Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Finish line

It's not often I get to be in the same photograph as two
marathon directors ... and two of my favorite people. Here Mary
Wittenberg of New York Road Runners is honored by the late Tom
Donnelly at the Western New York Running Hall of Fame
induction ceremony in August, 2014.
Whenever something happened in the running community in the journalistic sense around Western New York, I knew exactly whom to call for a reaction. Inevitably I would try to reach Tom Donnelly, the unofficial leader of that community, who was sure to give me an intelligent, thoughtful response full of perspective.

Imagine, then, what happened when the news came out on Saturday night that Tom had died of a heart attack of the age of 61. Who could put his life into the proper perspective? No one.

Basketball star Bill Russell once said, when he heard about the death of Wilt Chamberlain, "I am unspeakably injured." Many runners in Western New York have that feeling now.  

I could pinpoint more or less precisely the time when I started to get to know Tom. He was the subject of my third running column back in February 2005. I may have known him slightly before that through mutual friends, but we hadn't really talked one-on-one. That changed quickly. For nearly 10 years, I think he was the most quoted person in the column.

That's because talking to Tom was one of the major benefits of the job. We basically had the same goals for the sport locally, even if we approached them  in different roles. Tom and I both wanted the sport to grow in Western New York. We both thought that the Buffalo Marathon and the YMCA Turkey Trot could become signature events on the running calendar. We believed that there should be a way to honor the great runners of Western New York in the past. When so much is in common, it's easy to strike up a conversation ... and a friendship.

Whenever I needed to know what was going on in running circules, Tom would point me in a direction or introduce me to a person. In fact, he did so many introductions that it was nice last month to reverse the roles. In one of the last times we were together, both of us turned up at the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame induction dinner. Tom was somewhat excited about seeing some of the ex-Sabres in the crowd, so I called Derek Smith and Don Luce over to say hello. Tom was thrilled. 

Lives often can be divided into different "compartments," with relationships coming in different ways. In Tom's case, I knew few other members of his family, even though it was a big and happy one - based on the frequent Facebook pictures of reunions and events. I can't say we ever talked about his job at the NFTA; we never got around to it. Tom even had a "bridge" compartment, as he had a regular group of card players that participated in that particular game. He had the chance to play bridge with the legendary Warren Buffett. Even though I knew how to play the game, I never did sit across the table from him and be his dummy. So to speak.

No one locally, though, had a bigger "running compartment" than Tom. He had started the sport simply with a need to get in shape, and ran constantly for the rest of his life. Tom was always in great condition, except when he had gave in to the temptation of a Kentucky Fried Chicken dinner every so often. It was the only time he had an ounce of fat on him during the time I knew him. But the act of running wasn't quite enough involvement for Tom. When he had the chance to move into the business side of the sport, he jumped in with, um, both feet.

At the end, he was the director of the Buffalo Marathon, director of the YMCA Turkey Trot, president of the Checkers Athletic Club (which included many of the area's best runners), and the leader of the Western New York Running Hall of Fame. Oh, and he had a small business in which he designed logos for shirts given out at races. Where did he have the time to have any other compartments?

One way to do so was to find good people to help him. Tom used to say that he was no genius, but that he had surrounded himself with top-notch assistants. He was kidding himself in a sense; it takes a special type of person to be able to persuade people to give up their spare time to work on a project - particularly without pay. 

Tom was always willing to talk about running and runners. Our last conversation was rather typical of that. I was running in the Sarkin race in October, jogging down Delevan Ave. at my usual pace. Suddenly I heard Tom shout out some encouragement while doing a training run in the other direction. This sort of greeting, by the way, was a regular event for him; he knew everyone. This time, though, Tom went past me, turned around, caught up with me (not too hard for him, a former 2:35 marathoner), and started talking with me. This went on for more than a mile. At one point, Tom said that he thought we might be disturbing the woman running in our vicinity. She turned and said, "Oh, no. You guys are really interesting."

What's more, Tom was always willing to listen to new ideas. For example, I always believed that the Buffalo Marathon should sell licensed merchandise (shirts, hats, bags, etc.) in order to connect runners to the race. Tom replied that the Marathon didn't have the extra money needed to produce the items in advance of their sale. A couple of years later, I heard that a local company might be interested in supplying "official" items for the Marathon, giving the race a portion of the proceeds. I told Tom about it on Monday; he had completed a deal on Friday. That has to be a business record for speed. It's not merely good to find someone who appreciate your ideas and is willing to act on them; one cherishes it. Tom realized how that sort of action builds loyalty.

Admittedly, Tom and I were on different sides of the journalistic fence. We both realized that if something went wrong with one of his races, I'd have to ask the tough questions, and he'd have to answer them. But that never proved to be an obstacle for us. Our on-the-record conversations featured as many smiles as the personal ones.

Sudden deaths don't happen in your life very often, but they are shocking and unforgettable when they occur. In Tom's case that was particularly true because he was so active. His Facebook page became an instant memorial, with people from all portions of his life saying how much of a difference his attitude and upbeat approach made to them. Tom had a history of heart disease in his family. It was often as if he was determined to cram as much as possible into the years that he did have. If so, he certainly succeeded.

It's often said at such times that a departed person can not be replaced. That's very true in Tom's case; it will take five or six people to take on all of his jobs. Hopefully they'll carry Tom's dream with them and make running an even larger part of our community.  

Be notified of new posts via Twitter @WDX2BB.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Untold story

The midterm elections are over, and commentators throughout the country are busy trying to read the tea leaves in an attempt to figure out, solemnly, "what it all means." Usually they and the candidates themselves try to put some sort of great overriding theme into the results, when in reality it's more of a case of many individual decisions that may or may not have anything to do with each other when you try to connect the dots.

With all of this analysis, there's one overriding factor that doesn't get discussed here. But listen to people talk or pay attention to their posts on social media, and the message comes across loud and clear.

People are angry at the campaign process itself.

Few people were talking about who might win a political race. They were more likely to talk about how much mail they received on a given day from campaigns, or how many phone calls they received from candidates or their surrogates.

Political battles have become something of a virus, infecting people unexpectedly. In New York, we're somewhat immune from the major battles. The state usually goes Democratic in Presidential battles, and elections for Governor and Senator have been relatively one-sided too. I can't imagine what it's like to live in Ohio in an election year these days.

This year, we had an odd set of circumstances in my State Senate district. Usually, the Democrat wins handily since the registration edge is something like three-to-one. This was not a typical year. Two years ago, Mark Grisanti switched parties to run and win as a Republican. Since then he voted for same-sex marriage and gun control, angering some Republicans. He lost the primary to Kevin Stocker, and then opted to run on the Independence Party line. Meanwhile, Democrat Marc Panepinto was waiting in the general election. Panepinto was mostly known for being convicted of election fraud 11 years ago - not a good sign for someone seeking elective office. None of them, by the way, would ever be called "the best and the brightest" when it comes to serving the public - at least based on their public statements.

Throw in another conservative candidate who figured to draw some votes, and no one had the slightest idea who would win. So special interests came out of the woodwork to back Grisanti and Panepinto, and they threw money at the voters in the form of television ads and literature. And threw it, and threw it, and threw it. You couldn't watch the local news without seeing political ads, with the same candidate sometimes promoted more than once within the half-hour cycle. Heck, at the end of the news I was starting to miss ads like Fred Thompson's support of reverse mortgages.

The day before the election, I received 19 pieces of mail - mostly about this particular State Senate election. To be fair, Stocker's campaign was rather quiet in this sense, but that was probably more a case of a lack of supporting funds. Keep in mind that I'm not affiliated with a political party, although my wife is. We both were overwhelmed.

We all know that negative campaigning works, otherwise candidates and groups wouldn't be so quick to use it. Political parties and other groups have been happy to spread negative thoughts about opponents, using anecdotes and conclusions that sometimes are only within touching distance of the truth. The literature often comes without the name of the sponsoring group attached, meaning that the recipient has no idea who is doing the attacking. (At least on television, the group paying the bills has to be identified ... briefly.)

By the end of the campaign season, the voters are pretty tired. When the phone rings, many check Caller ID to see if the call is from a number they recognize. Otherwise, it goes unanswered. If they do answer, they hang up quickly. This isn't new. I remember one time some years ago, a co-worker came to work at 5 p.m one late October., and I asked him how he was. "Lousy - Hillary Clinton woke me up from my nap," he answered. But it's getting worse by  the year.

On Sunday, I even was frustrated enough to fight back once. I got an actual person calling me asking if he could count on my support of Panepinto. I told him that the election fraud conviction really bothered me, although I never said it was a disqualifying offense in terms of a vote. The guy on the phone said that was 11 years ago, and I said it still showed very poor judgment. With that, the guy just gave up - said thank you and hung up. No room for discussion there.

What happens by election day? People are sick of everyone. No candidate comes through the process without scars. Most of my friends vote all the time, so they take it all with a grunt and move on. Still, can you blame anyone for not voting? The numbers haven't been good in terms of turnout for off-year elections for a few decades - under 50 percent. According to some early statistics, turnout dropped in more than 40 states this time as compared to 2010. Remember, this is apples to apples, and not compared to 2012 when there was a Presidential race.

My guess is that by driving away those who aren't fully invested in the process, you tend to get a larger percentage of the "true believers" - which translates into the left and right wings. Which leads to less of a willingness to compromise, more gridlock in government, and more anger at the other side.

I would think that we need to take a look at all of this in a rational manner, starting with making it easier and more convenient to vote. I know that some think that reducing the size of the electorate can work in a particular party's favor in a particular race. But let's agree on something, shall we? The goal in a democratic society (note the small D) is to make the process more inclusive. What we're doing now is driving people away. 

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