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Former Sheriff Thomas F. Higgins 'leaves behind an exceptional legacy of service'

Former Erie County Sheriff Thomas Higgins, pictured in the Memorial Day parade in Kenmore in 2010, passed away on Tuesday. (News file photo)

Jan. 26, 1930 – June 26, 2018

Thomas F. Higgins, a Korean War veteran who went on to become a Buffalo Police Department luminary and three-term sheriff of Erie County, died Tuesday afternoon in his South Buffalo home. He was 88.

His death was announced at a meeting Tuesday evening of the Blackthorn Club, a South Buffalo Irish-American fraternal organization where he was a member.

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, offering condolences in a Twitter message Tuesday night, said he has ordered flags on all county facilities to be flown at half-staff through Friday in memory of Mr. Higgins.

“Sheriff Tom Higgins was a dear friend of mine and of this community,” Rep. Brian Higgins said in a statement Tuesday night. “He leaves behind an exceptional legacy of service as the most accomplished law enforcement leader of his generation. ... In retirement he continued his involvement in neighborhood activities, was a great family man and remained a strong voice for veterans. We will miss his grand presence and big smile but are forever grateful to have had Sheriff Higgins as a leader and friend to Western New York.”

Erie County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw, in a statement late Tuesday, noted that Mr. Higgins “was an old-school politician and a friend to all. Always a gentleman, even when you disagreed with him. He was active many years after leaving elected office and was recently lobbying to give elected officials a raise, one I was opposed to, and he always teased me about it. All around great guy. Politics today needs more Sheriff Higgins."

The former sheriff, a Democrat, had been in excellent health until just a few months ago.

He regularly played handball and plied the slopes of Kissing Bridge well into his 80s. He even logged his first skydive when he was 83.

But recently, he began experiencing several health challenges that resulted in extensive hospitalization.

Tall, outgoing, quick with a story or joke, Mr. Higgins ranked as one of Buffalo’s best-known local figures in not only police and political circles, but throughout the community.

He endowed a scholarship at his alma mater – SUNY Buffalo State – for law enforcement students, served as president of its alumni association and on the board of the Buffalo State College Foundation.

In retirement, he was president of the Buffalo and Erie County Naval & Military Park board, overseeing its early role as an anchor of today’s Canalside development.

“He was a proud Irishman and a wonderful family man,” said his longtime friend Dennis Dargavel. “He dedicated his life to public service.”

The second of nine children born to Irish immigrant parents, he grew up in Buffalo’s Old First Ward.

His father, for whom he was named, was a soldier in the Irish Republican Army during Ireland’s struggles against Great Britain in the 1920s before he emigrated to the United States in 1925.

Growing up in the primarily Irish neighborhood along the Buffalo waterfront, Mr. Higgins marched with his father down then-Elk Street in the 1935 St. Patrick’s Day Parade that inaugurated the annual tradition that now traverses Delaware Avenue each March.

He told an interviewer in 2017 of his own 5-year-old memories of that snowy day.

“I thought it was all for me,” he quipped.

He quit high school at 17, telling The Buffalo News upon his 1997 retirement that “I just couldn’t stand going to South Park High School hungry anymore.”

He then worked a factory job at Donner Hanna Coke Corp. before joining the Marine Corps at the outbreak of the Korean War.

In Korea, he manned a 105 mm howitzer and saw action as a radioman in forward observation posts – always an enemy target. At 6-feet-3 and 170 pounds, Higgins carried the 69-pound radio on his back, despite what he called being more than just skinny.

“I wasn’t wide enough to bless myself,” he said.

[Gallery: Remembering former Erie County Sheriff Tom Higgins]

In 1956, he began a 21-year career in the Buffalo Police Department walking a beat along then-seedy Chippewa Street. One of those early patrols was chronicled by Buffalo-born author Rich Blake in his biography of Old First Ward boxer Jimmy Slattery, “Slats: The Legend and Life of Jimmy Slattery.”

Mr. Higgins found Slattery, once the light heavyweight champion who fell victim to the bottle in his later years, on the pavement with a broken nose after falling into a fire hydrant.

Mr. Higgins later recalled he arrested the First Ward hero just to get him off the street and under the care of a doctor.

“My mother was furious,” he said. “She screamed at me: ‘How could you do that to Jimmy Slattery?’ ”

Along the way, he returned to school to earn a general equivalency diploma, and eventually bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Buffalo State.

During his 21 years with the BPD, he served in the elite Tactical Patrol Unit and was a founder of the Underwater Recovery Team.

He retired in 1978 to become undersheriff under newly elected Sheriff Kenneth J. Braun, and was elected sheriff in 1985 upon Braun’s retirement.

He followed with more victories for sheriff in 1989 and 1993.

He earned a reputation throughout his career as “storyteller,” regaling listeners with tales of growing up in “the Ward,” manning the front lines in Korea, patrolling the streets with his longtime partner and friend Dick Cotter, dealing with riots during the turbulent 1960s and meeting the political and community people of his day.

Though he came under fire in 1997 for allowing political fundraising, his tenure as sheriff was generally viewed as successful.

He oversaw reconstruction of the Holding Center and beefed up air and marine patrols. Former Gov. Mario M. Cuomo named him to several statewide panels and committees, and he was president of the New York State Sheriffs' Association.

The former sheriff was also a member of the Buffalo Commission on Citizens' Rights and Community Relations and chairman of the Korean War Memorial Committee.

He attempted one venture beyond sheriff’s politics in 1992, when he entered the Democratic primary to succeed Rep. Henry J. Nowak in the House of Representatives. Though he emphasized his long law enforcement career in his campaign, he was defeated in the primary by then-County Executive Dennis T. Gorski, who eventually lost the general election to Republican Jack F. Quinn Jr.

In retirement, he frequently traveled to Ireland, and enjoyed countless lunch and dinner gatherings with friends through groups like the Rascals Lunch Club and the Blackthorn Club, which counted him as one of its senior and most beloved members.

Later this year, the new $22 million bridge carrying Bailey Avenue over the Buffalo River-Cazenovia Creek confluence and the new parkland below will be named the Sheriff Thomas F. Higgins Riverfront Bridge and Parks through the efforts of Rep. Brian Higgins. State Sen. Tim Kennedy sponsored his induction into the New York State Senate Veterans Hall of Fame earlier this year.

In 1961, he married the former Shirley Cancilla, who died in 2004.

Survivors include three sons, Timothy J., Daniel T. and Thomas F. “Fitz"; and eight grandchildren.

Funeral arrangements are pending.

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