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Sylvester 'Sly' Bennett was an Elmwood Village icon, but few knew the real him

Sylvester 'Sly' Bennett was an Elmwood Village icon, but few knew the real him

Sylvester "Sly" Bennett was one of the most familiar figures in the Elmwood Village. People knew him from his face, his voice, his acts of kindness. He was well-known enough to have a song written about him.

"Everybody knew Sly," said Louise Yost, a neighborhood resident. "He was a famous man, but nobody knew who he was."

Mr. Bennett died last week and even his death was shrouded in mystery for days as it could not be confirmed by an official source, including a relative. He was what some might describe as a street person or transient, even though it is not clear whether he had a permanent residence.

But it is not a stretch to say he was beloved, evidenced by the outpouring of grief expressed on social media to news of his death, or by talking to those who interacted with him in the Elmwood Village, in the Potomac Avenue and Grant Street area and in Allentown.

His March 3 death at Erie County Medical Center was confirmed by Buffalo police on Monday.

Many knew him because of the long hours he spent on the streets, sometimes panhandling for spare change, food or a cigarette. None of that seemed to bother those who still found Bennett to be personable, honest and forthright in their interactions with him.

"A lot of people did know that he had his demons," said Sheila Rojas, who reached out to The News to ensure Mr. Bennett's death was not overlooked. "However, that actually didn't take away from who he was as a person, which was a good person."

Rojas, who first encountered Mr. Bennett when she was an Elmwood Village resident, continued to see and interact with him when she moved farther west on the city's West Side. She said it wasn't easy to get to know him, but once you did, the payoff was immense.

"His attitude wasn't outgoing, but underneath that surface you could tell he was a kind man," she said.

"He was part of the community, and it didn't matter about his background. Everyone just tried to take care of him. He definitely will be missed," she added.

That was a common sentiment shared among neighborhood residents and business owners. Paul Antonio, a clerk at the 24 Hour Store, recalled him as an endearing and colorful fixture on Elmwood, whose deep and gravelly voice was instantly recognizable.

"I can hear him now: 'Come on, bro, give me a dollar,' " Antonio said.

Antonio recalled how Mark A. Corsi, the late owner of the Poster Art store, across the street on the corner of Elmwood and Bird avenues, would gift Mr. Bennett with shirts, posters and –sometimes – cash.

Wanting to help Bennett was a familiar refrain among those who got to know him. To a person, all were compelled to help make his life on the streets easier, and Sly – as Mr. Bennett was known to many – often sought to return the favor, in his own way.

"He would shovel for me in the winter and then come inside to warm up," said Jade Woronchuk, owner of Mykonos Express takeout restaurant on Elmwood.

"He was an Elmwood icon," he added.

Woronchuk noted that Mr. Bennett, more recently, spent most of his time in the area of Potomac and Grant, either at the U.S. Post Office or at the Gypsy Parlor bar and grill.

Mike Morelli, a bartender at Coles restaurant, said he had been acquainted with Mr. Bennett for about 15 years but knew little about him. He said Mr. Bennett told him that he was injured in an industrial accident at a chemical plant in New Jersey.

"I know he was in the military and that he went to Buff State," Morelli said.

Yost said Mr. Bennett once told her he had been a chemist and was delighted when she shared with him that her husband taught high school chemistry.

Michael Farrow, frontman of the band Farrow, may know more than many about Mr. Bennett's past, but demurred on sharing details out of respect for Mr. Bennett's privacy. He said Mr. Bennett would walk past his house almost every day.

"He would ask for something to drink," Farrow recalled. "His favorite was root beer. So my mother would start leaving root beer on the porch for him."

He, like many others, recalled Mr. Bennett being supplied with clothing – including boots and socks in the winter. Sometimes he was prone to re-gift.

"He used to love to give me presents, such as a pair of socks," Morelli said. "People were always giving him socks. He gave me a real nice Carhartt jacket once. Somebody gave it to him, but he didn't like it, so he gave it to me."

Farrow and his band members wrote a song about Mr. Bennett, which they have played in bars. One of the band's performances of the song at the Buffalo Iron Works is posted on YouTube.

"Let me tell you a little story about a man named Sly; he'll ask you for a cigarette or two if you're hanging out on the West Side," the song starts out, later urging the listener to not walk by Mr. Bennett, but to show him some kindness and offer a helping hand.

Farrow said that each time the band performed the song in tribute, he would change the second verse to reflect a more recent interaction he had with Mr. Bennett.

"One week it was about him getting harassed by someone with a paintball gun. The next week it would be about how I gave him a ride to Elmwood," Farrow said.

"It's very weird for me right now because the second verse is going to be permanent now. It's not going to change."

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