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Remembering Ralph Wilson as he would have turned 100

Ralph Wilson has left an indelible mark in his adopted hometown.

First, he founded the Buffalo Bills and owned the team for 54 years.

Now, through a billion-dollar foundation created from the team's sale, he may also be remembered as one of Western New York's greatest philanthropists.

Wilson would have turned 100 on Wednesday, Oct. 17. Before he died in 2014, he hand-picked four life trustees to oversee the foundation named for him. They, in turn, developed the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation's structure and vision, based on their perceptions of Wilson's values.

To reflect on his life, The Buffalo News spoke with each of the trustees. Here's what they said.

Mary Wilson, who was with him for 25 years, the last 15 as his wife: 

Mary Wilson still lives in the Arts and Crafts-designed three-bedroom, ranch-style house in Grosse Pointe, Mich., that she shared with her late husband.

The 4-acre lakefront home – with a big circular driveway, lush landscaping and exquisite views of Lake St. Clair – was a bucolic counterpoint to Ralph Wilson's more public life in Buffalo.

Unlike in the Queen City, where it was hard for him to go anywhere without being recognized, he kept a low profile in Michigan.

"He was an introvert. A lot of people don't know that because he had an incredible personality," said Mary Wilson, sitting in her living room.

Mary Wilson still lives in the ranch-style home in Grosse Pointe, Mich., that she shared with her late husband. (J. Kyle Keener/Special to The News)

Reproductions fill the walls where two Claude Monet paintings, an Edouard Manet and an Alfred Sisley once hung. Ralph Wilson had purchased them in the 1990s but they were sold for tens of millions of dollars at a Sotheby's auction in London three months after his death. The proceeds went to the foundation.

"This was his home. It's a great place, and he loved it," Mary Wilson said. "We played tennis in the afternoon and had our dinners together. We didn't have to go out or socialize. We were really with each other most of the time. It was very simple and uncomplicated."

In the daytime, Ralph would read newspapers and the business press in the morning before going into his office and getting on his phone. He wrote personal notes to an array of people in his life.

"He loved sitting in his living room with Monet, Manet and Sisley, but he was not an extravagant person," Mary Wilson said. "He lived a low-key, very normal life. If you ran into him you would not know he had anything, really. He was just a very humble person."

Ralph's favorite place to grab a bite to eat was Roma, an unassuming, authentic Italian restaurant near downtown Detroit.

"He always ate the same things," Mary Wilson said. "Ralph didn't do fancy."

The former Mary McLean was 45 and Ralph was 71 when they met. Ralph had noticed her one day working as a tennis instructor at the West Side Tennis Club, in Forest Hills, N.Y.

Months later, and without ever having spoken to her, Ralph flew with a daughter to Antigua, in the West Indies, where Mary was teaching tennis. She asked them after lessons to stay for dinner.

He returned the next day to take tennis lessons, and the two began dating.

"He liked the way I looked on the tennis court," Mary Wilson said. "He knew I could help him win, and that's it. Those are the kind of players he wanted. Winners, people who could help him win."

Mary liked Ralph's confidence.

"He didn't worry about his image," Mary Wilson said. "He was very comfortable with himself, but wasn't trying to show off. That was one of the charms of being with him. He was very natural."

Clothes, she said, were of little importance to him.

"One time, I got him a couple of sports jackets because I wanted him to look a little more up to date," Mary Wilson said. "The bill came and he said, 'That's ridiculous.' He wore corduroy pants and a blue sweater."

Ralph and Mary were together for 25 years, the last 15 as a married couple.

"He was a very caring person, and a delightful, amazing, amazing man," Mary Wilson said. "I miss being with Ralph. I was so blessed to have him as long as I did."

Mary, who was Ralph's date at the Bills' first Super Bowl appearance, said she continues to feel the warmth Bills fans bestowed on her husband.

"I go on the field before the games – the Pegulas have been great – and the fans will yell, 'Hey Mary,' 'Hey Mrs. Wilson,' and I love it," Mary Wilson said. "I feel loved, not as much as Ralph was, but I feel a lot of love there."

How Ralph Wilson's $1 billion legacy is reshaping Detroit and Buffalo

Jeff Littmann, who went to work for Wilson in 1986, and became director and chief financial officer of the Bills and Ralph Wilson Enterprises:

Sitting in his Grosse Pointe office that houses Ralph Wilson Enterprises, Jeff Littmann recalled the question, "Who was Ralph?"

It was the first one posed to each of the four life trustees by Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors when helping set up the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation.

"If you were a person in need and a person who was dealt a bad hand, Ralph was the kindest, most generous guy in the world, and he would help you and help you forever," Littmann said.

"We had various people he met through different walks of life that for different reasons found themselves in need, and Ralph would send them money every month," Littmann said. "Buffalo, Detroit, everywhere. That was who he was."

After a former employee passed away, Littmann said, Wilson put all six of the employee's children through school.

"He would say all the time 'JL' – you arrive in Ralph's world when you get a nickname – 'everybody needs a little help. You need a little help, I need a little help, everybody needs a little help.' "

Jeff Littmann is the chairman of the board of the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation. He's seen here with the certificate that marks the birth of the Buffalo Bills. (J. Kyle Keener/Special to The News)

Littmann said Wilson lived a very different life away from Buffalo.

"He didn't travel here in the social circles," he said of Wilson's time in Michigan. "Ralph liked to go unnoticed. In Buffalo that was impossible. I'm not saying he didn't enjoy it in Buffalo – there was a certain part of it he definitely did.

"But then he could come back here and just be Ralph."

Littmann said he observed again and again how much Wilson relished his relationship with Bills fans.

"I don't know if people knew how much Ralph fed off the energy from the fans and the everyday people," Littmann said. "People talk about how much they appreciated him having the team there, but I don't think they fully understood how much they meant to him.

"Ralph was a guy who would pass up opportunities to be around the celebrities and politicians to mingle with the crowd in the parking lot."

Mary Owen, Ralph Wilson's niece who previously served as Bills executive vice president for strategic planning:

"It was kind of a bid deal when Mary (McLean) started dating a bigwig," Mary Owen recalled.

Owen was in her teens then, but soon hit it off with the man she would call "Uncle Ralph."

When Owen was in high school, and later at the University of Virginia, he gave her research projects or called to ask for her opinion on different matters.

"He called me 'Project,' because he would always give me projects," Owen said.

Wilson became a father figure to her. "My father and I weren't close, and he took on that role," Owen said.

"He was larger-than-life but also a common man," she said. "He loved the maple walnut cake at Applebee's. He was not pretentious."

"You couldn't get anything by him, not that you'd want to," Mary Owen said of her uncle, Ralph Wilson. (James P. McCoy/News file photo)

But Wilson, who also became her boss, could be demanding, she said.

"His mind was always a steel trap. He didn't write stuff down but he could remember it," Owen said. "You couldn't get anything by him, not that you'd want to. If you didn't know the answer, you'd better just say you didn't know the answer."

Some employees suffered the consequences of his decisiveness, she said.

"Ralph was a decision-maker, and sometimes it hurt people," Owen said. "I remember when he fired [Bills General Manager] John Butler. They had had an argument, and Ralph walked into my office and said he's out of here. He made big decisions, they were final and he did not look back."

Attorney Eugene Driker who, beginning in the 1990s, represented Wilson in personal and business matters, including the Bills:

"It was kind of love at first sight," Eugene Driker said of his first meeting with Wilson. "He was just a charming, delightful guy, easy to speak with and fun to be around."

Driker said Wilson kept a lower profile than most of Southeast Michigan's well-heeled residents.

"I knew of his ownership of the Bills, but Ralph was a very quiet person in the Detroit scene," Driker said. "It was consistent with the fact that he didn't seek fame or notoriety in Detroit, and it was consistent with everything else I was to learn about him."

Wilson did a lot of things for people that went unnoticed, Driker said.

"He didn't have a publicist call up The Buffalo News or the Detroit Free Press and say we want to give you a tip that Ralph Wilson just bought a bunch of ambulances to send to Haiti because they were in desperate need of ambulances, which he did do," Driker said.

Eugene Driker said Ralph Wilson was "a charming, delightful guy."

Wilson, to Driker's surprise, didn't care about some of the conventional things others do.

"When I met him he had a car that was 8 or 10 years old," he said. "The first time I flew to Buffalo to do some work for the Bills, he picked me up at the Buffalo airport in a Ford Taurus that needed a car wash."

He was also surprised to find the door to Wilson's condominium unlocked.

"He said he didn't keep it locked because there was nothing inside worth stealing," Driker said. "It was a pretty plain residence, with a bunch of rented furniture."

Driker added one last memory, that of seeing Wilson, from the owner's box at a Bills game, passing out slices of his birthday cake on paper plates to fans sitting nearby.

"I thought to myself, 'Who does such a thing?' " Driker said. "How many NFL owners would think to open the window, with the cold air blowing in, and pass out birthday cake to the fans?"

Ralph Wilson, founder and owner of the Buffalo Bills, dies at 95

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