Once, a dozen or so years ago, I was asked a question that I remember to this day.
"What is it with you Buffalo people?"
Susan Page, Washington bureau chief of USA Today, asked me this at a lovely party at her lovely home in Georgetown, a neighborhood I like to think of as Washington’s version of Allentown (not counting the seven-figure price tags).
The point of Susan’s question was simply this: Most media folk in Washington are from somewhere else, but you mostly don’t know where their somewhere else is. (Hers is Wichita, but I had to ask.) The exception to the rule, of course, are erstwhile Buffalonians who typically make fondness for their fair city a principal part of their public personae.
Susan pointed to Tim Russert, still with us at the time, as the pure embodiment of what she meant. There was never a need to ask Tim his hometown. Everyone knew. He made sure of it.
It’s like that with thousands of native Western New Yorkers who live elsewhere now. (I like to say we are temporarily misplaced rather than former Buffalonians.) Often we left not by choice but by circumstance, given the Rust Belt realities of decades gone by, long before today’s era of remarkable revitalization.
Think of us as members of the Great Buffalo Diaspora. The word refers to the dispersion of the Jews beyond Israel, but it can also apply to so many of us who no longer live in or near Buffalo while always holding unyieldingly to our allegiance.
Fortunately, the miracles of modern life mean that’s easier to do nowadays: We can live in Wichita or Washington and watch the Bills and Sabres on satellite and read The Buffalo News online.
That’s where this column comes in. It’s the first of an online series centering on personalities of the Great Buffalo Diaspora or on great moments of Buffalo history — and, occasionally, both.
Allow me to start with a thumbnail sketch of my own story. I was born 65 years ago this month, at Sisters Hospital, on the day Roger Bannister ran history’s first sub-four-minute mile. This apparently destined me to my ink-stained, lucky life as a sportswriter.
I was sports columnist, and Carol Stevens was metro columnist, at the Courier-Express when the paper announced it was folding in 1982 — on our one-month wedding anniversary. We had just bought a house. The math was simple: One mortgage minus two jobs equals big trouble.
But, as it happened, the Courier published its final edition the same week that USA Today published its first — and soon the national newspaper came calling. We moved from North Buffalo to Northern Virginia and Carol moved up the masthead from reporter to editorial page editor to managing editor for news.
I was a sports enterprise reporter from the day I arrived until the day I retired earlier this year as the last member of USA Today’s founding generation still toiling there. And I’m pretty sure over the years I set a record for most Buffalo datelines at a national publication.
Even so, my most memorable dateline is Oxford, England. I traveled there in 2004 to talk to Bannister on the 50th anniversary of his forever mile. His wife, Moyra, greeted me at the door of their home, and I soon mentioned the coincidence of the date of my birth. Then, when she ushered me in to see the great man, she introduced me by my birthday. I felt compelled to offer him a peek at my passport, as if some sort of proof was called for.
Bannister noticed my place of birth, noted on the document, and volunteered that he’d had a fine time in Buffalo some decades earlier when he’d made a series of appearances linked to the Buffalo Marathon, proving once again that there’s always a Buffalo connection.
I didn’t tell Bannister that birthdates coinciding with historic dates somehow run in the family. My father was born in Buffalo in 1912 at the approximate moment of the sinking of The Titanic; he liked to say a whale groaned mid-Atlantic as a minnow was born on the American side of Lake Erie.
But I did tell Bannister how C. S. Lewis, the Oxford don, had corresponded with my father, an English professor at Canisius College, and how in one letter Lewis had called my father his most perceptive critic. I mentioned the original letters are held in Oxford’s Bodleian Library.
"Welcome to Oxford," Bannister said, smiling grandly. "You have a family connection."
It always comes back to family. Carol and I have two grown children. I think of them as citizens of Buffalo in the same way that babies born to American military at bases in foreign countries are automatically American citizens. We also have two grandchildren, and another on the way. (Related: Buffalo onesies never go out of style.)
All of which brings us back to that party at Susan Page’s house. I have an answer for her now, one that I hope speaks for many of us who remain temporarily misplaced.
Buffalo isn’t where we’re from. It’s who we are.