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The Year in Review

In 2019, we bid farewell to leaders, trailblazers, neighborhood regulars alike

They were larger than life in many ways, the notable men and women we lost in 2019.

Through the strength of their talent, their diligence and perseverance, they stood out in the fabric of our community.

Some were prominent figures in business and finance, providing inspiration and promoting commerce during dark economic times.

Some were trailblazers who took their ideals and aspirations into the public sphere – opening opportunities and setting examples for others.

Some stepped outside themselves into new identities and thrilled us with their exploits.

Some – through their boldness and innovative approaches – made marks so large that they earned acclaim on an international level.

And some, as beloved entertainers and familiar presences, paid us dividends every time they touched our hearts.

We miss them all.

• • •

Tibor Baranski Sr., 96, credited with saving more than 3,000 Hungarian Jewish men, women and children from the Nazis during World War II, died Jan. 20. A devout Catholic who studied to be a priest, he was recognized as one of the Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to victims of the Holocaust. Israel issued a postage stamp in his honor in 2017.

Imprisoned by the Soviets after the war, he was a Hungarian freedom fighter in 1956, escaped with other refugees and came to Buffalo in 1961. He became a history teacher while his wife did cancer research and they raised three children. Appointed to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council by President Carter, he gave hundreds of speeches about his experiences.

• • •

Bruce Beyer, 70, a leading local anti-Vietnam War activist, died April 15. In 1968, after refusing to report for induction into the Army, he and a friend took sanctuary in the Unitarian Universalist Church for 10 days until they were arrested by federal authorities.

The arrests attracted national attention. While out on bail, he was charged with inciting a riot after giving a speech at UB and fled to Canada and Sweden. When he returned in 1977, he was represented by former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark and wound up with a 30-day sentence. A woodworker and a union stagehand, he then lived quietly for many years above his shop on the East Side.

• • •

Dick “The Destroyer” Beyer, 88, a masked professional wrestler who was a four-time world champion, died March 7. A legendary villain in Japan, where he wrestled for six straight years in the 1970s, he was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun by the Japanese government in 2017 for promoting goodwill.

A football player at Syracuse University, he played in the 1953 Orange Bowl and was a teacher and coach before he started wrestling professionally. He became “The Destroyer” in 1962 after another wrestler suggested that a mask would be a popular gimmick. In a famous match that same year, he defeated Gorgeous George, who then had to shave off his trademark long golden hair.

• • •

Lawrence “Larry” Bierl, 69, a homeless man who was a familiar figure in the streets and hearts of Williamsville for more than 20 years, was found dead on the frigid morning of Jan. 31 in a bus shelter on Main Street just past the village line.

He frequented Main Street coffee shops and a McDonald’s, where workers regularly left food for him at the back door, but he never panhandled and kept his name and his life a mystery. Police, courts, social service workers and many others tried to help him over the years, but he turned them down, preferring his independence.

• • •

Clyde L. Burmaster, 78, one of the longest-tenured members of the Niagara County Legislature, died Aug. 26. He was serving his 26th year in office at his death and was planning to run again in the fall.

A Ransomville Republican known for his common sense, he had served as Legislature vice chairman since 1998 except for three years when he was chairman and two years when the Democrats had a majority.

• • •

Ezra Castro, 39, the Texan who transformed himself into the costumed Buffalo Bills superfan Pancho Billa, died May 14 in Dallas after a long battle with cancer. The inspiration he provided was celebrated at the team’s home opener in September.

A mortician and father of two, he traveled for years to Bills games in Buffalo and around the country. The president of a Bills booster group in Dallas-Fort Worth, he wore a sombrero and a leather mask adorned with the team colors. Last year he became the inaugural member of the Buffalo Fan Wall of Fame.

• • •

Lloyd M. Elm, 84, founder and principal of Buffalo’s Native American Magnet School 19 and a nationally recognized advocate for better education for Native American youngsters, died Oct. 3. Before coming here, he supervised programs for Indian education in more than 100 schools nationwide for the U.S. Department of Education.

A struggling student until his parents sent him to an Indian school in Kansas, he went on to earn a doctorate, serve as an Onondaga chief and become the first Native American principal of the Onondaga Indian School outside Syracuse, two years after he led a protest that resulted in changes to state policy on curriculum and teacher hiring.

• • •

Blondine Harvin, 80, longtime owner of Gigi’s, an iconic Buffalo soul food restaurant, died Jan. 16. She served the fried chicken, short ribs, candied yams and collard and turnip greens that she learned to cook at home from her mother, who grew up in South Carolina.

She opened the restaurant in 1960 and it became a favorite of social and political leaders. Her customers included Lena Horne, Joe Louis, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Hillary Clinton and the Rev. Jesse Jackson. After it was destroyed by fire in 2015, she vowed to rebuild, but died a month before the new Gigi’s was to open.

• • •

Jerry Hudson, 70, co-founder and lead singer with the Road, a legendary Buffalo rock band from the late 1960s and early 1970s, died Nov. 4. Distinguished by tight harmonies, the band’s biggest hit was a remake of the Zombies’ “She’s Not There,” which reached No. 81 on the Billboard charts in 1969.

The band, which Hudson founded with his brother, Phil, was wildly popular locally and recorded two albums before it broke up in the early 1970s. He went on to pursue a musical career in California, then returned to play clubs locally, write short stories and poetry and act in theater.

• • •

Sister Margaret Mary Hughes, 91, CEO of St. Jerome’s Hospital in Batavia for nearly 23 years, died July 13.

Born in Buffalo, one of 10 children, she entered the Sisters of Mercy Community on Sept. 8, 1949. Her 30-year career at St. Jerome’s Hospital started in 1962 as supervisor of the business office. She later moved up to serve as chief financial officer and chief executive officer.

• • •

Jackie Jocko, 90, Buffalo’s perennial piano man, died Aug. 8. With thousands of tunes from the Great American Songbook at his fingertips, he entertained in the area’s cocktail lounges for more than 70 years, greeting his many friends with personal themes as they arrived. He ended a lengthy engagement at the former E.B. Green’s steakhouse when he retired in 2016.

He began playing in clubs before he turned 13, led a big band in leading local nightspots in the 1940s and, with drummer and sidekick Joe Peters, toured the world for 15 years before returning home in 1972. “Jackie plays the piano,” Peters once said, “but he really plays the crowd.”

• • •

Brian E. Keating, 72, regional president for HSBC Bank’s Western New York operations, died Oct. 11. A Buffalo native, he joined what was then Marine Midland Bank in 1971 and within 20 years was one of the city’s foremost financial leaders.

He matched that success with his work for civic and charitable causes. He led a major effort by Buffalo Niagara Enterprise to bring new jobs to the area. He co-chaired a committee to keep the Sabres in Buffalo after the economic collapse of owner John Rigas. And when he chaired the Catholic Charities Appeal, it set a record for first-day donations.

• • •

Rose D. LaMendola, 89, a trailblazing judge and an inspiration to women in the legal profession, died July 26. Appointed to the Erie County Court bench in 1974, she was the first female county court judge in the state, twice won re-election to 10-year terms and was named to the State Supreme Court in 1995.

After being one of two women statewide to pass the bar exam in 1955, she opened the first all-woman law practice in Western New York. Presiding over the first televised criminal trial in Buffalo as senior Erie County judge in 1987 and perhaps anticipating TV court shows, she jokingly asked the camera crews if they planned to preempt their stations’ daytime soap operas.

• • •

Howard Lapides, 68, a Kenmore native who became a Hollywood producer and manager, died Aug. 1. He managed a variety of talk show hosts, authors, comedians and actors, and was executive producer of TV shows and films.

Beginning as a teen deejay, Michael O’Shea, on WYSL-FM, he worked in radio in Boston, Mass., and Canada, then joined with leading Canadian concert promoters. Getting to know comedians as owner of Yuk Yuk Comedy Clubs in Buffalo and Rochester, he moved to Hollywood and developed a client list that included Carson Daly and Jimmy Kimmel.

• • •

Lynn Millane, 90, Amherst’s first woman town supervisor, died May 4. After 14 years on the Town Board, six of them as the town’s first female deputy supervisor, she became supervisor in 1996, completing the final year of the unexpired term of Supervisor Thomas J. Ahern. She then served for 10 years on the Aging Services Committee of the New York State Office for the Aging, nine of them as chair.

The mother of five and active as a volunteer with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, the Amherst Symphony Orchestra and former Meyer Memorial Hospital, she received the Susan B. Anthony Award from the Interclub Council of Western New York and was honored as a State Senate Woman of Distinction in 2003.

• • •

Gerald O’Grady, 87, who created a media study program at the University at Buffalo that was world-renowned, died March 26. Influenced by media theorist Marshall McLuhan, he brought together and fostered a stellar group of avant-garde filmmakers and theorists.

He inspired the founders of two centers of cutting-edge art – Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center and CEPA Gallery. He produced and hosted television programs that introduced independent filmmakers and helped establish guidelines for state and federal grants for media artists and scholars.

• • •

Rhonda A. Ricks, 56, president and CEO of R+A+R Development who was the first female New York State Minority and Women Owned Enterprise-certified housing developer in Western New York, died June 19.

Her company's first signature project was the redevelopment of former Public School 59 at 769 Best St. into the 59-unit Parkview Apartments, which opened in July 2017. She worked in community outreach for LPCiminelli, then became compliance monitor on Buffalo’s $1 billion dollar school reconstruction project.

• • •

Anthony M. Serra, 70, an advocate for the disabled who founded the Western New York Independent Living Center, died Sept. 24. A quadriplegic, he was paralyzed from the chest down following a swimming accident as a teenager.

He was appointed the first executive director of the Erie County Office for the Disabled in 1983.

• • •

Monsignor David S. Slubecky, 71, retired vicar general of the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo, died Feb. 12. When he retired in 2018 after 13 years in the post, the diocesan newspaper, Western New York Catholic, characterized him as the diocese’s chief operating officer.

Early in his career, he worked with the diocese’s first class of permanent deacons and went on to direct the permanent diaconate program. While vicar general, he assisted in the canonization process for Father Nelson Baker and oversaw the beatification process for the founder of the Felician sisters, Blessed Angela Truszkowska.

• • •

Barry Snyder, 79, an entrepreneur who influenced Seneca Nation politics for 50 years and won election as president five times, died Oct. 1.

No other president served that many terms in the tribe's history. Snyder was a leader of the Senecas’ push to establish profitable casinos in Niagara Falls, Salamanca and Buffalo. The Seneca Gaming Corp., which Snyder led for many years, became one of the largest employers in the region, with more than 4,000 workers.

• • •

Ed Vidler, 90, the president of Vidler’s 5 & 10 in East Aurora, died Jan. 12. He became the public face of the landmark variety store in a series of TV commercials in the 1980s and is caricatured in a statue sitting on the roof of building.

He began working as a teen in the store that his father founded and, with his brother, Bob Jr., bought the business in 1953. They expanded over the years by acquiring neighboring buildings, but kept the old-fashioned facade and wooden floors that give the store its charm and make it a favorite with tourists.

• • •

Ernie Weber, 91, a fiddler, guitarist and banjo player, who for many years was a mainstay of Western New York’s country music scene, died Feb. 1.

Beginning as a boy playing bluegrass music on street corners, he worked with his siblings in the Weber Brothers Band in the area’s clubs and jamborees until the 1970s, then led his own bands for 40 more years, working with local rock musicians and sharing the spotlight with promising young players.

• • •

Also of note

Charles U. Banta, 102, dean of Buffalo stockbrokers, headed board at Albright-Knox Art Gallery, died May 18.
George T. Breen, 84, four-time Olympic swimming medalist, died Nov. 9.
Andrew J. Bouquard, 43, Roswell Park researcher who battled cancer for most of his life, died March 7.
John Burgess, 94, principal flutist for the Buffalo Philharmonic for 25 years, died May 10.
Jim Bush, 72, photographer of celebrities, culture and the city, died July 15.

Patrick J. Callahan, 58, demolition contractor who tore down the Aud, died Nov. 13.
Ross M. Cellino Sr., 86, attorney who founded the firm that became Cellino & Barnes, died Jan. 30.
Dr. John C. Cetin, 93, Angola physician who helped found Lake Shore Hospital, died March 20.
Mabel F. Chambers, 82, attorney for the Seneca Nation of Indians who forged the Seneca Nation Settlement Act of 1990, died Sept. 25.
David L. Condren, 81, reporter for The News and three other dailies for 42 years, died July 15.

Brother F. Edward Coughlin, 71, South Buffalo native who was president of Siena College, died July 30.
Mark A. Corsi, 61, longtime owner of Poster Art store on Elmwood Avenue, died Sept. 18.
James R. DeSantis, 75, former UB vice president, prominent in public relations, died Sept. 24.
Rodney L. Doran, 79, UB professor who started annual Science Exploration Day, died July 24.
Edwin S. Drabek
, 84, longtime Buffalo city forester, died Jan. 22.

Elbert Dubenion, 86, Buffalo Bills star receiver in the 1960s, died Dec. 26.
Timothy Patrick Finnegan, 55, beloved local actor, died Oct. 12.
Dr. Robert J. Genco, 80, UB periodontal researcher, died March 6.
Bernadette Hoppe, 54, attorney and activist, died March 1.
Herbert R. Johnston Jr., 81, Buffalo attorney, judge, city official, died Nov. 12.

Milt Joffe, 78, chief copy editor at The Buffalo News for more than four decades, died Sept. 6
Willie W. Judson, 57, actor, director and mentor to Buffalo performers, died March 25.
Alan J. Justin, 80, first Cheektowaga resident to serve in the state Assembly, died Feb. 6.
Dennis Keefe, 66, radio and print journalist, died May 17.
Dennis M. Kessel, 66, trilateral amputee who was longtime board president of Independent Living Family of Agencies, died Jan. 14.

William L. Kindel, 86, longtime Amherst Town Board member who backed developments and parks, died Aug. 28.
The Rev. Charles F. Lamb, 84, pastor, teacher, environmentalist and writer, died Jan. 23.
Dr. Harold J. Levy, 94, pioneering psychiatrist who practiced for 71 years, died Oct. 2.
Joan M. Light, 89, financial planner and widow of Buffalo News editor Murray Light, died Feb. 12.
Jack Lis, 75, saxophonist and teacher who led bands for stars at Melody Fair, died March 24.

Elias S. “Lou” Mastor, 89, Buffalo businessman who was singer with the 1950s hit group the Hilltoppers, died Aug. 2.
Richard M. Moleski, 91, longest-serving Cheektowaga Town Clerk, died Aug. 14.
Mary Moser, 62, central figure in Buffalo’s punk and new wave rock scene, died March 24.
Joseph Natale, 89, former Depew mayor was teacher, actor and director, died Jan. 12.
Walter F. Olszowy, 87, scuba diver who retrieved hundreds of historical objects, died Feb. 14.

Frank R. Papa, 93, led National Fire Adjustment Co. to national prominence, died July 30.
Anthony F. Quaranto Sr., Niagara County legislator and Niagara Falls City Council member, died Oct. 21.
Stewart Roth, 81, veteran character actor, died March 21.

Paul Schober, 55, Erie County Fair’s longtime director of entertainment, died Nov. 5.
Sandra Sheldon, 79, first woman to serve on Erie Community College Board of Trustees, died Nov. 4.

Donald J. Smith, 82, Niagara County public works commissioner for 20 years, died Jan. 22.
Richard Stenclik, 88, built international staffing and recruitment company Aleron, died Nov. 9.
Richard Sterling, 92, Lackawanna photographer who captured thousands of personalities, died Aug. 3.
Robert H. Stievater, 87, prominent Buffalo architect, died Feb. 3.
Richard G. Stratton, 83, legendary teacher at Nichols School, died Oct. 12.

Eugene C. Tenney, 89, personal injury trial lawyer who represented Attica hostage families, died Oct. 31.
Dan Tower, 68, fifth-generation Niagara County fruit farmer, died May 9.
Dr. Rocco C. Venuto, 77, Erie County Medical Center kidney specialist, died July 11.
Henry D. Waters, 88, beloved Nichols School English teacher and coach, died Jan. 4.
Sam Zemsky, 93, owner of Russer Foods who helped start revitalization of Larkinville, died June 18.

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