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COMMENTARY

Sean Kirst: A retiring director, a groundbreaking advocate, a boxing glove goodbye

B.J. Stasio was the right guy to ask about a gift. He is a board member with the Self-Advocacy Association of New York State, and his fellow members wondered if he would handle a presentation Monday when the group held its annual holiday luncheon at Chef's in Buffalo.

A main order of business was saying farewell to Kirk Maurer, 69, who retires Wednesday after eight years as regional director of a 17-county area covered by the state Office for People with Developmental Disabilities. He will be succeeded in the New Year by Ellen Hardy, now a deputy director, who will step into that role on an acting basis.

Members of the Self-Advocacy group — run by and for people with disabilities — understood that Stasio and Maurer had a close working relationship. Sophia Roberts, regional coordinator of the organization, asked Stasio if he would not only take care of thanking Maurer at the luncheon, but if he had an idea for a fitting farewell present.

Stasio did not need much time to think it over. Born with cerebral palsy, he has a tattoo of boxing gloves on his arm alongside the words "good fight." That has served as a motto for the way he sees the world since the days when his late mother, Rosemary Stasio, taught him to believe no door in life should be closed to him.

In fitting symmetry, Stasio said, his wife Amber gave him a pair of boxing gloves a few years ago so he could use them to work out when he goes to the gym.

He figured he could spare one of those gloves. Stasio brought it in and had everyone in the group sign it, and then he offered it to Maurer during the presentation. To Stasio, that gesture was far more appropriate than any plaque, certificate or trophy.

"You were always there to fight for us, and I know you'll keep fighting," Stasio told Maurer. He recalled how the two men worked for years in the same building, a complex in West Seneca used years ago as a locked residential center for men, women and children with developmental disabilities who had nowhere else to go.

Sean Kirst: West Seneca disabilities office is an ugly reminder of a bygone era

 

Stasio, with an office in that building, never forgets those origins. Roberts described him as both a tireless advocate and a fountain of ideas. He has played a role, she said, in creating 12 different self-advocacy groups. She said one of Stasio's proposals — the notion of training people with developmental disabilities to understand new digital voting machines — has  become a statewide template.

"Without B.J.," Roberts said, "there's a lot that wouldn't have happened."

Another major issue involves an ongoing attempt to convince officials in Albany to move their West Seneca offices to a place much easier to reach by public transportation. If all goes well, the first result of those discussions will be the opening of a satellite office in 2019, part of a new complex of human service agencies that would operate near the Broadway Market.

Stasio often talked about that project with Maurer. Their meetings were frequent and spontaneous. Stasio, a self-advocacy coordinator for the state, is a passionate guy, to put it mildly. Whenever some pressing matter needed airing out, he rode his wheelchair to Maurer's office on the far end of the building. Sometimes, Stasio said, they would see each other three or four times a day.

They were introduced by Maurer's niece, Jennifer Machucki, a friend of Stasio's since they went to a preschool class together. Once the two men shook hands, their friendship locked in. Maurer would put down whatever he was doing to listen and discuss the particular question with Stasio, a response that led to a quick understanding.

"He wasn't a bureaucrat," Stasio said. "I felt like he was a real guy."

After Stasio took the microphone at Chef's and made those points, the place erupted in applause for Maurer, who struggled for composure. He said he recently told his wife he feels unusually weary amid this wave of goodbyes. She responded with a point he believes is true:

Maybe you are tired, she said, because of the emotions you are trying to hold down.

Maurer collected himself. He began working in government about 30 years ago, and he was an associate commissioner in the state Office of Children and Family Services before joining OPWDD.

He spoke of the close connections he has built over the last eight years, and he thanked this roomful of people with developmental disabilities for their trust, their partnership, their commitment. He said he has grown as a human being because he was lucky to learn from men and women of such vision and courage.

As for Stasio, Maurer laughed about the way his friend's profane and emphatic language was enough to peel the paint from the walls of his office, but he said all that passion burned from one central truth.

"B.J.," Maurer said, "is the conscience of the system."

Afterward, Stasio let it sink in. He was born in the early 1970s in Buffalo, at about the same time that a wave of revelations about abuse and neglect downstate, at the Willowbrook State School, finally touched off a long process that would return thousands upon thousands of people to the community who had been locked inside institutions. While Stasio grew up attending "mainstream" schools, he remembers an era when few buildings, streets or classrooms were built in a fashion to make life easier for a guy in a wheelchair.

In a quiet way, his life represents an historic trajectory. When Stasio was a young man, many career opportunities remained seemingly beyond his grasp. Those frustrations, those difficulties, forged a great advocate. There are plenty of minds left to change and more barriers to overcome, but Stasio lived to see this day: The state's top official in greater Buffalo for policies involving the developmentally disabled describes him not only as an adviser, but as a beacon of conscience.

"I was blown away," said Stasio, who joined Maurer for a photograph before the event ended at Chef's. Side by side, laughing, they needed no prompting.

Like two old fighters, they posed fist-to-fist.

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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