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June 2001

Gordon Gross
with Mettle to Peddle

by Kelly FULLER

When it comes to giving back to the community, Gordon Gross doesn’t go the extra mile... he goes the extra 3,157 miles. That’s exactly how many this Buffalo attorney and philanthropist bicycled cross-country last year to raise awareness, and money, for two Western New York causes close to his heart. While inspiring others by his continental trek he too was inspired not only by those who financially supported his effort, but also by the memory of his hero for whom he rode.

Born in 1931 to Mickey and Lester Gross and raised in North Buffalo, Gordon attributes his own commitment to community activities to his parents’ community involvement. His father was president of the Buffalo School Board, a national commissioner of the anti-defamation league and an active community leader involved with several organizations including the Montefiore Club and Jewish Federation. A workaholic, he owned a millinery manufacturing company where Gordon had his first job in the shipping department. Gordon laughs as he recalls his dad, a man of very few words, who his family nicknamed ‘Dollar a word Gross.’

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Gordon at age 1 in 1932.

Gordon around 5 years old with cat Peter.

His mother always tended to everyone’s needs, serving as the family psychologist. She participated in a variety of community activities especially the annual United Jewish fund drive. Both of his parents took pride in their heritage and traditions and Gordon credits them for his sense of family values. Through his father’s actions and his mother’s words, Gordon grew to believe that you do what you have to do in order to keep in touch and support not only your immediate family but your extended family as well.

Alan, his older brother, provided sibling wisdom, guidance...and protection. “He kept the bullies away,” Gordon jokes. But it would be this special relationship with his brother that would hold significant meaning for Gordon long after the bullies had gone away.

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Gordon’s brother Alan, approximately 11 years old with Gordon, around age 7.

Attending the Park School of Buffalo, Gordon developed and grew as a person. He fondly remembers the three teachers that motivated his desire to learn and pursue higher education. In school, he could not be stereotyped - his activities ranged from business editor of the yearbook, to student council member, to captain of the football team.

After college and while in law school at the University at Buffalo, Gordon met and married his first wife. During final exams of his last year in law school, his daughter Debra was born. Shortly afterwards, Gordon volunteered for the draft to shorten his expected military service from 24 to 21 months, but 30 days later, President Eisenhower exempted all fathers from the draft. Unfortunately for Gordon, he had already started his military service at Fort Jackson, South Carolina.

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Gordon at the start of his law career.

It was in the service that Gordon first practiced law. After basic training, he was assigned to Eilson Air Force Base outside of Fairbanks, Alaska to work in the Judge Advocates office in charge of all non-military legal assistance for both the army and air force units. In the evenings he bused the 26 miles into Fairbanks, where he clerked for three lawyers practicing there.

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Gordon on the way to Alaska around the age of 25.

After returning home from military duty, he partnered with Irv Shuman and opened a general practice law firm in 1960—but the practice quickly evolved into a specialization for business clients. With the assistance of several prominent local bankers, Gordon started a mortgage REIT—Dominion Mortgage and Realty Trust—which received a public offering in 1971. Dominion was an excellent performer until late 1973, when the oil embargo caused building costs to escalate. Like virtually all mortgage REITS, its eventual demise forced many of its borrowers to default on their loans. By 1982, Gordon was again practicing law on a full time basis.

Divorced for three years, Gordon re-married in 1979. His wife Gretchen is the owner/director of Audubon at College Park LLC, a daycare program licensed for 162 children. Gordon feels most fortunate to have his two daughters reside in Western New York. The oldest, Debra, has three children; daughter Micki has been studying ballet for several years and is currently auditioning with several ballet companies, about to embark on a professional career. Debra’s identical twin sons Kyle and Jordan attend high school at Park School of Buffalo, as their grandfather did. Gordon’s younger daughter Sandra is a successful salesperson at Northtown Lexus.

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Gordon’s family from L to R: Mickey (mom), Sandy (daughter), Gordon, Gretchen (Gordon’s wife), Debbie (daughter), Lester (father) on Gordon’s wedding day June 20, 1979.

Gordon and Gretchen have a great relationship. He very much values her support for all his activities. Following their trip to Africa in 1999, Gordon went back with a friend and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Gretchen was not very surprised when he told her of his plans to pedal across the country. “She already thought I was the most meshugeneh (crazy).”

Forty-one years after founding the law firm, Gross, Shuman, Brizdle and Gilfillan, P.C. now has 19 attorneys and employs more than 50 people. Recently, Gordon elected to limit his law practice to business and real estate ventures. He spends a great deal of time serving on boards such as the Roswell Park Cancer Institute, the executive committee of Weinberg Campus, the Management Committee of the Foundation for Jewish Philanthropies and serves as Chairman of the Foundation for Deaf Education. He’s also a member of Governor Pataki’s Fourth Judicial Department Screening Committee. Most recently, he completed eight years as a trustee of the Buffalo Philharmonic Society, five years as President and Chairman of Kleinhan’s Music Hall Management Inc., and a ten year appointment as member of the board of directors of the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo.

In 1998, Gordon’s brother...and hero...Alan, died of cancer. Alan, a dentist and teacher who received numerous teaching and community service awards and who taught at the University at Buffalo School of Dental Medicine, wanted nothing more than to improve educational opportunities for students.

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Alan and Gordon at the Superbowl in Pasadena, California.

To honor his memory, generate money for the memorial fund benefiting the dental school and to stimulate support for initiatives that would benefit all of Western New York, Gordon decided to set out on a cross-country bicycle trip on June 18 of last year. The plan called for riding about 74 miles a day, six days a week, for seven and a half weeks. During the 3,157 mile trip, coined the Tour de Gordon, more than 300 supporters followed his daily progress by logging onto his web site which was updated throughout the trip. Beginning in Everett, Washington, the trip took him and a cyclist friend through Washington, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ontario, New York, Vermont and New Hampshire, ending in Massachusetts.

A month into the trip, a freak accident brought about an unexpected taste of celebrity. Riding downhill as he was leaving Duluth, Minnesota a deer jumped in front of him—resulting in a tumble onto the road and a deep four-inch gash just above his ankle. When the ambulance came the attendant, examining his foot, asked “Aren’t you the guy on television riding across America for charity?” At the hospital, he was immediately taken into emergency surgery, with the intern noting his appearance on television as well!
After a 75-minute surgical procedure, Gordon was back on the road to cycle 84 miles that day.

Avid cyclist Dr. Mick O’Brien, a resident of Florence, Wisconsin, joined Gordon on his trip. They met through an Adventure Cycling club which Gordon found on the internet while both were trying to find riding partners with a compatible timeframe and route. Like Gordon, Mick was also interested in raising money for a favorite charity - the Hereditary Nephritis Foundation - an organization dedicated to hereditary kidney disease research.

Never did Gordon expect certain aspects of the trip that he was forced to endure. “Eating healthy was not an option. After repeatedly getting the ‘are you nuts’ look, I stopped asking for egg-beaters. Dubbed the Tour de Gordon Cuisine, I lived off of eggs, hash browns and steak in the small towns out west. But I drew the line when it came to chicken fried steak. It was terrible!”

But it was worth it. Friends, family and those inspired by the trip contributed more than $72,000 to the Dr. Alan J. Gross Memorial Fund and the Community Foundation’s 21st Century Fund. “The support from family, friends and people I met in my travels was tremendous,” Gordon says. “I was overwhelmed by the outpouring of donations made during my journey. It’s great to see a community embrace philanthropy.”

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Gretchen and Gordon in Switzerland while on a bicycle trip.

This hard working, dedicated humanitarian is also a comedian at heart and his wife borrowed a page from his joke book during Gordon’s cross-country trip when he passed through Buffalo. He arrived at his home to find a SOLD sign in front of the house. “I told her it was ok because I wanted to live on the road and eat in diners the rest of my life.”

“In my journey I’ve had a few flat tires,” he says. “Dogs chased me. I even had stitches and a slightly torn rotator cuff. But, when I reached the Atlantic Ocean in Plum Island, I was overcome with a sense of triumph for completing the trip. My brother Alan would have been proud.” Indeed. Just as Gordon is proud of the Dr. Alan J. Gross Memorial Fund, established in 1998, to support the Student Resource Center, named in Dr. Gross’ honor, at the University at Buffalo Dental School where Dr. Gross taught for more than 15 years. Gordon is also proud of the 21st Century Fund that he and four other Matching Founders established in 1999. Each year, the fund supports a philanthropic initiative deemed by its growing list of donors to promise the most significant impact on Western New York. Both of these funds are housed in the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo. Gordon was appointed to the board of the foundation in 1990; at that time the foundation had $32 million in assets. By the end of his term, assets totaled $110 million. Gordon strongly believes that the foundation needs to grow to $800 million to $1 billion in the next 10 years to be of maximum benefit to the community, and has agreed to stay active in this effort, co-chairing the Foundation’s Development Committee.

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Successfully completing his 3,157 mile venture at Plum Island, Massachusetts.

According to Gail Johnstone, president and CEO of the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo, “Gordon’s inspiration and enthusiasm on the board have been exactly what one would expect of someone with the vision and energy to bike over 3,000 miles. He has been a key agenda setter for the Foundation and continues to make a strategic impact on its Development Committee.”

Gordon Gross possesses the ambition and personality of someone who gets things done. His involvement in the community benefits many and will continue to influence Western New Yorkers, as age holds no barrier for this genuine gentleman. Of his selfless devotion to doing good, he is faster than a 10-speed, sturdier than a mountain bike and wears the ‘yellow jersey’ for this rider will always be in the lead. His wisdom is defined through his experience, and his experience continues to expand with every role he plays in serving the community. Ride on, Gordon!

Kelly Fuller is an assistant account executive at Eric Mower and Associates.


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