Joe Wales started out as a next-door business neighbor of Michael Capriotto's in the Village of Orchard Park about 26 years ago.
That connection grew into a friendship. Wales came to appreciate Capriotto as a mentor and selfless person who cared deeply about the village.
"Mike's the type of guy who does it because it's what's right and it's what needs to be done, not because he wants recognition," Wales said.
On Friday, Wales was coping with the news that Capriotto was gone. Capriotto died Thursday night in a helicopter crash in Pennsylvania along with developer Mark Croce.
Capriotto, 63, was the owner of Bauer's Village Center, which hosts a Kwik Fill gas station, a Tim Hortons cafe, a Subway restaurant and a Pedego electric bike shop. Capriotto had converted the site from Bauer Service, an auto service shop that was previously owned by his father and uncle.
The development of that business explains only part of what Capriotto meant to the community, according to those who knew him.
“Mike never let any grass grow under his feet,” said David Bergner, owner of Bauer Automotive in Orchard Park, a repair shop that once was affiliated with Bauer Service. “He did a lot of things for this community.”
Don Lorentz, executive director of the Orchard Park Chamber of Commerce, said Capriotto was a dedicated fundraiser who played a leading role in restoring the town’s historic train depot and reviving Veterans Memorial Park in the village.
“He’s been there for just about everything we do here,” Lorentz said.
Lorentz said Capriotto and Croce, 58, became close friends after Croce hired Capriotto to precision-cut and install the floor tile for his Curtiss Hotel in downtown Buffalo.
Wales, who runs Arthur's True Value hardware store and Arthur's Home Furnishings next to Capriotto's business on South Buffalo Street, saw how involved Capriotto was in Orchard Park without seeking credit.
"Mike's not the guy that's in front of the camera," Wales said. "He's the guy that's over there digging a hole for Veterans Park or over there helping the village repair the lamp posts."
Wales experienced Capriotto's kindness himself.
"He'll come over and say, 'Hey, Joe, your Dumpster was overflowing. I just packed it down with my loader,'" Wales said.
"Some siding was blown off the building a couple of weeks ago and I said, 'Mike, can I borrow your lift?' " Wales said. "He says, 'Oh, yeah,' and not only that, he comes over with the lift and says, 'Let me help you with that.' "
"A lot of people know publicly what he did because he's won awards to recognize his contributions to the community," Wales said, "but what a lot of people don't know is the behind-the-scenes things."
Capriotto in 1997 received Orchard Park's "Post of Fame" award, given annually to recognize an individual for dedication to the community. He was also the president of the Woodlawn Cemetery Association.
"He's just a major part of the community, a pillar, there to help and always willing and a positive force," said Orchard Park Mayor Jo Ann Litwin Clinton.
Capriotto served as a village trustee for one year, in 1998. He was appointed to fill an unexpired term and then won election, but he had to step aside when he and his family moved outside of the village limits.
"He still was always a help to the village," she said. "If we were putting up Christmas wreaths or moving snow, it didn't matter, he was there to help us."
Erie County Legislator John Mills, R-Orchard Park, has known Capriotto and his family for decades. "I think he has a lot of dedication to his family and his hometown. That's one of his shining accomplishments, his activity in the village and moving things forward, different projects."
"He was active but he kept a low profile," Mills said.
In 2016, Capriotto opened a Pedego Buffalo electric bike shop. In a video posted on the Pedego Buffalo website, Capriotto recalled how the first time he rode a Pedego bike, it made him "feel like a kid again."
"The kind of fun, the exercise and just the experience of riding a bike at my age was something I felt that I had to share with everyone," he says in the video.
On Friday, Capriotto's friends and colleagues were trying to imagine life in Orchard Park without him.
"I just had a conversation with him Tuesday," Wales said. "We'd talk three, four five times a week. It's going to be a huge hole for us."