Russell Pawlak, respected preservationist
August 10, 2009
March 22, 1950—Aug. 8, 2009
Bookshelves surrounded Russell Pawlak this week in his Delaware Avenue apartment, reflecting his eclectic interests in literature, history, poetry, art and architecture. A photograph of Albert Camus peeked out, stacks of CDs overflowed on a table, and in the next room a framed print announced an exhibition on surrealism.
Mr. Pawlak’s life was enriched by knowledge, both the kind acquired through books and from a life lived deeply. That life came to an end Saturday from complications from cancer first diagnosed last fall. He was 59.
“The first thing I think about Russell is he’s the smartest guy I know,” said David Franczyk, a longtime friend and Common Council president. “He was a perfect recipient of knowledge for its own sake. But he wasn’t just a thinker, he was a doer.”
Mr. Pawlak, an avid preservationist who was married three times and had two children, played an instrumental role in resuscitating the Central Terminal train station. He also in recent years served on the Buffalo Preservation Board and the Broadway Market’s board of directors.
“My father had this larger-than-life personality, just a vivacious man whose personality made him seem so much bigger than his 5 feet, 4z inche 1/3 ,” said his daughter, Hadley Horrigan.
Mr. Pawlak worked 28 years as a field service supervisor at the New York State Insurance Fund.
“So many people look to their job to define their identity. He enjoyed his work and was anxious to go back to work, but [his identity] was as a volunteer in this community,” Mrs. Horrigan said.
Added Mr. Franczyk: “He was a bohemian in a sense, but one who had a job.”
Mr. Pawlak was born on Buffalo’s East Side in the St. John Kanty neighborhood, graduating from Bishop Ryan High School, where he played football and ran track. He played football as a running back at Culver- Stockton College in Canton, Mo., graduating with a bachelor’s degree in history.
Mr. Pawlak worked during the 1970s as executive director of the Broadway Fillmore Area Council and in community development at City Hall.
His job with the New York State Insurance Fund took him to New York City for about 10 years beginning in the mid-1980s.
Mrs. Horrigan said her father took great care to “make sure that I knew there was a big, broad world out there” when she visited, immersing her in the arts and politics.
“It was a balance of wanting me to know where we came from, but that there was this bigger place out there, too,” she said.
After returning to Buffalo, Mr. Pawlak, who grew up in the shadow of the Central Terminal and whose grandfather worked for New York Central railroad, set his sights on reviving the dilapidated and badly vandalized station.
Mr. Pawlak served as president for eight years of the Central Terminal Restoration Corp., before stepping down last year. The nonprofit organization raised more than $1 million from mostly government funds to seal and stabilize the East Side landmark, enabling several organizations, including Albright-Knox Art Gallery and Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, to hold events there. Mr. Pawlak also helped popularize what’s become an annual Dyngus Day celebration at the art deco landmark.
“He saved the terminal,” said Franczyk, also active in restoring the building. “When I think of the Central Terminal, I think Russ Pawlak, no doubt about it. For 10 years, he called the shots.”
Mrs. Horrigan said the sheer force of her father’s personality had a lot to do with it.
“More than anything, I believe people became passionate about [saving the Central Terminal] because his passion was so infectious,” Mrs. Horrigan said.
Tom Pleban, who grew up four blocks from Mr. Pawlak, said he appreciated his cousin’s continuing “deep love for the neighborhood. He was always very proud and very willing to do whatever it took to try to regenerate what the East Side could be.”
Mr. Pawlak was married in June to Bernadette Majewski, whom he met at an event at the terminal.
Franczyk said his dear friend will be sorely missed.
“He did more in a short life than most people have done in twice the life span. It’s going to be a loss for the human race, not only Buffalo, because he had the purest joie de vivre of anyone I knew.”
In addition to his wife and daughter, he is survived by a son, Dylan.
The family will receive friends from 1 to 8 p. m. Wednesday in the Central Terminal, 495 Paderewski Drive.