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COMMENTARY

Sean Kirst: In Salamanca, a fitting memorial to 2 killed by drunk driver

Sean Kirst

In the Town of Salamanca, they see it as a simple yet perfect memorial.

It is not a dramatic statue or a painting on the wall. It is a 60-foot-long storage barn, basic and practical. Town employees will be able to drive their snowplows, rollers, backhoes and other heavy equipment through the big bay doors and then lock everything up, safely out of rain or snow.

Michael Phillips, when he was town supervisor, saw the need. Diana Brodie-Anderson and Ann Marie Biscup, who both serve on the town council, recall his passionate, point-by-point case about how the shed would protect taxpayer equipment, and in the end would save everyone money.

"He drew up the specifications and put it out to bid," said Tim Jackson, the new supervisor, who describes his predecessor as extraordinarily organized and detailed. That barn "was his baby," Brodie-Anderson said of Phillips, and there is a reason town officials chose to dedicate it Saturday.

That will be exactly a year to the day since Michael and his wife Donna, the town clerk-elect, were killed as they tried to cross Route 353 at about 5:37 p.m., not quite an hour after sunset. They were walking from their nearby home to the front door of the town hall, a distance of about 12 strides from one side of the road to the other.

The new town storage barn in Salamanca, dedicated in memory of Donna and Michael Phillips. (Tim Jackson photo)

They were struck by a pickup driven by Kevin Donaldson Jr., 28. His blood alcohol count afterwards tested at 0.08, just past the threshold for legal intoxication. Donaldson told investigators he was headed toward Salamanca to use a pump to inflate the tires on his truck, because the pump he would traditionally use, at a service station closer to his home, was broken.

In September, Donaldson pleaded guilty in Cattaraugus County Court to two felony counts of vehicular manslaughter. He was sentenced to 20 months to five years in prison.

Sean Kirst: Tragedy takes its toll on close-knit Town of Salamanca

Emotions were raw during sentencing in the courtroom. Saturday, the emphasis will be on recalling two lives of service. Jackson said a plaque recalling Michael and Donna – both retired from careers in education – will be unveiled on the side of the barn, which becomes a $54,000 symbol of the way the couple approached their community.

The barn, Jackson said, is a practical, much-needed solution to a problem that had lingered for years. The town lacked the room to store excess heavy equipment, which put significant civic investments at risk of being worn down all too quickly by the weather.

"They tell me my dad started the project and wanted to see it finished," said Andy Phillips, the couple's only son. He and his family have moved into the house where Andy was raised, which means he wakes up every day to see the place where Michael and Donna set out to walk to the town hall, as they had countless times before.

From now on, he can look beyond that spot toward the barn honoring his parents.

"I tell you, this was Michael's dream," Jackson said. "He wanted to get this moving for this town."

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

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