DETROIT – The funeral for Ralph C. Wilson Jr. was a relatively small, private affair Saturday, but the Buffalo Bills said the passion of the Western New York fan base was felt.
“I just want to offer thanks on behalf of the Wilson family – Mary Wilson and his daughters, Christie and Dee Dee – and the entire organization and family,” said Bills President and Chief Executive Officer Russ Brandon. “The outpouring of support from our fans, our community and our region has been overwhelming.”
Family, friends and several National Football League dignitaries paid their last respects to Wilson at the funeral service at Detroit’s Jefferson Avenue Presbyterian Church.
Wilson, the Bills’ founder and a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, died Tuesday at age 95 at his home in nearby Grosse Pointe Shores, Mich.
Brandon, who was put in charge of running the Bills by Wilson 15 months ago, made a statement after the service.
“Today was a tremendous tribute, in ceremony and celebration, of Mr. Wilson’s life and accomplishments, not only in the game of football but in serving his country in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters,” Brandon said. “His philanthropic and community endeavors were all spoken to today, and it was truly a tribute to his incredible life. We thank everyone for their support.”
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was among the mourners, who appeared to number a bit more than 100. Other NFL owners seen attending were William Ford Jr. of the Detroit Lions and members of the Hunt family, which owns the Kansas City Chiefs. Late Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt was the founder of the American Football League and with Wilson was part of “the Foolish Club” of owners who challenged the NFL, starting in 1960.
Most owners and NFL executives stayed away due to the private nature of the service. The same went for former Bills players. The only one seen in attendance was Hall of Fame running back Thurman Thomas.
The Wilson family plans to have a memorial service in the near future, at which time Wilson’s fellow owners and NFL friends, along with Bills employees and former players, can honor his memory.
The Bills’ senior executives all were in attendance. Besides Brandon, they included: Jeffrey Littmann, Wilson’s closest aide and chief financial officer; general manager Doug Whaley; Mary Owen, who is Wilson’s niece and executive vice president of strategic planning; Jim Overdorf, senior vice president of football administration; and head coach Doug Marrone.
Also attending were Bills Hall of Fame coach Marv Levy, former general manager Buddy Nix and some of the other longest-tenured Bills employees, such as senior vice presidents Bill Munson and Scott Berchtold and trainer Bud Carpenter. Erkie Kailbourne, veteran banking executive, former head of the Business Backs the Bills committee and a friend of Wilson, also attended.
Wilson received military honors at the funeral service. He served on U.S. Navy minesweepers in the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic and Pacific oceans during World War II. He received the Commendation Medal, given for sustained acts of heroism or meritorious service. Wilson’s wife, Mary, left the church with an American flag presented to her by an honor guard.
A celebration for Bills fans of the life and legacy of Wilson will be held in the Bills Fieldhouse from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday. The event will feature memorabilia, exhibits, and a guestbook for fans to share their respects and pay tribute to Wilson.