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Sean Kirst: From a year's worth of joy, tears and struggle, some quotes that resonate

Sean Kirst

One privilege of another year of column writing involves conversations with unforgettable people, who offer memorable quotes. As 2017 nears its close, here are just a few examples from the last 12 months, part of the gift of hearing the great stories of Buffalo and Upstate New York.

Jan. 27:  - "That wind, that howling, that noise. It was life or death. It was like being out on the ocean, and the only thing you cared about was getting to the shore.” – George Smith, retired lieutenant with the Buffalo Police Department, recalling the desperation of motorists trapped in their cars during the Blizzard of '77.

March 16: “What we learned at the orphanage was that you’d better respect people, no one owes you a living, and that you’re probably going to be on your own when you get out so you’d better know how to survive.” – Mike Frawley, retired Buffalo firefighter, on the passing of Joe Kelley, both men raised at a Lackawanna orphanage founded by Monsignor Nelson Baker.

April 21: “Most people do not really question reflectively, critically, their own ethical position.” – John Zeis, of Canisius College, on the humility of federal District Court Judge John Curtin, who died in April. Curtin, in his 80s, showed up as a student for a Zeis philosophy course.

May 8: “Good job. Keep it up. You’re almost there.” – The last words of legendary running coach Brendan Jackson of Syracuse, who collapsed and died near the finish line during a relay race in the Finger Lakes, seconds after urging a struggling runner he'd never met, Erika Leah, to keep going.

May 21: “What I’m trying to do is prove she was a great person.” – Alfonzo Whitehurst, a senior at Utica College whose mother, Carla Whitehurst, died in an unsolved murder before he started kindergarten, on why it meant so much to walk the stage at graduation.

May 28: “Read well and learn to play an instrument.” – The advice Grover Coleman, a retired Buffalo machine operator, gives his grandchildren as a key to success in life.

Grover Coleman and his Aidan, visiting the graves of friends and relatives at Forest Lawn for Memorial Day. (Sean Kirst/The Buffalo News)

June 4: "Hey, Brian. This is Gregg Allman." – The words heard 40 years ago over the telephone by 17-year-old Brian Procknal in the kitchen of his Buffalo home, a call that led to a surprise 1977 concert at Canisius High School by Allman, the Southern rock legend who died this year.

June 9: "I was either going to stop or I was going to die or lose my mind." – Jessica Falco, a recovering opioid addict in Dunkirk, on why she finally turned away from heroin, which killed many of her friends.

June 18: "All I want is for him to be an independent man." – Jorge Suarez Ronda, refugee from Cuba, on why he and his wife Vanaisy fled to Buffalo with their son Diego, 6, born with developmental disabilities.

June 24: "Somehow, this is where we all are from. This is a reminder of how amazing nature is, of how amazing God is." – Sta Maodzwa of Zimbabwe, drenched with mist, on discovering the great secret of Niagara Falls: If you visit Goat Island at dawn, the reward is a rainbow that seems like yours, alone.

Sta Maodzwa and her husband James on Goat Island, Niagara Falls at dawn. (Derek Gee/The Buffalo News)

July 1: "You accommodate the tolls before you accommodate your own life." – Brian Michel, a Niagara County commuter, on the nature of his Interstate 190 frustration, leading to shrewd work on social media that helped convince Gov. Andrew Cuomo to replace the Grand Island toll booths with cashless tolling.

July 3: "There are three things that matter in my life: God, family and Roswell." – Peter Merlo, a civil engineer who recovered from a brain tumor, on why he took part in July's longest hockey game in history, more than 11 straight days of hockey in downtown Buffalo to benefit the Roswell Park Cancer Institute. The final score: 1,725 to 1,697.

July 11: "I enjoy putting things together. I wouldn't mind putting things together one more time." – A wistful Bill Krupp Jr., a contractor and former Buffalo factory worker, at an informational session on potential Panasonic jobs at RiverBend.

July 18: "It was like God did it." – Lum Smith, historian and longtime Buffalo schools administrator, speaking of the crowd reaction in 1957 after Buffalo Bisons immortal Luke Easter cleared the scoreboard  with a monster home run at the old Offermann Stadium.

July 24: "As a Gold Star mother, you may forget a lot of things. But you never forget every detail of the moment — where you were, what the weather was like, what you were doing — when you learn about your son." – Marsha Connor of Marcellus, who lost her son Patrick in the first Gulf War.

July 26: "Go bomb." – Albert Woolford, who played quarterback in a touch football game on Shirley Avenue, instructing Buffalo Police Officer Pat McDonald, who jumped in for a few plays, to run deep. A subsequent video of McDonald's touchdown catch went viral.

Aug. 6: "They need help. They need to believe in something more. And a lot of them don't have someone to show them how." – Tosha White, who overcame homelessness to earn a college degree, speaking of the needs of many children and the role a mentor, Mike Taheri, played in her life.

Aug. 8: "I love you." – In a doctor's office, the first words spoken by Jim Beiter of East Amherst, directed to his wife Carol, after a prosthesis allowed Beiter to regain his voice after nine months of silence.

Aug. 27:  "Everything you're supposed to do for your fellow man, it's right there." – Dr. Agnes Szekeres on Tibor Baranski of Buffalo, who risked his life to save at least 3,000 Hungarian Jews from the Nazis during World War II – including the man Agnes eventually married.

Sept. 29: "Everything's fine. I'm alive and everything." – The first thing said by Rosalia Rosas Valentin, mother of Dunkirk Mayor Willie Rosas, when she found a way to call her son Hector from Puerto Rico after more than a week of silence following the devastation of Hurricane Maria.

Jim Beiter of East Amherst: After nine months of silence with throat cancer, the first words he said to his wife Carol are among columnist Sean Kirst’s quotes of the year. (Robert Kirkham/ Buffalo News)

Oct. 3: "I don't know how to save people's lives, but I can feed them pizza." – Chris Palmeri, a Buffalo native who runs Naked City pizza in Las Vegas, on why he provided food to thousands of first responders after a mass shooting left 58 dead at the Route 91 Harvest Festival.

Oct. 14: "Once a teacher, always a teacher." - Sister Kathleen Dougherty on the nuns of St. Mary of Namur, many in their 70s and 80s, who opened their own home for a West Side afterschool program for Somali Bantu refugees.

Oct. 16: "It's not lonely. I've got my dog." – Atlanta photographer Shannon Davis, recalling what Buffalo K-9 Officer Craig Lehner told her when she met him by chance last summer at the Louisiana Street K-9 training grounds, late at night. Davis captured an iconic image of Lehner and his dog Shield, only a few months before an entire region grieved Lehner's death in a Niagara River training accident.

Nov. 25: "They're taking us away." - A 15-year-old boy, recalling how his younger brother greeted him after the teen climbed off a school bus, saw the police at his house, and learned they were being placed in foster care. The brothers had to pack their belongings in garbage bags, which explains a new volunteer effort to provide duffel bags for foster children in greater Buffalo.

Unforgettable Shannon Davis image of Buffalo K-9 Officer Craig Lehner, at the Louisiana Street training grounds. (Photo courtesy Shannon Davis)

Dec. 5: "I want the oldest, least adoptable dog you have. I want the dog that needs a home the most." - The first thing said by Rosemary Billquist to Lisa Hitchcock, who runs a home-based Southern Tier rescue operation for abandoned animals. Billquist was later shot to death in Sherman while walking her dogs, at dusk, by a neighbor who told investigators he thought she was a deer.

Dec. 12: "Wait a minute. Let me go get the Bills." – Tammy Stafford, a waitress at DiPaolo's restaurant in Blasdell, to customer Ruth Mendofik, whose car was stuck during a snowstorm. Stafford returned with a group of Buffalo Bills linemen, who pushed Stafford free hours after they defeated Indianapolis in an epic game, in the snow.

Dec 23: "I'm not going anywhere." – Robert Wilmers, CEO and chairman of M & T Bank, during a 2005 job interview with Gerri Kozlowski, who became his executive assistant. Wilmers, a legendary force in Upstate banking, stayed in the job until his unexpected death this month.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News, who hopes his readers enjoy the happiest of New Years. Email Kirst at or read more of his work in this archive.

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