A Hero

Although I use this word sometimes to describe baseball players and grandfathers, my favorite use of the term “hero” is to describe a sandwich on Italian bread containing meat liberally covered in tomato sauce and melted cheese.

Tonight, I want to tell you about a real hero.

Leon Smith is my friend.  He served his country as a soldier in Vietnam.  Undoubtedly, he engaged in heroic activities during that conflict.  But, that’s not what I’m going to talk about in this post.

When he came home, he and his fellow vets were not treated well by American society.  Despite this poor reception, 40 years later Leon is not a bitter man.  Instead, he volunteers tirelessly to help vets.  He serves as a veteran mentor on my team in Buffalo’s Veteran Court.   But, that’s not what I’m going to talk about in this post.

Leon has persevered and become a wealthy man.  He and his fellow job-creators belong to a group called Buffalo Renaissance Foundation.  This non-profit organization provides support to several groups including those who support vet-friendly causes.  But, that’s not what I’m going to talk about in this post.

After returning from Vietnam, Leon joined his family’s company, Niagara Lubricant.  Since 1923, the company has been a manufacturer and packager of lubricating oils, greases, industrial oils and tire care products.  It was founded by Leon’s grandfather and two other salesmen.  For a time, his grandfather ran the company, followed by Leon’s grandmother, then his father, and then Leon.  Despite economic vicissitudes (including a 1980s downturn in the fortunes of Buffalo’s great manufacturing facilities), Leon and his family have guided Niagara Lubricant as a consistent employer in Western New York.

Despite his standing as a bona fide captain of industry, Leon Smith remains an extraordinarily unassuming and humble individual.  He is a gentleman and gentle man.  He wants to be just one of the guys — a rare quality in man who has achieved as much.

On July 13, 2011, all that Leon, his ancestors and his employees had worked so hard to achieve came crashing down to the ground.  A massive fire consumed a large portion of Niagara Lubricant’s facilities on Chandler Street in Buffalo.  The conflagration, fueled by the factory’s products, burned for nearly 24 hours.  The plant was destroyed.

From my firm’s 16th floor conference room, I observed the massive clouds of black smoke billowing over the city.  At the time, I did not know that they were coming from my friend’s business.

Despite this setback, Leon Smith III, publicly promised his company’s 35 employees that this fire would not cost them their jobs.  Instead of allowing his workers to worry about their employment status, Leon and his management team took his workers out to lunch that day.

By October, Niagara Lubricant had moved into a temporary facility on the economically disadvantaged East Side of Buffalo.  The employees never missed a paycheck.

Today, after an extended absence from Veterans Court, Leon returned to a hero’s welcome.  He was greatly missed by his fellow mentors.  Leon was not interested in accolades.  He just wanted to talk to, guide and mentor his beloved veterans.

After the day’s court session had concluded, I was walking out of the courthouse with Leon.  I told him how much I admired what he had done.  He thought that I was referring to the fact that Niagara Lubricant had just hired a vet from Veterans Court.

“That’s admirable,” I said.  “But I meant the fact that you saved all of your employees’ jobs despite what happened.”

Leon gave me a shy smile and shrugged.  “Ya gotta look yourself in the mirror every day and like what you see,” he replied.

I wished him a Merry Christmas.  Leon walked away into the sunset.

That’s what heroes do.

Leon Smith III (at left) with NFL Commissioner, Roger Goodell

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