officer Craig Lehner at the KeyBank Center in Buffalo. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Greatness is not about money or acquisition or executive position. Greatness is measured by the impact you make on all those lives within reach of your own arms, by your ability to truly see the everyday people you encounter every day.

Maybe that is a distraught tenant being tossed from an apartment  in a city, or a high school classmate who needs help and has no place else to turn.

Craig Lehner was not a valedictorian or a football all-star, Lucenti said. What he always embraced, relentlessly, was the notion of hard work. In his senior yearbook, he paraphrased General George Patton: "Always try your best. It is better to sweat in peace than to bleed in war."

He took it as meaning that commitment, meshed with decency, will rise above all else. His reach extended to National Guardsmen who revered him in Iraq, and to police officers who shared midnight patrols on snowy nights. It was long enough that his passing brought blue lights to skyline monuments in Buffalo, and attracted a legion of mourners to an arena built for big-time sports.

Lucenti invited the four Akron seniors — Julianna Kieffer, Abby Nunn, Emma Sage and Mattie Klein — to the funeral with a specific purpose: He hoped they'd find a message to carry back to school. His faith was validated in a thought offered by Klein as the teen prepared to leave, a thought that captures why a city paused in mourning for one man.

"It kind of makes you think," she said, "of the impact a great person can have, in an ordinary life."

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at or read more of his work in this archive.




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