Niagara Gazette


June 12, 2010

DON GLYNN: Donovan for fed building

NIAGARA FALLS — That new federal courthouse under construction in downtown Buffalo — set to open in 2011 — should be named for General William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan.

It’s a no-brainer.

For starters, the state office building on Lower Main Street  demolished last year as part of downtown redevelopment had been named in his honor.

The $137 million egg-shaped building, probably the most expensive government facility in Western New York, should bear the name of the hero who served in both World Wars.

Donovan is best remembered as the director of the Office of Strategic Services, known for gathering sensitive information and waging unorthodox warfare against the enemy. Created by Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, the OSS  was the forerunner to the Central Intelligence Agency.

John B. Stranges, a professor at Niagara University who has studied the general’s illustrious career, notes that it was Donovan’s record in France in World War I that lifted him to near iconic status on the NU campus.

“His fierce individuality seemed to have had no boundaries; he could rally his men as well as save them from death,” Stranges wrote in the Eagle magazine. “He could sustain wounds but refuse to leave the battlefield. And he did it all with a sly half-smile.”

Donovan’s decorations from his service in France included the Distinguished Service Cross; the Distinguished Service Medal (with oak leaf cluster); the Purple Heart; and the Medal of Honor.

When he was awarded the National Security Medal for his service in World War II, Stranges said, Donovan became the lone American to receive this nation’s four highest military honors.

One of the biggest boosters for the “Donovan Courthouse” is state Supreme Court Justice Salvatore  R. Martoche, who also serves on the Appellate Division.

Based on his extensive research into Donovan’s life, Martoche presented an informative program about the general at a recent meeting in the Buffalo & Erie County Historical Society.

“If you think that building should be named in his honor, make those feelings known to your federal representatives like area congress members and our two U.S. senators, Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand,” Martoche advised, noting the final decision will be made in Washington D.C.

Donovan, one of nine children whose grandparents emigrated from Ireland to the U.S. and settled in Buffalo’s old First Ward, attended Niagara University for three years before transferring to Columbia College in New York to pursue a law career.

He married Ruth Rumsey, the daughter of a prominent Buffalo couple. (Since Donovan was Catholic and the Rumseys were Protestants, the engagement initially went over like a lead balloon.) In the early 1920s, he was appointed as the U.S. Attorney for Western New York, which required him to deal with all the corruption generated by the 18th Amendment, the prohibition of liquor.

Almost overnight, Donovan incurred the wrath of his fellow members in the exclusive Saturn Club when he ordered a raid on the club well stocked with booze illegally imported from Canada.

In fact, Donovan ended up ostracized by Buffalo’s high society. Even his law partner, Bradley Goodyear, quit the firm in protest.


FOOTNOTE: The origin of Gen. Donovan’s moniker (“Wild Bill”) has been discussed for years.

According to the Rev. Vincent Donovan, the name was pinned on his brother in 1916, a year before the World War, when the young Capt. Donovan was on National Guard maneuvers along the Mexican border, preparing to put an end to Pancho Villa’s raids into the Southwest.

When the citizen-soldiers collapsed after a 10-mile hike, Donovan reportedly chastised them: “Look at me, I’m not even panting. If I can take it, why can’t you”

From the back of the ranks came a loud voice: “We ain’t as wild as you are, Bill”

That said it all.

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