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January 2002

Bob Mayer -
A Buffalo Version of Horatio Alger

by Joseph RADDER

It’s been said that there are no Horatio Alger stories anymore. Bob Mayer’s story explodes that theory.

Born in Wellsville, NY in 1932, Bob moved to Buffalo with his family when he was only one year old. As a child, he and his brother and sister enjoyed living on Humboldt Parkway where they could watch the horses and the bridle path from their front porch.

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Bob Mayer, circa 1935.

Fortunately for Bob, some of his mother’s relatives remained in Wellsville, Friendship and other towns near the Pennsylvania border, where they operated oil wells on leased land during the oil-thirsty days of World War II.

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Lois and Bob on their wedding day, 1955.

From the time he was about 9 years old, Bob would spend his summers helping in the oil fields. “It was my job to drop the dynamite charge into the well. My uncle would light the fuse and hand me the charge. I would hold it until the fuse burned to the right length and then drop it in. Sometimes I would scarcely be able to get out of the way before the nitroglycerin would explode and oil and water would gush out of the well.”

A few years later, the Buffalo branch of the Mayer family moved from Humboldt Parkway to the North Park Area, where Bob spent the rest of his youth and early adulthood.

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Bob with his mother and father at Sampson AFB in 1956.

“I grew up in St. Margaret’s Parish,” he said, “and in the 6th grade I met the girl I would eventually marry, Lois Reilly. We were a year apart in high school. I graduated from Bennett in 1946, Lois graduated from Mt. St. Joseph’s a year later. During our teens we were both very active in church-oriented things like the CYO.

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Bob serving as chairman of the WNED Auction.

“I had lots of jobs in those days, most of them on Hertel Avenue,” Bob Mayer continued, “I worked at Love’s candy store, Day’s drug store and Willkie’s men’s shop. Eventually I got a job at the Sample Shop unpacking ladies’ dresses. In between those jobs I also had a Courier-Express paper route, which meant I had to get up early every morning, seven days a week.” Prior to his Air Force enlistment, Bob worked as a ship repairman for the American Shipbuilding Company on Ganson Street. “We did most of our work in winter when the ships were in drydock or in the harbor,” Mayer said. “Believe me that harbor can be a cold place in the wintertime.”

Military service was inevitable for Bob and his friends in the early ‘50s. So, to beat the draft, they enlisted in the Air Force on April Fool’s day 1952. Four years later they were honorably discharged, also on April 1st.

Three of those four years were spent running the base post office in Bermuda. Most of Bob’s final year in the Air Force was spent close to home, at the Niagara Falls Air Base. In October 1955, while Bob was still in the service, he and his high school sweetheart, Lois Reilly, were married.

Lois is a D’Youville graduate. Most of her career since graduation has been raising her family of six children. “Our three oldest; Mike, Jim and Bob; were born in 1957 and 1958. Our daughter Kathleen and son Tommy were born in 1962 and 1969. Then, in 1975, we were blessed with our ‘special’ child, Jeanne Marie.”

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The whole family except Kathy and her family who stayed home from Tom & Lisa’s
wedding to give birth to Bob and Lois’ fifth grandchild, 1993.

Bob told us a very touching story about his little girl, whom he obviously loves very much. When she was a very young child the Mayer’s family doctor told them she would never be able to walk. Obviously, Bob and Lois were crushed.

The evening of the day they got the bad news, Bob was obligated to attend a very important business dinner. He happened to be seated next to Dr. Joseph Godfrey, the well-known orthopedic surgeon, who was then the team doctor for the Buffalo Bills. Bob told Dr. Godfrey his sad tale about Jeanne Marie’s disability.

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Bob and his daughter Jeanne at the Porter Cup.

“Bring her in to see me at 8 o’clock tomorrow morning,” Godfrey said. And of course they did. As it turned out, Dr. Godfrey wouldn’t accept the earlier diagnosis. He took Jeanne Marie as his patient, treated her and after several operations she did indeed walk. Bob and Lois feel fate brought Jeanne and Joe Godfrey together and their faith continues to direct her special care.

But back to our Horatio Alger story:
After the Korean conflict, Bob joined the Liberty Bank as a trainee and soon became a teller in the North Park office. His mother-in-law was a prominent realtor in the North Park area and as a result, Bob studied real estate, took the exam and occasionally worked on weekends selling and holding open houses. Real estate appealed to him but so did banking. That led to the decision to concentrate on the mortgage phase of the banking business.

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Bob with Tom and Mike and son-in-law Charlie Reiser and grandson Bill Reisler in Cape Cod.

It wasn’t long after Bob made this decision that Dick Barrows heard about him. Dick was the Liberty Bank vice president in charge of the mortgage department in the bank’s downtown headquarters. After an interview, Barrows “hired” Bob Mayer to work in the mortgage department downtown. In other words, he was promoted from teller to mortgage officer.

Thanks to Lois’ patience and the G.I. Bill, Bob started college and attended night school during the late fifties and early sixties. He received his associates degree from SUNY in 1963.

Later, the bank sent him to Rutgers University’s Stonier Graduate School of Banking.

In 1972, Chairman Perry Spink appointed Bob and two other Liberty senior vps to the position of executive vice president.

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Bob with Ralph Wilson.

Eventually, after some mergers, Liberty Bank became Norstar and Mayer became regional president of the bank’s Western New York operations.

Now you know why we call Bob Mayer’s history a true Horatio Alger story.

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Bob, Jack & Joan Kemp and Lois.

“I loved my career at the bank,” Bob says. “You get to become very involved in the community, meet and become friends with a lot of the area’s key people. Not many jobs offer that opportunity.”

Bob Mayer cites as an example of what is today called networking his friendship with Paul Snyder. Through this connection Bob became a director of the Buffalo Braves and was also involved with a number of Snyder’s entrepreneurial ventures. “The banker-entrepreneur relationship is a unique and satisfying one,” he says.

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Chuck Knox, Bob, Ralph Wilson and Gene Mann at the first and only Black Tie board meeting of the Monday Quaterback Club. (1978)

He was chairman of the American Cancer Society’s charity golf outing, the first such event held in Buffalo. He was a trustee of D’Youville College, Trocaire College and Canisius High School. The year Jeanne was born, he chaired the first Gambit Dinner Auction at Canisius High. He is a past chairman of the WNED-TV Auction, Buffalo Place Inc. and associate chairman of the United Way. He is a Regent Emeritus of Canisius College.

His great love of the Buffalo Bills was reflected in his presidency of the Quarterback Club. And this led to his friendship with Ralph Wilson and most of the Bills’ management, coaches and players. For the Bills’ 25th anniversary, Bob chaired a huge event at the Convention Center. Tied in with a Monday night game on national TV, Howard Cosell, Dan Meredith, Frank Gifford and Commissioner Pete Rozelle participated in the event.

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Bob at the announcement of the Buffalo Bills Alumni “Patrick J McGroder” golf tournament. Along with family members Lorretta, Doc and son Pat McGroder are Stan Kleeberg, Bill Polian, Ed Rutkowski and Bill Munson.

Bob promoting an early Buffalo Bills/Bank “Sack Attack” contest.

Not long before his retirement from the bank, Bob was asked to get involved at People Inc., with the agency’s fund-raising activity. Eventually, he became a board member and today he is board chairman of this organization, dedicated to improving the quality of life for people with special needs including seniors and their families. Bob’s experience with his special child, Jeanne Marie, equipped him especially well for his work at People Inc.

It’s not all work and no play for Bob Mayer. He remembers fondly attending the Super Bowl in Tampa with his four sons and son-in-law. That was the game the Bills lost by only one point in the last few seconds of play as a result of the infamous “wide right” field goal attempt.

The Mayer family members are all Cape Cod enthusiasts. “We spend at least two weeks on the Cape every summer,” Bob says. “Last year we rented a six bedroom home that would sleep twenty children and adults. That came in handy because there are six grandchildren now. Fortunately all of the family lives within a half mile of our home.”

One can’t help but feel just a little envious of this obviously happy man who started with nothing and has all anyone could desire. He’s living proof that opportunities are here in Buffalo/Niagara if one is willing to look for them and work hard at making the best of those opportunities.

In addition to his happy marriage, wonderful family, fascinating career and very satisfying civic life, Bob Mayer is a cancer survivor. Indeed he has been truly blessed.

Joseph Radder is a freelance writer.


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