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COMMENTARY

Sean Kirst: It's not the Ivy League school that has the heart of this UB, Princeton grad

To Stephen Still, watching the University at Buffalo play college basketball at the highest level will demand solving a quick transportation challenge. The UB women’s and men’s teams both made it to their respective NCAA tournaments, and the two teams are scheduled to open first-round play Friday afternoon.

Still lives in Washington D.C. Once he learned of the dual selections, he called Seth Baskin, one of his closest friends from their undergraduate days at UB. Baskin ended up being the best man at Still’s wedding, and they remained close over the years.

Early Friday, Still will get on a plane bound for New York. He will be part of an international scramble by countless Bulls alumni to figure out the best place to gather for the games, assemblies happening as far away as Shanghai.

For Still and Baskin, the destination is a UB party at the new Anchor Bar on West 57th Street in Manhattan.

“This is something to celebrate,” Still said, describing a tournament that gives him another chance to say out loud what he has known for years:

UB, where he arrived as a kid with a vague dream from a family with no money, served as the critical pivot in his life.

He grew up near Palmyra, just east of Rochester. He used a gentle vulgarity to describe just how short on cash his family was, especially after his parents separated when he was in high school. He knew, if he wanted to go to college, that his one shot was matching his Regents scholarship to whatever other help he could find.

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There was no thought of an "exclusive" university. He put his hopes in the state college system. He enrolled at the SUNY College for Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, only to learn it did not offer the kind of specific career track he was seeking.

A year later, at 18, he transferred to UB.

“I ended up being blessed,” Still said, of everything that started there.

We spoke a few days after the indictments of 50 people, based on a federal investigation, on charges of paying millions to bribe coaches or to “fix” standardized tests. Through such payments, investigators said, dozens of wealthy parents tried to guarantee that teenage children whose grades or qualifications did not warrant admission still found their way into Yale, Stanford and other "elite universities."

UB, with its $1 billion foundation and looming presence in Western New York, is hardly a struggling economic waif. Still's appreciation goes closer to the roots and wraps in why so many graduates will feel a little piece of themselves as they watch both teams perform today. It involves a kind of possibility, he said, that applies not only to young people at his old campus but at every public university and community college in New York.

"I believe so much," he said, "in public education as a chance to step up and change trajectories."

In his case, once he finished high school, private school tuition was "not on the radar." He figured he would give college his best shot, and if things went wrong he could always find a job, maybe driving a truck for the same Macedon highway department that hired him each summer.

It was the 1970s, and he had been deeply influenced by the environmental movement. He already had a kind of rough working notion that ecological theory, meshed with established modes of transportation, might make a difference in American life.

At UB, those ideas came together. Even now, he associates his undergraduate years with a blossoming sense of  revelation. “It didn’t feel like work,” he said of his hours in the classroom. He met professors who helped sharpen his goals and perspective, and his grades reflected his passion for engineering. By the time he earned his bachelor's degree, he knew what he wanted.

Stephen Still, left, with Seth Baskin, a close friend, during their undergraduate days at the University at Buffalo. (Image courtesy Stephen Still)

After going on to do his doctoral work at Princeton, Still built a management career in fleet and network planning for a couple of major airlines. He co-founded two private transportation companies, Seabury Airline Planning Group and Diio, then sold them a few years ago. That allowed him the luxury, in his 60s, of making a deeper commitment to UB.

What he embraces, what he sees as the defining quality and challenge of education, is the idea that affordable access and relentless support, matched with dreams and courage, ought to be the capital on any level that can change a life.

Over the years, he quietly provided scholarship help and other support for UB's engineering programs. In 2017, he donated $4 million to the school, which named its Institute for Sustainable Transportation and Logistics in his honor. Still routinely comes back to teach and counsel as a professor of practice, with a clear vision of the students he most wants to help.

He said there are countless young people raised in difficult situations – be it the heart of the city or in some rural hamlet – who face overwhelming obstacles, but have the brains, will and passion to succeed. What they need are the resources to help them settle in on campus, and mentors to elevate them once they are there.

"I want them to have that chance," Still said.

All of it was there for him, he said, once he arrived in Buffalo. It is why he sees the national admissions scandal as another symptom of a nation with amnesia about what is supposed to be its essence. Students who were accepted because their parents shattered ethical extremes may benefit materially, but they lose a quality whose absence equates to a growing cultural void.

“It creates more human happiness,” Still said, “to be more self-made.”

At UB, he learned with fellow students from many different backgrounds. He moved on to Princeton for his graduate work, and he said he was grateful for the guidance of professors he met there.

Yet he also received a full-blown look at what he describes as "the legacy culture" of the Ivy League. “This country still has a class system,” Still said, “and if you show up at a Princeton or a Harvard, there’s a big network that goes with it, and it makes it easier for you to move around in that upper class.”

If that is a statement of fact about American life, so is the truth that still drives him today.

“The education I received at UB was as good or better than what I got at Princeton," Still said, "and the students were as smart or smarter, and much more diverse.”

There it is. He will meet his buddy Friday just before the games, renewing a college friendship of such power it stayed strong for a solid 40 years. They will settle in to hope against hope their school can hang around and be a presence, even if many of the experts might doubt it.

For Still, in the ways that matter, the same thing happened long ago.

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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