Though Ralph C. Wilson Jr. never qualified as an official resident of Buffalo, those remembering him after his death Tuesday still count him among the giants in the history of the city and region.
Former County Executive Dennis T. Gorski, who often dealt with the founder and owner of the Buffalo Bills, may have summed up that feeling best Tuesday afternoon.
“He was misunderstood at times,” Gorski said. “But for the most part, I think he will be remembered as one of the most significant Buffalonians ever – even though he was not from Buffalo.”
The former county executive, who sat across the bargaining table from Wilson while negotiating one stadium lease, said the owner would often stop by the Rath County Office Building to discuss not only lease matters but all kinds of topics. But what enshrines him as one of Western New York’s most important figures, he said, was his resolve to keep the Bills in Buffalo even when opportunities to relocate to bigger cities came along.
“He had a general fondness and love for the community,” he said. “He said many times in my presence: ‘The team will never leave as long as I am alive.’ ”
Gorski said he believes the team is safe in Orchard Park for at least the next seven years as a result of the lease recently concluded among the team, the state and Erie County, providing time to address long term concerns.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Wilson’s entire career revolved around maintaining a team that has been the “pride of Western New York for the last 54 years.”
“The Bills remain, to this day, an economic engine for the region, generating revenue and providing jobs at a stadium that will bear Mr. Wilson’s name for years to come,” the governor said. “From his military service during World War II, to his ownership of the Bills, Mr. Wilson left a legacy of leadership that helped keep the team in Buffalo for more than half a century.”
“His passion for football and dedication to his community epitomized the spirit of the Buffalo Bills and their fans,” he added. “On behalf of all New Yorkers, I extend my deepest condolences to his family, friends and the entire Bills organization.”
Lt. Gov. Robert J. Duffy was coincidentally among those touring renovation work at Ralph Wilson Stadium on Tuesday, and he issued his own statement before Wilson’s death was announced.
“The governor’s administration is committed to keeping the Bills in Western New York, and with these stadium upgrades, we are helping to cement the Bills not only as an iconic team, but as a driver of major economic development and jobs in the region,” Duffy said following his tour.
From the archives:
Other official reaction began pouring in as word of Wilson’s death spread.
Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, who also dealt with Wilson during his tenure as county executive, said the area has lost a “true friend.”
“While not a local resident, Ralph Wilson keenly understood what it meant to be a Western New Yorker and how much the team he built means to our community,” Collins said. “It was my great honor as a member of Congress and as the former Erie County executive to work with him, and I am deeply saddened by his loss.”
And current County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz, who last year successfully concluded lease negotiations with the team, called Wilson “a man of great integrity who kept his word to our community.”
Sen. Charles E. Schumer also has maintained a long relationship with the late owner, emerging as a champion of federal measures to keep the team in Buffalo.
“Ralph was a hero for the Bills, Western New York and for all of football,” the senator said Tuesday. “He gave Western New York an institution that became as much a part of the community’s DNA as harsh winters, hard work and the glorious Falls. He loved the Bills and Western New York with every fiber of his being and the legacy of my dear friend will reverberate in Western New York and in the game of football for generations to come.”
Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, said Wilson “furiously” advocated for the interests of smaller-market teams on collective bargaining contracts and other issues.
“The Buffalo Bills are a beloved NFL franchise, and it’s because early on, Ralph Wilson took a tremendous risk that paid off both qualitatively and quantitatively,” Higgins said. “And he stuck with Buffalo when a lot off lesser owners were quick to pull up the stakes and move their teams to larger markets.”
The congressman acknowledged the owner’s death “makes for an uncertain future” for the team in Western New York, but that “every effort will be made to keep the Bills in Buffalo.”
Other political figures such as State Sen. Mark J. Grisanti, R-Buffalo, expressed gratitude in simple terms.
“Thank you, Ralph, for your commitment to Western New York,” he said.