Julius Wargo and Elizabeth Kotis, 1906

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Doing some crazy 1000+ result wide cast searches on one of the ancestry websites came back with a great hit, and gave me the info to order my great-grandfather’s parents’ marriage certificate from the New York City archives. His name was misspelled when transcribed, and her name is actually Kotis… but somehow it popped up.
Gyula Varga and Erszebet Kotis came to the US from Hungary in 1906 and settled in Pennsylvania for a decade before moving to Buffalo around 1917. They obviously stopped long enough in New York City to get married upon their initial arrival.

It’s the first time I’ve been able to find anything on either of them from before the 1910 census, when they lived in Pennsylvania coal country– and told the census worker that they came from Hungary in 1906.

From Marion Heights, Pennsylvania, they moved to Abby Street in South Buffalo around 1917, and Julius got a job a few blocks away at Donner-Republic Steel along the Buffalo River.

He died in January, 1919, leaving his widow with six kids and a very limited knowledge of English.

I wish I had a photo of him– especially since his first name is my middle name (I was named after his son, my mom’s grandfather, Stephen Julius Wargo.)

Elizabeth Wargo lived until 1962– and is fondly remembered by many of her great-grandchildren (including my mom.)
My great-great grandmother, Elizabeth Kotis Wargo, holding my grandmother, June Wargo Coyle, 1931.

 

Charles A. Doyle: Buffalonian whose only crime was being a Communist

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

His only crime was being a member of the Communist Party.

Charlie Doyle’s story is one that I learned not from McCarthy-era newspaper articles, but from sitting in kitchens and on front porches on Seneca Street in South Buffalo.

The Buffalo Evening News reports on February 20. 1948, “Charles A. Doyle… has been arrested.. for prosecution and for deportation as a Communist. (Buffalo Stories archives)

“He was a commie, but he was always trying to help people,” I’d hear. “A good guy.”

You’d expect that kind of talk from his family — from my family. Charlie Doyle was my grandmother’s uncle. Aunt Agnes’ brother.

Charlie Doyle had dozens of close relations living on or just off Seneca Street in South Buffalo in the late 1940s when the move began to deport him. (Buffalo Stories archives)

I grew up in the ’80s, not the ’50s, but Communists still weren’t good.  They were the bad guys, but there was still Doyle, the Communist who caused people to smile when they talked about him.

The Doyle family, 1912, in Coatbridge, Scotland. The Irish Catholic family family had moved from Down, Northern Ireland to near Glasgow, Scotland in the 1880s. When father William died. his widow Mary and many of their children moved to South Buffalo, including my great-grandmother Peggy (third from left), Agnes (standing in front of Peggy), and Charlie– the baby– standing to the right of his father. (Buffalo Stories archives)

I didn’t realize until later that the story of Doyle was a bigger deal than just family lore. Though he continually denied it publicly for his safety and the safety of his family, he was a member of the Communist party. He was also a talented labor organizer and helped workers force safer working conditions and better pay at places such as Bethlehem Steel, Republic Steel and Carborundum.

A pamphlet entered into evidence in the House Un-American Activities hearings in the 1950s. (Buffalo Stories archives)

Despite having been a legal U.S. resident for 25 years with an American wife and family, because he was born in Scotland, he wasn’t allowed to re-enter the U.S. after a trip to Canada in 1949.

Doyle guilty of illegal entry, jury decides after quick trial: “The trial was one of the fastest in Western New York Federal Court history. A jury headed by foreman Nelson Barlett, a Forestville mechanic, which had been selected in 25 minutes, returned the verdict in an hour and five minutes.” (Buffalo Stories archives)

He spent the next several years in and out of prison based on illegal entry charges before– at the height of the McCarthy era– he was deported in 1953.

Communists Gerhard Eisler, John Williamson, Ferdinand C. Smith and Charles A. Doyle wave to crowd as they step on ferry on Ellis Island– where they’d spent months imprisoned.

Being deported from the US wasn’t the end of Charles Doyle’s trouble.

Upon landing on the shores of Britain, Doyle spoke of “insidious forces and McCarthyite scoundrels” back in the US. He attacked those “who in the name of patriuotism would destroy the Bill of Rights and bring our country to the brink of disaster.” This Reuters storyt was carried in newspapers around the world. (Buffalo Stories acrhives)

In London, Doyle picked up where he left off in Western New York– leading  labor organization efforts at a nearby power plant.

The resulting nationwide labor slowdowns caused massive power outages, including at London’s famously lit Piccadilly Circus. Those outages came during one of the coldest snaps of weather on record in London, and nearly two dozen people died from the cold. Doyle was tried in their deaths but exonerated.

In 1963, London’s Daily Mirror tabloid front page was filled with his photo and the bold-faced underlined words, “The most hated man in Britain.”

London tabloid “The Daily Mirror” called South Buffalo’s Charlie Doyle “the most hated man in Britain.” (Buffalo Stories archives)

And it wasn’t just America that didn’t want him. Despite having being deported from the US to his native UK, the House of Lords discussed trying to send him back.

Discussion from Britain’s House of Lords on whether the UK might be able to deport Charles Doyle. (Buffalo Stories archives)

 

Buffalo’s most famous Communist– labor leader and playwright Manny Fried– wrote about Doyle in a piece which was rejected for publication by The Buffalo News called “Democratic Leaders Are at a Fork in the Road.”

When (John L.) Lewis broke with the American Federation of Labor and sponsored the Congress of Industrial Organizations to organize production workers, he said that he hired the communists to organize the workers because communists were the best organizers, idealists sacrificing everything to get workers organized — and when they got the workers organized, he fired them.

Charlie Doyle, the leading open Communist Party activist in Western New York, was hired by Lewis to work for the Steel Workers Organizing Committee. Charlie played a major role in organizing workers into the union at the Lackawanna Bethlehem Steel plant. Then Lewis fired Charlie, and others were credited with
what Charlie had done.

When Lewis subsequently split with CIO leaders and formed District 50 of his Mine Workers Union to organize chemical workers in Niagara Falls, he again hired Charlie Doyle. When Charlie finished organizing those chemical workers into the union, Lewis again fired Charlie.

The CIO Chemical Workers Union then hired Charlie — and the unions Charlie had organized switched from District 50 to CIO. Then CIO fired Charlie. And then Lewis rehired Charlie – and those unions switched back to District 50 with Charlie. AFL and CIO merged into one organization and their AFL-CIO Chemical
Workers Union hired Charlie — and all those same unions of chemical plant workers switched over to the AFL-CIO with Charlie.

Carborundum workers went out on strike in connection with contract negotiations and leaders of the union in Washington held a meeting about the strike across the river in Fort Erie, Canada. U.S. Customs and Immigration wouldn’t let Charlie back across the bridge into U.S. But Canadian authorities looked the other way while Charlie crossed the river back into U.S. in a boat.

FBI and U.S. Immigration then picked up Charlie for deportation on grounds that years earlier when he came here from Scotland he was a communist. Charlie had his first papers to become a citizen, but hadn’t been granted his second papers to complete the process. Jailed for deportation, Charlie staged a hunger strike, but
finally agreed to be deported to England in return for U.S. government authorities persuading his Catholic wife to agree to end their marriage so he could marry the woman he loved.

(Several decades later the Buffalo AFL-CIO Central Labor Council passed the resolution offered by University of Buffalo Chapter of United University Professions recognizing Charlie’s contribution to organized labor in Western New York.)

Democratic Leaders Are at a Fork in the Road, Emanuel Fried

Doyle died in London in 1983. His obituary appeared in the Chicago Tribune.

 

The Gramps Files: Babcia the Rum Runner

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

During The Prohibition, my great-grandmother made moonshine in the family basement and sold it from my grandpa’s baby buggy. Here’s Gramps telling the story….

During a visit on June 18, 2012, Gramps tells the story of his mother using a copper kettle to make whiskey in the basement of their Fulton Street home during The Depression and Prohibition days as a way to keep food on the table for their family with ten children Babcia would put the bottles in with Gramps in his baby buggy for distribution around The Valley.

John & Mary Cichon outside their Fulton Street, Buffalo home, 1941.

The Cichons lived on Fulton Street in The Valley, between Van Rensselaer Street and Smith Street. My great-grandparents owned the home where the booze was made from 1922-1978. Jan Cichon and Maryanna Pochec both came to Buffalo from Poland in 1913. They met here and were married at Holy Apostles Ss. Peter and Paul Church at Smith and Clinton in 1914.

John Cichon died in 1967. Mary Cichon died in 1980. Gramps died in 2014 just after his 88th birthday.

Gramps always told a lot of great stories, but this was one I’d never heard before. I was bursting with questions to ask, but I always considered my visits with Gramps to be his time. Nearly all of his friends, nine brothers and sisters, my grandmother, and four of his ten children died before he did. He needed a friend to talk and listen and bring Tim Bits—not someone to ask uncomfortable questions.

Gramps and Steve

Then and now, I wish I could have done more. I tried to be equal parts buddy and grandson, and I listened to whatever he had to share and never judged…. And I paid back those secret candy bars and ice cream cones from my youth with a box of Tim Bits or a “real burnt-up hot dog with sweet relish and slivered onions” with each visit.

 

A soup can is a ticket to a journey back in time

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

The best part of opening up an old newspaper to look for something specific… is taking your time to get there. Yesterday, in a 1979 edition of The Buffalo Evening News, I had a memory flashback as I quickly scanned a Tops ad.
Hy-Top Chicken Noodle Soup, 1979.
 
When I was at Holy Family grammar school, we went home for lunch… But a couple of days a week, when mom was working, I walked the extra block to my Great-Grandpa Wargo’s house with a can of Hy-Top chicken noodle soup in tow for Grandpa W to heat up for both of us.
 
In the side door and up a few steps to the kitchen, where everything was ancient– but pristine. The giant gleaming white stove with chrome accents was in newer shape than our stove at home, even though it was 30 years older. The same could be said of the also gleaming white counter tops, laminate with gold flecks, in full-1950s style.

The table where we ate the soup was even older, enamel but sturdy. My mother and grandmother likely ate soup for lunch in the same spot at the same table where I sat on those early 80s afternoons.

 
We had to be on our best behavior around Grandpa W, and there was certainly a “get-off-my-lawn” air about him, with his wiry gray hair, glasses like Dennis the Menace’s dad, and clothes that were a bit worn and a bit too big on the man after whom I was named.
 
He was a notorious curmudgeon, but I can’t conjure up an image of him without a smile on his lips and happiness in his eyes. I have another 40 years to work on it, but that’s the kind of curmudgeon I’m aiming to become.
 
I wish I knew how to describe the smell at Grandpa W’s house… I’ve asked and nobody knows what I’m talking about. It was slightly sweet, and maybe a bit like licorice, but not quite so pungent.
 
The thought of that smell makes me feel tucked in with a kiss on the forehead without a worry in the world.
 
Olfactory memories ignited by the grainy image of this can– the exact red-and-gold labeled can I remember from those special meals.
 
As a first grader, the soup produced from that can was enough for Gramps and me to have lunch– but then there was also enough left for him to have some soup for dinner, too.
 
I think ol’gramps would be happy with the nearly-threadbare shirt I’m wearing at the moment, but I’m afraid he might be disappointed if he thinks his namesake would eat a third of a can of soup for dinner.
 
Anyway, all of this swelled up in my eyes and my smile in a brief moment as I pushed forward flipping through the pages of that 40 year old newspaper. I eventually got the article I set out to find, but that’s not nearly as thrilling as finding what I didn’t know I was looking for.

Remembering my first Bills game… and it hasn’t gotten much better

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

My ol’man took me to my first Bills game at Rich Stadium against the Baltimore Colts in 1982– the players’ strike shortened season.

Gramps was a ticket taker at the stadium, so we didn’t pay– we handed him a matchbook which he ripped and gave back to us in case the boss was watching. Aside from the free admission, Gramps letting us in also meant we could get in with the big bag of home-popped popcorn, which was our only snack for the game.

The fact that we didn’t pay to get in probably means we weren’t part of the 33,900 announced attendance that day, but it doesn’t matter anyway– we left early because I was five years old and cold.

That all sounds better than what happened today, when I turned the car radio on just in time to hear Murph say that first time rookie starter Nate Peterson threw two interceptions in the first four minutes of the game against the LA Chargers.

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.

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.

Remembering “Cheap Gourmet” Doug Smith

Doug & Polly Smith, c. 1985, WIVB-TV

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

I got to know Doug Smith while we were both working at Channel 4, but I loved him long before then. Thinking of him makes me think of my grandmother.

Grandma Cichon rounded up us kids and we took the bus from Seneca Street near the city line all the way up to Hertel Avenue for the first Italian Festival in North Buffalo after years on the West Side.

In perfect Grandma Cichon fashion, we prettyquickly walked up and down through the rides and games –it wasn’t much different from the Caz Park Festival we were used to… And then, eschewing the pricier Italian Sausage or ravioli, we ate lunch at the Burger King at the corner of Hertel and Delaware.

And since we were so close to K-Mart, Grandma couldn’t resist running in, which we did (probably for air conditioning, I’d guess, more than anything else.)

In the parking lot leaving K-Mart, heading for the bus stop, I think I spied him first. A real-live celebrity from Channel 4. Doug Smith! Right there! The guy with the convertible Beetle! In the flesh!

As if that wasn’t enough, Grandma– in her breathy, asthmatic voice– started moving toward him shouting, “Doug! Doug! Oh Doug!”

She knew him in her role as the longtime President of the South Buffalo Theatre on South Park Avenue.

“Oh Marie, how are you my darling,” he said, overacting the part, maybe even kissing her hand.

Italian Festival, Burger King, Doug Smith, and Grandma knows him! What a day!

Doug Smith would have made me smile even if I’d never met him… but that he was always great— and that he always makes me think of my grandma is really a bonus.

Then again, I think Doug’s the kind of guy that evokes layers of memories for plenty of people around Buffalo.

He was one of a kind– and warmly touched so many lives. He died today at 81. Rest in Peace, Doug Smith.