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Editorial: Ralph Wilson's championship legacy

In the game of philanthropy, the founding owner of the Buffalo Bills is putting points on the board long after his death.

The Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation on Wednesday announced a $100 million donation that will create a signature park on Buffalo’s West Side and connect a series of nature trails throughout the region. If Wilson’s name weren’t already fused into Buffalo’s identity, this would have sealed it.

The foundation’s goal, above all else, is to connect people.

“It’s our hope that by investing in trails and creating a signature park, we can truly make this accessible for every ZIP code regardless of socioeconomic conditions and race,” said David O. Engers, the foundation’s CEO.

Wilson, died in 2014 at age 95. His trust sold the team to Terry and Kim Pegula for $1.4 billion. Much of the sale proceeds went to the foundation, which distributes funds in the Buffalo and Detroit areas.

Wednesday’s announcement – matched by a twin announcement for a park and trails in Michigan – is the single largest philanthropic gift in Western New York history, surpassing Jeffrey Gundlach’s headline-making donation of more than $52 million to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

The $100 million here will be split among the two projects: $50 million for LaSalle Park to be redeveloped as Ralph C. Wilson Centennial Park, and $50 million to connect the trails that are used for walking, cycling and other activities.

Wilson was a native of the Detroit area. Buffalo became a second home to him after he spent $25,000 back in 1960 to found the Bills, then an American Football League team.

Some $237.1 million has been spent or is in the pipeline for dozens of other projects in both regions over the foundation’s first three years and nine months of existence.

The foundation’s focus is often on underserved segments of the community. One such example is an after-school boxing program with an intensive academic intervention and enrichment program in Detroit that helps 170 young people from ages 8 to 18, almost all African-Americans. The Wilson Foundation gave the organization a well-deserved two-year, $500,000 grant, the largest amount the Detroit Boxing Gym has ever received.

And the foundation’s reach extends well beyond sports and recreation. For example, the organization has committed $1.5 million for the Northland Workforce Training Center in Buffalo and $328,000 to Goodwill Industries of Western New York for advanced manufacturing training.

More and more attention has been focused on trails, in Western New York and elsewhere, as an entry point for getting more people into nature. Earlier this year a nonprofit group announced the building of a 27-mile trail along an old rail line from Orchard Park to Ashford.

Access to great outdoor recreation is one of the benefits of living in Western New York. Numerous parks and trails are within a 45-drive of Buffalo, but not everyone can afford a car. That’s one of the reasons for the large gift to transform LaSalle Park, a 77-acre tract that the city purchased from the state for $1 million in 1911.

The transformation along Buffalo’s Outer Harbor in recent years has been striking. Over on the West Side, where Lake Erie pours into the Niagara River, we can’t wait to find out what a $50 million city park looks like.

Ralph Wilson made money in insurance, oil and gas, and manufacturing. He owned the Bills for 54 years and is enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. These days you are more likely to run across his name in the Chronicle of Philanthropy than in a football publication.

Mary Wilson, Ralph’s widow, is one of the foundation’s four trustees. She told The News earlier this year that her husband “had a vision for philanthropy that he saw as a full circle from football, to giving all of this back to the community, and to the fans that he loved.”

Shakespeare wrote that “the evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” Shakespeare apparently never met Ralph Wilson.

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