Thomas F. Higgins embodied what Theodore Roosevelt called the strenuous life. Not one to “shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil,” Higgins carved out a life of triumph over adversity and didn’t stop pushing himself until his health began to wane in recent months. It was a life well lived.
Higgins, the former three-term sheriff of Erie County, died on Tuesday at age 88. He served the county ably over a law enforcement career that stretched 42 years and left a legacy that remains an influence, 21 years after he retired.
A high school dropout who went on to earn three college degrees, Higgins was saluted by Rep. Brian Higgins, a close friend and political ally, as “the most accomplished law enforcement leader of his generation.”
Tom Higgins was no stranger to hard work. He quit high school at age 17, explaining, “I just couldn’t stand going to South Park High School hungry anymore.” He took a factory job at the former Donner Hanna Coke Corp., where they turned coal into coke for steel production.
When the Korean War started, Higgins joined the Marine Corps. He spent 12 months on active duty in South Korea, participating in three major battles. There were some close calls, he told The News in 2011, but he came home without a scratch.
Higgins then began a 42-year career in law enforcement, the first half of which he spent as a Buffalo police officer. He walked a beat on Chippewa Street, which in the late 1950s was rugged territory.
He moved on in 1978, becoming undersheriff to Sheriff Kenneth J. Braun. When Braun retired in 1985, Higgins was elected to succeed him. He was re-elected in 1989 and 1993. Patrick Gallivan was elected to the job in 1997.
Higgins, the second of nine children born to Irish immigrant parents, grew up in Buffalo’s Old First Ward. He was an old-school public figure who projected the aura of a happy warrior. Nearing his retirement as sheriff in 1997, he looked back on the day in 1956 when he and 30 other recruits were sworn in as police officers. Higgins told a News interviewer that in his childhood in the Old First Ward, “the cops were always chasing us.”
As he recited the oath of office, Higgins said to himself, “What am I doing here?”
During his career, Higgins returned to school to earn a general equivalency diploma. He then earned an associate degree at what was then Erie County Technical Institute, and a bachelor’s and master’s degrees from SUNY Buffalo State.
One of Higgins’ first accomplishments as sheriff was forming a Family Offense Unit, which specialized in investigating crimes against children.
When Gallivan took over as sheriff, Higgins left him some words of advice when he spoke to The News. Higgins urged him to “look after the children of our community. They’re our most precious resource and the most vulnerable to crime.”
Higgins’ active lifestyle after his retirement would have made Theodore Roosevelt proud. Higgins was a regular skier into his 80s and made his first sky diving jump at age 83, a leap from 13,000 feet.
Perhaps the greatest testament to Higgins’ character came from his occasional political foes.
Erie County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw on Tuesday night said Higgins was “Always a gentleman, even when you disagreed with him. ... Politics today needs more Sheriff Higgins.”