By Ken Polk
As I grew into adulthood, I started calling my relatives by their first name. About 20 years ago, I recall my uncle pulling me aside. “Less than 1 percent,” my uncle told me. As I leaned in to better understand him, he said, “Eighty percent of the people in this world call me Mr. Wisbaum. Maybe another 20 percent call me Wayne. You, on the other hand, are less than 1 percent of those who can call me uncle. Please do that.”
Rest in peace, Uncle Wayne.
My uncle, Wayne D. Wisbaum, was a well-known member of the Buffalo community. He was a prominent attorney with an indefatigable work ethic. He was respected, smart and philanthropic – giving both his time and his money to those in need. Whether it was a Jewish organization or another nonprofit, he left quite a legacy.
Giving tirelessly to so many organizations for more than 60 years, he was recognized for his efforts and won so many awards that I’ve lost count. What I do know is that, as a father figure and mentor, he taught me many important life lessons.
First, love where you live. Having grown up in Niagara Falls before attending Cornell for his undergraduate degree and then Harvard Law School, my uncle never forgot where he came from. He was well grounded and his love for his hometown never diminished. He truly hoped that Niagara Falls would one day have a similar revival to what downtown Buffalo is going through right now. He also never wanted to move.
Second, work hard. He despised the word retirement and loved practicing law. He went to bed late and rose early, saying all he needed was a good five hours of sleep. He was always busy and attended thousands of committee and board meetings, even while in his early 80s.
Third, and probably most important, enjoy the fruits of your labor. My uncle traveled the world and loved spending time with his family. He was very proud of his three daughters and was happiest when they came home to visit. He loved playing golf with his sons-in-law and grandchildren. He also loved eating good food, always finishing meals with an ice cream sundae. He embodied the “work hard, play hard” mentality.
As hard as he worked, Sundays were for football. My uncle loved the Buffalo Bills, having been a season ticket holder for 40 years. He had a funny ritual of leaving his house in Amherst at 12:25 p.m., boasting that he had never missed a 1 p.m. kickoff.
I had the joy of being his guest at the AFC Championship Game against the Raiders in 1991 when the Bills began their incredible journey of making four straight Super Bowls. What stands out about that game is not that the Bills were winning 41-3 at halftime but that my uncle missed the first half because of a delayed flight home from New York City. I’ll never forget the joy on his face when he realized the Bills would finally be going to the Super Bowl, even though he missed that first-half dominance. Looking back, it was that moment that I cherished the most with my uncle.
I want to thank Uncle Wayne for teaching me these life lessons. I want to thank him for setting an example for me. I want to thank him for being a mensch and for always being someone this community could rely on.
There is no doubt that Wayne Wisbaum’s legacy and impact will be felt by many in Western New York. To me, he’ll always be my mentor, my Uncle Wayne.
Ken Polk, who lives in Williamsville, treasures the time he spent with 'Uncle Wayne' Wisbaum.