Ralph C. Wilson Jr. will be remembered by many in Western New York as a man who enjoyed sharing his wealth. Through the Ralph C. Wilson Foundation, which he started in 1952 with his father, and the Ralph Wilson Medical Research Foundation, founded in 1999, Wilson and his wife, Mary, quietly donated millions to the community that was home to his NFL team.
“A lot of what he did was behind the scenes,” said Candace Johnson, deputy director at Roswell Park Cancer Institute. “He has given over $11 million to medical institutions, and Roswell Park was fortunate to get $2 million to fund innovative research projects as seed money. That was parlayed into another $10 million to $12 million for those projects.”
Johnson, who is a past chairwoman of the Wilsons’ medical research foundation, said that the Buffalo Bills owner also had a particular interest in neuroscience.
“Besides having a general interest in science, which he loved to talk about, he wanted to understand it in lay terms, to know how he could best support it,” she said.
The Wilsons were part of the “Circle of 10,” 10 individuals and families who each donated $1 million toward the $40 million cost of Roswell’s new Clinical Sciences Center.
“He specifically wanted to endow and fund the chemotherapy center. He was very compassionate about cancer patients and their struggle,” Johnson said. “He has done a lot for us, and we certainly will never forget him.”
At the Hospice Foundation of Western New York, the feeling is much the same.
“While it is certainly a sad time for this community, for us we also see it as a time to step back and reflect on a life well-led,” said Patrick Flynn, the foundation’s president. “What Mr. Wilson’s generosity has meant to our families and patients is immeasurable.”
The Wilsons donated money to build Hospice’s counseling center and the inpatient unit that bears their names.
“He cared so deeply about this community and the people in this community,” Flynn said. “And with so many excellent nonprofit organizations here, how grateful and fortunate we are that he picked Hospice to help.”
Flynn knew Wilson personally and had the chance to watch the Bills play from the owner’s box a few times.
“He would always slide the glass open to get the ‘stadium feel’ and hear the fans,” Flynn said. “He cared so deeply about the well-being of this community. I’m not sure people know that.”
The United Way of Buffalo & Erie County recognized Wilson’s generosity this week by changing the header image on its Twitter page to a photo of the late Bills owner. Last fall, the United Way celebrated its 40-year relationship with the Bills organization.
“We could not appreciate more the relationship we have had with Ralph and Mary Wilson over the years,” said Michael Weiner, United Way president. “It started in 1974 with player representatives doing PSAs on behalf of the United Way, and those continue to this day.”
Weiner listed a host of programs, many devoted to health, nutrition and fitness, that the Wilsons supported through the years. They included the “Hometown Huddle” youth nutrition program, construction of a playground at a Lackawanna charter school, and Mary Wilson’s Closing the Gap initiative to encourage girls to participate more in sports.
“The last 24 hours have been about Ralph being a unique owner and his role in the NFL, as it should be,” Weiner said, “but the reality is he and his wife were very involved in the well-being of this community and very philanthropic. I think their goal with us was to bring joy and health to the youth of this community.”
Wilson also helped feed the community.
“This is truly a sad day for Buffalo,” said Mike Billoni, public and community relations director of the Food Bank of Western New York.
He pointed out that the Wilson Family Foundation and the Bills organization have been helping the Food Bank for more than 20 years, and that “we became almost like family with the Wilsons.”
He recalled the time in 2008 when the Fan Food Drive was under way during a game at the stadium. It usually raised $12,000 to $15,000, and Ralph Wilson usually matched the donations.
“A couple came up to us with a check and asked if Mr. Wilson would match it. It was for $100,000,” Billoni said. After a visit to the owner’s box, and an answer of “Absolutely!” from Wilson, the Food Bank had one of its best drives ever, collecting about $220,000.
“People didn’t realize what a huge heart he had for the people of Western New York, and he didn’t want any credit. He just wanted people to be taken care of,” Billoni said.
The list is long of Wilson’s other charitable endeavors, including college scholarships, help for the SPCA, and donations to the University at Buffalo Department of Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine, which treated some of the Bills’ players. The foundation also gave $1 million in 2010 to support Kaleida Health’s adult day care centers in Amherst and North Tonawanda, and the Visiting Nurses Association.
As Roswell’s Johnson said, “Everything Mr. Wilson did, he did with passion and vigor and enthusiasm. He was a very special man.”