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COMMENTARY

Sean Kirst: A 101-year-old Sabres fan sighs, and turns to the Mets

Frances Horn feels the April transition as precisely as anyone. She is a Buffalo Sabres loyalist, and she settled into her favorite rocking chair three times this week in her North Tonawanda home to watch the Sabres finish their season, long beyond any shot at the playoffs.

By Saturday, as the team prepared for its last game against Detroit, she was ready to focus on baseball and her beloved New York Mets.

“I have a lot of patience,” Frances said, and here is the proof. She is a loyal follower of the Sabres, the Mets and the Buffalo Bills.

If Job had been a sports fan, he could have learned from her routine.

Chronologically, the Sabres simply cannot have many fans of greater patience than Frances. She is 101. Last year, for her 100th birthday, Denny Malinowski, a nephew from greater Rochester, went to the club and bought her a jersey with her name on the back, a jersey signed by many players from the team.

It features the number “100,” a gift Malinowski repeated – this time going one digit higher – on his aunt’s most recent birthday in January.

She was wearing No. 101 when photographer John Hickey and I stopped by last week, even as the Sabres were losing 3-2 to the Nashville Predators. Frances is matter-of-fact. When I asked why she was wearing the jersey, she said she put it on because she knew we were coming.

Marge Garneret, right, daughter of Frances Horn, holds one of the jerseys her cousin, Denny Malinowski, gave to Frances to honor both her allegiance to the Sabres and her extraordinary longevity. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Still, make no mistake: She is a devout Sabres fan. She was joined for our visit by her daughter, Marge Garneret; her nephew, Denny Malinowski and his wife Pat; her daughter-in-law, Susan Horn; and David Horn, one of her eight grandchildren. They told us how Frances began watching the games when the team arrived almost 50 years ago. She and her husband Milford lived on Tremont Street, and one of their neighbors was from Canada.

The neighbor asked Frances if she kept up with the new hockey team, and Frances decided to give it a shot. She turned on the Sabres and stayed with them as the eras passed, as the names changed. She spoke with affection of Lindy Ruff and Pat LaFontaine, a guy she once saw in a supermarket, where she could not quite find the nerve to say hello.

She was 52 when she embraced the Sabres. Now the digits in her age match the number of goals in a hat trick and the team has still not won a Stanley Cup, but Frances insists she does not grow frustrated.

“It’s all in the game,” she said.

Every now and then, she offered a hint she might be a tad more intense. She wondered in a great-grandmotherly way what happened to the team that seemed so mighty in the 10-game November winning streak. At 101, she said she is grateful to be watching by herself whenever the Sabres bring it down to game-ending shootouts, which she especially loves.

“If I’m alone,” Frances said, “I can shout.”

While she uses a walker due to trouble with her knees, no one underestimates her mettle. She still bakes killer pies and joins Susan Horn in shopping at Budwey's. While she misses gardening – for years, she canned tomatoes and even made her own ketchup – her memory remains so sharp that Malinowski goes to Frances when he wants details of family history from, say, the 1920s.

She spoke quietly of turmoil at the beginning of her life. Frances was born in Detroit. When she was 15 months old, her mother died of tuberculosis. Three months later, her father – a baker – had his children with him in the car when a flat tire forced him to stop.

He stepped into the road and was run down by a trolley.

Frances and her sister were sent to live with an aunt in North Tonawanda. Their brothers moved in with other relatives in Western New York. Frances often looks at a photo of her parents and wonders, even now, how different everything might have been if they had lived.

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That sadness never became paralysis. “She has a toughness about her that not everyone has,” said her grandson David, who learned to love the Sabres as a little boy when he and his grandmother watched the games, together. Years later, when David won 10 tickets through The Buffalo News' Super Jingo contest, Frances was among the guests who joined him at a game.

In an age of mobile phones, she remembers her family gathering around a single radio. Frances grew up on a North Tonawanda street that was unpaved until she was in eighth grade. She went to work before she finished high school, cleaning house for a family that had money. She ended up at the Wurlitzer organ factory, where another employee, a young man, tried to find the courage for an introduction.

Through her friends, he learned she was going to a dance, which is where Milford Horn said his first hello.

“He hated his name,” Frances said of her future husband, whom she always called “Mil.” He also preferred Westerns to hockey games, which is why Frances often chose to watch the Sabres in the kitchen. They had been married more than 50 years when Milford died in 1996, and together they raised four children: Frank, James, Bill and Marge.

Frances outlived two of her boys. Frank died of ALS while Bill was lost to diabetes. She handled that grief, Marge said, through a kind of quiet strategic courage Frances still lives out each day: The best way to keep going is by getting up and moving.

Frances Horn, at 101 a ferocious Sabres fan, watched the team play the Nashville Predators this week on a television in her North Tonawanda home. She is with, from left: Denny Malinowski, a nephew, with his wife Pat; Susan Horn, a daughter-in-law; Marge Garneret, her daughter; and David Horn, a grandson. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

“I don’t feel any older than I did when I was 80, even 70,” Frances said. As for smoking, she tried it as a teen with some friends outside an ice cream parlor called the Sugar Bowl. She started gagging, and that was that.

Frances admits to enjoying an occasional Cincinnati – a beer mixed with birch beer – and she will not turn down a glass of champagne. In the old days, her husband made his own wine. She once put a homemade bottle under the basement steps, forgot about it and found it nine years later.

“Oh my God, it was great,” Frances said. “If you have something that’s aged, it really makes all the difference.”

Arms flew into the air around the room, as if Frances had scored a goal. She had defined how she is seen by those who revere her.

On television, the Sabres tied it up, then fell behind. Frances glanced at the screen, with a serene expression. Whether they win or lose, she said, is less important than knowing they are there every game, every winter, every year.

I nodded, marveling at her Zen approach to a club that has had some glorious moments, but at certain points in history has also made so many of us want to run screaming up the Skyway. I finished the interview, packed up my laptop and reached down to shake her hand.

“Now that you’ve put that thing away,” she said, “do you want to know what I really think?”

Her family roared. This was Frances, with no filter. Based on journalistic ethics, I will honor her request to stay off the record regarding what she said next about a team she has watched for almost a half-century. Yet as another season ends with a sigh, take this one to the bank:

As No. 101 proves as well as anyone, loving the Sabres can sometimes test the patience of a saint.

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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