In a city that is known for its wing eating and beer drinking, it’s good to have some balance. For me, that balance came in the form of Phil Haberstro of The Wellness Institute of Buffalo.
I was lucky enough to work with Phil on numerous occasions, and if there is one thing that I can say, it’s that he was dedicated to making Buffalo a healthier place to live… every day of his life. And when I say “dedicated,” I mean dedicated. His goal was to drum up ways to get people walking more, eating healthier, and/or exercising in any capacity.
Whether it was hosting a walking tour, extolling the virtues of walkability, or promoting an International Walking Summit, Phil was the guy driving the conversation. He was also driving tangible change in the community.
My friend Mike Billoni told me that Phil played semi-pro football. “He was a ferocious defenseman,” he said. “He was never sick a day in his life, until this past summer when he was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer.”
Although I was always communicating with Phil, I never knew that he was sick. The cancer might have accelerated his retirement, but it never stopped him from actively pursuing his lifelong goal of educating people about the benefits of being healthy. In fact, just the other day he reached out and said that he was helping to launch community physical activity campaigns promoting walking in January via Project Best. I also learned that he was teaching students mere hours before passing. He would have had it no other way.
It’s hard to believe that just days later, Phil is no longer here to guide us – to tell us how many steps we should be walking, the best health practices that we should be adhering to, or even guiding future leaders to lead by example, which he himself did.
“Phil was a few years ahead of me in age but we both grew up in Kenmore, attended Cardinal O’Hara High School and when I began working as a sports writer for the Tonawanda News while in high school in 1970, Phil was my go-to person with questions and stories about health and fitness,” said Mike Billoni, managing partner Billoni Associates. “Over the years I watched him build and grow The Wellness Institute of Buffalo, giving much of his own blood, sweat, tears and finances. He was a true Mr. Buffalo, whose blood oozed Bills’ red white and blue. He was the leader behind the effort to obtain All America City status for the Queen City. His real passion was getting the community healthier by walking more. What a simple, but highly effective exercise. For me, the excuses are over. First thing every morning will be my ‘Walk with Phil,’ where I know he will be giving me strength to deal with the landmines and excuses of others. RIP pal.”
Phil was full of advice, and words of wisdom. At the same time, he never preached, although there was always a great sense of urgency. But it never came across as being dire – instead, it was always good clean fun. And that’s how he lived his own life.
“Today, our community mourns the loss of one of our great health, civic and environmental advocates, not to mention CSCR’s #1 champion,” said Jackie James, Citizen Science Community Resources. “Phil was our original board chair, and served for 4 years. His leadership, inspiration and mentorship was invaluable. He believed in the power of citizen science and wished that we continue our work by building an Environmental Education and Wellness Center in Tonawanda. We will continue to work hard to bring his vision into our reality. We love you Phil and miss you!”
“Phil was a fellow wellness warrior in western New York who possessed a heart of gold,” said Cat Miller CEO of WBBZ. “The work he has done on behalf of our community is immeasurable. WBBZ will be airing a comprehensive memorial Big Picture edition interview I did with him last year on Sunday at 11am. He was a treasured friend, mentor and colleague. I will miss him more than words can express.”
“Phil was co-founder of the Healthiest Districts Initiative (HDI) with Erie County Clerk Mickey Kearns,” said Amelia Greenan, Special Assistant to the Erie County Clerk. “He also helped start up the ‘Clerk’s Wellness Collaborative.’ Phil partnered with the Clerk’s Office to bring free Carotid Artery and Blood Pressure Screenings to the Erie County Auto Bureaus in collaboration with Catholic Health Mercy Hospital. These efforts actually saved a life and hopefully prevented other heart attacks and strokes. Phil proactively championed health promotion and preventative care.
“Phil saved and improved lives on a daily basis through his ability to bring people together and foster growth and wellness in all areas of the community. Ever since I began my career six years ago with Clerk Kearns (when he was formerly a NYS Assemblyman), Phil was there to selflessly lift up everyone around him. He was a mentor figure, role model and champion for change. His legacy and impact especially on the people of WNY will live on. Phil’s kind soul and optimism will be greatly missed.”
On his Facebook page, someone said that he was humble. Never a truer word has been spoken. While Phil was the consummate organizer, he was always putting everyone else front and center. He never wanted the credit – he honestly just wanted people to live in a healthier world.
During the pandemic, I decided to start walking at Delaware Park each morning – three miles a day, seven days a week. I’ve always been somewhat active, but this walking routine has changed my life. It gets me outside more, it gets the blood flowing, and I find that it’s a great time to think. Over the next few days, I will be thinking about Phil, and his passion for walking. For years, I talked to Phil about this “urgency” to create a more walkable Buffalo. Now that I’ve started ‘walking,’ I feel that I am walking in Phil’s shoes – shoes that no one will ever be able to fill. But it’s the least that I can do for the humble guy who only wanted the best for everyone that he met, and those that he wanted to meet, which was everyone.
Hopefully the city steps up and creates a walk in Phil’s honor, to memorialize his legacy that will continue to bubble forth with every step that we collectively take towards greatness.
Lead image (L-R): Mayor (City of Tonawanda Rick Davis), Phil, Former Town of GI Supervisor Nate McMurray, CSCR board member (and GI resident) Jenn Pusatier, and Jackie James (Citizen Science Community Resources)