Frank Clark knew how to turn a phrase

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Longtime Erie County District Attorney Frank Clark was exactly the man he appeared to be in the quick soundbites you saw on TV or heard on the radio.

Buffalo News photo

Like most who’ve held the title “District Attorney,” Frank Clark had an insatiable passion for justice and very little time for those who tried to side-step it.

The difference with Frank Clark was the way he expressed that passion. His style displayed the grit forged as former Marine prosecutor, but also the humanity and humor of a man who clearly loved people and loved his job.

When he retired from the DA’s office, I spent a day or two combing through WBEN’s archives to put together a couple stories that were emblematic of Frank’s style and also my appreciation for him– covering him and his office was one of my great joys in 20 years of broadcast journalism.

These stories won an Associated Press Award for Best Feature in 2009, and I’ve never been any more proud of an award. Frank loved it too– which made it one of my favorite stories, ever.

This is Frank Clark at his finest– making a point and turning a phrase. After he retired from the DA’s office for health reasons, he remained a valuable legal resource for us at WBEN, and it was clear that he loved talking to us nearly as much. He loved getting worked up during a phone interview– which were often done while he was undergoing dialysis.

Brilliant, never plain in his plain-spokenness, a genuine good guy.

Rest in Peace, Mr. DA.

Sign of the times

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

When I was a kid at Holy Family grammar school in South Buffalo, I loved election season. Watching the news with my dad every night, I got to know all the players on the local scene, and through my ol’man’s instant, savage analysis, I always knew who was a good guy and who was a chump.

That was fun, but just as exciting for me was driving around and looking at all the big colorful lawn signs.

We never had a sign on our lawn, but like a lot of South Buffalonians in the 80s, my grandparents usually had one for Mayor Griffin or one of the Keane brothers (Assemblyman Dick or Councilman Jim) stapled to the front of the porch.

Some kids liked to drive around looking at Christmas lights or spooky Halloween graveyards— but during political season, Dad would take us the long way to grandma’s house, maybe down McKinley Parkway, to look at all the political signs on the big lawns.

In some kind of simplified kindergartner way, I loved and appreciated the artistry in the varied designs and executions.

“Fahey At Large” might as well have been by Rembrandt or “LoVallo” by Monet.

Well done paint on wood was always eye-catching, but far more rare than it’s sloppy-stenciled cousins which seemed to be everywhere. But the printed signs were like works of art to me. The color choices. The fonts. Was it plain or well designed? How did they look after rain? Did the staple job detract from the sign?

Something, too, about three houses in a row with the same sign in the same spot. Or the uniqueness of a single sign among dozens of signs for “the other guy.”

Then and now, no where does all this drama play out better than Potters Road between Mount Mercy and the city line.

Unlike the manicured and rolling expanses of green on wide and open McKinley, houses seem almost on the street along some parts of Potters.

And it seems like just about everyone on Potters is in the game, maybe even why they moved there in the first place. The manic jumble of lawn signs make the tight ride even more claustrophobic if not thrilling, with the dozens, even hundreds of signs over those few long blocks next to the creek, including many that you wouldn’t see anywhere else in South Buffalo.

Potters during Election time has always felt like the lights of Times Square or the Vegas Strip to me… and this time, it’s my name out there… on a great sign designed by my friend Jake Wagner.

Wow, ya know? Kneeling next to a sign with my own name on it on Potters Road, 14210.

It’s really a lot of work and easy to get caught up in the grind of running for office– it’s nice to be reminded of how amazing all this is every once in a while.

I can’t wait to serve as your next Erie County Clerk. More on my plans at steveforclerk.com.

I pray that they’ll never understand

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

September 11, 2017

As a child of the ‘80s, I understood that the adults in my life talked about the Kennedy assassination and the bombing of Pearl Harbor differently than any other story about the old days.

I’d beg for stories of these events as a grammar school kid with a love for history. Every time, it was a real story—a story that often showed a person in a different light. Someone who smiled a lot would turn heavy-hearted. A grumpy person became reflective. A talkative, easy storyteller quickly became someone of few words.

As a tiny little historian, I knew about those events and the gravity of them, but thinking back, what I naively yearned to understand was how these tragedies made people feel so sad and reflective so many years later. Of course, as a product of the world that was changed by those moments in time, it was impossible to fully comprehend the loss of “what we had been.”

This all flashed in my mind this morning as tears glossed up my eyes and my heart jumped into my throat, reflecting on this day sixteen years ago.

For the last handful of years, I’ve been in the classroom on this date—and have tried to give young people some insight… to help them understand. I pray that they never will.

I wrote this on September 11, 2015, after an intense class.

For this year’s college freshmen— about 60 of whom I’m honored to teach– September 11th is a history lesson. They were too little to know what was going on that day.

I think our most important job in talking about 9/11 to people who don’t remember is to convey the emotion.

What it felt like to watch that on TV.

To pray as people jumped and the towers went down and for all those men and women who rushed in to help.

What it felt like to be as numb and as helpless and as angry and as sad as you ever have.

What it felt like to wonder if we were at the brink of global nuclear war. To wonder if our city was next.

To wonder how different our lives would be going forward.
Our coming together as a nation.

What it felt like to see things start to return to “normal,” and how uncomfortable that felt.

Textbooks will make sure the facts aren’t forgotten… It’s up to us to talk about how deeply it touched every single American, and for each of these young people to understand that we saw the inconceivable worst as well as the mind numbing best of our country that day.

Some piece of America within each of us died that day, and some new part was born. It’s hard to talk about, and hard to come to grips with, but that’s the thing future generations can only learn from each one of us.

 

Harvey brings memories of Katrina’s devastation and hope

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

On this date 12 years ago I grabbed my WBEN microphone to hop a plane for Memphis– and then a day long drive to Louisiana to cover the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

When I think about the week and a half that my colleague Barbara Burns and I spent traveling around Louisiana, it comes back in flashes and bursts. It’s some kind of PTSD.

As a journalist, I’m supposed to be able to tell you the narrative story of what it was like in New Orleans after Katrina, just like I can tell you about any of the other hundreds of stories I’ve covered.

Flooding still surrounding The New Orleans Superdome, more than a week later.

But unlike anything else in my 40 years, my memories from Katrina are in brilliant colors just outside my field of vision. They come in pungent odors and incomplete fragments. I recall very little on-going narrative, but plenty of still-photo-like impressions are etched into my mind along with the singular, unified feeling that seemed to be everywhere.

Wind damage along the bayou.

Whether we were encountering dead bodies in the street, nattily clad elderly men with cardboard suitcases waiting for helicopter rides that would never come, families that walked through shoulder deep water and then days for a safe place to stay, soldiers pointing anti-aircraft guns at our car as we drove by, or people raking through the muck at the edge of the bayou looking for any trace of the completely swept-away home which stood in that spot for generations…

The resounding feeling was the constant then, and it seems to be the constant with Harvey.

People dealing with hollowing depths of sorrow and unimaginable loss also experiencing– at the same exact moment– a wonderful new-found sense of family and community and the greatest sense of hope for the future ever experienced.

All at once, the most plunging depths and the most elated highs. It’s the worst nature can throw at us, bringing out our greatest human love, compassion, and hope.

It’s crushing to see this happen again. Let’s make sure we can make the burden of rebuilding a city– and millions of lives– as easy as possible for the people of Houston.

My trembling buddy makes me think….

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

It’s a relentless rain here today, with bone rattling, long instances of thunder. The kind of rain that becomes flooding, and the kind of thunder which makes you think you’ve never felt thunder in your chest like that before.

Outside my office window this morning.

If it was just me here, I might grab a beer or cup of coffee and sit on the porch. These spectacular displays of nature are few and far between, and should be appreciated when the opportunity is there to take it in. Too often, we’re instead irritated by nature’s gift as we run from car to building or we’re forlorn because nature’s onslaught has ruined plans for one of summer’s precious few days.

As a guy with a dog, though, I’m not going out on the porch. I’m not going on the porch because Willow has burrowed her way into the small space underneath my desk and she’s sitting on my feet, trembling and panting inconsolably.

I was thinking that I wish I could some how make her understand that the thunder isn’t going to hurt her, that there’s no reason to be afraid.

I was thinking about how her crippling, devastating, and irrational-yet-entirely-understandable fear was a lot like all the fear we all carry around. Willow hears those big noises and it stirs something beyond ration, something deeply coded into her DNA.

Of course, not only does she miss out on nature’s great show, she forces me to miss out, too.

Most of our fears are the same way, and most of our reactions to our fears leave us missing out on great things in our world– and maybe even forces the people we love to miss out, too.

I was thinking all that, when a tornado warning popped up for just as few miles away. Hmm, I said, as rationally as I could.

So maybe a little fear is healthy… but the next time fear of some low-percentage possibility stops me from living life to the fullest, I hope I think of the useless anxiety in my little furry buddy’s trembling and decide to do my best and enjoy the storm. Even if some ancient code on my DNA leaves my heart rate a little elevated.

Steve Cichon is a candidate for Erie County Clerk. Read more at steveforclerk.com

Hearing (and feeling) Grandma’s laugh in mine

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Grandma Cichon died 21 years ago today… I don’t know that I’ve ever had such difficulty wrapping my mind around a length of time.

I can hear her laugh and her telling us, “tootle-oo,” but never goodbye… it can’t have been that long.

But more and more, I hear her laugh in mine, and feel the same unbridled joy she did when expressing it.

And this post proves that I’ve caught on to what Grandma knew with her salutations- there are no goodbyes when you live in someone’s heart.

Like each of my grandparents, she’s so much of who I am. It isn’t possible to be any more grateful. Each of them so full of love, and each so different and different in the way their love was shown.

The only right thing to do is to continue to turn out and offer up that same love to the world in their honor… especially today, for this beautiful, tough, artsy, survivor mother of 10.

Scary brass lizards and memories of Father’s Days past

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Seeing this guy on the window sill in our dining room fired up a Father’s Day memory.

This is one of a couple of brass lizards that were in hidden in the dining room plants at the house of my great-grandpa and namesake, Stephen Julius Wargo.

Especially when they were dirty, these things looked real– and one time, when Gramps sent me in to water his plants, one of these really scared the life out of me — which was probably the whole idea. It made good ol’ Grandpa W. laugh and laugh. “AND DID HE LAUGH,” as Grandma Coyle would say, laughing herself.

My mom always made her Grandpa Wargo oatmeal cookies for all holidays, including Fathers Day, and his big grin showed it was just about his favorite present ever, every time.

When Great-Grandpa Wargo died, his daughter, my Grandma Coyle, gave me a few of his things–including this brass lizard.

Seeing it makes me remember Grandpa Wargo and Grandma Coyle, and think about my mom and the gallon sized bag of oatmeal cookies, closed with a twist tie, which we gladly delivered on our Father’s Day travels of long ago.

Of course, I think of my own ol’man on Father’s Day, too… I made a video about it for my campaign for Erie County Clerk.

Lessons from Dad

Happy Father's Day weekend! Although my dad isn't here physically to take part in my campaign, with your help, I'll be bringing his sense of common sense to the clerk's office.

Posted by Steve Cichon for Erie County Clerk on Friday, June 16, 2017

My dad would always refer to himself as “your ol’man” when talking to us kids.

He died seven years ago, but so long as I’m around, he lives every moment  in my heart and in my actions.  So although my dad isn’t here physically to take part in my campaign, with your help, I’ll be bringing his sense of common sense to the clerk’s office.

Happy Fathers Day, everyone.

Aunt Tricia the real life angel– and the angel on the wall at St. Mark’s

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

I just realized today the newly restored cherubs on the walls at St. Mark’s are the spitting image of my dad’s big sister Tricia– who died of kidney disease while my ol’man was overseas in the Marine Corps (years before I was born.)

My dad’s stories about her were always filled with special happiness in thinking about the sister who doted on him and kept him in line– but then sadness because she was taken too soon.

And for me, it’s a source of great joy to think of my ol’man and his sister– who I think was probably his favorite person ever– together again, delighting in the light of God’s face, for all eternity. It’s a blessing to have a reminder on the walls of the church where I love to serve.

The day after I wrote about this. I happened to meet someone who knew my family well around Seneca Street in the 40s and 50s, and as we talked, she brought up Tricia. This neighbor of decades ago spoke about her beautiful, kind, quiet soul. She remembered Tricia speaking gently in whispers as a little girl.

Polish Buffalo in the 1930s: Gramps on Easter & Dyngus Day

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Long before Dyngus Day was the celebration of Buffalo culture it has become over the last decade, it was, as most know, a day of celebration and fast breaking in the Polish community.

My grandfather, Edward Cichon, was the seventh of ten kids born to Polish immigrants who lived in Buffalo’s Valley neighborhood (nestled between South Buffalo, The First Ward, and The Hydraulics.)

Grandma & Grandpa Cichon. Edward V. Cichon and Marie T. Scurr-Cichon.

His memories of Easter and Dyngus Day went back more than 70 years when I interviewed him for a news story back in 2006. He’s giving us a first-hand account of Dyngus Day in Buffalo in the ’20s & ’30s.

Born in 1926, Gramps grew up on Fulton Street near Smith on a street that was, at that time, half Irish and half Polish. Most of the men on the street, including my great-grandfather and eventually Gramps himself, worked at the National Aniline chemical plant down the street.

On Dyngus Day, he’d go behind his house along the tracks of the Erie Railroad—the 190 runs there now—and grab some pussy willows to take part in the Dyngus Day tradition of swatting at girls on their heels, who’d in turn throw water at the boys.

For Easter, Babcia would cook all the Polish delicacies like golabki, pierogi, and kielbasi.

The sausage, Gramps explained, was all homemade. “Pa” (as gramps always called his father) would get two pigs, and they’d smoke them right in the backyard on Fulton Street. The whole family would work on making sausage at the big kitchen table, and then hang the kielbasa out back—but they’d also butcher hams and other cuts of meat as well.

While he was in the frame of mind, I asked him about the Broadway Market, too. In the late ‘20s, His mother would wheel him the two miles over to the market in a wagon, and park him next to the horses while she shopped for food and across the street at Sattler’s.

Reading these stories is great, but listening to Gramps tell them is the best.

My ol’man, pizza, and the Dukes of Hazzard

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

It’s my favorite Dukes of Hazzard moment.

I was in First Grade, and “The Dukes” were just about the most popular thing in the world. Maybe tied with Michael Jackson’s Thriller album. The early ’80s were a tough time in South Buffalo– and my dad had a tough time finding work.

Billboard outside of City Hall in the late ’70s, placed there by Bethlehem Steel’s union workforce.

Plants closed and he sold the bar at Elk & Smith. He tried teaching middle school history but couldn’t get in full-time, so he lived and worked in Massachusetts for almost a year while we lived on Allegany Street off Tifft near South Park.

Of course we missed dad– and money was tight. There were more 20-cent letters flying than $5 long-distance phone calls being made. I can’t imagine what it was like for my ol’man to be away, and for my mom to be home with us three, a full-time job, and no car.

It was a Friday night and we took our baths early to be ready to watch those Duke boys. We were sitting at our little plastic table in the living room—all ready for “Tic-Tac-Dough” and “Jokers Wild” to end and Waylon Jennings to sing about “two good ol’boys, never meaning no harm…” when the front door burst open.

Dad with us kids just inside the front door of our house on Allegany Street…. probably taken just as he was leaving for Massachusetts one time or another.

Not only had my ol’man pushed our AMC Spirit to the limit speeding home from Massachusetts, but he had the sense to stop at Mineo’s South (when it was on the corner of Tifft & South Park) on his way home to pick up a large pie. Pizza, like long distance calls, wasn’t often in the budget and extra special.

I’m not sure a six-year-old heart could be any more full.

This glorious Friday night was probably about the best night of my life up until then… Dad was home, we were eating pizza, and we were watching the Dukes. All was right with the world.

That’s me (left) with my Dukes of Hazzard big wheel, c.1982