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November 2000

Phil Haberstro’s Passion: a “Healthy” Community

by Joseph RADDER

In the almost two hours we spent with Phil Haberstro in his downtown office, we found it difficult to get him to talk about himself. Instead, he was much more interested in talking about the many fine people who have influenced his life...his family, friends, priests, nuns, teachers, football coaches and fellow “community builders.”

His roots run deep in Buffalo. His great grandfather, Philip L. Haberstro I, was a brewer and civic leader. A picture of the old German-American Brewery at Main and High Streets (formerly the family brewery) on Phil’s office wall is proof of his pride in family. His great great grandfather, Joseph, was Sheriff of Erie County in the 1860s and a City Councilman. Phil’s family is honored that Joseph Haberstro’s picture is one of several former sheriffs on the present sheriff’s wall.

Born in Buffalo, Phil grew up in the Town of Tonawanda where he had a Buffalo News paper route, was a Boy Scout and YMCA Youth leader.

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Phil at 1 year old in February 1949.

Phil about age 7 studying at St. John the Baptist grade school.

Phil’s father and mother, William J. and Janet M. Haberstro were dyed-in-the-wool Buffalonians as well. His dad was a paratrooper during World War II, and worked for many years in shipping and receiving and later as a Peace Bridge employee. Phil inherits his tenacity from his father, who was a member of championship football teams at Bennett High School and, later, a professional boxer.

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Phil’s Dad, William J. Haberstro - Sgt. Paratrooper WWII.

His mother, Janet, is an active community volunteer. Phil speaks of her lovingly when he tells of taking her to visit Our Lady of Victory Basilica this past Mother’s Day.

He has two brothers—James, a health care executive and Greg, a Sergeant in the New York State Police.

All three Haberstro boys graduated from Cardinal O’Hara High School. Phil was a member of O’Hara’s first graduating class.

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Phil’s family - Top row: Greg, Phil, Jim and, Ian (Jim’s son).
Second row: Adam, John and Bill (Greg’s sons). Third row: Bonnie, Janet (Phil’s mom), Lee (Greg’s wife) and Fran (Jim’s wife). Bottom row: Katherine (Greg’s daughter) and Elizabeth (Jim’s daughter).

He was an avid football player at O’Hara under Coach “Iron Mike” Turner, who along with O’Hara’s Franciscan Fathers, played a major role in helping Phil establish his high principles and value standards.

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Phil #48 and coach Larry Bodie in the Geminis days.

“We won the Smith Division championship in our first year of varsity play without any seniors on the team and then we repeated the next year.”

“The priests and nuns and teachers at St. John the Baptist Church and School in Kenmore were important influences as well.” He fondly remembers Monsignor Klauder for his spiritual influence.

The Ken-Ton YMCA was the place the Haberstro boys gained an appreciation for physical fitness and athletics. Later on, Phil would become a member of the Ken-Ton Y board and co-chair of its Partner with Youth campaign.

Phil carried his enthusiasm for football with him to Brockport College, where he became captain of the football team in his junior year. Later, he played line backer for the Buffalo Geminis, who were rated the #1 semi-pro team in the U.S. in 1977 after a 28 game winning streak. Phil captained the defense.

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Phil during his days as an employee at Brockport College’s Student Union.

It was through the Geminis that he developed his lifetime friendship with Larry Bodie. “Every holiday for the past 27 years we go shopping together for our families’ Christmas presents. We have a great time.”

In 1980, Phil came back home from working at Brockport College and was teaching raquetball at the Ken-Ton YMCA. It was there that he met “a tall, attractive blonde lifeguard, Bonnie Zimmerman.” After a 3-year courtship, they were married. Phil praises Bonnie’s leadership as president of the Western New York Region of the State Physical Education Association, as vice president of the union at her school and as a former swimming coach for the Buffalo Kidney Foundation’s “Transplant Olympics” team.

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Phil with his brothers Jim and Greg on his wedding day, 1983.

Bonnie and Phil went to Europe several times with the Transplant Olympic teams. In 1981, Mike Billoni did a major story on Bonnie for the Courier-Express, when she was one of only three women in the United States to be the athletic trainer for a men’s football team in a professional league.

In the early ‘80s, Phil was program director at the Buffalo Athletic Club, and in 1983 he went out on his own in a new business...corporate fitness consulting. This involved setting up work-site programs for employees of several major companies in the area.

In 1988 he helped bring the National Association for Work-Site Health Promotion Conference to Buffalo and later was elected president of the association’s northeast region. Bringing this group’s convention to Buffalo led to Phil’s involvement with and eventual chairmanship of the Buffalo Ambassadors, the civic group that works with the Greater Buffalo Convention and Visitors Bureau to bring conventions to Buffalo. Phil was a prime mover in the community effort that was instrumental in gaining a lifetime designation for Greater Buffalo as an All-America City.

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Alforna Evans, John Weeb, Ginny Hons, Phil and Mayor Masiello at the All-America City press conference in 1996.

In 1987, Phil Haberstro founded the Wellness Institute of Greater Buffalo and Western New York. From 1989 to 1994, he was also co-owner of the Buffalo Recreation Center.

He is very passionate about the Institute’s mission to improve the quality of life in the city and region. To help achieve that, he and his colleagues at the Wellness Institute have developed a portfolio of civic, health, environmental and economic initiatives.

“It’s essential for business, government, nonprofit and civic groups to work together. It is fundamental to our region becoming a ‘Healthy Community’,” Phil said, and he’s most optimistic that this is happening.

This past spring he was nominated by his colleagues to receive the Axelrod Community Health Award, just one of the many leadership awards he has received since his high school days. Plaques and citations fill one entire wall of his office.

Indeed, Phil Haberstro, now as he always has, gives much of himself to the community. Presently he is involved in a variety of activities, including those mentioned earlier and the New York State Physical Activity Coalition, the United Way Access and Wellness program and the Buffalo Niagara Partnership’s Not for Profit Council.

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Phil, the Stanley Cup, Scotty Bowman and Bonnie.

In the past he has served in a broad range of capacities such as the Mayor’s Advisory Commission to the Office of Senior Services, the Brockport College Alumni Board of Directors, the Governor’s Council on Lifetime Health, Fitness and Sport and as the chair of the Erie County Tobacco-Free Coalition. Phil has even tested politics as a candidate for Supervisor of the Town of Tonawanda.

Few citizens have quietly achieved as much for Greater Buffalo as Phil Haberstro since his founding of The Wellness Institute. In a letter from Dr. Gary Brice, assistant vice president for Community Health and Wellness for Kaleida Health and chair of the Community Task Force of the Health Association of New York State, Dr. Brice said, “Phil Haberstro is an outstanding grassroots ‘Healthy Community’ advocate who exemplifies the qualities needed by a public health leader...Commitment, Strength, Dedication and Passion for the Cause.”

Few are more passionate about our region being a “healthy community” than Phil Haberstro.

Joseph Radder is a freelance writer.


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