Norman Strohmeier was a chief radio maintainer for the old New York Central railroad. His wife, Ella, now 95, often stopped by the Central Terminal in Buffalo's Broadway-Fillmore neighborhood. Even today – some 40 years after the final train pulled away – the place retains a sense of grandeur, despite struggle.
"A jewel in the city," Ella wrote.
She sent that note a few weeks ago. We had asked readers to share favorite memories of the terminal, whose 90th birthday celebration continues July 13 with an East Side festival that builds into a Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra concert.
Dozens of emotional replies came by email, letter and telephone. Many readers shared moments of deeply intimate importance. We assembled all those reflections in a digital archive on our Buffalo News web site that you can find here.
For Joe Burgio, 96, the terminal brought good luck on an especially hard day.
He was serving in Florida with the Navy in 1945 when he learned his father was on the brink of death. Burgio's officers gave him permission to catch a flight to Washington, D.C., where he found out a snowstorm was pounding the East Coast. It took 14 excruciating hours, by train, to make it to the Central Terminal.
Amid the storm, he had no way of reaching his West Side home. Yet Burgio's landlord happened to be there, working as a cab driver. He offered to drive the kid through the snow. Burgio had enough time to hold his father's hand before he died.
It helps explain why so many see the terminal as both a building and a shrine.
Frank and Erika Schmieder of North Tonawanda are German immigrants whose first footsteps in this country were on the terminal floor. In 1955, they arrived from Canada with their 1-year-old, Rosemary, on Erika's lap.
"It was beautiful, so grandiose," said Erika, 89, of the vast space. The couple especially remember their first ride: Short on cash, they ignored the cabbies and waited for a relative from Attica to pick them up in a milk truck.
Dick Dobson was 17, a nervous teenager with his thoughts focused on leaving for Air Force duty overseas, when his grandfather, Edward Tredo, and two uncles drove Dobson to the Central Terminal.
He was close to his grandparents, who had raised him since he was 8. Tredo, a longtime railroad man, walked his grandson to the train, alone, then wrapped him in a hug. Dobson, now 74, a retired lieutenant with the Erie County Sheriff's Department, realized his grandfather was in tears.
"I had a strange feeling," Dobson wrote, and all too soon he understood. Tredo died not long afterward from heart disease. At the terminal, he sensed he would never see the kid again.
Donald Potter wishes his sister Bette, who died last year at 96, were here to share her memories. She worked for decades at the terminal, including duty at the ticket counter. She watched four brothers leave for war, then return. Once she sold a ticket to actress Lucille Ball, whose presence sent a ripple of excitement through the place.
In fitting symmetry, Ed Rzadkiewicz recalled how his father Al, known as "Rocky," met many luminaries through his job in baggage handling – including Desi Arnaz, Lucy's husband at the time, who spoke with Rocky one night while Chicago-bound.
Linda Johnson's grandparents ran a nearby boarding house for weary railroad men. Barbara Burgett remembered how her mother often allowed her a treat, riding a red tricycle in open space near the trains, once Barbara's dad went to work in the control tower. And MaryAnn Wieczorek described being there to greet her grandfather, a conductor, when he stepped down from his last ride in 1947, and retired.
As for the future, almost every correspondent embraced a thought expressed with passion by Marty Biniasz, of Buffalo:
The old landmark, he wrote, "should be cherished like a treasure that can never be replaced."
An ice cream soda and a changed life
It was going to be a quick visit.
Daisy Estelle Anderson told her mother she would be home soon, then climbed on a train in Terre Haute, Ind. It was the early 1940s, and Anderson was traveling with one of her aunts. The idea was that she would spend a few days with her cousins, in Buffalo.
That was before she saw the Central Terminal.
"Oh, the lights, the people, the music, the food," she recalled. Red caps were grabbing luggage and many "great big expensive cabs" were parked near the front door. She marveled at the shops lining the concourse. "There was the huge clock and a big stuffed bison. It was fantastic," she said.
In Terre Haute, African-Americans were not served at soda fountains. Anderson saw a counter at the terminal and her aunt smiled and said: Go ahead. Young Daisy tried an ice cream soda, the first one she had tasted in her life. When she finished it, her aunt bought her another.
The terminal was all beauty, light and energy, her instant association with Buffalo. Maybe, at that moment, Anderson knew in her heart she wanted to stay. If so, she soon cemented the decision. Her aunt and uncle brought her to an anniversary party at the home of some friends, where a few young people gathered in the living room.
Anderson hit it off with Ruby Jarvis and her sister Cleo. Ruby and Cleo were working at Curtiss-Wright, making airplane parts amid World War II, and Ruby told Anderson it would be easy to find a job.
In Indiana, Anderson was going to college, facing life in a state where many skilled professions were closed off to blacks. Ruby Jarvis – who came to Buffalo as a child, from Virginia – was telling her she could get good work in Buffalo, tomorrow.
Anderson stayed. Her mother was so upset she rode the train to Buffalo and tried to change her daughter's mind. "I said, 'Mama, I will be able to earn enough to pay for my tuition and my books,' and what could she say?" she recalled.
She took a job at Curtiss-Wright. Eventually, she married Arthur Sayres Anderson, who shared her passion for education and became a lawyer. They built their life together. Daisy Anderson finished college at Buffalo State and went into teaching.
As for Ruby Jarvis? She had another friend in Buffalo, Barbara Siggers Franklin, whose daughter was a musical prodigy named Aretha. Ruby later became Ruby Jarvis Siggers, an aunt-by-marriage to one of the great vocalists in the history of the world. She spent a career at the old Buffalo Psychiatric Center, and she and Daisy Anderson rekindled their friendship and played bridge together in their 90s.
We had hoped to get a photo of Ruby and Daisy together. A few weeks ago, two months from her 95th birthday, Ruby died.
Undaunted, Anderson lifted her old friend's portrait as a tribute, at the Central Terminal.
In the 1940s, a bearded suitor awaited
Helena Hokinson walked cautiously into the great hall, a slight woman with white hair pushing a walker, but as she gained speed the rest of us were soon trailing behind her.
It had been 76 years, but she was almost sure. Yes. She found him right about here.
In the early 1940s, Hokinson was a teenager who took a job at Pillsbury to help support her family. A co-worker was leaving to get married in Kansas. The nation was focused on World War II, and the woman had been corresponding with a guy stationed in Bermuda with the Naval Air Force Reserve, the kind of exchange many people did to show support from the home front.
The woman wondered if one of her colleagues would take over those letters. This was typical during the war, Helena said – she was already writing to four or five friends in the service – but she told her co-worker she could handle one more.
Ernie Hokinson, a Pawtucket native, turned out to be a little different. Helena laughs about how he wrote in detail about doing repairs on an airplane, but their letters became more and more frequent. Before long, he was transferred to Brunswick, Maine, and he asked Helena if he could stop for a visit while on leave.
She said OK. Helena would meet his train at the Central Terminal, and her father insisted on driving her there.
They arrived and became part of a surging crowd of military personnel and travelers going in every direction. It was all noise and people and busy shops and chaos, and Helena's father was ahead of her, heading toward the trains, when she noticed a man in uniform with a full beard, seated near a barber shop.
Somehow she knew. It was Ernie.
More than 75 years later, in the morning light of that vast hall, she could see him sitting there.
He went to their house, where her mother took one look at the beard and pulled out the scissors. That meeting became a courtship that became a marriage. Ernie is gone now, lost to cancer in 2007, and his widow is 93. Helena said they were both strong-willed, often locked in on their own ideas, and in that push-and-pull they found love and a deep bond.
They had three children, including Sharon Hokinson Kerr, their youngest, who drove her mother to the terminal for a photograph last week. They smiled when recalling Ernie's New England accent, and we talked about how Sharon might not exist at all except for the moment when her folks met within those walls.
Yes, Helena said, turning her head. She remembered the big clock, and a newer statue of a bison replaced the legendary old one, but all her focus was on an empty spot.
We were just onlookers, while Helena traveled back toward someone we could not see.
'It has so many memories, for everyone'
Eva Doyle has a vision for the Central Terminal.
Born in Niagara Falls, where her dad worked in a steel plant, her family moved to Buffalo's West Side when she was in grade school. During childhood summers, Doyle's mother would take her children to the Central Terminal, where they would climb on a train for the long journey to a grandfather's farm in Alabama.
Doyle remembers the terminal as a vast and magical space, filled "with all these people coming and going." It was as if all of Buffalo somehow assembled in that great bustling hall.
"I never will forget it," Doyle said. The trips themselves revealed some harsher truths. She is African American, and her family traveled into places where the signs read "white only," where even most restrooms were closed to them. Her mother would pack lunches into shoe boxes, she said, so they would have something to eat.
In Buffalo, Doyle grew into an educator, a community historian and the author of 12 books. This year marks her 40th anniversary as a columnist, first with the Buffalo Challenger and now with the Criterion.
Last week, leaning against a counter in the Central Terminal, she lifted a hand toward the walls of the grand hall and put words to why this landmark holds extraordinary meaning.
To Doyle, at 73, it is a one-of-a-kind temple of unity. Thousands of Western New Yorkers are intimately linked to the building through experience or heritage. Immigrants from throughout the world disembarked there. Families leaving the cruel hardships of the Jim Crow South arrived in the terminal, to start anew. Countless young soldiers, sailors and Marines left for war, over many decades, from this echoing space.
Many returned to tears and celebrations. Others came home wounded – or did not come home at all.
As much as any landmark in Buffalo it is a sacred civic space, a symbol of community. Doyle longs for a day when the terminal is restored behind a plan of such beauty and power that the momentum itself lifts the neighborhood around it.
If it happens, she has this vision for what a restored terminal might include.
This digital era too often amplifies a sense of division and separation. "What I saw at the Central Terminal was the opposite," Doyle said. "Everyone was together. Maybe they were going in different directions, but for a moment everyone was right there."
She proposes an essay contest. Doyle wants to ask Western New Yorkers for suggestions on a monument to community inside the terminal, with a panel assembled to choose a winner. Her own preference is for a mural, done in memorable fashion, capturing how the building represents a shared dream for so many in Buffalo.
"This place," she said again, as morning sunlight drenched the hall. "It has so many memories, for everyone."
Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at email@example.com or read more of his work in this archive.