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Outstanding Citizens: 8 who have done more than their fair share

Some made headlines during the year, while others toiled in anonymity, their good works visible only to those nearby. All made a difference.

Theodore Roosevelt once said, “The first requisite of a good citizen in this Republic of ours is that he shall be able and willing to pull his weight.” A common thread among 2018’s Outstanding Citizens is their ability to pull far more than their share. Some made news headlines during the year, while others toiled in anonymity, their good works visible only to those standing near. All have made a difference.

Three were central figures in unraveling the childhood sex scandal that enveloped the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo: Michael F. Whalen Jr., whose public allegations of abuse by the Rev. Norbert F. Orsolits helped other survivors to come forward; Siobhan M. O’Connor, a whistleblower who is former executive assistant to Buffalo Bishop Richard J. Malone; and Paul L. Snyder III, a prominent local businessman and longtime deacon who was the first clergyman to call for Malone’s resignation.

During a year of anguish for the church, Sister Mary McCarrick, recently retired diocesan director of Catholic Charities of Buffalo, steered the organization through a successful fundraising appeal. There was pop-up hero Jack Harzynski, a district manager for The Buffalo News and postal worker who saved the life of a Wyoming County sheriff who was being attacked by a knife-wielding assailant. Paul Billoni, owner of Colvin Cleaners in Kenmore, is the driving force behind Coats 4 Kids and Gowns for Prom. Superintendent Kriner Cash made the list by continuing to move the Buffalo Public Schools in the right direction. And Atiqur Rahman, owner of Broadway Harbor Store, who has helped hundreds of Bangladeshi immigrants to settle in Buffalo.

All the honorees have earned the respect and gratitude of a community that is richer for their contributions.

Michael Whalen. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Michael Whalen, Paul Snyder and Siobhan O'Connor

South Buffalo resident and former U.S. Army Pvt. Michael F. Whalen Jr. set off a chain reaction on Feb. 27, 2018, when he told local media he had been molested in 1979 by the Rev. Norbert F. Orsolits, a Catholic priest.

Orsolits subsequently admitted to The Buffalo News that he sexually abused dozens of boys decades ago.

Whalen’s courage helped make it possible for many other survivors of childhood sex abuse to step forward and demand accountability from the Buffalo Diocese, one of the area’s most powerful institutions.

The diocese’s deepest, darkest secrets – kept hidden for decades – suddenly were exposed. The scandal infuriated Catholics. Bishop Richard J. Malone insisted the diocese no longer was covering for abusive priests.

But Siobhan M. O’Connor, who was Malone’s executive assistant, viewed things differently. She grew concerned that the diocese was more interested in protecting its reputation and coffers than in assisting clergy sex abuse victims.

Siobhan O'Connor. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

O'Connor recalled watching Whalen's news conference outside St. Louis Church from a fourth-floor conference room of the diocese chancery building and wanting to shake his hand and let him know she supported him.

Months later, the lifelong Catholic said she followed her conscience by leaking reams of internal diocese documents to WKBW-TV. The memos, emails and other documents revealed how Malone had kept two priests in ministry, despite allegations of sexual misconduct with adults. They also showed that the diocese continued to keep secret the names of dozens of other priests who had substantiated claims of abuse against them.

When the internal documents surfaced last summer, Paul L. Snyder III, a prominent local businessman and a longtime deacon in the Catholic church, could no longer keep quiet. He urged fellow Catholics to rise up and demand better from church leaders. He was the first clergyman to call for Malone’s resignation, an act of rebellion that resonated with many Catholics who appreciated Snyder’s candor on an issue cloaked for so long in obfuscation.

Paul Snyder. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Malone has refused to step down, but he did apologize for his handling of allegations against the two priests identified in the leaked documents, and he added an additional 38 priests to a diocese list of offending priests that now includes 80 names.

O'Connor, 35, and Snyder, 58, appeared on "60 Minutes" in October to discuss why they did what they did. Whalen, 53, and O'Connor met for the first time in February, when they attended Mass together inside St. Louis Church, on the one-year anniversary of Whalen's news conference.

— Jay Tokasz

•••

(Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Kriner Cash, superintendent of Buffalo Public Schools

Kriner Cash tells a story of a mother who reached out recently to say her child was accepted into one of the best charter schools in the city, but the family decided to decline.

They’re happy right where they are in Buffalo Public Schools.

“For me,” said Cash, the district's superintendent, “that’s a breakthrough."

It’s just a small example in a large, complex district of 30,000 kids, but it's another small sign Cash uses to show the long-troubled school system is headed in the right direction.

In fact, the number of city schools considered to be in good standing by the state has more than doubled to 37 over the past three years, while the number of those in jeopardy of being shut down has dropped from 25 to three.

Outside Buffalo, people have noticed, too.

Cash was one of the finalists last fall for Urban Superintendent of the Year, the top award among leaders in urban education that's given out by the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of 70 of the nation’s large school districts.

Cincinnati-bred and Princeton-educated, Cash came to Buffalo in 2015 after stops in Martha's Vineyard, Miami and Memphis, providing direction and stability in a district where the superintendent's office has been a revolving door.

He set high expectations and laid out for parents a clear, multipronged approach for reform. That included smaller class sizes in the early grades, more options in the high schools to give kids a better chance to graduate and opening schools after hours and on weekends to provide additional services for the neediest students and their families.

It’s no magic formula, Cash says, just a lot of hard work in the trenches by a lot of people across the system.

“We have to stay persistent – never let up,” Cash said. “In a large organization like this with so many challenges, we have to be at our peak performance all the time."

Cash, who turned 64 this month, is under contract until 2020, but he has expressed interest in sticking around Buffalo for a couple more years to help the district find a successor and ensure it stays on the right path.

After all, he said, the district's progress is fragile and there's still much work to be done.

But for now, Cash continues to take it school by school, classroom by classroom.

— Jay Rey

•••

(Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Sister Mary McCarrick

Sister Mary McCarrick has long been keen on a challenge. The recently retired diocesan director of Catholic Charities of Buffalo has devoted most of her seven decades of life to tackling tough problems.

The most recent: Guiding Catholic Charities against tough odds to the successful completion of its 2018 Appeal. The annual fundraising campaign, which McCarrick ran for the last decade, had a goal of $11 million. With three months to go in March 2018, the appeal still needed to raise nearly $4 million.

That put it about $1 million off track from where it should have been at that point. Among the likely factors were Western New York Catholics’ frustrations over continuing revelations of sexual abuse allegations by priests. Behind that was a separate diocesan capital campaign that raised $108 million but still had $60 million to collect. People wrote her notes that said, “I’m sorry, I can’t help Catholic Charities until I finish paying my pledge.”

McCarrick, who decided before the 2018 Appeal that it would be her last campaign and that she would leave Catholic Charities over the summer, appreciated that thoughtfulness. It’s a character trait that has defined her, life, too. So has a dogged determination to help others.

She became a Franciscan nun at age 24 and began a career full of pivots and reinventions: She taught at a Catholic high school in Buffalo. She moved to the poorest county in Colorado and taught people to achieve self-sufficiency by raising rabbits and cooking them for food. She attended graduate school in San Antonio and worked with families dealing with violence and sexual abuse. Back in Buffalo, she became director of the Benedict House, a nonprofit that served people with HIV/AIDS. McCarrick held a leadership role in her Franciscan community, the Sisters at Stella Niagara, and focused on access to education and healthy food for people in poverty.

In 2009, then-Bishop Edward Kmiec asked McCarrick to become director of Catholic Charities. Over the next decade, she established herself as a star fundraiser, a skill that she put to ultimate use late last spring, when a final-weeks push helped Catholic Charities exceed that $11 million goal shortly before McCarrick’s departure.

Today, McCarrick is focusing on work for her congregation and, she said, “I am delighted to be responsible only for myself!”

— Tim O'Shei

•••

(Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Atiqur Rahman

Atiqur Rahman wears a lot of hats in Buffalo's Broadway-Fillmore area besides the skull cap worn on his head.

Rahman, who's first name is pronounced "ah-teek," owns Broadway Hardware Store, is an accountant, and until taking early retirement, was a supervisor in customer service for the U.S. Postal Service.

He also performs many functions for the growing East Side Bangladeshi community.

Rahman helps recent arrivals buy houses, navigate their way around government agencies and deal with other immigration needs.

"I enjoy doing it," Rahman said. "I am in the customer service field for the last 30 years, and it gives me pleasure if I feel like I can help somebody."

Rahman, who emigrated from Bangladesh to the Bronx when he was 22, has also been instrumental in bringing hundreds of Bangladeshis to Buffalo from the Bronx.

Acquainted with Buffalo's Muslim community, Rahman and his family came to the Queen City in 2006 seeking "a change of lifestyle and something better," he said.

Rahman's move opened the door for others to come through word of mouth, as a pipeline from the Bronx to Buffalo was laid.

"As an accountant and a postal employee, I was very known in the Castle Hill area in the Bronx," Rahman explained. "When I moved, a lot of the people started thinking, 'Why he is moving to Buffalo?' And then they started coming little by little."

The lifestyle in New York City, he said, was hard for some people to survive.

"Here, you can start with nothing and buy a house cheap, and people started to see that," Rahman said. "They like Buffalo because they are living in their own house, and there is no loan or mortgage."

Rahman said he sees positive changes occurring in the area, from safer streets to an increase in businesses.

Rahman is focused on bringing investors to Broadway-Fillmore to create jobs, and creating an East Side chamber of commerce to help the business community.

"I will continue to do these things because I like to do it," Rahman said.

— Mark Sommer

•••

(Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Paul Billoni

Ever doubt Buffalo is a City of Good Neighbors?

Meet Paul Billoni.

The longtime owner of the family-run Colvin Cleaners in Kenmore is the unsung force behind Coats 4 Kids and Gowns for Prom, two programs that have become annual communitywide efforts.

Billoni didn't start Coats 4 Kids, but he became the main sponsor about 10 years ago. Since then, the distribution of hats, scarves and gloves in addition to coats has expanded from one site to three under his watch. More than 75,000 articles of clothing have been given out in a 24-year period.

Gowns for Prom, now in its 14th year, has helped thousands of high school girls find their gowns in a stylish setting. The gowns are assembled on the stage at Shea's Buffalo Theatre, and the upstairs dressing rooms are used to try them on. The girls are fitted by professional and volunteer tailors.

Billoni uses his dry cleaning and garment management skills to clean and alter the gowns, and then deliver them to the students' schools. His wife, Cyndee, works with him, volunteering their time at no cost.

These acts would be impressive enough, but it's only some of what Billoni does as a volunteer.

St. Luke's Mission of Mercy knows him for the truck loads of used clothes he has delivered to its clothing pantry. Through another company, Colvin Draperies, he put in custom window treatments in six group homes the mission maintains for unwed mothers.

Billoni also works with Veterans One Stop, cleaning and tailoring used suits at no cost for veterans on job interviews or starting a new job.

Billoni said he grew up in a home filled with love, and it wasn't until his late teens that he realized his family was poor. As Colvin Cleaners grew, he realized there was a lot he could do to use the business to help others less fortunate.

"My brother has saved many lives with Coats 4 Kids, and he has given thousands of young ladies the gown of their dreams when they never thought that they would be able to afford to go to prom," Mike Billoni said.

"We have seen veterans in tears because they are wearing a perfectly fitted suit they never thought they could afford," he said.

— Mark Sommer

•••

(Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Jack Harzynski

Jack Harzynski grew up in Lackawanna’s First Ward, the youngest child in a Polish-Italian family. He was known as a hard-working kid with an outgoing personality who made friends easily – including the steelmakers who worked in the plant around the corner.

“I started a shoeshine business, charged a quarter a shine and went door-to-door to all the bars in the neighborhood,” Harzynski said. “There were a lot of them back then. I was always aggressive. I wasn’t afraid of asserting myself.”

That trait served him well on a December morning, when he was on the job as a district manager for The Buffalo News and traveling a rural delivery route between Attica and Warsaw. Harzynski came upon what appeared to be a scuffle between two men on the edge of a snowy field. He knew immediately something was not right. What he didn't know was that the man being attacked was Wyoming County Sheriff Gregory J. Rudolph.

Rudolph had a knife at his throat and was on the ground tussling with an assailant. Harzynski, 58, who had initially driven by the scene, slammed on the brakes and immediately turned his car around.

“I don’t know where I got all the energy and the strength,” Harzynski said. “I jumped out of the car, grabbed him by the coat and hurled him into a snow bank.”

The suspect, Lynn M. Hall of Castile, was arrested and charged with first-degree attempted murder, attempted assault and second-degree weapons possession. Hall, who was judged mentally incompetent to stand trial, was placed in the custody of the state Office of Mental Health, pending a hearing in July.

Harzynski’s role in the rescue earned him several awards including the New York State Liberty Medal, the Postmaster General Hero Award and the 100 Club of Buffalo’s Citizen Hero Award. He is also in the running for the prestigious Carnegie Medal, given throughout the United States and Canada to those who risk their lives to an extraordinary degree while saving or attempting to save others.

Harzynski is a 32-year mail handler for the U.S. Postal Service. He has continued to downplay his role in saving the life of Rudolph, who is married and the father of two.

But there is one person who can’t thank him enough.

On Christmas Eve, Harzynski received a handwritten letter in the mail. It was from Rudolph’s mother.

“It was a very touching letter that told me of a mother’s love for her son, and how much my actions meant to her,” said Harzynski. “It meant more to me than anything.”

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