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M&T's Wilmers recalled for personal touch

NEW YORK CITY — For all the accolades showered on the late Robert G. Wilmers for his business accomplishments and generosity, Christopher Wilmers knew him as someone else: Dad.

The younger Wilmers recalled a father who indulged the shifting interests of his childhood, took a practical approach to life, and was devoted to his family.

"What a dad he was," Christopher Wilmers said Thursday at his father's funeral service. "He taught me how to ride a bike and how to buckle my ski boots. He taught me how to disarticulate my opponents in Ping-Pong."

Christopher Wilmers and others brought a personal dimension to memories of Wilmers, the M&T chairman and CEO who died unexpectedly at age 83 on Saturday. The funeral was held at St. Bartholomew's, an Episcopal church in midtown Manhattan.

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Hundreds of mourners packed the church for the 90-minute service, including his family members, M&T leaders, and the political and business elite of Buffalo and elsewhere. Among the mourners were Mayor Byron Brown, Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, Danny Wegman and Robert Rich Jr.

There were light touches: the church displayed photos of Wilmers riding his bike in Manhattan, in a suit. But the service, presided over by the Right Rev. Dean E. Wolfe, was also respectful of Wilmers' life. The famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma performed.

Christopher Wilmers, a biology professor, recalled his father taking him to model train stores, baseball card conventions, and on bass fishing trips. Time and and again, the elder Wilmers would kneel down to catch fastballs from his son, who dreamed of baseball stardom.

Pallbearers carry the casket of Robert G. Wilmers following his funeral service in New York City. (Bruce Cotler/Special to the Buffalo News)

"My dad was always supportive of my interests, even if they had nothing to do with his own," he said.

Christopher Wilmers recalled how he gradually developed a curiosity in what his dad was reading in the New York Times — politics and business news — and enjoyed those conversations with him.

"I've learned by watching him navigate the world. How pragmatic he always. How he was always honest about what he didn't know. How he would get all the facts and solicit other opinions before he judiciously made a decision."

Wilmers was famous for asking questions, something his son knew firsthand: "He turned asking questions into an art form. It was his superpower."

Christopher Wilmers said he sees his father's influence everywhere. "My dad liked to say, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. In my case, I hope it fell very close, indeed."

Charles J. O'Byrne, who was a political aide to then-Gov. David Paterson, recalled Wilmers as a loyal friend, even when O'Byrne was facing political turmoil. "Bob ran the race and kept the faith of what it means to be a good person. Indeed, let us find more ways to imitate his example."

Marie-Monique Steckel, president of the French Institute Alliance Francaise in New York City, recalled the generous support Wilmers and his wife, Elisabeth, gave the institution when it needed costly renovations. Steckel said she already missed Wilmers "wry smile and his twinkling eye."

Pallbearers carried Wilmers' casket to a hearse parked in front of the Park Avenue church, next to the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Mourners stepped into the midafternoon sunlight and contemplated Wilmers' legacy.

Rene F. Jones, M&T's newly named chairman and CEO, called the service "beautiful beyond words. He touched a lot of people. You saw that today."

Wilmers' successor is a safe and familiar choice for M&T

Rich said he could relate to the outpouring of emotion about Wilmers. "I think 'twinkle in the eye' is what stood out, which I'll never forget. He was just a dear friend and we think about him often."

"It's hard to imagine Buffalo without Bob," said Robert T. Brady, an M&T board member and former Moog Inc. CEO.

Photo Gallery: M&T chairman Robert G. Wilmers through the years




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