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Opening Day of Sports Icons Display @ the Buffalo History Museum

Hours before the ribbon was cut to open ICONS: The Makers and Moments of Buffalo Sports on Nov. 14 in The Buffalo History Museum, Melissa Brown, its passionate, visionary Executive Director, escorted Mary Wilson through Western New York’s first-ever, comprehensive exhibit of Buffalo’s professional sports history from 1880 through today.

Thanks to the generosity of her late husband, Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. and his Foundation, Mrs. Wilson would announce that evening a $600,000 gift to the museum’s ongoing “Restore, Reactivate and Reconnect” capital campaign, which helped fund the rehabilitation of the second floor West Gallery.  Icons is now housed in that newly restored space named The Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Gallery, in honor of the Pro Football Hall of Fame member who founded the Buffalo Bills in 1959 and was its only owner until his death on March 25, 2014.

As she made her way to the far left corner of the room, Mrs. Wilson admired the display of jerseys and artifacts of the Bills from their early years in American Football League at War Memorial Stadium with Jack Kemp and Cookie Gilchrist to the Super Bowl Bills of Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Steve Tasker and others.  Among the many items in the display against the far wall is one of Kelly’s game checks for $85,000 which Mr. Wilson signed.

Mary Wilson and Mike Billoni in front of the display with her husband’s Pro Football Hall of Fame jacket.

When Mary Wilson stood in front of the display devoted to her late husband, which included his gold Hall of Fame jacket she arranged to have loaned to the museum from the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, tears began to flow.   

“When I saw Ralph’s Hall of Fame jacket, which belongs here, I was in tears,” she says as she stood by the display during the private opening, posing for photos and listening to fan’s stories about her husband and their experiences as Bills fans.

“It is so neat to see all of the special Buffalo Bills players recognized, to see the greatest comeback in NFL history and to see every Buffalo sport displayed so nicely.  Ralph would have been amazed,” she adds. “It is great to be a part of connecting communities through this grant to the History Museum.  That is what his foundation is all about and that is why we were so happy to give $600,000 to the museum’s capital campaign.”

Four years ago, Melissa Brown walked through the same space with Erie County Executive Mark Polancarz and the conversation was much different.

“Melissa and I were walking through the Buffalo Made exhibit and I told her some of the companies recognized were no longer here,” Polancarz recalls during his remarks before a standing room crowd in the Auditorium.

“I remember looking at Melissa and asking, “Wouldn’t it be great to take this old exhibit and turn it into something new that this community would embrace and would enjoy walking through,’” he says.  “Walking through the Icons of Sport display in the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Gallery is exactly what we dreamed about four years ago so on behalf of the people of Erie County, congratulations.  This exhibit will bring so many people to this museum for the first time.”

Touchdown!! Greg D. Tranter, Vice President of the museum’s Board of Managers, and a driving force behind the Icons exhibit

A driving force behind the Icons display is Greg D. Tranter, a Buffalo History Museum Board of Managers Vice President whom Melissa Brown describes as a “fever-pitched fan” and Mayor Byron Brown calls “The Buffalo Bills Super Fan.”  Tranter had one of the largest collection of Bills’ memorabilia displayed in his family’s basement and throughout the third floor of his home before loaning some of it to the museum for the 50th Anniversary of the Buffalo Bills exhibit nine years ago and since donating his entire collection of more than 6,000 pieces to the museum.

“The history of the Buffalo Bills belongs to all of us here in Western New York, and I have confidence the museum will steward my collection for generations to come.  For the collection to have a permanent home here and to share it with the community and have part of it on display in Icons, is truly a dream come true,” he explains.

As he stood in front of an oversized photo of a sold out New Era Field, the home of his beloved Buffalo Bills, Tranter says, “This is a very special time for the museum.  We have unveiled the first ever, comprehensive exhibit of Buffalo sports history.  It covers all of our professional sports stories and it is an important step in the museum’s transformation.  We are revitalizing one-third of the space in this historical American landmark, which is the only remaining building from the Pan American Exposition.

“I stand here in almost unbelief that it is finally here.  It means so much to all of us and I love hearing all of the stories from the great sports fans of Buffalo.  This is truly a fun exhibit,” he adds as his smile broadens.

Anthony Greco, the museum’s Director of Exhibits and Interpretive Planning,  spent nearly three years working with Buffalo’s Hadley Displays and others to create Icons.  “This is a giant weight off my shoulder,” he says as he watches guests stream into the exhibit. “To see everyone walk through is tremendous but to see them so engaged and to hear their stories is just what we envisioned when we began planning this amazing interactive display.  Sports is a topic we can all relate to because we can all remember where we were at a certain time in the great sports history of Buffalo.  This display brings back nostalgia for so many fans of Buffalo sports.”

Anthony Greco at the entrance to the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Gallery on the second floor of the Buffalo History Museum

Melissa Brown was equally excited about what this display will mean for the museum.

“We worked with world renowned companies to build this exhibit and we are certain it will entice many more people to visit our museum and experience the city’s rich sports history,” she explains.  “Icons will broaden our reach by welcoming many more fans to experience the stories of Buffalo sports. For a quarter of a century no one has had the experience of what you will enjoy in this display.  Making history is a full time contact sport and I would like to thank each of my fellow museum staff members who bring passion and dedication to their job and who worked so hard to make this a reality for all of us.”

Another person who believes Icons will broaden the museum’s reach for guests is Shelley Drake, M&T Bank’s Regional President and President of its Charitable Foundation.  A long-time corporate supporter of the museum. M&T hosts the Third Friday at the Museum where guests are admitted free.

“The display is outstanding, it’s relevant and it’s going to bring so many people into this museum whom have never been here or have not been here in a very long time,” she says.  “Sports opens a new door for the museum and M&T Bank is proud to be a part of it.  The M&T Bank Third Friday at the Museum will be a wonderful way for people to see this display for free.  We hope many of them will become museum members.”

Icons recognizes Buffalo sports from the late 1800s to present, including items from the champion Buffalo Beauts women’s professional hockey team.  It also showcases the various venues, the local owners of the teams and there is a special room where you can call your own play.  There are interactive displays where you can learn more about the players and events of Buffalo sports history.

Dennis DiPaolo and Jim Kelly in front of the Hall of Fame quarterback’s display

Dennis DiPaolo, whose father Ilio was a legendary professional wrestler, operates an iconic Italian restaurant on South Park Avenue in Blasdell that has long catered to local sports fans and Buffalo Bills players, walked the exhibit with his friend, Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly and his wife, Jill.

“It is such a wonderful display of the rich Buffalo sports history from this display of Eric Wood from the Bills today to baseball great Warren Spahn, who grew up in South Buffalo and made it to baseball’s Hall of Fame. I am extremely proud to be here and this display is so great for Buffalo,” he says.

Nearly 20 years ago Town of Tonawanda native “Baby Joe” Mesi was a heavyweight boxer who rose to become the No. 1 challenger for the world title and was called Buffalo’s third professional sports franchise.  His image is on the museum’s outside wall as you enter the building and his gloves and shorts are featured in a display.  

Baby Joe Mesi in front of the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Gallery with his image hanging from the ceiling in the background.

After admiring the display with his wife, Michelle, brother Tom and his nephew Tyler, Mesi says, “I am so separated today from that life.  I now have a beautiful wife and children and I am in a very different career but I do have extremely fond memories of my days as a professional boxer and being called the third franchise in Buffalo and representing Buffalo as I fought around the world.

“To walk up to the Buffalo History Museum and see my image on the building and then to come into this amazing Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Gallery and see my name on the wall with LaFontaine, Kelly, Thurman, Kemp and O.J. is very humbling.  I was only as good as the WNY people who supported my career and those great sports fans of our area deserve a display like this.

“A lot of memories are in that room for all generations of local sports fans.”

Written by Michael J. Billoni

Michael J. Billoni

Former sports reporter for the now defunct Courier-Express. Former vice president/general manager of the Buffalo Bisons. Handled the promotions and publicity for Buffalo’s undefeated heavyweight boxer, “Baby Joe” Mesi. Founder and principal of Billoni Associates. Authored and managed the publication of “Robert E. Rich—Memoirs of an Innovator,” the biography of the founder of Rich Products Corp.

Mike and is wife Debbie love Western New York and always try to help others and encourage positive thoughts

View All Articles by Michael J. Billoni
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