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Crosby humbled by $2 million donation to Say Yes Buffalo in his name

Gary M. Crosby didn't see it coming.

The president of the First Niagara Foundation was stunned to learn the foundation, in conjunction with KeyBank, was donating $2 million in his honor to Say Yes Buffalo. His fellow board members sprung the news on him a couple of weeks ago, culminating in Tuesday's formal announcement.

Crosby served as president and CEO of First Niagara Bank, before it was acquired by Key in 2016. Before joining First Niagara, he was Buffalo Public Schools' chief financial officer and chief operating officer, stepping in to stabilize the district's finances at a time of fiscal turmoil.

Crosby himself attended Buffalo public schools, and his wife, Joan, taught in the Buffalo school system. During Crosby's five years as a district official, he became passionate about education, and saw the challenges many students face.

"One of the things I learned at the district was that there were too many children that had little to no hope of an education beyond high school," he said. "I say that in the past tense, because then came along Say Yes. These children had no hope because they didn't have the financial resources and they had life challenges in many cases that were not of their making, and certainly beyond their control."

Say Yes is creating college opportunities for those children, he said. "I'm very happy that Say Yes and the children of the City of the Buffalo are the beneficiaries of this huge investment in the future. I can't think of a better long-term investment in the city of Buffalo than an investment in our children."

It is the largest single donation in the First Niagara Foundation's history.

The $2 million donation supports Say Yes Buffalo's five-year, $100 million endowment campaign, aimed at ensuring scholarship availability for eligible students. So far, $37.5 million has been raised toward the $100 million goal.

"This gets us that much closer to Buffalo being a city that supports young people in unique and unprecedented ways," said David Rust, executive director of Say Yes Buffalo. Earlier this year, the program received a $25 million gift from an anonymous donor, and $10 million from the state's Buffalo Billion program.

Including the $2 million donation, Key and the First Niagara Foundation have committed more than $4.1 million to the Say Yes Buffalo Scholarship Fund.

First Niagara Foundation and KeyBank announced a donation of $2 million to Say Yes at North Park School. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Trina Evans, a KeyCorp executive vice president and a member of the First Niagara Foundation's board of directors, said Crosby "never does anything for himself or asks for anything for himself. Yet this is a person who is a complete servant-leader, walks the talk of commitment to community, let alone commitment to education."

Crosby joined Key's board following the First Niagara merger, and has built a strong bond with Beth Mooney, chairman and CEO of Cleveland-based Key.

"Beth Mooney sees Gary Crosby as a role model for her own civic footprint and her own commitment to causes like education and arts and culture," Evans said. "So for all of us, he's someone we look up to in this way."

Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes praised Crosby for his service to Buffalo schools. "When you came to the Buffalo school district as a CFO, I said, 'There's a Buffalo hero,' " she said. "Because right then and there, you were able to change the narrative about how that district was looked at, in terms of its finances."

Crosby recalled he was reluctant to accept the job with the Buffalo school district, afraid his skin wasn't thick enough. But people around him, including his wife, encouraged him to take it. Crosby committed to two years, but ended up staying for five years.

"Something I learned that I didn't know going in is, I was passionate about the children in the City of Buffalo," he said. "Once I started seeing the challenges they have, many of them have anyways, I became passionate about it. And before I knew it, it was five years."

Crosby described the $2 million donation to Say Yes Buffalo in his honor this way: "It feels great, but I have to say whatever community service I've done over the years, I've always gotten more out of it than I felt I was able to put into it."

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