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November 1997

Lou Berger And Ray Weil
Fantastic Fans

by Maria SCRIVANI

Mention the name Lou Berger to a Buffalonian and you’ll hear about the late, lamented downtown department store that bore his name. Mention Ray Weil and you’ll hear about the Chevy dealership by that name that was for years a fixture on Millersport Highway. What most people don’t know about these local celebrities is their enduring personal friendship and their passionate support of area major and minor league sports.

If there were a Super Bowl for fans, these two would easily win the title of world champion supporters. Though both are lifelong Buffalonians and Nichols School graduates, they first met at early meetings of a Buffalo Bills booster club. It was some 37 years ago that a new league, the American Football League, was launched and a new Bills franchise came to Buffalo.

Ray Weil helped organize what was then called the Touchdown Club for boosters, composed primarily of downtown business executives, including Lou Berger. It was a great success until Lou Saban left the team. Succeeding coaches were less supportive of the club and it was fairly dormant until Chuck Knox came in 1978. The name was changed to Monday Quarterback Club. Knox, and later his successors Stephenson and Bullough, was at every meeting following home games, discussing the team.

Marv Levy broke tradition, politely refusing to appear at Monday meetings. He told the group he had a job to do and the day after a game was sacrosanct for reviewing films. The Bills’ general managers came to meetings in place of the coach and that is the program today. It works well—the Quarterback Club is stronger than ever at 300-plus members. As past presidents, Weil and Berger sit on the executive board.

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Ralph C. Wilson Jr. checking in with Ray and Lou. Monday Quarterback Club luncheon, October 5, 1987.
Left to right: Ralph Hubbell, Fred Dentinger, Jerry Flaschner, Ray Weil, Lou “TheToe” Groza,
Lou Berger, Ed Rath and John Putnam.


It’s only in recent years that the pair have missed games on bone-chilling days in Rich Stadium. They joke about their ages, in sports metaphors, of course. “I’m six over par,” says the 78 year-old Berger. “I’m one under,” says Weil, 71. Both laugh about being members of the “Zipper Club,” a reference to their heart surgeries.

Still, talking about their beloved Buffalo Bills, they appear much younger and in fine fettle. “Since its inception, the Bills have been a catalyst for social life in Buffalo,” says Berger, sounding very much like a businessman turned social historian.

“Since Rich Stadium, tailgating has been the thing, but when the Bills played in the old War Memorial, there were pre- and post-game parties all season long at peoples’ homes,” he recalls. Quarterback Club officers and their spouses were frequently invited to pre-game brunches at Ralph Wilson’s suite in the Statler Hotel.

Berger remembers following the team to New York for a contest with the New York Jets in 1967 and being interviewed by the New York Times. “They asked me why Bills fans were so rabid and I said it was because we didn’t have anything until they came back,” he says, referring to the original Buffalo Bills franchise here in the late ‘40s until the team folded. There was no professional football until the 1960 startup of the AFL.

That the team stimulates the area in such a positive way is the main reason Berger and Weil, as successful businessmen and community leaders, would be loathe to see it go. “For 37 years it’s given me an emotional outlet and there are a lot of people like me,” says Berger. “For six months of the year the Bills play, and the other six months we talk about it.”

He and Weil believe that Ralph Wilson has been a good and fair owner who has operated as a responsible businessman. When asked to what lengths the community should go to keep the team here, Berger is quick to respond, “The same lengths we’d go to keep Shea’s, the Zoo and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra here...Look, it would be devastating to lose the orchestra. This is part of our culture, our lifestyle. As far as the dealings with the Bills and Wilson, if you’re going to have an asset of $200 million, to compete with others with like assets, you’ve got to have equal income.

“We haven’t had it. I probably won’t be around to see the resolution of all this, but I don’t think the Bills will leave.” Chimes in Weil, “To that I can only say ‘Amen.’”

Though football may be their first love, both gentlemen support the other teams around town. Both Weil and Berger have had Sabre’s season tickets for 27 years. Berger was a season ticket holder for Canisius College Golden Griffiths basketball from 1937 until the ‘50s. Ray Weil says, “I courted my wife going to Little Three basketball games.” Weil was also on the Board of Directors of the Buffalo AHL Bisons owned by the Pastor brothers.

Weil also has season tickets to Buffalo Bisons baseball and often brings Berger to games. They agree that Bob Rich has done a fantastic job with the minor league franchise. “Everything’s good about it,” says Weil. “It works for Buffalo. NorthAmeriCare Park is a great venue, and the Bisons are one of the best minor league teams.”

You might say that both men inherited their love of sports. Ray Weil’s father was involved with the first professional football team in Buffalo. He was co-owner of the second professional football team in Buffalo, the Bisons of the National League, was vice-president of the old Buffalo Hockey Club and had an interest in the old Buffalo Baseball Club. Lou’s father was a supporter of the original Buffalo Bisons baseball team.

Their sons have carried on the legacy of community leadership in other than sports arenas. Since his retirement from the car sales business in 1988, Weil has done fundraising for Hospice and sat on the Board of the United Way’s Hope Lodge. He and Berger have raised money for Kids Escaping Drugs and both are board members of Buffalo Crimestoppers. Berger, who closed his department store in 1991, teaches fashion merchandising at Buffalo State College, after a similar stint at Erie Community College.

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Lou Berger’s family. Ray Weil’s family.


They are dedicated family men. Lou Berger has been married to Gloria for 49 years. They have two daughters, Lauren and Karyl, and three grandchildren. Last January, Ray Weil lost his wife of 47 years, Laurie, to cancer. Their four children are Ray Jr., Carrie, Steven and Emily, and there are seven grandchildren.   

Maria Scrivani is a freelance writer.


Photos courtesy of the Berger and Weil families.

 

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