Birthday wishes at 94 are ‘Slim’ and fun
Surrounded by about 20 other distinguished men gathered around the table over coffee in the Fredonia McDonald’s, Sam Drayo offered a salute to Wednesday’s honored member.
“We take our disappointments, we add our pleasures up,” he began. “We mix them all together and pour them in a cup. Then we take a toast to life for such as life may be. And the only wish we have today is that we are here with thee.”
Applause and laughter followed — and so did a large smile from a sprightly 94-year-old. This was his day, so to speak, even though his official birthday had come on Monday.
Dr. Anthony “Slim” Leone was the center of attention. Not only did he bask in the limelight, he also took the occasional ribbing that came with it.
As former county executive Jack Glenzer noted at the celebration to be part of the group requires some “thick skin. … If you got thin skin, you show up once.”
Looking around, you could put a checkmark by that characteristic for every one of those in attendance. Glenzer, Drayo, Joseph Muscato, Wally Latimer, Eliot Rose, Bruce Paschke, Jim Dengler, Warren McPherson and Keith Sheldon, OBSERVER editor emeritus — just to name a few — all have taken a lump here or there in being a part of Dunkirk-Fredonia’s recent history.
These gatherings, Rose noted, began in 1955 at Arnold’s Restaurant in the village where Domus Fare is currently located.
Leone, a Fredonia native, sat near the cake that had been cut in his honor. He served his country during the Korean War. Treated thousands of patients in his career as a dentist until 1988, including some who could not afford care. He gave back to the community as a member of Rotary.
He also held key positions on the Village Board, including mayor, when Fredonia was — just like today — going through some difficult times. Those challenges, however, were much different then.
“They were very important and busy years,” Leone recalled.
During his tenure, the State University of New York at Fredonia was going through a major expansion and needed additional water and sewer service to make it happen. Through Leone’s village leadership, the college grew — in terms of its buildings and its student population — though it never reached the 10,000 enrollment figure college officials led by President Oscar Lanford targeted.
But Leone’s generation was one of greater caution than what one sees in our government today. Financial worries, evident in local governments of today, also were prevalent in the 1960s and early ’70s. “The village was always struggling with a lack of money,” he said. “We just had a residential tax base.”
Down the road, Leone remembered, the city of Dunkirk was going through the trying time of urban renewal. It was a concept that brought major changes — architecturally and structurally — to the industrial city that still leave many who lived during the era as having a sense of betrayal.
Fredonia never had that. Its vision was to continue to as a residential community. That was good for the neighborhoods, but a cash flow problem for its elected body.
Leone first learned that lesson in a lecture he received from Drayo’s father, who served as village attorney before his son was appointed. “(Sam Sr.) talked to new people coming in about village law to make them better trustees or mayor,” Leone said. “The second thing he always told them was, ‘Listen. You guys just got elected. I know you’re interested in projects, but remember, we’re a poor community. We don’t have too much money.’ “
That is a refrain heard today by local governments that often are left cutting services and employee positions through attrition whenever possible. In other words, the former village mayor believes things have not really changed all that much — except for maybe the discourse in the meetings.
“It’s tougher now,” he said of the elected positions. “More got accomplished, it wasn’t argumentative and we did what we had to do. … It’s a great village and I am happy to live here.”
Leone lives with his wife of 60 years, Diane, and says he has worked three jobs, including dentistry, in his lifetime. During his younger years, he was a farmer, and later in life he did ceramics. He said he is officially retired from all three.
That, however, does not mean he’s sitting back and relaxing. Far from it. He’s still active and looks great as a nonagenarian. He credits his family genes — his paternal grandmother lived until she was 100 — as part of it.
Then, he offered this advice: “If you keep working and keep busy you will live to be a ripe old age… And praise the Lord.”
John D’Agostino is the OBSERVER publisher. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 366-3000, ext. 401.