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quick questions

Quick Questions with Darren Wilson, president of Lyndonville Area Foundation

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 13 March 2016 at 7:00 am

Foundation directs $100K to community each year

Darren Wilson in his office

Photos by Tom Rivers Darren Wilson is pictured in his office along Route 63, just north of the Village of Lyndonville.

LYNDONVILLE – The Lyndonville Area Foundation started as a small community foundation more than 50 years ago. A couple major bequests have been game changers, bringing the Foundation assets to $1.7 million and allowing the organization’s board of directors to distribute about $100,000 a year into the community.

That money helps pay for the big fireworks show in Lyndonville on the Fourth of July, a summer recreation program at Lyndonville, an annual payment of about $17,000 as the local share of the Stroyan Auditorium, $30,000 in scholarships, and many other community causes, including Medina Memorial Hospital and Hospice of Orleans.

The Foundation recently agreed to help fund a character education program at Lyndonville schools and the Young Entrepreneurs Academy for Lyndonville students.

Darren Wilson is president of the Foundation. His father-in-law, James Oakes, helped start the Foundation in 1967.

Wilson married Oakes’s daughter Wendy, who is president of the Leonard Oakes Estate Winery. The couple has a son, Sawyer, a seventh-grader at Lyndonville.

Wilson is a Florida native who works as a graphic and industrial designer with a focus in the automotive industry.

Wilson has served on the Foundation board since 2002.

“One of the advantages in a smaller community you can participate in organizations and you actually matter,” Wilson said.

He was interviewed recently at his office on Route 63.

Q: So your father-in-law was one of the Foundation’s charter members. What do you think that initial group was thinking back then when they started this?

A: Basically the Foundation was set up for the educational, recreational and civic benefit of the community. It was something to give back to the community. They started out with next to nothing.

I would venture they had a few hundred dollars when they kicked it off, possibly a couple thousand.

Q: So there was James Oakes and a few farmers, maybe?

A: It was a bunch of life-long Lyndonville residents who loved their community, who grew up and went to school here. They just wanted to get together and give something back to the community.

Q: I thought the Foundation was putting out $10,000 a year. I was surprised to see it’s about $100,000.

A: By law you have to give away a certain percentage of your assets. Right now we’re giving over $100,000.

Q: Are you tied to giving to the Lyndonville area?

A: Our bylaws and our charter is for the benefit of the Village of Lyndonville and the Town of Yates. Obviously, 50 years ago with not much money they could easily do that. As the Foundation has grown over almost a half century, we have had to look further than the Town of Yates.

We do confine it to Orleans County. We do things like Hospice, the hospital, the YMCA. We have had to broaden our steps. We recently gave money to the Genesee-Orleans Ministry of Concern for their furniture program to help the poor.

We try to look at things that at least the residents of Lyndonville and the Town of Yates could potentially be impacted by. Hospice is a good example. On any given week or month you will probably find a Lyndonville resident over there. Same thing with the hospital.

Fireworks in Lyndonville

The Lyndonville Area Foundation is a big sponsor of the annual fireworks show on the Fourth of July, considered one of the best in the region.

Q: Did the Foundation take a quantum leap recently in terms of assets?

A: It did about 20 years ago. The Foundation had very modest assets until about 1997-98. A resident, Mabel Stroyan who lived right down on Main Street, had accumulated a great deal of personal assets over decades. She had nobody to leave it to and it was a huge amount. It was somewhere around a million bucks.

The Foundation went from modest to “Holy Cow!” in basically a blink of an eye.

Q: You’re given out about $100,000 now, but back then it was much less?

A: You’re required to give away 5 percent at a minimum. And that’s where the Stroyan Auditorium comes in. The school wanted to expand and also add an auditorium, not only for the school but for the community.

There was a public portion of expansion for the school. The state would provide X amount of dollars for the school if the community would provide the remaining percentage.

The only way to raise the local portion was to do a massive amount of fundraising, which probably wasn’t going to happen because we were talking about three-quarters of a million dollars.

It was decided by the board of directors that Mabel’s money would take over the local portion. That way nobody was impacted. Taxes weren’t raised. The school got what it needed and Mabel got some recognition and her money went to something that would be permanent in the community she lived in all of her life. The timing was perfect.

Q: I have to think Lyndonville is unusual to have such a Foundation. What a blessing.

A: It is. We have had a couple other substantial contributions since then. We had another gentleman, maybe 2006 or 2007, who provided a contribution well into the six figures.

Q: Is that Frank Housel?

A: Yes, Frank B. Housel. That was earmarked for two annual scholarships for our graduates. The amount that he gave pretty much ensures those scholarships will continue forever. There are two for $4,000 each.

When I started on the Foundation board (in 2002), the Frank Housel scholarships weren’t even in existence, nor was the Wilson-Skinner. Basically we had three scholarships at maybe $1,000 or $1,500 each. Now we have eight scholarships and they’re all $4,000 each and the Skinner-Wilson is $5,000.

Q: Do you have anything to do with the Skinner-Wilson Scholarship?

A: No the Wilson doesn’t have anything to do with me. Donald Skinner is a 1950 graduate of Lyndonville. He has been a very successful guy. He grew up in Lyndonville and now lives in Florida. About five years ago he contacted the president then of the Foundation and wanted to set up a scholarship. He wanted to make it $5,000, payable at the end of a student’s second semester.

The other scholarships are payable at the end of the first semester. The kids have to meet a minimum GPA and then have to enroll in a second semester.

Justin Edwards and Alex Murphy receive scholarships

Provided photo The Lyndonville Area Foundation presented two scholarship checks of $2,000 apiece to the recipients of the Trevor Cook Memorial Scholarship last fall. Justin Edwards and Alex Murphy, both Lyndonville graduates, completed basic training at US Marine Corps Parris Island. Pictured from left to right, Dave Cook, LAF board member and father of Sgt. Trevor Cook; Lyndonville natives and US Marines Justin Edwards and Alex Murphy; LAF Treasurer Doug Hedges; and President Darren Wilson.

Q: I don’t think people realize the impact of the Foundation, or maybe they do?

A: I don’t think they do. One of the jobs of the Foundation’s president every year is to attend the graduation and present the checks to the students. There are other scholarships out there, although I think ours are the most substantial.

When I’m in the audience I don’t think most of parents are aware of these scholarships until maybe a month before graduation and we start soliciting the kids to apply for them.

I don’t think most of the residents are aware of our existence. Just recently, we finally decided to put our foot down to change the awareness level. We have a website for the first time (Click here). We’re creating some social media things like a Facebook page.

We’ve always been sort of low-key.

Q: Maybe more people would bequeath the Foundation more money if they knew you were an option.

A: It’s a beautiful double-edged sword. We would love for people to know about us to bequeath some things, but it’s also an attempt on the flip side to make other organizations aware of us. For example, at our January board meeting we had a request from a wonderful organization over in Waterport that works with refugee children. We weren’t aware of the World Life Institute and they weren’t aware of us. So a little self-promotion works both ways.

It’s not of the nature for a Foundation to get on a pedestal and use a megaphone, but we do want people to know we’re around.

The Foundation for example works closer with the Lions Club on the fireworks show which is spectacular.

Q: Isn’t that the third or fourth best fireworks show in the entire region?

A: I think it’s the fourth and we might be working towards the third. The Lions Club obviously has a huge stake in the event.

Q: You can see how your money takes the pressure off some of these groups.

A: It does. For instance over the holidays we have some very pretty lights and wreaths and stuff that are strung along Main Street. The Foundation recently purchased brand new lights for those. I don’t know who knows that, but it certainly is a very nice community touch to have our Main Street lit up.

The point I’m making is there is a lot of these little things. The playground moving, for example. I’m not sure if a lot of people knew the Lyndonville Foundation provided some funds to move the playground.

Housel Avenue playground

The Lyndonville Area Foundation helped pay to move the playground from the closed elementary school to the main school campus on Housel Avenue last summer.

Q: In addition to you, how many members are on the board?

A: There are 12 members. We make up members of the community. It’s all-volunteer. None of us are paid. Five of the board members are what we call our Class 1 directors. It consists of the mayor of Lyndonville, the president of the Lions Club, the past president of the Lions Club, the superintendent of schools and the Town of Yates supervisor. Those five positions are whoever is in those positions at that time.

The remaining positions are community members who want to participate, who volunteer their time.

Q: You can see the benefit of the board of just getting the mayor, town supervisor and school superintendent in the same room for however many times you meet.

A: It’s four times a year.

Q: It’s good that they sit down that often. I’m not sure that happens in too many other communities. It’s good they can build those relationships.

A: It’s also good a way for building a need base. For instance, if the village or the town has a need, unless the supervisor or mayor is present, we may not know that need exists. For example, the summer recreation program, which goes on for five weeks at the school for 120-some kids, we started funding that along with the Town of Yates six or seven years ago.

That was initiated by the Town of Yates. They wanted something for the kids to do during the summer, even if just for a few hours. Our board members may not have known that if the Town Supervisor John Belson hadn’t mentioned the need for the program.

Lyndonville Christmas decorations

The downtown decorations for the holidays in Lyndonville were upgraded thanks to funds from the Lyndonville Lions Club and the Lyndonville Area Foundation.

Q: Just having a few thousand dollars for some of these organizations can take the pressure off.

A: It can do amazing things, and most of it is very practical things. For The Arc of Orleans we provide some transportation money to help them get some of their special needs kids around during the summer months.

Q: So you’ve been on the board since 2002. How did you become president?

A: About three years ago the past president, Richard Pucher, stepped down. He had been president for about eight years. He is still on the board in capacity as past president of the Lions Club.

He decided to step down as president. We looked around the board. The vice president suggested I might make a good president, and I was willing to step in and give it a shot. I like my job. We’ve done some really interesting things.

We have some really terrific people on the board. Our treasurer for instance, Doug Hedges, has been on the Foundation board in some capacity for 25 years.

Dick Pucher has been a board member for at least 15 years. Our vice president, Rita Wolfe, has been on the board for at least 10 years. We just have some really great people. They are very smart. Collectively we do some terrific things.

We manage our money very well. We’re now considered a private foundation because we actually earn more off of our investments than we do from donations. That changed about eight or nine years ago. I think that says a lot about our capabilities and fiduciary duties. I think we’ve done a lot with the money. We take care of it. We plan to run this foundation forever.

Q: How much does the Foundation have in assets?

A: Right now we have approximately $1.7 million. It’s a good chunk of change. We’re always happy to take bequests and contributions.

In the case of Donald Skinner, he is a perfect example. He grew up in Lyndonville and still has connections to the community and general area. He simply wanted to give back to a community where he grew up in and loved. That’s the type of thing the Foundation exists on.

The money that we’re giving out didn’t come from anywhere except from within. We’re literally transferring the money from the Lyndonville area.

Q: You are able to do this with a group of volunteers?

A: We’re not paying people. That’s one of the things we pride ourselves on. We do have some operating expenses. We have to pay our accountant to do our taxes. We have to buy stamps and envelopes and stuff like this.

But compared to our assets, we spend maybe $6,000 to $7,000 a year, including paying our CPA, and that’s for doing our taxes and certain filings that we have to do every year for our 501c3 status.

That’s it out of $1.7 million. We pinch pennies everywhere we can when it comes to our operating expenses. The village donates meeting space to us so we’re not crowded in somebody’s house. We’re meeting in a public arena. People in town can walk in. That’s what drew me to the Foundation 12-13 years ago.

Darren Wilson

Darren Wilson has served as Foundation president for the past three years.

Number one, I found it remarkable that a community of this size had such a thing, and that it had the assets that it did. The fact that they were giving these fantastic amounts of money to scholarships, the school, the Lions Club, The Arc of Orleans and the hospital. We’ve given $250,000 to the hospital since I’ve been on the board. And this from a community of less than 1,000 people. I find that inspiring if nothing else. And the money is all coming from this community.

Sometimes it’s a $2,500 donation and sometimes it’s $250,000 or $500,000. But it all goes into the pot and eventually it all goes right back into the community.

We are struggling at times to give away the money and that is a wonderful situation to be in. We do have a minimum to give away, and as our assets our growing we have more dollars to give away.

Q: It’s put some onus on the community to dream a little, to consider some projects and programs to benefit the community.

A: Yes. We have to look forward. That’s something the board and myself are doing. We have to project forward five, six, 10 years down the road, wondering and looking into not only future sources of income but who do we give it to.

Quick Questions with Trisha Laszewski

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 9 February 2016 at 10:00 am

Assessor now works for 3 western Orleans towns

Trisha Laszewski at her desk

Photos by Tom Rivers Patricia Laszewski has worked the past 15 years in assessing for Ridgeway. This year she added assessor for Shelby and Yates to her duties.

RIDGEWAY – Patricia Laszewski grew up in Middleport and moved to Medina in 1990 with her husband Frank. They have four grown daughters.

She was hired as a full-time assessor clerk for Ridgeway in April 2001, and became assessor in July 2002 when Kate Lake retired.

Her job expanded this year when she became assessor for Shelby and Yates, in addition to Ridgeway. She will assess values for 7,300 parcels of property in the three towns.

She admits the job doesn’t always make her popular with the public. She said she strives to be fair and treat everyone with respect.

The following interview was conducted at Laszewski’s office at the Ridgeway Town Hall.

Question: How did you get into assessing?

Answer: I was subbing at the school in clerical and as an aide. I knew there was a position opening up in the middle school for a clerk in the office. I decided to take the Civil Service test for clerk and this position (in Ridgeway assessor’s office) opened up before they hired for that position. I interviewed and I accepted the job not knowing anything about assessments.

I had no intention of applying for this job, it just came about.

Q: Was it overwhelming initially?

A: It was very overwhelming. When I was hired there was such a short amount of time when I was with the current assessor. I don’t think it was enough time to understand how everything worked. I never had a job where I dealt so much with the public so it’s definitely been a growing experience. I think it changes you a little bit, including your personality. You learn to look at things a lot differently. You are offended by very little after a while.

Q: I think it would be a tough job. I don’t think people necessarily like the assessor. It can be tough as a property owner because you want a nice property but you don’t want your assessment to go up and have to pay more in taxes.

A: Exactly. When people come in and they’re frustrated, you can not take it personally. Bottom line is they feel what you have done is touching their wallet and that’s sensitive to everyone.

Q: So how to you keep the peace here?

A: I find that most people who come in I approach it as, ‘I know you are frustrated.’ We sit down, and I let them talk. I explain the process and a lot of times you agree to disagree.

Q: Don’t you determine values through comparables?

A: It’s basically what homes are selling for, business and commercial properties. What they’re selling for on the market. We take that information and analyze it and compare it the best we can. There is no black and white. It’s not that every ranch is assessed so-many dollars for every square foot. It depends on what the market is doing. There is a lot of gray area.

Q: Where is the market strong in Orleans County?

A: Right now I’m seeing that the homes outside the village (of Medina) are selling above assessed value. Homes inside the village, if they are move-in ready homes, they are also selling above assessed value. The houses that are your run-of-the-mill houses can sit on the market for a year or year and a half.

Q: When you think about the three towns you are now working in, they really aren’t the same with lakefront, the wildlife refuge and the village.

A: I can consider Shelby and Ridgeway, obviously, more similar than Yates because of the lakefront. That is definitely going to be all new to me. With Shelby, I’m pretty comfortable with all the agricultural properties. It’s just learning different faces and where everything is.

Q: Would you use the same strategy with comparables for all three towns?

A: Yes. That’s the same. It’s just knowing your properties and analyzing the data to the best of your ability because it’s not black and white.

Q: Do you look at recent sales?

A: When assessors use comparables we use comparables normally over the last three years. The last time I did an update was in 2013. The comparables would have gone back to 2010. Until I do a new update, anything I have to reassess, I have to use the same comparables that I used from back in 2013. That’s what meets the state guidelines of everyone being assessed equally. Your comparing this property to the properties that I used when I reassessed the entire town.

Sometimes that’s hard for people to understand because they’ll say, ‘Just six months ago this house sold,’ but I can’t use that as a comparable. That being said, do I take that into consideration? Yes.

Q: Is there a town-wide reassessment this year?

A: No.

Q: Is it every four years?

A: It’s every three years but because of the move we just made there is no possible way I could do an update. I’m not really sure when there will be a new update.

Q: Your not obligated to do it every three years?

A: You’re encouraged. I would guess one of the towns will be done in 2018. Right now we’re seeing how things go. I would guess Shelby and Ridgeway we would keep them together because we share the village. That just makes sense.

Trisha Laszewski outside Ridgeway Town Hall

Patricia Laszewski works most days out of the Ridgeway Town Hall but also keeps office hours in Yates on Fridays.

Q: Is there concern about the assessments in the village, how they are declining?

A: They are definitely declining.

Q: I wonder how low can they go?

A: I know with the 2004 or 2007 reassessment, they took a huge leap, like $20,000 to $30,000. We as assessors when we got together said there would never be another $40,000 house again. Those days are gone. Well, they are not.

They only thing you can hope is that these houses people are picking up they are going to rehab them and maybe property values will increase.

There are so many different pieces of the pie. When people come in and they are frustrated with their tax bill it’s not just the assessment that affects that. That’s one piece of the pie. The rest of it, take a look at the municipalities. Take a look at the town, the county, the school and the village. How are they budgeting their money?
It’s hard to educate the residents on that because they say you’ve raised my taxes and now you need to fix it.

Q: Why have you stayed in this job?

A: It’s worked for me. It’s a great job as far as being a family-friendly job. I’m just a few blocks from home so that’s awesome. I was always able to participate in my daughters’ things at school. If somebody was sick, I could run over and get them and take them home. There were a lot of conveniences.

After a while I just settled in and this is what I do. I’ve never in the 15 years gone out and tried to hunt for something different. I’ve kind of embraced it.

Q: I suppose you would get good at it after a while.

A: I’d hope so. I’m much more comfortable.

Q: Has the technology helped, such as the Pictometry?

A: Absolutely. The Pictometry is amazing. It is a great tool to be able to measure properties. Not everyone is home during the day. Not everyone wants you on their property. You still need to get out and drive around or else you lose touch.

Q: If there is a building permit, is that something you’re aware of?

A: Yes.

Q: Maybe not everyone gets a permit when they work on their house or property.

A: Right, but Pictometry has helped us to find things.

Q: What does it take to be good at this job?

A: It takes patience, good people skills, open to learning as much as you can.

Q: If people think you’ve made a mistake, you have the Assessment Review Board?

A: Yes. We encourage people to come in and talk to me. We try to keep the lines of communication open. For the most part I’ve got positive feedback from that.

With the Assessment Review Board at that point that decision is out of my hand so they are able to discuss what they believe the value of their property is with five other people and they get to make the decision.

Q: In terms of hopefulness for the community with the STAMP project and its impact, do you think we will see more demand in the local housing market.

A: I hope so. It would be awesome. We have a great community.

Retiring Medina police chief says society has changed, demands increased on police officers in 3 decades

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 23 December 2015 at 9:00 am

Jose Avila’s parents were in concentration camp in Cuba, fled to U.S. when he was 10

Jose Avila

Photos by Tom Rivers – Jose Avila is pictured last week outside the Medina Police Department. Saturday is his last day on the job.

MEDINA – For the past 18 years, Jose Avila has served as chief of the Medina Police Department.

He has led the department through some high-profile cases, including when one of his officers, Lt. Mike Russell, was shot at a local pharmacy. Russell survived those gun shot wounds.

Avila, 53, grew up in Cuba and came to the United States when he was 10. He would settle in Rochester, where his father has been a long-time pastor. Avila joined the Coast Guard after high school, and first worked as a police officer in Nantucket, Mass. He would work at Holley, Rochester and Medina police departments.

There will be a retirement party today for Avila beginning at 1 p.m. at the Medina Theatre on  Main Street. The community is welcome to attend.

The following interview was conducted last week at Avila’s office at the Medina Police Department.

Question: Where did you grow up?

Answer: I grew up in Rochester. My family came here on the Freedom Flights. In 1960s and ’70s this country would take so many people from the Communist Block countries. My parents applied for that when I was born in ’62, and they were both sent to jail when they did that. My dad served 10 years in a concentration camp. My mom, who was a school teacher in Cuba, she was stripped of all of her titles.

Q: That’s just for applying…

A: Just for applying for the Freedom Flights. That’s why it’s hard for me to swallow this whole thing with Cuba. It’s all a facade.

So my mom had to be picked up by a truck at 4 in the morning and then get dropped off at 9. She worked in a ricefield. She worked at a pig farm. In Cuba there is a tree and they make fiber things out of it. She worked with that and her fingers were full of it. My grandmother, my mom’s mother, lived with us and she basically raised me.

One day when I was 10 years old a police officer came to the house and told us. We were living with my father’s parents and they had applied for the Freedom Flights but didn’t get accepted because they didn’t have degrees. They ended up getting permission to leave from Spain. Sometimes you can leave and go right to the United States and sometimes you have to go through another country.


We didn’t have much in Cuba. We didn’t even have running water. We had an outhouse.


My grandfather, my dad’s father, refused to leave. My grandmother, my dad’s mother, went to Spain all by herself in her ’60s. From Spain she applied to come to the United States eventually. My dad had a brother who saw things going downhill in Cuba in 1959 and decided to come here. He created King’s Furniture up in Rochester. He built a business and that’s who eventually brought us all here. His finance and things like that.

The police officer came to the house and said you have an hour to leave this property and report to this particular airport. We showed up there and my dad was brought by a truck because he was in jail. He was in a concentration camp. We stayed at this airport for about a week.

There was one couch, 50 families and we were eating moldy cheese, whatever we could find. They would bring you in and interrogate you. Everyday the DC3 airplane would land. They would pick several families to leave. It was a big joke. They were trying to play with our heads. So four or five families would leave, the plane would land, and then “Nope, nobody’s leaving today.” The plane would have to take off again. It was a big game. Finally our turn came up about a week later and they let us go.

We got to the airplane and I never had Coke before or any type of soda. A man in very broken Spanish came out and said, “Welcome, you are now headed for freedom.” He offered us Coke and Root Beer. I never had either because I was in Cuba. I took the Coke and I don’t know what happened to me. I ended up passing out. When I woke up I was in a stretcher. It was in Miami. To this day I cannot smell Root Beer. It makes me sick.

From Miami, my uncle who lives in Rochester brought us here. My father went to work for Xerox. He was a minister and he opened a church. He still is the minister there (The First Spanish Baptist Church of Rochester). If you go there you will see his name on the front of the building: Efrain Avila, right on the corner of Dewey and Ridgeway next to the big Fire Department there. It’s a big church. He was very rare in Cuba to be a Spanish Baptist. There were very limited Baptists in Cuba and that didn’t help the situation.

He still preaches and is running the church. He has been there 30-plus years.

Q: Did you go to school in Rochester?

A: I graduated from Eastridge and always wanted to serve in the military. I had a chance to take the Coast Guard test and got into the Coast Guard. I did a lot of traveling. I was the only bilingual Coastie on the East Coast. They had two but one broke his foot. So I was it. They shipped me all over the place.

In 1981 George Bush, the first one, had a drug task force and I was involved in all that because I was the only bilingual guy. I spent most of my tour down in the Caribbean on ships and listening to radios. The druggies found out if they took off from Columbia and headed way, way out into the Atlantic Ocean, the Coast Guard ships that hung around – you know Cuba has two passages. Between Cuba and Haiti that’s called the Windward Passage. Between Cuba and the Yucatan Peninsula that’s called the Yucatan Passage. That’s the only way to make it to Miami other than if you go round the islands and that’s a month trip versus a couple weeks or a week.

So the druggies figured if they go out, no Coasties out there. Well, we learned it, and the Coast Guard had me listening. They would get on ham radio frequencies, which are very well controlled by the FCC. They would use CB lingo and I was taught the difference. My job was to find these guys, translate it, and then get an FCC fix on them. Then the Coast Guard ships would go out there and get them. It was called Operation Gossip. I was very much a part of that.

When I got out of the Coast Guard, I had already been working part-time for the Nantucket Police Department, the chief said I want to hire you full time. After serving a couple years over there, I decided to come home.

Q: Why did you want to come home?

A: There is a different format hiring over there than here in New York State. I went looking for a job. I took the City of Rochester Police Department, I took Orleans County, and Holley. That’s how I got started in Holley. I was in Holley for several years. I used to come out here (Medina) and translate for the court here.

Homer Phillips (former police chief) would call me when there was a case. I would never ask for money, I would just come out. As a matter of fact, I don’t think I’ve ever been paid for translating. I felt it was something I should share.

So I would translate here, and when the opening came, the chief called me and said, ‘We’d like to hire you.’

Jose Avila directing traffic

Medina Police Chief Jose Avila directs traffic while a costumed crowd crosses the street during Beggar’s Night in downtown Medina in October 2014.

Q: Did you start at Holley as a part-timer?

A: No it was full-time.

Q: I’m guessing you’ve always been a friendly person?

A: I don’t know about a friendly person, I can get mean when I have to or I can be strict when I have to. I’ve always felt I have to be firm when I have to, but a major part of law enforcement is serving the public. Serving the public doesn’t mean you have to be a mean person.

I’ve generally found out if you treat people with dignity and respect, they will treat you back with dignity and respect. There’s an exception to that, and you can always switch that button and become tough.

I always believed whether you are the victim of a crime or a serious murderer, the Constitution requires that we treat people with respect and that’s how I’ve always done it. The Constitution is a very important document that we live under and it needs to be upheld.
Q: You were in Holley for five years?

A: Yeah, and then 24 ½ years here. I started in 1992 and served a little time in the Drug Task Force in ’96, but I was still attached to the Medina Police Department. I was their representative on the Drug Task Force.

In ’97 I came back here and was appointed assistant chief. Chief (Don) Draper decided to retire at that time and I was appointed chief. I never actually put in for the chief’s position. I wanted to be the assistant chief because I wanted to help the chief.

I was called upstairs one day when Chief Draper said he was going to retire. I truly enjoyed working for him. I thought he was a great guy. It was an honor to be his assistant, to be there and to help him. The assistant chief is there to help, to defend the chief and make sure his policies are carried through.

I knew the chief was going to retire but I didn’t think it was my place to stick my two cents as to who was going to be the chief. If they brought someone in, I was fine with working for someone else. They called me upstairs – it was December 1997 because I’ll never forget it – and they told me if I wanted the job it was mine. I took it.

Q: Who was the mayor then?

A: It was Herb Brant. He was a very nice man. I have truly enjoyed working for all of the mayors. I’ve worked for Herb Brant, Don Kennedy, Howard Lake, Adam Tabelski, Clayton Ehrenreich and Andrew Meier. I’ve worked under six mayors and I’ve enjoyed every one of them.

Q: You’re positive about working here.

A: It’s been an honor. We didn’t have much in Cuba. We didn’t even have running water. We had an outhouse. We didn’t have much of anything so to me this is big.

Q: I’ve noticed with some of the tough budgets in Medina, you’ve accepted it and found a way to make it work without a lot of grumbling.

A: That’s the trick. I always felt it was my job to protect Medina but I had the people’s money in my hands, and I have a responsibility to try to do it as cheaply as I possibly could. Public safety, you can not play with that. It’s very important, especially in today’s day and age. But you also need to think about the taxes and the citizens who work hard everyday to pay those taxes.

Although I do believe when people come collectively like our village did, and pool their money like our village did, a house assessed for $50,000 is only paying about $1,000 a year in taxes. That’s not a bad deal they’re getting when the money is pooled. But it is still money they are paying. As a police chief I need to keep that in mind and I have.

If they gave me 5, I did it with 5. If they gave me 10, I did it with 10. I tried to do it with what they gave me.

Q: Is the department smaller now than when you started?

A: When I started there were 11 officers with Homer. Later on, due to a grant, we hired two more, 12 and 13. When I became the chief, it was brought down to 12, but the 12th position was never replaced. So we went down to 11 and we are at 10 right now. I’ve never gone up, we’ve always gone down due to the rising taxes. We’ve lost two positions since I’ve been chief.

Q: I know you have one clerk, did you have more support back then as well?

A: No, a couple of years ago they didn’t have the money to fund the animal control and I volunteered to take that on. I’m grateful I’ve had the chance to work with the county animal control officer. She has been very helpful.

Q: Are things worse now than 20-30 years ago in terms of crime in the community?

A: I think society has less respect for law enforcement and laws. I think with overcrowding in the jail the criminals are let out sooner. The criminals seem to go back to the same cycle. So I think society has changed as whole for the worse.

However, there are still a lot of good people out there, and they deserve our very best. That’s why we do it everyday.


It is a very thin blue line and I don’t think society appreciates how difficult law enforcement has become.


I always hear in this country about the thin blue line that protects a community. There truly is a thin blue line. There really aren’t many of us (police officers) when you think about it. It’s a tough job.

If you look at what a penal law looks like, the book is thick with vehicle and traffic. We have seconds, if we’re lucky minutes, to put a case together, and attorneys have weeks and months to pick it apart.

It’s very difficult because you could be on the midnight shift and have a fight call and have to arrest two or three people and have them there screaming in your cell. Imagine trying to interview somebody when somebody is outside there yelling, calling you names and spitting on you.

That happens all of the time, and you have to keep an eye on that person because you have to make sure that person doesn’t commit suicide, or hurt themselves and hurt somebody else. You have to get all of that paperwork, legal documents that are going to be reviewed by an attorney. In the meantime, there are other calls coming in. There are other fights in other places. You have to figure out how you’re going to handle that.

You also have to take that person to a judge. You have to call the judge and have them come out and arraign them, and then transport that guy to the county jail. That’s an awful lot for a human being to handle.

It is a very thin blue line and I don’t think society appreciates how difficult law enforcement has become.

When I first started with the police, the patrol car had a little gumbo on top, and one toggle switch to turn the lights on. There were two switches, one for the lights and one for the siren. Nowadays that officer has a laptop. It’s unbelievable all the technology.

Jose Avila as parade marshal

Medina Police Chief Jose Avila served as honorary grand marshal for the parade. He is retiring next month after 17 years as leader of the Medina Police Department.

Q: It does seem like a lot to juggle.

A: It’s a lot of pressure on the officer on the beat. When you care about police officers and your community, it’s an awful lot for one person to have on their shoulders.

There hasn’t been a day or a night since I’ve been chief that I don’t think about the guy who is out on patrol. If something happens, I take it personal. I take a responsibility to try to do whatever it takes. I’ve done multiple things to try to solve a case. You get an individual charged with a crime, they have often been through the system. They know Miranda Rights and the rights that they have. To get a confession from them and to gather the evidence is not an easy task.

None of the cases would be solved without the officers here. The officers, our secretary and I we make it happen for as little as possible.

Q: Is it harder to be an officer in Medina compared to let’s say Rochester?

A: In Rochester, you may be doing as many as 30 to 40 calls per shift. Here in Medina, we may be doing 10 to 20 at the most. But down there that is all you do. Here you have to be a supervisor. When you get a crime scene, you can’t call the crime scene technician because you are the crime scene technician. You have to do the whole thing.

You go to a domestic in Rochester, and there is a civilian team out there that is on patrol and only handles domestics. You call ’em, and if a crime has not been committed and they just need counseling, you call that unit and you’re done. The officers leave.

Here in Medina, we are the counselors. We have to figure out how we’re going to prevent this from happening again. There is a lot more that a police officer in a small town does.

The police chief is not only the chief, he is a patrolman, he is a janitor, he works on cars, you do whatever it takes to keep this ship moving, to keep the people of Medina safe and to support my officers.

Q: So why did you stay and not go to Rochester or somewhere else?

A: I was in Rochester. I did a little time there. I like the small-town community here. It’s Mayberry. I didn’t like the mass-production law enforcement. In Rochester you were going to calls all of the time. I wanted a little more hometown feeling. I came to Orleans County in 1987 and I fell in love with the place.

Q: When did you work in Rochester?

A: I worked there between when I worked at Holley and here (Medina) for a little less than a year. After I got a taste of that and I had a chance to come back, I decided to come back. And I’m glad I did. I like the way things are in a small town. I like how it works.

In Rochester I found it to be mass production. Just get it done, get it reported and move on to the next call. You have to do it the way or else you’d get very far behind. Here you get a chance to really jump into the case and work with people.

Q: I notice on many of the calls you’re right in the thick of it.

A: I said to the board in December of 1997 that I’ll take the job but I’m not going to stop being a police officer because that is what I love. Everyday I try to do two or three hours of patrol. That is the bread and butter of a small town police department, the guys on patrol.

If you have a uniformed patrol car out there, a marked unit, that may get somebody who is going to do something to somebody, a criminal who is going to commit a crime, that gets that person to think twice. That’s why it is important that the police car is on patrol. They may think twice and the crime may never be committed. That’s Police 101.

Q: Your last day is when?

A: My last official day is Dec. 26. That’s Saturday. Then I hand over the keys to Chief (Chad) Kenward. I leave the department in good hands. I’m honored to have worked with so many fine officers.

I’ve had some sad times here: The Mike Russell shooting (Sept. 4, 2001). But we handled it. I’m glad that he’s still alive. He was the lieutenant here. It was a tough time for the department and it was my job to see it through.

I’m very grateful I’ve had good employees to help me see it through.

Q: I notice you keep a picture of Mike Russell on your wall.

A: He was shot at 3:05 p.m. on Sept. 4. Then 9-11 happened the following week. In between that, what the public didn’t know, we had a threat to the village. It was solved. The guy was from Rochester. He was a mental health patient and he sent us a letter saying he was going to blow us all up.

It was a lot for a small town police department to handle, but we handled it.

Mike was a hard worker. It was a sad day for all of us when that occurred. I’m glad that he’s still around. I promoted him lieutenant. He was a man with a lot of potential.

Q: What would make the job easier for you and the other officers? More money and more officers?

A: More money is always great and more people will always work, but if I could ask one thing from the citizens is understanding how difficult the job is for the officers that are here – the state troopers, the Orleans County Sheriff’s Department, my officers at the Medina Police Department.

Television makes it look very easy. The first 15 minutes of a show a crime is committed, a handsome police officer with lots of hair in a suit solves it by the half hour. By quarter of, in the hour show, the criminal is sentenced to life imprisonment for a minor misdemeanor.

It does not work that way, especially for a small-town police department like us, and Albion, and Holley, where the officers have to be answering calls, and handling crime and investigating cases and dealing with the phone. There is a lot going on. If you were God and I had one choice it would be for the citizens to understand the difficulty of the job.


If I have one request it is to understand the difficulty the patrolman on the beat has and be sympathetic to that officer.


Sometimes police officers make a mistake. One time a politician came in my office and he was upset about something. I said to him, there were a hundred things I had to take care of today and I’m sorry I messed up on No. 61.

Q: Is it hard to get momentum to finish a case when you’re called elsewhere?

A: Officers sometimes have to work overtime to fill the shifts. At the end of the day, that’s not their end of the day. They have subpoenas. They could be working the midnight shift. Imagine working 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. and then having to show up at court at 9 a.m. for an all-day trial and then having to come back for a midnight shift. How awake is that officer going to be? And he has to do it. He has no choice. And he has sit on the stand and testify to something that happened six months ago or maybe a year ago, and he better be right.

If I have one request it is to understand the difficulty the patrolman on the beat has and be sympathetic to that officer.

Now we have terrorism to worry about. I’ve been fighting drugs since I was 18 years old. It’s still there. The drug epidemic has not gone away.

We’ve had good years. For a while heroin went away, now it’s back. There’s always marijuana and cocaine. It’s an epidemic that in my opinion puts our society down. I’ve seen the end results of drug usage. I’ve seen good people on drugs lose their families. It’s very said. Kids suffer.

Believe it or not it weighs heavily on police officers. I’ve seen a lot of guys come back from calls and cry in that backroom.

Jose Avila in his office

Jose Avila is pictured inside his office at the Medina Police Department.

Q: Maybe it’s harder in a small town because you get to know the families?

A: That’s one of the problems. There are benefits to having the police chief live in the community where you police. I can’t tell you how many cases I’ve handled out on my back porch. People who choose to come to my house while my wife and I are having dinner. God bless her. Lisa has been a very understanding person. I’m a lucky man to have her.

But I’ve handled hundreds of calls on my back porch. I’ve had them on my front porch, knocking on the door at 1 in the morning. You go out and you have to handle it. These people pay your salary and you can’t say no to them.

One of the first things I did when I became chief is I threw away the appointment book. I told my secretary anybody who walks into the front door has the right to see me. It is my job to try to help them in any way that I can.

Q: I’m surprised you’ve been able to do this as chief for almost 20 years.

A: I’ve been able to do it because I have good officers and they help me to do it. It’s a collective effort with my secretary Theresa (Caldwell), who is very, very efficient and the officers who have worked with me over the years. I’ve been lucky.

It was an honor to have worked with the New York State Police and the Orleans County Sheriff’s Office. They have been wonderful to me. They were always accommodating to me when I needed the extra help.

Q: What will you do when you retire?

A: That’s a good question. I’m not really sure. I’m going to spend some time helping my parents because they deserve it. They suffered a lot in Cuba to get me here. I want to make sure the remaining time they have is as comfortable as they can be.

My father suffers from a lung disease. They made him spray pesticides in Cuba when he was in the concentration camp without a respirator and that hardened the fibers in his lungs. It’s starting to take effect on him.

I’m going to spend some time with my wife Lisa and my son. I actually have two sons and two daughters. I have three kids from a previous marriage. I want to spend time with them.

I also going to try to serve, I’m not sure where. But wherever I live I’ll find something because I enjoy it. Service to the community you can never do enough. I’ll find something where I’m needed and I’ll serve. It could be a translator, cleaning toilets, cleaning the floor.

I’m not sure I’m always going to be able to stay away from police work because I love it so much. It’s been a part of my life for 32 years.

I’m going to miss this. It’s painful because I don’t want to leave it. If I care about the department I have to leave. Somebody new, somebody younger needs to take over.

Medina woman follows passion and heart in creating dolls

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 10 December 2015 at 8:00 am
Elizabeth Cooper

Photos by Tom Rivers – Elizabeth Cooper has been making one-of-kind-dolls since 1980 with her business, Cooper Dolls. She has her studio at 107 Pearl Street and will be open during the weekends before Christmas on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays from noon to 4 p.m.

MEDINA – The dolls are shipped all over the country and world, noting they are “Made in Medina, NY.”

Fisher-Price may have left town two decades ago, but a Medina woman, Elizabeth Cooper, keeps up a Medina tradition of producing desired and whimsical creations.

Cooper has worked for 35 years making dolls. Santas and fairies are her most popular, but she also has other series featuring immigrants and popular characters such as Peter Pan and Snow White.

She discussed the business and the art of making dolls during an interview last week at her studio on Pearl Street.

Elizabeth Cooper dolls

Some of the fairies created by Cooper are next to a Fairy House she also made.

Question: How did you learn how to do this?

Answer: My father (the late James Cooper) was an art teacher at Roy-Hart and he was always working in clay. He did a lot of sculpting and painting. Much of what I’ve learned is through observation. I grew up with clay and art materials. It’s just a matter of practice.

People will ask, ‘How long does it take to make a doll?’ If I’m having a good sculpting day, it may take a day but it’s 30 years of practice.

Q: I would consider your brothers, Tim and James, to both be artists. Certainly Tim has a knack for historic preservation. (Cooper’s studio in Medina is a building her brother Tim renovated.)

A: Tim (owner of Cooper Funeral Home) is very much into restoration and history. That is his creative outlet. He has worked on quite a few buildings in town.

Q: The other brother James is an artist.

A: He is a licensed architect who does quite a bit of painting. He does watercolor renderings of homes.

We’re all self-employed. It’s a generational thing because the Cooper family was in Medina for six generations. They started a grocery store on East Center Street. That’s where they started the Cooper building.

My mother (the late Rosemary Cooper) was a real estate broker in Medina and my grandfather on the maternal side, he owned O’Briens bar. We’ve all been self-employed.

Elizabeth Cooper's Snow White dolls

Cooper created these dolls of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Q: Were you a teen-ager dabbling in doll-making?

A: I grew up with art materials and clay. I’ve always loved figurative sculpture. After college – I had a psychology degree from Wells College – I decided I would get my art certification from Buffalo State. My mom got sick right after I graduated. We all kind of came back home after she got sick. We stayed in Medina.

As far as clay, having clay in my hand is something I’ve had for my whole life. I’m most comfortable with a piece of clay.

Q: Did your dad do clay work?

A: Yes, he did sculptures. He did soldiers. My father also did several paintings and sculptures on the canal. The grocery store that my great-great grandparents owned was built during the canal days.

Q: When people hear art, they might just think painting and drawing. But there is more.

A: We always had art projects going on.

Elizabeth Cooper sculpts a hand

Cooper sculpts a hand for one of her dolls.

Q: I wonder when you got serious about making dolls?

A: I started doing my first shows when I was living in Ithaca. It was the Kenan Center in Lockport about 35 years ago. I started doing that and did many, many shows just as a hobby. In 1993 after my mom had died I just decided to do what my heart said.

So I went out and got a studio. I researched the most collectible item in the country. In the early ’90s it was dolls and Santas. I said, OK, I will do that. I produced them and did every show I possibly could do. My business started growing. That’s pretty much how it started. I decided to follow my heart and do what I wanted.

Q: How do you term these, one-of-kind dolls?

A: The term is called artist dolls in the business. We produce our own dolls. In the country there used to be quite a few artists who did dolls. A lot of them decided to produce in China, but I would never to that.

Q: They would subcontract it out and have people make them in China?

A: They would design a doll and send it to China to be produced so they would have an edition of maybe 200 to 5,000, something like that.

Elizabeth Cooper's angel dolls

These are some of the angels made by Elizabeth Cooper.

Q: Yours seem to be all different.

A: The ones I have are all one-of-kind.

Q: They seem to have relatives or go together.

A: Once you do it thousands and thousands of times, they’re all cousins I think.
So I do a lot of shows. I was in Kansas City at a show in July. I’ve done Boston, Washington, D.C. and Disney. Disney used to host an artist doll show.

These are all conventions. That’s my market, collectible dolls.

Q: Are there a lot of people like you?

A: There’s not a lot anymore. I was just asked to do, as one of seven artist dollmakers, a convention in Washington, D.C. I was one of seven so that’s quite an honor.

Q: Why aren’t there more?

A: It’s a hard business to sustain. I don’t have any children so I can devote most of my time to my work. You have to be willing to travel.

Q: I know you have the studio here where people can come in and buy dolls, but how else do you sell them?

A: I sell through magazines and my website (click here), and I have a lot of collectors who will come to my studio.

Q: It looks like the dolls start at $95 for the smaller ones. I have to think the bigger ones are much more, as they should be, given the effort.

A: Sometimes they will have auctions and some of my work goes for $1,200. I do ornaments for $20 if somebody wants a gift for the office, just for the Christmas season.

Q: If you weren’t doing this what would you be doing?

A: When I was first looking into colleges, I really wanted to become an art teacher. My father, who was an art teacher, said get a liberal arts education, and then get your certification. So that is what I did.

After my mom got sick I got my studio. If life had turned out differently, I probably would have been an art teacher right from the beginning or something involved in the arts.

Elizabeth Cooper's Little Red Riding Hood dolls

Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf

Q: There must be a lot of people who own a doll that you made.

A: There are, especially in this area because I’ve done the Kenan Center show for so many years and have built up a following. One of my ideas for my business was not to have something that people just want to buy one of. So I made them into collections, where people could add to their collections year after year. That was my business plan.

Q: What are some of the series?

A: The holiday themes. I do the Santas, children building snowmen or on sleds. Anything I did growing up comes out in my work.

Q: Why do you think people like these compared to grabbing something from Wal-Mart.

A: I think the uniqueness. They know it’s one-of-a-kind and no one else has it. It’s hand-made in this area, hand-made in Medina and I think that means something to people.

Q: Is that noted on the label, Made in Medina?

A: Yes.

Q: You make the dolls, but the clothes also seems a talent.

A: I usually look for vintage materials, vintage silks and vintage velvets. The fur trims on the Santas, I cut up old fur coats. I do all of the sewing and costuming myself, too. So it’s a full-time job.


Q: And you can make money at this?

A: I’ve done OK.

Q: You’ve had a presence in this building for how long?

A: I’ve been here for three years. My brother also owned a place on Park Avenue and I think I moved in there in 2000. My very first studio was in the Curry Building on the second floor in downtown Medina.

A lot of people don’t really know what I do. I’m open for the Christmas season but for the rest of the year I’m producing or doing shows. My place is really open from Thanksgiving to Christmas to the public, and then it’s by appointment. I host doll clubs that will come.

Q: You’re looking to move back to Medina?

A: I married Michael Leone in 1998. His father was a doctor in Medina. We lived two blocks apart but we never knew each other. When I moved back to Medina we met each other again.

Immigrants from Ireland

We both had also grown up on Lake Ontario so we built a house in 2003 at Point Breeze. Now we’re coming back to where our heart is in Medina. We really miss the sense of community.

Q: Could we look at some of your dolls. (Walks over to display room.) Do your early pieces have a similar style like your more current ones?

A: No. I first started in fabric as far as dolls went and then I went to polymer clay. These are my immigrants. Growing up we were always told the story of the immigrants coming over from Ireland.

Growing up we always went to Gallagher’s Hill for sledding so I had to recreate Gallagher’s Hill. I’m so pleased they are restoring the barn. It’s beautiful.

Sledders at Gallagher’s Hill

Q: Have you been written up in the doll magazines?

A: Many of the doll magazines have gone out of business, but I’ve been in most of them. I’ve won several awards for “Doll of the Year.”

Q: Are these Santas in their casual wear?

A: A lot of my Santas are European Santas. I do a lot of European Santas from different countries. I always like to include sheep or animals – I’ve always got dogs and cats.

I’m always doing something different. I’m never bored.

For convention shows I do storybook characters. I do Alice, Peter Pan, the Mad Hatter. I do a lot of fairies, which are very collectible.

Q: Do you get any creative help with all of this.

A: I always abuse my friends and family. They’re always helping me get ready for shows.

Q: How do you keep this interesting for yourself?

A: I don’t know what it is but I never get bored with it. Every year I try to bring in a new piece.

Peter Pan and Tinker Bell

Citizens for a Constitutional Sheriff survey sheriff candidates in Orleans

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 1 September 2015 at 12:00 am

ALBION – A group that wants a “Constitutional Sheriff” has surveyed the candidates – Tom Drennan, Randy Bower and Donald Organisciak, asking them if have training in the Constitution, if they would be willing to meet regularly with citizens’ groups, and how they would protect residents from “government overreach,” and other questions.

Orleans County Citizens for a Constitutional Sheriff is part of a grass roots movement in the country to have sheriffs knowledgeable about the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and who will use the office of sheriff to protect residents from government overreach and Constitutional infringements.

“We’re trying to educate the candidates and public about a Constitutional sheriff,” said Judy Larkin, a member of the Orleans County Citizens for a Constitutional Sheriff.

The group asked the three candidates for sheriff a series of questions and the answers are posted on the group’s Facebook page (click here). The candidates are asked about use of red light cameras and drones, which are opposed by the Citizens for a Constitutional Sheriff.

Drennan, Bower and Organisciak all responded in the survey that they would be willing to be trained on the Constitution, and also would gladly meet regularly with citizens around the county.

The Citizens for a Constitutional Sheriff are not endorsing a candidate for sheriff.

Here are some excerpts from the survey:

Question: “Are you willing to step out and diffuse the situation if there is a Constitutional breach by putside police agencies?”

Drennan: “Yes, it is important to build strong/positive relationships in an effort to diffuse a situation before it starts. Everyone needs to work together to mend strained relationships.”

Bower: “As sheriff, I would do anything in my power to uphold the Constitution of the United States.”

Organisciak: “Yes, I would diffuse the situation in order to protect the Fourth Amendment rights of every a county citizen.”

Question: “How do you feel about red light cameras or drones?”

Drennan: “We do not have any red light cameras in our county so I have not read any studies on them. I would only be guessing that awareness of the cameras has prevented accidents but don’t (know) if it is worth the cost vs. public safety or just another ‘tax.’ A drone would be a nice crime scene tool to take aerial photos vs. the cost of a helicopter that may not be available when needed.”

Bower: “I’m not in favor of red light cameras. I feel drones have a purpose, for example to aid in search and rescue and help locate missing children or lost hunters.”

Organisciak: “Both could be good tools if used properly in the law enforcement field.”

Each candidate was also asked an individual question.

Bower, who is paralyzed from the waist down after a car accident when he was 18, has worked the past 29 years as a dispatcher. He was asked, “How will you compensate for your disability in filling the requirements of this job?”

Bower: “Disability is only a perception. In fact, it has only driven me to succeed in anything I have put my mind to. There is nothing I have not been able to do as a parent or community member. My mobility limitation has not limited me in having a rich history of 29 years serving the public.”

Drennan has worked 23 years for the Orleans County Sheriff’s Office and is currently the chief deputy. He started as a road patrol deputy in September 1992 and has been promoted to lieutenant, criminal investigator, major and chief deputy.

He was asked if a law enforcement background is a prerequisite for the Sheriff’s Office.

Drennan: “Yes, I think it is important to have that background to draw from when needed. Even as an administrator in a small department you have to have that legal background and experience to draw from on a daily basis. Even as sheriff you will be expected to get involved and lead your personnel.”

Organisciak worked 30 years as a police officer for Medina, with 16 years as a patrolman, then a year as a sergeant and the final 13 years as the Medina Police Department’s first full-time criminal investigator. He retired in June 2008 and then worked two more years as the school resource officer for Lyndonville Central School.

He was asked what is his motivation for wanting to get back into law enforcement at the county level after retiring from the village police, and what he would bring to the Sheriff’s Office.

Organisciak: “Having served the village of Medina for 30 years, I believe my experience is most important and would be very viable to the office of Sheriff. I don’t know if you would call it motivation. I like to listen to people about their concerns about law enforcement and then help them to better understand the law enforcement side of things. I also entered the sheriff’s race to give people another choice for the candidacy.”

For more on the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, click here.

Drennan says his experience in law enforcement would be an asset as sheriff

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 18 June 2015 at 12:00 am

Tom Drennan

ALBION – Tom Drennan sees his experience working his way up through the ranks of the Sheriff’s Department, as well as his vast training in a 23-year career, as a great asset for the next sheriff in Orleans County.

Drennan is currently the chief deputy for the Sheriff’s Department. He started as a road patrol deputy in September 1992 and has been promoted to lieutenant, criminal investigator, major and chief deputy.

Drennan, 50, has been endorsed by the Republican Party Committee to be sheriff, replacing Scott Hess, who is retiring on Dec. 31. Drennan faces election challenges from Randy Bower, a current county dispatcher who has the Conservative Party endorsement, and former Medina police investigator Don Organisciak. Bower said he intends to force a Republican primary on Sept. 10.

Drennan lives in Kendall and has been a member of the Kendall Fire Department for 33 years. He has been a fire commissioner the past 9 years, and is currently vice chairman.

His wife, Terri Drennan, is the crime victims’ services coordinator in Orleans County. The Drennans have three children ages 13, 22 and 24.

Before starting a law enforcement career, Drennan worked for a fruit farm in Kendall and a machining company in Rochester.

The following interview was conducted with Drennan last week:

Question: I didn’t know you worked at a farm and as a machinist.

Answer: I got to where I was machining and rebuilding motors, everything from lawn mower motors to big diesel bulldozer engines, machining them and then putting them back together again. I did that for a few years and went back to the original machine shop where I worked, Davenport Screw Machines. I went to the police academy on my own over at Genesee Community, not knowing what the economy was going to do.

Q: That was early ’90s?

A: Right. I started the academy in September 1990, a couple days after my father passed away, and graduated in March 1991. I continued working in the machining industry until I was contacted by then Sheriff Dave Green in regards to if I was interested in law enforcement and if I wanted to come on board. I said I was. I ran into him at the County Fair in July 1992 and on Sept. 1, I was hired.

That is when Civil Service started. I had taken the test, scored well and was actually the first Civil Service deputy hired by the Sheriff’s Department.

I had been an auxiliary police member and rode every other weekend with a deputy. I started that in ’89.

Q: Where do you think you got the interest in law enforcement?

A: I had been around law enforcement officers throughout my whole life. It really started in the fire service. I grew up in the fire service. My father (Jack Drennan) was a member of the Kendall Fire Department. He was a past chief in the ’70s. Since I could walk I have been at the fire hall. My father got me interested in public service. He was very big into the ambulance and EMT side of the fire service.

I grew up there at the fire hall. I was around law enforcement people coming in and out of the fire hall.

Photos by Tom Rivers – Tom Drennan leads a mass casualty training exercise on May 31, 2014 at Medina schools. The drill involved police officers and firefighters from several agencies. Drennan said recent school shootings in the country prompted local law enforcement to press for training to improve their response to try to minimize any chaos and casualties from an active shooter.

Q: Could you describe the chief deputy duties?

A: It has a lot of administrative parts to it. You’re still connected with the criminal investigation side of things or the road patrol and the day-to-day. I’ve been very fortunate I’m involved in almost every facet of the department on a day-to-day basis, hour after hour. I’m in the front office with the civil division, multiple times a day. There are questions coming in from the lobby, reports, and how things were handled, and questions being referred to me from the upfront office. They may have someone on the line who has questions.

I meet with the jail superintendent on a daily basis about what’s going on in the jail. Over the last three years I’ve really learned a lot about the operations of the jail and the construction work that has been going on over there.

I started on afternoons as a deputy, then I was named OIC (officer in charge). When the supervisor wasn’t there, I was in charge. From there I took the Civil Service Exam and became a lieutenant and got to run a shift, which is like running a small department. Sometimes it was me and one other guy. Others times it was me and four or five other people if we were doing a detail.

I had an opportunity to go into the criminal investigation side of things. I took that solely because Chris Bourke was the lieutenant on days and I could foresee him being there a long time. If I ever wanted to get off for concerts, sporting events and Little League games, I thought here was an opportunity to learn something and go into another direction with the criminal investigation side, and also be able to be home. I did that for quite a while.

Q: It does seem like you and department leaders are visible on many of the calls.

A: We’re big enough with about 100 employees that you have to be an administrator and delegate at times. But we’re also small enough, especially with the criminal division when you have three people working and they’re all be tied up, that you have to get involved.

If we get a call at the County Office Building, that there is somebody out of control at social services, you get up from desk and be the first person there. There could be a mental health situation and someone is out of control at Mental Health. You go over there and try to help out and get things under control or figure out what’s going on until the patrols can get there.

Q: Can having a presence diffuse situations if people see an officer?

A: Absolutely. Over the years we deal with the same people over and over again, or the next generation, so when we do show up sometimes you’ll deal with someone who remembers who you were and that you helped them. That can help diffuse the situation.

Q: Why do you want to be sheriff?

A: My qualifications, training and what I’ve done with my career, I just want to continue building on that and give back to the community. Public safety is priority one. I’ve been invested in it my whole life. I want to help bring that next generation up. We’re going through a transition in our department with a lot of young guys coming in. I’d like to be a part of that molding and shaping of that next generation.

Q: The county is looking at a study for policing services in the county. That study could point to a county-wide policing service, perhaps with substations at the eastern and western ends.

A: You would have to have substations. It wouldn’t make good sense to have those cars come to Albion for everything they have to do with the processing and the arrests. It would be nice to get in at a spot where you need to use a hard-wired computer.

Genesee County has it where a deputy goes to Le Roy and picks up a car and stays over at that end. Maybe you could do that here. I have to think with the study and anything that could potentially take effect, it could be years before they could hammer out any details. People don’t like giving up their law enforcement, and for good reason.

If the county took over and someone called 911 in Medina, how long would it take for that person to get there? Right now they’re used to a couple minute response time. They’re concerned they might not get that same service.

You’d have to make a lot of changes on how you ran the department to make sure you are providing the best coverage that you can. It would give you an opportunity to move some people around. Now we’re working on shared services. It will be interesting to see what they come up with.

Tom Drennan has been the face of the Sheriff’s Department at many events and press conferences in recent years. He represented the Sheriff’s Department during a public forum on Oct. 21, 2013 about the SAFE Act. Drennan, left, is pictured with Orleans County District Attorney Joe Cardone, second from left, State Assemblyman Steve Hawley, and Steve Aldstadt, state president of the Shooters Committee on Political Education or SCOPE.

Q: It seems like 20-plus years in law enforcement would wear on a person. You could retire.

A: I could, but I hope to finish my career and walk out with my head held high and know that I made a difference. With the sheriff’s position I’d like to go in there, make some improvements, and know that when I left the department is in a better place than when I came in, with some changes, some different philosophies and a different identity for the department.

Q: What are some of the different philosophies you might implement?

A: Where we are today with the Sheriff’s Department is different than how I envision it. I think we need to get back to be more involved in the community. We need more accountability and professionalism, so we’re out there working with the people, interacting at town events, career days at schools. We have increased our involvement and interactions with the schools over the last year and a half and I’d like to see that grow and strengthen.

When you get into the community you, people tell you their complaints. It’s finding out exactly what the peoples’ problems are. It might seem like something small to you, but to them it means something. All they want to know is if someone is listening to them, can somebody make a difference.

We can’t solve all the world’s problems. We can’t make everybody happy. I understand that. I’ve certainly dealt with that over my career. But we can be invested in the community and let people know that we are here for them, doing everything we can to make their community better.

Q: Do you have you have a sense if things have got worse around here, crime-wise, over your career?

A: We certainly have a major problem currently with heroin. It started a few years ago with the pills and spilled over with heroin. It’s something that can get out of control in a hurry. It always takes us a little longer out here (in Orleans County) to be affected, but once it creeps in and gets a foothold, people become dependent upon it.

We have our problems out here, just like the city does, but not at that volume.

Q: So the heroin is an issue in our county as we speak?

A: It’s a serious, serious problem.

Q: For a rural county, it seems like we have a lot of serious crimes.

A: We’re kind of made for that, being between Rochester and Niagara Falls. Batavia has also grown quite a bit, being near the Thruway. We’re also right here on the border. We don’t see a ton of problems coming across the lake. But this is a heavy traffic area for tourism passing through, with people coming to shop and whatnot.
A lot of our problems come out of the City of Rochester as far as the drugs and the kids travelling back and forth. We’re kind of made as the great little country county, yet we’re right in the middle of a lot of problems.

Q: Does that effect the Sheriff’s Department, in terms of having to prepare and respond to serious crimes?

A: You have to prepare for so many things with such a small foundation of workers. That’s another thing I’d like to see changed. So much has fallen on the shoulders of so few. I’d like to see that spread out.

Tom Drennan, pictured at the turtle race on Saturday at the Albion Strawberry Festival, said the Sheriff’s Department needs to be more visible at community events.

Q: With only 23 deputies, investigators or lieutenants, that doesn’t seem like a lot to work with for the Sheriff’s Department.

A: It’s not. We typically have 16 guys we can draw from. If something bad happens, we can get depleted in a hurry. Not only do we have to deal with a situation like the DeFilipps’ shooting, where you have to have the manpower to take care of that situation. But now immediately you have to get more personnel in to take care of the county.

That’s why we have developed a good relationship with the local police departments. They come out and assist us and we go in and assist them. The State Police often times on a major incident we will use their crime ID guys and their technicians to help us because we just can’t afford to lose two or three people or five people to start collecting evidence when we have so much other work to do. We have to have those relationships because we’re just not big enough.

Q: It seems tricky to get the staff you need while juggling the budget issues.

A: Yeah. You wear many hats at different times throughout the day.

I understand (if I became sheriff) my role would change to even more administrative tasks than I have now. But I hope to continue to be utilized as a resource. If someone comes out of the interview room, I can give some advice, I can draw from that experience.

That is what will be so important during this transition is being there for the people so they can rely on you. I think that is a huge part of this race, that I can draw from that experience, refer to a class that I went to or a I case that I had. If I don’t have all the answers, I can pull out my phone and reach into the contacts.

I have a desk drawer full of business cards of associates and people that I’ve met throughout the area that are in law enforcement. I can ask, “How did you guys handle this? I know you had this before.” There are a lot of resources out there that I’ve made contact with.

Q: People wonder who you would have as undersheriff?

A: I have been asked by a lot of people about that. I’ve been telling everyone that this race is about the sheriff’s position, not the undersheriff’s position. The undersheriff works at the discretion of the sheriff. He could be here today and gone tomorrow at the choice of the sheriff or on their own. They might decide to call it a career or to go on to something else.

I want to make this about the sheriff’s race and not the undersheriff’s race. I can assure you, (the undersheriff) will be a strong individual that will come in. I have been approached by a half dozen people. As we go through the process in the next few months, I expect I’ll be approached by more.

There will be a regular interview process. I want to see the background of anybody that is interested. Anybody can apply. We’ll go through it and when the election is over, it will be announced.

Q: If you’re elected sheriff, is the undersheriff your choice or does the Legislature weigh in?

A: With that topic and just about any other topic, I’m willing to talk to anybody. I’m not the sole source of ideas. I don’t have all of the answers. I’ll talk with people and get their ideas.

A deputy could have a good idea. I’ll listen to the supervisors, the deputies, the jailors, everybody. If somebody has an idea, let’s talk about it.

When it comes time to make a decision, it would fall on my shoulders. I am prepared for that.

Q: Does being married to the crime victims’ coordinator help you in your job?

A: Oh, definitely. I have learned a ton from her about victims’ issues. I take that into consideration. In investigations you have to think about them. It has strengthened me in my ability to do the job because of who she is and what she brings to my profession. It has had a tremendous impact on my ability to do my job.
I want to make sure the service that myself or the people in the Sheriff’s Office are doing is the best for victims.

It’s made me a better law enforcement officer.

Tom Drennan is pictured with his wife Terri, the county’s crime victims’ serives coordinator.

Q: Anything else you want to say?

A: I guess to make it as simple as possible, in this whole process, it isn’t about me. I could walk away knowing that I had a good career and find something else to do. It could be continuing on in investigations, doing an outdoor job on a farm, whatever it may be.

But it’s about the public and the community. I want to improve where we are today as a community with the protection we give them. I’m not a politician, I’m a cop. I’ll learn to do so of that politician stuff.

That’s where I’m coming from. This is about public safety, priority one, to make our schools and community safer.

‘I thought I was hurt. I thought I was definitely in trouble.’

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 1 June 2015 at 12:00 am

“I thought I was hurt. I thought I was definitely in trouble.” – Deputy James DeFilipps on March 21 shootout

HOLLEY – Deputy James DeFilipps feels grateful to be alive. He knows a gun shot an inch lower on March 21 could have ended his life.

DeFilipps was the first police officer on scene when James Ellis wrecked his vehicle in a high-speed chase at about 3 a.m. on March 21. Police were pursuing Ellis after a 911 call that he had threatened an ex-girlfriend in Shelby with a gun.

Photos by Tom Rivers – This front yard on Route 31A is pictured on March 21 with the marks from the vehicle driven and crashed by James Ellis.

Ellis, 44, of Wyoming County, crashed his vehicle into a telephone pole on Route 31A in Clarendon at about 3 a.m. DeFilipps discovered the wreck in a neighbor’s front yard while looking for Ellis. When DeFilipps left his patrol car to search for Ellis, the suspect opened fire from a wooded area near the vehicle, Sheriff Scott Hess said during a March 21 press conference.

DeFilipps was hit twice in the chest. A bullet proof vest stopped the bullets, although he was badly bruised in the stomach from one shot. The deputy returned fire and fatally shot Ellis.

A grand jury reviewed the evidence and found DeFilipps was justified in the shooting.

DeFilipps is a 12-year member of the Sheriff’s Department. He started his career as a Holley police officer. He continues to live in Holley, where he grew up. His mother Marsha is the long-time Holley and Murray historian.

DeFilipps, 38, has been a member of the Holley Fire Department for 20 years. He is currently a fire commissioner for the Holley Joint Fire District.

He sat down for an interview in his home last week. His wife Marie also joined the conversation at the end. Both expressed relief that DeFilipps wasn’t more seriously injured. They also said the mourn the loss of Ellis’s life, especially for his immediate family.

Question: I wonder how that initial dispatch came over to you. It was 2:46 a.m. and the call was for the incident in Shelby. I know you were on the other end of the county.

Answer: I was in Murray. I was the lead person that night. It goes by years, by seniority of the shift. Josh Narburgh actually has 18 years but he transferred over. I had the lead position because there were no other sergeants on.

Deputy James DeFilipps is pictured with deputies Brian Larkin, left, and Kevin Colonna, who also responded to the March 21 incident with James Ellis. The deputies and other first responders were recognized during an April 22 County Legislature meeting.

Q: How many other deputies were on that night?

A: There was a deputy working on the west side, who was Kevin Colonna. There was a center deputy, who was Josh Narburgh. He was training Brian Larkin. There was technically four of us on for the county that night.

There was also a double troop car (state troopers).

Based on the original dispatch, I was headed that was as an extra support car, make sure everything goes OK. Soon into it, I don’t know how soon, they had seen the car leave and head east on 31A.

Q: There are people out at 3 in the morning that saw him?

A: Our patrol cars saw him. He came straight down 31A. Two of our county cars turned and were going after him. He was a lot faster than we were. He was driving a Grand Marquis and we had Tahoes.

Originally I made it to Riches Corners Road (in Albion) and saw his car. It looked like maybe he was pulling over or turning around. I’m not sure what he was doing. He was pretty slow on the side of the road. I started slowing down and turned around. As soon as he seen me, he took off again, eastbound.

I pursued after him but he was gone in a minute. I didn’t even turn on my (emergency) lights on. He was gone. I didn’t have my emergency lights on until after he crashed.

Q: Having multiple cars pursuing him, were you hoping he would just surrender and not have it escalate?

A: That’s what I was hoping. He had a gun. I was just back up, covering everybody to be safe. It is so rare to have a shooting out here.

Q: Even though it’s rare, is that potential always in the back of your head?

A: We all hope, especially myself, to go a career without ever having to be in a gun battle. You try.

Q: So you’re at Riches Corners, and he takes off.

A: He takes off and I go after him. Around Powerline Road I had lost sight of him. The Holley car had come up and made it to 237 and 31A, to see if he crossed through there. (The Holley officer) had got there just before I got to the intersection. He hadn’t seen him. I continued on. He was going a pretty good speed and Monroe County was notified to keep an eye out for him.

I come around the corner and had run over the powerlines that were involved in the accident scene.

There were powerlines down from where the pole snapped. I’m not sure because I was into the scene and it happened so fast and then I went on the ambulance. I drove through, I had hit the lines, made a quick decision to continue past and turned around. I radioed the other guys that ‘Hey, there’s wires down and there’s a wreck.’

This new telephone pole was put up by National Grid on March 21 at this location at a bend on Route 31A. James Ellis hit the previous pole, taking down the power lines. This photo was taken during the afternoon on March 21.

Q: So you’re the first guy on the scene by yourself?

A: The troop car I knew wasn’t far behind me. I had seen their lights in the Clarendon area.

Q: Could you tell the car driven by Ellis was in the neighbor’s lawn?

A: I hit the power lines and I made the decision to drive through to be safe. I could see the car up on the guy’s lawn. The doors are closed and looked like the air bag and he were in the vehicle. I go through the scene, try to make a safe distance to turn around and then put my spotlight on the vehicle.

He had a gun, and we had time. There is no reason to rush in and get hurt.

We have rifles. At that point I’m a safe distance away from the scene so I grab the rifle just in case. We can sling them on us and we still have our hands free. I get out of the car and I put my rifle on. I radio to those guys to be careful of the wires because they’re on the other end of the scene and they’re showing up. I get around to the passenger side of my car. I charge my weapon. That’s when shots start going off. I have no idea where they’re coming from. They are close.

Q: At that point how many officers are there?

A: All of our cars were there. The trooper car was there on the other side. We formed a triangle on the car.

Q: Did you drive up on the lawn?

A: No, we were still in the road. When I stopped in the road, my first thought is, ‘I got to block traffic.’ That’s when my lights came on, to stop traffic. They’re far enough back so they can approach and be safe. So they were all on scene because they were hearing the shots whizzing by them, the first rounds. I knew they were close but I couldn’t see.

We were focusing on the car. I don’t see him (Ellis) behind me. It was too close for comfort. I wanted better coverage. By the side of the road it was a little bit darker. It was away from the lights of my vehicle, maybe a little better coverage.

As I got by the side of the road, into the wood line, he had seen me first and I felt two shots to me. At that time I could see where he was and I returned fire.

At that point he went down. I backed up some. I knelt down. Radioed that he was down. Radioed that I had been hit. Radioed that we needed an ambulance to come on the South Holley Road side. Someone asked if suspect is down, and I said yes, suspect is down.

Those guys then ran right in. They ran in, they knew I was hit. They ran in and secured him, made sure the gun was away from him. He was kind of hunched over into a tree. They made sure he was safe and then they checked me.

They knew I was hit. Some of those guys ran back to their cars to get medic bags. One of them ran back and got the state police car and drove through the scene and then backed up to my area, knowing that I was hit. They were ready to throw me in their truck and get me to a hospital. It was amazing.

Then of course it was a relief when they were taking my shift off and my vest, and found out.

Q: So you and the other officers thought you had been seriously injured?

A: I thought my gut was blown apart. The shot was low enough. It was close to the bottom of the vest. They said it was within an inch of the bottom.

I thought I was hurt. I thought I was definitely in trouble. It was a hell of a relief to know (the bullets hit the vest).

The County Legislature on April 22 honored police, firefighters and dispatchers involved the incident, including from left: Deputy Kevin Colonna, State Police Trooper Kevin Bentley, Deputy Brian Larkin, State Police Trooper Scott Gregson, Holley Police Officer Guy Burke, County Legislator Lynne Johnson, Deputy James DeFilipps, County Legislator Ken DeRoller, Albion Police Sergeant William Scribner, Orleans County Dispatcher Julie Vendetti, Dispatcher Michael Schultz, and Jon DeYoung, fire chief for the Clarendon Fire Company. Orleans County Sheriff Deputy Josh Narburgh also was recognized, but he was not present at the meeting.

Q: I wonder how Ellis got over to the woods with his vehicle crashed across the street?

A: When I came through there was still dust and the air bag was peering up. I really thought he was in the car. We all thought he was in the car. We had no idea he had crossed the road and went down. I ended up parked just about in front of him.

Q: I know there has been some controversy about the cross put in the woods where Ellis died.

A: My wife and I talked about that cross and we believe everyone deserves a cross. I believe there is good in everybody, I really do.

I know a lot of people were upset about the cross and wanted it moved. I’m fine with it. I really am. I feel bad for his family.

It’s affected a lot of people. It really has. It’s upset the jurors. They have to look at all the pictures and hear the tapes. It’s really emotional. The CD and radio transmissions pretty much gets everyone crying.

Q: Why is that?

A: You hear me saying that I’ve been hit. It’s emotional.

Q: It seems like there could have been a very different ending for you and the other officers.

A: My back was to the guy. He could have shot me very easily. It’s all speculation. Maybe he was fixated at the other cars and I had gone past and he wasn’t paying attention to me. Maybe he didn’t see me until the very end. It could have been a lot worse.

There were shots that were very close to the guys on the other side. They could hear the shots going by them.

Q: In the shootout could you see Ellis? Were there flashes from his gun?

A: Was there a muzzle flash? I can’t recall the visual on that. They say I may never be able to.

Q: It seems like a tough scenario with the dark woods.

A: All of our lights were focused on his car. We all truly thought he was in the car. Everything led you to believe he was in there. So we’re not even thinking across the street in the woods at all. It was definitely a surprise.

Q: If the police hadn’t got there at that time, you could see how Ellis may have gone to a neighbor’s house.

A: He definitely wanted to flee. He could have gone for one of their (neighbors’) cars. If he had got to somebody else it could have been very bad.

Christopher Wing talks to reporters on March 21 and points to his front yard on Route 31A, where a deputy was in a shootout with a man from Wyoming County.

Q: Does everyone in the incident get a stress debriefer?

A: This time they used the state police. The state police has a group of guys that go around if there has been a very high stress situation. They will be debrief you. They are like counselors, although they are not certified, but they will steer you in the right direction. It’s a very good team and I think they helped a lot of the guys.

Another thing I want to say is the guys are worked with were very brave. With all that gunfire and then to run right into that scene. Those guys, I can’t thank them enough.

Q: So you’re returning to work?

A: Yes. They did a mental health fit test to make sure I was fit for duty. I cleared that. I just have to be cleared medically.

Q: The medical clearance is the wound to the stomach. It certainly looks gruesome.

A: It’s new skin so it’s tender. The scab is uncomfortable. It’s thick. I don’t think people realize the damage it did under the vest. It looks like a burn. It’s amazing to me to see the damage. It looked instantly like a paintball had hit.

I should be back in a couple of weeks. I chose to stay with the midnight shift.

Q: So what happens after you are released from the hospital (about two hours after being admitted)?

A: Some of the things after were overwhelming. The adrenaline rush doesn’t come down for a few days after something like that.

The community has been overwhelming. That afternoon Dustin’s Pizza had come over and delivered some food. Sam’s Diner brought some stuff. The next day the American Legion Women’s Auxiliary brought by a whole huge spaghetti dinner.
Father Mark (Noonan) came right over.

I have received letters from all over, from California, from a lady in Arizona whose father and his partner were both FBI agents in the ’70s and who had both been killed. She wanted to send a card to say, “Get Well.” That’s pretty amazing, I thought.

For the American Legion to recognize me on Memorial Day is just overwhelming.

Another thing, the ambulance crew that night, I knew everybody with (Clarendon Fire Chief) Jon DeYoung and Kerry McCormick.

Q: I wonder if it hits home more with you being a guy who grew up in the community?

A: I’ve always tried to stay out of the limelight.

I would say the support has just been overwhelming and the community has been great.

Q: This must have been difficult for your family?

A: Yes, my poor wife (Marie). She gets woken up at 4 in the morning.

Q: Who would be at the door with that news?

A: Investigator Shannon Brett and the sheriff. They said to my wife to get everything ready and we’ll take you up there.

A: (Marie DeFilipps) They asked me what I wanted to do. What did I want to do with the baby? I was in shock. I said I wanted to bring the baby to mom’s in Henrietta which is near the hospital. Fire Chief Pete Hendrickson drove my car behind Shannon’s.

Q: So what did they say at first?

A: When Shannon came to talk to me she didn’t know too much. She knocked at my door and offered to drive my car to the hospital.

First I came down the stairs because I heard this noise. The cats jumped off the bed. I came sneaking down the stairs. I thought maybe the cat had knocked something down. But I checked out the front window. I checked in front of the door and saw Shannon there. I kept pacing back and forth even before I opened the door. It was like the movies. I knew who they were and I was expecting to open the door and have them say my husband is dead.

I opened the door just this much (holds fingers close together) and I said, ‘Shannon,’ and I covered my mouth. She said, ‘Let me say before anything that Jimmy is OK. I’ve seen him on the ambulance and he has been shot. I don’t know too much information. As soon as I find out more information I’ll let you know.’ She kept saying, ‘Whatever you want to do,’ and ‘We want to get you up to the hospital.’

Deputy James DeFilipps is pictured with his wife Marie and their infant son Jake at the Orleans County Public Safety Building on May 19 during a recognition program.

Q: That’s at 4 in the morning?

A: I don’t know what time it was. I thought it was Shannon that came over but it was actually Pete (Hendrickson, the fire chief) who came over to drive my car to the hospital.

I didn’t want to call my family until I got to the hospital and I saw him.

Q: So when you saw him was that a big relief?

A: Very much so. All of the people he works with were there. It was very emotional when I saw him. I was very glad to see him standing on his own two feet.

Q: So Jim, you were able to come home soon?

A: I was in the hospital for a couple hours and then we were on our way home. They got me right in and out and took X-Rays and CAT scans.

Q: Anything else you want to say?

A: (Jim DeFilipps) It’s been life-changing for both families, forever.

A: (Marie DeFilipps) You mourn for that family. Even though he could have taken my husband’s life, I still think about him and his family.

Quick Questions with Chris Wylie

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 23 February 2015 at 12:00 am

Cerebral palsy doesn’t keep pastor from pulpit in Knowlesville and Millville

Chris Wylie

Photos by Tom Rivers – Chris Wylie shares the children’s message during Sunday’s service at The United Methodist Church of the Abundant Harvest in Millville. Wylie preaches there at 11 a.m., following a 9:30 a.m. service in Knowlesville.

Chris Wylie was born struggling to breathe. He had cerebral palsy and doctors said he would never walk. He was put up for adoption.

Wylie, now 46, was welcomed into a loving home as a young boy, and he would learn to walk chasing after his sister. He played lots of sports as a kid and went on to a career as a banker for 10 years in downtown Buffalo with HSBC.

He felt a call to the ministry about a decade ago and attended the former United Theological Seminary in West Seneca, a pastoral training program run through Houghton College. He would lead United Methodist churches in Hartland, Alden, and Pavilion before being appointed as pastor for the Millville and Knowlesville United Methodist churches almost two years ago. For more than two decades, the churches shared a pastor while maintaining their own congregations and buildings.

Under Wylie’s leadership, the churches have merged into The United Methodist Church of the Abundant Harvest. That merger became effective on Jan. 1, following approvals from each congregation, and the Upper New York Conference of the United Methodist Church.

“It ties the two churches,” Wylie said. “They have two distinct talents. By tying them together you can compound those talents for one great tool for God.”

Wylie leads a 9:30 service on Sunday mornings in Knowlesville at this church, which put on a new roof last year and also started a pie shop across Knowlesville Road at its fellowship hall.

Wylie built support for the merger by listening to members in both churches, and guiding the process, said long-time member Peter Beach of the Millville church.

“He tries to make changes without rubbing people the wrong way,” Beach said.

Wylie preaches while sitting down and uses a cane or a wheelchair to move around church.

“He’s overcome a lot in his life,” Beach said. “Things we take for granted are a struggle for him. What he does is inspiring.”

The Knowlesville church has about 40 regular attendees and last year completed a $15,000 project to put a new roof on the building at 3622 Knowlesville Rd. The congregation also started as coffee and pie shop at its fellowship hall from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. “That has taken off more than we expected,” Wylie said.

About 60 people attend the Millville location. Both sites have upgraded their projector screens, multi-media equipment and sound systems. Wylie enjoys using videos and pictures in his sermons.

(His wife Jennelle, director of academic support and training at Roberts Wesleyan College, helps with the church’s technology and multimedia issues. The Wylies have an 8-year-old daughter, Hope.)

Each church, or campus as Wylie calls the two sites, has its own service. Wylie leads church in Knowlesville at 9:30 a.m. and then goes to the Millville location at 11 a.m.

That hasn’t changed from before the merger. But Wylie said the congregations are doing more sharing, and will have a unified web site, social media presence and other collaborations.

The service in Millville on Maple Ridge Road starts at 11 a.m. on Sundays with a lunch to follow.

Wylie chatted for an interview on Sunday at the Millville site. The church was busy with its weekly luncheon after the service. Wylie is happy to see several families with young children stay for the lunch.

On Sunday, Wylie preached about “restoration,” a message that included photos of a beat-up El Camino that was repaired. He said there is symbolism in that vehicle and God’s restorative work in people.

Q: Is part of your ministry showing people that you shouldn’t hold yourself back and not let fears or limitations prevent you from trying?

A: I would say, and in fact I often say, ‘Don’t let what you can’t do stop you from doing what you can.’ I try to live that way. That doesn’t mean that it’s easy and that doesn’t mean there won’t be times of discouragement, but that’s where the support comes in. That’s what we have, the community.

Q: It seems like these churches are not very accessible for people in wheelchairs or who may have challenges getting around?

A: This one (Millville) is, while Knowlesville isn’t so much. We’ve looked at making modifications for handicapped accessibility. I can get up the stairs, but certainly there are times of the year when that is a problem.

In Knowlesville there are people who come to a point in their life where they can’t come to church because they physically can’t get in. So we try to address these things as we go. Sometimes it’s as simple as railings, or other things that were never there that were put to help Chris, and then you see other people also using them.

Chris and Jennelle Wylie

Chris Wylie is pictured with his wife Jennelle inside the fellowship hall in Millville.

Q: I wonder too if people see you getting a little help then they realize that that is OK for all of us as human beings, that we don’t have to do everything on our own?

A: Yes, they see it’s great to lean on each other.

Q: I think some people might have too much pride and may not want help, especially in a public way.

A: I think there is absolutely that. I talk about this a lot. As people, especially as people get older (and I’m living some of that now), you want to do the things you always used to be able to do, and sometimes that’s not possible, sometimes that involves doing things a little bit differently, and other times that involves asking for help.

That was part of my message today at church that it’s not about Chris trying to everything, because Chris, even in an able body, can’t do everything. It’s about what we can all do together.

Q: What do you like about being a pastor?

A: The people.

I’ve had a lot of people reach out to me in my life and help me. I’ve had people help me who didn’t have to do what they did. They went beyond themselves to be connected to others.

Q: Do you think your condition has made you a more compassionate person and helped you connect with people?

A: I can see it. It gives me better understanding. I have not been through every situation, but I definitely have some understanding that maybe others might not have because they haven’t been there yet.

Q: (People are talking in background at fellowship hall.) I’m struck by the number of children and younger families that attend church here. You have a good intergenerational mix.

A: I connect with the older people because of the body in which I live. But I’m also, even at my age, fairly young for a pastor, and having the young daughter, and knowing that I like a different style of music and knowing that I sometimes experience things in a different way so we’re bringing in the multimedia, we’re connecting with younger people on a different level and being intentional about that.

We’re not only saying we want you to come, but we’re giving them a voice as part of the community. That’s so important because no matter what you’re doing, if you don’t have a voice you’re not going to be connected.

Knowlesville has teen-agers and here at Millville with have a lot of younger kids.

Chris Wylie leads the congregation at Millville in prayer during the service this past Sunday.

Q: So many of the rural churches seem to be struggling. What do you think has been working here?

A: It’s as simple as being part of people’s lives, just sitting down and talking with them. We did that when we first started. I don’t come and tell them what I wanted. I asked them, ‘What do you want to see here?’ So not having it be Chris-centered, but instead what do we want, what is our hope here, what to we want to be? So it’s listening and moving into that.

Q: Is the fellowship hall and food a big part of that, of doing life together?

A: That’s exactly what it is. If you look at the Book of Acts, Chapter 2, it says that they ate together, they worshipped together, they did life together. That’s what we’re trying to do. It’s connection.

That’s something the church here was doing before I got here. We also have had people in to the parsonage for dinners in smaller groups, from anywhere between 1 to 5.

Q: Do the churches work together on the popular Lenten fish fries?

A: We’re working on that. We’re still at the early stages of making us-and-them just us. That’s the hope here.

Sunlight pours through a stained-glass window at the church at Millville.

Q: You do basically the same service at both places?

A: I do, yes. The bulletin, in general, we keep the same. There is a choir here (Millville) but there is no choir at Knowlesville. But mostly it’s similar.

Q: You could see how having the choir in Knowlesville, if someone wanted to sing from Millville, they could be part of the choir. And maybe the choir would sing at Millville on some Sundays.

A: That’s exactly what we’re trying to do.

Q: It looks like you have to work harder than everyone to get around, especially in the winter.

A: Some days. We all have those challenges. Mine are just more visible. We all have challenges in one way or another. Some people have things you don’t readily see, and to me that’s harder because you look healthy. With me, everything that Chris is going through is on the surface.

I know my body is breaking down faster than I’d like, but I don’t know what it’s like to be an able body, so to speak, so I’ve always had to adapt. I’ve had to do things outside the box a little bit, but you still get them done.

Q: You mentioned you could have been on disability and not worked?

A: Nobody can deny I am disabled, just look at me. I could have done that, but as long as I can find a way to keep moving forward, I’m going to keep moving forward.

There will be a day for all of us, sooner or later, when we can’t do, but while I can do, I’m still going to do.

Mary Zelazny has seen lots of changes in 37 years with Medina bank

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 13 February 2015 at 12:00 am

Quick questions

KeyBank branch manager retiring today

Photos by Tom Rivers – Mary Zelazny, fourth from left, is pictured with KeyBank staff in Medina on Thursday. The group includes, from left: Bob Rice, Evie Osborne, Sharlene Pratt, Mary Zelazny, Jacky Organisciak and Tina Sheeler. Two other employees, Laurie Newton and Kathy Kepner, were working at the drive-through on Maple Ridge Road.

MEDINA – Mary Zelazny was 18 and working at Jubilee when she was approached to work at Marine Midland Bank in Medina as a teller. That was 37 years ago. Zelazny also typed loan documents early in her banking career.

She worked her way up through the ranks and became branch manager about a decade ago. Marine Midland would become HSBC Bank and about two years ago KeyBank bought the HSBC sites in Medina at 514 Main St. and also a drive-through on Maple Ridge Road.

Today is Zelazny’s last day at the bank. She is retiring. She will still be a Main Street presence. She will join her husband, Michael Zelazny, across the street at his accounting business. The Zelaznys have two grown children: Jacob works with Michael at the Walter Zelazny and Sons farm and Nicole is the marketing manager for Smokin Joes in Niagara Falls.

The following interview was conducted on Thursday at Zelazny’s office at the bank.

Q: You started as teller and typed loan documents, and then what happened in your banking career?

A: I worked my way up. I didn’t like staying in one spot. I liked learning. I wanted to help the customers. If we were slow at one time and we were idle I would ask if there was something I could do and that’s how I learned.

Q: You’ve been in this building the whole time?

A: I have been here the whole time which is kind of unusual for banking. I raised here. I’ve been here my whole life and I’ve been here my whole career.

Mary Zelazny is pictured outside KeyBank’s historic site on Main Street, a site that was originally Central Bank of Medina.

Q: Were you thinking 37-year career in banking when you started?

A: Absolutely not. I had just turned 18, just graduated and I was working at Jubilee. Ken Sylvester came in and asked if I would be interested in putting my name in. I thought, “Maybe.” I didn’t really pursue it but he came in and asked me again. I thought I’d try it. I put my name in and got hired and I’ve been here ever since.

Ken used to go to the little grocery stores and that’s where he hired a lot of his people because they had cashier’s experience and customer service.

Q: What have you liked about this for 37 years?

A: My customers. I have to say I’ve made some great friends, great relationships along the way. I’ve been on all kinds of journeys of their lives, from going to school, graduating, going to college, getting engaged, getting married, buying a house, having children, going through everything in their lives. That’s been very exciting for me and now the next generation has come up.

It’s just knowing your customers, and not just waiting on them. It’s getting to know your people, building that relationship is what it is about. That’s where you get the trust from the people.

At this bank we’ve always been very family oriented. I don’t just treat them as a customer. I treat them as a family member because that is how I would want to be treated.

Q: It seems like there has been a lot of new technology in banking.

A: When I first started we had what you call scratch pads. You didn’t have adding machines and all that. It was a little scratch pad and you would write the customer’s name on and if they had a check and they were going to make a payment, you would write that down. You would actually do the adding and subtracting right in front of them.

The difference between then and now, you put the information in a computer and it tells you if you owe them money or if they owe you money. It tells you everything now. It was more manual back then.

Some of the other things that are different are your mobile banking today. You can take a picture of the check you are going to deposit, the front and back of it, and it’s automatically into your checking account.

Q: Do you mean take a picture with your phone?

A: With your iPhone. You have to sign up for the mobile banking. You just take a picture. Say you’re out of town and you can’t get to the bank. You just take a picture of it and it credits to your account immediately. That has become quite popular. It’s more for the younger customers.

ATMs, who would have thought years ago that you would drive up to a building and put a card in? You’re going to a wall and money comes out. Who would have thought that? ATMs are huge now.

Your on-line banking, internet banking, bill pay, transferring between accounts. When I first started here that had what they called a microfiche and it was like a screen. Everyday you would put in a fiche, and it would come up on a screen and give you the customer’s account number and the activity they did for the day.

Now you just put their name or account number in and it all comes up on a computer.

Bob Rice, the relationship manager at KeyBank in Medina, has an old piggy bank given out by the Central Bank of Medina, which used to operate out of the site at 514 Main Street. The piggy bank belonged to Rice’s father, Leonard. Technology in banking has evolved in a big way since Leonard Rice was a boy. (KeyBank still gives out piggy banks for kids.)

Q: With all the new technology, it seems like there would be fewer customers who actually come inside a bank these days.

A: There is a lot less traffic now, any bank will tell you that because they are using on-line banking and the ATMs, especially your younger generation.

Q: What do you see the roles being for the branches in the future, and the employees here?

A: They’re going to be here for a while. I’m sure as time marches on there will be changes. I still think you need that personal touch. If you got a problem, you have someone you can come in and see or call.

Banking is a lot different now. When a customer comes in, we look at the entire relationship. It’s not just a checking account. We look at the whole package. We talk to you about insurance, we talk to you about mortgages, refinancing. We’re trying to help you out and save you money.

It used to be you can in for a checking account and that’s all you got. Now we talk to you about your whole entire package: retirement, investing, everything.

Q: What are you doing for your husband’s accounting business after you retire from here?

A: I’m going to be smiling, filing and answering phones.

Q: It’s great that you’ve been able to stay and work here your entire career in the same building given all the changes in the banking industry.

A: I’m very happy I was able to do that.

Q: Do you sense a resurgence in Medina?

A: I think you can see in Medina, at least on Main Street with some of the new shops, you can feel that people are excited again. You have younger people coming in. I like the old in Medina with all of the history and believe it or not I think the younger people do, too. There are not many empty offices or buildings. There is some excitement. I think you will see more.

When KeyBank took off the HSBC sign about two years ago, the original bank sign was underneath.

Q: Wasn’t there something about the sign on the bank, a discovery of some sorts when KeyBank bought the building?

A: When they took off the HSBC logos, one of the engineers got excited to see the original Central Trust sign behind. We wanted to keep it. Key is very much into the community and the history, so we kept it and the people have been very happy about it.

Q: Any other comments?

A: I just want to say thank you, thank you to my staff and my customers.

Quick Questions with Larry Montello

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 26 January 2015 at 12:00 am

American Legion leader enjoys honoring veterans, connecting with community

Photos by Tom Rivers – Larry Montello is pictured with the memorial next to County Courthouse for victims of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Montello, the American Legion and county officials dedicated the memorial on the 10th anniversary of the attacks. The First Presbyterian Church is pictured in the background.

ALBION – Larry Montello has been an active community member and leader for the American Legion since he moved to Orleans County about 13 years ago after marrying an Albion woman. Montello, a Ridgeway resident, drives bus for Community Action Transportation System.

He grew up in the Adirondacks and joined the Army in 1979 after graduating from Fort Edward High School. He served 14 years in the military.

Montello, 52, is a past county commander for the American Legion, and a past post commander in Albion and Medina.

He organizes the annual memorial service for the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people. Montello has visited all of the memorial sites for victims of the attacks at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and Shanksville in rural Pennsylvania.

He raised the funding to have Sept. 11 memorials in Orleans County by the County Courthouse, Legion Post in Albion and Rotary Park in Medina.

He is organizing an upcoming Feb. 1 service for the “Four Chaplains.” That 9:30 a.m. service will be at the First Baptist Church in Holley on Geddes Street. The Four Chaplains all were Army chaplains who gave their lives to save other civilians and military personnel as a troop ship sank on Feb. 3, 1943.

Montello assists with other Legion and community events, including the annual oratorical contest, flags on veterans’ graves and other events.

He was interviewed last Monday at Tim Hortons in Albion.

Q: Why did you join the American Legion?

A: I started out as a Son (of the American Legion) underneath my dad. My dad got me going along with my brother. I joined the service with my sister. We joined the Army together. She went to Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri and I went to Fort Dix in New Jersey where my dad went.

Orleans County Legislator Don Allport, left, teams with State Assemblyman Steve Hawley and Larry Montello in raising the 9-11 flag last Sept. 11 during a service at the Elk’s Club in Albion. Montello organized the memorial service.

Q: For a newcomer in Orleans County, you quickly made a mark and emerged as a leader.

A: I was the commander in Albion for four years, the commander in Medina and also the county commander. I went up the chain.

Q: What is your role right now?

A: Right now I am sergeant of arms for the county because I want to go in rank in the district. I gave up some of the county duties, but I don’t want to totally give something up.

Q: How long have you been organizing the 9-11 services?

A: I started in 2005, not long after I first got here.

I’ve put a lot of time working on the memorials. I got a nice surprise from the county when they put in a new flag pole and big cement base for the stone.

I do it partly because my sister was working down there (in Manhattan) in Building 7 near the Twin Towers. By the grace of God her boss sent her out on an errand so she wasn’t there when it happened.

When I was in the Sons (of the American Legion) I went down there when it was pretty much cleaned up and when they dedicated the new 9-11 building (The Freedom Tower). The year before last we went down to New York and I actually got to go in Building 7 where my sister worked. It was emotional.

Q: Why do you keep the local memorial service going and try to include many of the first responders?

A: I get them all involved (local and state police departments, COVA, fire departments, Mercy Flight) because they were all involved.

Q: I remember you also did a Pearl Harbor service.

A: Hopefully this year we will do it again.

The Orleans County Legislature was presented an official 9-11 flag on Sept. 24, 2014, from Larry Montello, past commander of Medina’s Butts-Clark American Legion and also the coordinator of 9-11 memorial events in Orleans County. The flag given to the Legislature was the first one to fly in front of the courthouse about four years ago. Montello, left, presented the flag to David Callard, Orleans County Legislature chairman.

Q: Why do the Four Chaplains service?

A: I did it back home. It’s part of history and it shouldn’t be forgotten just like 9-11. I started it with Jean Johnston, who has since passed away. I’ve been doing it in her honor since.

At the service we bring in all of the colors. It’s in Holley this year so we’ll bring in Holley’s colors, the county colors, the auxiliary county colors, the VFW county colors, the POW flag and then the Canadian flag and American flag.

We have a Color Guard to bring it in. And then we have members get up and do a part of each of the chaplains, sharing their biographies. When they are done, they go down from the podium where I have a wooden box with each of the chaplain’s names. They lay a rose down on it and a light a candle.

We carry an American flag in for everybody that went down on the ship and a wreath. After that we play Taps.

We go to different churches (every year) in the community, a Catholic church, a Protestant church, a Baptist church.

Q: How is the Legion membership doing, locally and nationally?

A: It has ups and downs. Right now we’re down a lot. On average we lose 10 to 15 World War II veterans a day nationally.

Q: I think people might think, with the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there would be a new group of veterans who could join the Legion. Do many of them join the Legion?

A: No. When they get home they go back into society and that can take a long time.

Q: How much worry is there about the future of the Legion and VFW?

A: I don’t think there is worry, we just have to promote what we do. We’re not just a bar. Everybody thinks we’re just a bar. We do a lot of things for the community. Since our county is so small, I put all of the posts together to work as one. We get more out of it that way.

Q: I know you do the oratorical contest, and the Honor Guard at funerals.

A: Each Legion has its own Honor Guard, but the Posts and the VFW will join together. You get more people that way. They’re all people from the older generation. For a lot of the younger generation when they get out of the service the first thing on their mind is to get a job. That’s what was on my mind.

A lot of the ones on the Color Guard are all retired.

Larry Montello, front center, waves while he joins other walkers at the start of the “Making Strides Against Breast Cancer” at Watt Farms in October 2013. Montello was part of a team from Community Action that walked in memory of Kathy LaLonde, a former Community Action employee.

Q: Why have you stayed active with the Legion?

A: I like working with kids, I like working with the community, and I like working with the veterans. I’ve always said if I knew back home in high school what I know now I would have aced history. I have friends of mine in the Albion Post that were in the Death March. I have a friend from back home who was a POW.

Listening to their war stories is unreal. A lot of people don’t realize this is part of history.

I enjoy doing the 9-11 service because it’s part of history. The community can’t forget that day. When it first happened everybody in town had a flag up. Now, it’s hardly ever.

Q: What else do you want to say?

A: I wish more of the public would get involved with our events, and don’t just think the American Legion is a bar. There are a lot of other things the Legion does. We make sure all of our veterans have flags on their graves for Veterans’ Day.

I just wish more of the public would get on the ball with us and know that when we’re going out for donations we’re not using that for the bar but for flags, the 9-11 service and for veterans.

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