The best thing about being supervisor is meeting all kinds of interesting people. I want to share more of their stories. I had a lot of positive feedback on my piece on the river, which featured a bit on Paul Leuchner and his efforts to preserve the river. Today, I want to profile another Islander, Mike Billoni. I read Mike’s moving story on drug abuse last week in the Dispatch. And I felt inspired to tell you a bit about Mike’s own story.
President of Fun
Mike is a pretty big guy. He looks like some ex-boxer, and he has this deep voice. But upon closer inspection, Mike is about as mean spirited and aggressive as a fuzzy, stuffed cartoon character you’d win at Fantasy Island. The guy is all smiles, ideas, and positivity. I’ll admit, when he first handed me his business card I giggled. It read, “President of Fun.” But I liked that. Sure, it was off the wall, but what’s wrong with being a little off the wall? And what’s wrong with being a little fun. And Mike is fun.
Mike wanted to be a cop, but first he wanted to be a ballplayer
Part of the reason I want to share Mike’s story is because it reads like something you find in a novel, with all the peaks, valleys, and twists. He grew up in Buffalo. His family started (and still operates) Colvin cleaners. His dad did the home delivery. Mike used to ride with his dad in the delivery truck. He loved his father, and watched carefully how to treat people at every home they visited. His dad’s insight on how to serve people with dedication and kindness seeped into him.
Big Mike, however, dreamed other dreams. He wanted to play baseball or be a cop. He tried both. But as a kid he found out to his surprise his favorite part of baseball was filling out the box scores after the game. He would turn the box scores into the local newsman. Then one day the man said, “Hey Mike, next time give me a headline.” And he did, writing something to the effect, “Smith pitches a no-hitter!” Mike then noticed they started using his headlines in the paper. It ignited something in him, and he started to pitch little stories along with the headlines he handed in. They printed those stories too, and the fire in him grew. By the time he was a sophomore at Cardinal O’Hare, the Tonawanda News hired Mike to cover regional high school sports on a part-time basis.
Mike’s career continued to grow at the paper, and he was eventually given a chance to go to college to study journalism. But he still wanted to be a cop. So Mike showed up at the police station, eager and willing to serve. The Chief in Kenmore looked down from his glowing Lark cigarette while he reviewed Mike’s credentials. Finally, through a cloud of smoke, he said, “How about writing a story on what it’s like to be a cop first?” He asked Mike to wear a uniform for 24 hours, and walk the beat. Mike loved the experience, but when it was over he knew more than ever what really made him happy. He said to his parents, “I’m going to college. I want to be a journalist.”
Mike the newsman
After college Mike returned to the Tonawanda News full-time, which back then covered several municipalities and had a hefty sports staff. Mike was then recruited by the Courier Express, which some of you may remember was the well-established rival to the Buffalo News. For years he covered the Sabres, the Bills, and yes the old NBA team the Buffalo Braves. I have a brother who is a small businessman (and in my opinion, a heck of writer himself) who lives out of state. I told him that I know Mike Billoni. He told me with sincere veneration, “No way. That guy’s a legend!”
Eventually, in the early 80’s when the first big shock hit the newspaper business, the Courier Express collapsed, while the Warren Buffet-backed Buffalo news survived. Mike was looking for a new job. A paper in Rochester came calling. But before they agreed to hire him, they asked him to do a baseball piece to prove he could cover that sport. I guess they never read Mike’s little league work. Mike was determined to impress.
Finally, Mike became the President of Fun
Mike found a story. And it was a big one. Jimmy Griffin, the legendary (or infamous, depending on your perspective) Buffalo politician, had brought a failing minor league baseball team to Buffalo: The Bisons. In 1979, the Buffalo Braves had left town and Griffin needed to fill the void. A Double-A Eastern League baseball team in Jersey City was struggling and looking to relocate. This led to the Eastern League (through a little finagling) to place a franchise in Buffalo: The Bisons. The Bisons took on the name and history of professional teams that had played in the Queen City since 1877.
But the Bisons struggled mightily. And a little bird told Mike Billoni that Bob Rich of Rich Products fame was interested in buying the team. So Mike knocked on Bob’s door and asked, “Is this all true?” And that led to Mike getting his first gig as the President of Fun. He became the official hype and promo man for the Bisons.
If you remember, the Bisons games in the 80s were a unique scene. Mindy Rich was a forerunner of modern professional sports with her concept of making “Every Game an Event.” And Mike was her loyal ally. Go to any professional sport game today and you will see t-shirt guns, fireworks, and showbiz. Much of that started in Buffalo— and with Mike and Mindy—at the old War Memorial Stadium. Mike was called the PT Barnum of professional sports and named by USA Today as one of the leading figures in professional baseball itself.
And then Robert Redford called Bob Rich. It was about this time that they were looking for a location to film Redford’s new movie, The Natural, which became one of the greatest baseball films in history. Mike set up the visit. He even allowed them to have batting practice at the stadium. Redford loved Buffalo, and the movie is a bit of a love letter to not only the beautiful game of baseball, but to Buffalo itself.
From sadness to hope
What came next is not so cheery. The Bisons never made their goal of becoming a major league franchise. But they did become the greatest Triple A team in the country. And Mike, sadly, faced a life changing event. He was hit by a car while biking in Ontario, and nearly lost his life. That experience, by the way, led him to come out in support of repurposing the Parkway into a bike path. He loves biking, but he knows how unsafe trails along roads can be.
After years of physical recovery and mental depression, Mike moved to Grand Island to find solace with his beautiful wife. He lives along the river—a place he says, “Just felt right.” He also found a new spirituality, and became devoted to using his considerable PR skills to help local nonprofit organizations. And now, he’s asked me, “How can I help Grand Island? I love this place.”
I instantly knew the role that he should play. “Mike”, I said, “Grand Island is facing a drug epidemic. We need to understand what our kids are going through. And we need to help them discover their talents and interests—kind of like what happened to you as a kid handing in box scores. We need to ask them what they need so they can embrace life, rather than run from it.”
I will work with Mike on a summit
Mike and I are working on coordinating a summit sponsored by the Supervisor’s office (and Town Board, I hope) to understand how we can fight drug abuse on Grand Island. Given Mike’s experiences, passions, spiritual core and desire to make a difference; he is a natural fit to help lead this charge. And given his promo and organizational experience, I’m hoping Mike can bring in some of you to help as well. We will also reach out to local clergy, schools, and of course One Island One Team, to plan and organize this event. But most importantly I want to reach out to the kids.
This “summit” will not be about identifying issues. In other words, it will not be a session where we bemoan our state. Instead, the summit will be about finding solutions. We will ask everyone, especially the young people, “How can we resolve this problem?” “What can the Town do to help?” And then we will listen.
We are already working on building a community center that will be heavily focused on Youth Programming. The Town Board has been great about this so far. We are also trying to figure out a way to get a medical treatment facility on the Island. The summit will give us a forum to ask what else can we do? What are we missing? Let the discussion—and solutions—begin!
With highest regards,