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Remembering Father Higgins

   I can't help today but recall the last time I visited with Father Jim Higgins, the former Canisius High School president who died on Monday.

   It was last June 18, and we had spent a long day together in Washington for the funeral of Tim Russert, the NBC newsman and famed alumnus of Canisius. He had concelebrated Russert's funeral Mass with Cardinal Theodore McCarrick a few hours earlier; we both attended the magnificent tribute at the Kennedy Center; we joined the ensuing reception among the high and mighty, and now we were waiting for a flight home from Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

   Chris Lee, then the Republican candidate for the 26th Congressional District, came by and sponsored a beer at the airport bar. We all talked for a while, and later Higgins and I hashed over what ranked as a most remarkable day.

   He had just buried one of the most famous men in America. I had just attended one of the most moving ceremonies of my life … even shaken hands with a former president.

   We talked about Russert and how our three lives had intersected around Canisius on several occasions.

   We recalled a now famous story about Russert encountering my son, Dan, at the 2001 Buffalo Catholic Education Dinner. Russert had met Dan before and all but signed him up for Canisius High.

   But when the seventh-grader at St. Mark School told him he had not yet made up his mind about high school, Russert buttonholed Higgins and made him scrawl out an "acceptance letter" on the back of his business card. Then he officially signed it: James P. Higgins SJ.

   "There," Russert said, "that settles that."

   And it did. Dan entered Canisius, reveled in his four years there, constantly complained about the tough Jesuit who ran the place, and today counts as a prized possession the Graduation Day photo of Father Higgins and him.

   Back in Baltimore that day, Higgins and I chuckled over the business card incident and marveled how Russert's simple role helped shape a kid's life.

   We couldn't fathom that Russert had left us at 58. Higgins was 54. I turned 54 that day.

   Now Higgins is gone at 54. It all adds up to the irony that is part of today.

   Not everybody appreciated Jim Higgins. He was hard charging. He could ride roughshod when he had the best interest of Canisius in sight.

   But his alma mater has prospered in a time when other Catholic schools have foundered. If you drive down Delaware Avenue today, you'll see two new Canisius wings under construction that resulted from hard-charging Jim Higgins.

   And he was a major figure in a community that often invited him to serve on boards and represent Canisius High.

   But mostly, hundreds of Canisius guys like Dan are recalling today the major effect the Buffalo native had on their young lives.

   One not so young guy recalls Higgins' effect on his life too.

   Do you have remembrances to share about Canisius High School's Father Jim Higgins?


-- Robert J. McCarthy

More loss for Canisius High School

Canisius High School has suffered some serious personal losses in the past year or so, of alumni, of leadership, of supporters.

The private Jesuit high school is an educational and cultural landmark in Buffalo and Western New York, and its graduates are known to carry the strength of the area with them in whatever they do.

The death this week of its former president, the Rev. James P. Higgins, at only 54, is another blow to an extended school community that is still recovering from the loss in 2008 of ardent Canisius supporters Tim Russert and Paul J. Koessler, and  John M. Granville, a 1993 graduate who was killed leading peace and development projects in Sudan.

On Jan. 4, Canisius also lost another former president, the Rev. Robert G. Cregan, who headed the school from 1974 to 1981, and alumnus and benefactor Bernard Kennedy, who donated hundreds of thousands to the school through his Kennedy Family Foundation died in 2007. 

We know Canisius will get through this rough patch. It has years of history, faith and tradition to guide it.

And as one of its alumni said, the high school will survive especially because of the contributions of these people and others like them.

Buffalo Creek rises again

The Seneca Indian Nation is back in official business at the Buffalo Creek casino -- at least for now.

On Jan. 20, the National Indian Gaming Commission approved plans for the casino, again. It was a response to the tribes application filed three months ago for an amended gaming ordinance.

But, like so many things in Buffalo, the issue of the casino is not settled. A court case continues on whether establishment of an Indian gambling venue within the City of Buffalo is legal, and opponents of the casino say they have no interest in pulling out of their fight.

So, the Battle of Buffalo Creek goes on. When and how it will end ... well, it is sort of like watching a roulette wheel with a particularly lively ball.

Party atmosphere in the nation's capital

   WASHINGTON - This is a lovely city of marble monuments and lush green parks, but it's not the sort of place that typically gives you that excited center-of-the-universe feeling you get in midtown Manhattan or downtown Toronto.

   Until now.

   Barack Obama's inauguration as the 44th president has transformed this city into one big party.

   Which is ironic, really, because you would think that the economic downturn would leave many Americans in no mood to celebrate.

   Nevertheless, something about Obama's election has inspired Americans to flock to the nation's capital in unprecedented numbers.

   Surely the historic nature of his election, as the first black president, has a lot to do with it.

   But there must be more, much more, that's brought this extraordinary gathering of faces - black, white and yellow - together in the same spot.

   You have to wonder: Could it be the audacity of hope?

   --- Jerry Zremski

A $1.2 million dismissal in Amherst raises public-private comparisons

   The Town of Amherst has finally managed to fire an employee after starting disciplinary hearings against him seven years ago and spending more than $1.2 million in legal fees. Anthony Canna, a former sewage treatment plant superintendent, was unable to get the Court of Appeals to hear his case this week.

   Town officials regard this as an unusual case. No other lawsuit has cost the town so much money in recent history. Some question whether the town did the right thing, given the politics and personality conflicts that are undercurrents in this case, and the long, troubled history of the town's pelletizer system, of which Canna was an early critic.

   Others may consider Canna's case as an example of how different government and private businesses operate.

    Though Canna was not a union employee, he made the most of his rights to due process and held onto his job for years after employees in the business world would have been fired.

   … Sandy Tan

A message of hope at the Lincoln Memorial

   WASHINGTON … Pop music concerts are supposed to be one step short of a party, but Sunday's inaugural opening event at the Lincoln Memorial was decidedly different.

   Sure, the crowd danced and swayed as Garth Brooks stole the show with his rocking versions of "American Pie" and "Shout," but it stood eerily silent when Tom Hanks read from Abraham Lincoln and when Barack Obama ascended to the podium two days before he becomes president.

   And Obama himself leavened the mood with a speech that was both somber and hopeful.

   "In the course of our history, only a handful of generations have been asked to confront challenges as serious as the ones we face right now," Obama said.

   Noting that the nation is at war and that the economic crisis has left many worrying about the future, Obama said: "I won't pretend that meeting any one of these challenges will be easy. It will take more than a month or a year, and it will likely take many. Along the way there will be setbacks and false starts and days that test our resolve as a nation."

   But then Obama transitioned into the more hopeful message that defined both his campaign and the performances by the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Wonder.

   "But despite all of this … despite the enormity of the task that lies ahead … I stand here today as hopeful as ever that the United States of America will endure … that the dream of our founders will live on in our time," Obama said.

   The incoming president has been doing this for weeks now: talking in a more measured way about the hope he preached during his campaign, and warning of tough times ahead.

   It's all enough to make one wonder: how tough are those times going to be?

   … Jerry Zremski

Silent, deadly and tragic beyond words

      It is every parent's worst nightmare: to send your child off to something as innocuous as a sleep-over and to find out the next morning your child is dead.

   Amanda Hansen, who was just 16, died during a sleep-over at the home of the friend, Devon Sharvan.

   Authorities believe an undetected problem with the boiler -- which was inside the closet next to where the girls slept on blankets and pillows in the basement of the house -- released the deadly carbon monoxide that killed Amanda and nearly killed Devon.

   While there are lessons to be learned about checking your boiler and making sure you have carbon monoxide detectors in your home, there is no escaping the tragedy of the loss of a young life.

   If you would like to comment on the story, or leave a tribute to Amanda, please do so.

-- Maki Becker

Escalating costs, diminishing returns

  I'm a long-suffering Bills fan, too. I want to see the team do well and make us proud.

   But in the interests of full public disclosure, I don't have a problem reminding folks in Erie County how much they pay for this NFL franchise.

   The Bills game-day and operating expenses -- reimbursed by the taxpayers -- will go up next year, even though the Bills play fewer games right here in Erie County. Then there's expensive stadium upgrades and the game-day wages for sheriff's deputies.

   It looks like that in 2009, for the first time, the hometown taxpayer contribution will average more than $900,000 a game.

   This team is important to us, right? The taxpayer investment is worth it, right?

   The Bills generate all kinds of sales taxes and economic benefits. And our collective pscyhe will be forever bruised if the Bills leave town.

   I see that. But you know what would be nice? A playoff game.

   Right here.

   What do you think?

   -- Matthew Spina


No ordinary inauguration

    An apostle of hope will ascend to the presidency Tuesday at the most hope-starved time the nation has experienced in decades.

   Barack Obama will become the 44th president with the nation at war and in economic free-fall. Yet you would never know it by witnessing the excitement that's building around his inauguration.

   People are already flocking to the nation's capital, and the streets are already shutting down for a public gathering that's likely to number in the millions.

   Some of the excitement, for sure, stems from Obama's status as the first African-American president. But to judge from the faces gathering here, it's much more than that.

   Talk to anybody arriving in D.C. this weekend, and you'll see bright, expectant eyes and a broad smile, on black, white and Asian faces.

   Clearly, this is no ordinary inauguration. And it makes me wonder if it's because so many think Obama will be no ordinary president.

   … Jerry Zremski

Sad saga of investor's disappearing $720,000

    Richard Piccoli, the 82-year-old Amherst man accused of running a multimillion-dollar Ponzi scheme, is portrayed by his lawyers as overwhelmed by his recent arrest. He wants more than anything, they said, to make sure his investors get their money.

   Compare that image to today's story about Ralph Sigl,  a man so incapacitated by drink that he was declared incompetent to handle his finances by a State Supreme Court judge.

   That didn't stop Piccoli, according to Sigl's family, who say he took a lawyer and a bartender to the Veterans Affairs Medical Center, where Sigl was hospitalized for alcoholism, and had Sigl rewrite the will to his $800,000 estate.

   Piccoli became the new beneficiary and executor of Sigl's estate. He also persuaded Sigl's court-appointed conservator to invest Sigl's money — made in a real estate business — in Piccoli's Gen-See Capital.

   There's less than $80,000 left today in the Sigl estate. And to make matters worse, an attorney who conducted an audit of Sigl's finances told a judge that Piccoli was running a Ponzi scheme. That was in 1998, 10 years before his arrest on charges of running a Ponzi scheme.

   What's wrong with this picture?

   —Michael Beebe

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