Niagara Gazette

July 25, 2013

DELUCA: Tom Yots falls back in place

Michele DeLuca
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Well, he's back.

Some people are going to be delighted and maybe a few, not so much. More than likely, he's going to start trying to preserve stuff again. 

About three years ago, Tom Yots moved to Buffalo with his wife, Louise, to be closer to his grandchildren and to spend a little more time pursuing the things that enrich people's lives — like going to the library, playing the piano and seeing a little more of the world.

How that pair ever thought they would get out of this city is beyond me. They are so closely intertwined with many people and causes here, it seemed impossible. Tom was a volunteer city historian and freelance preservation expert. Louise, who was running their bed and breakfast on Park Place, is still entrenched in Carolyn's House and the YWCA. She also started the Niagara Falls Greeters program.

I really hated to see them go. They were among the small group of people in this city I see over and over again as I cover stories, all trying to crank the engine on this place.  

Regardless, a gentile life was not to be found in the big city. Tom pretty quickly accepted a job leading Preservation Buffalo Niagara. From the Martin House to the Electric Building to most of Allentown, Buffalo is a city that is learning the value of preservation. Tom has landed well. The former Lew-Port chemistry teacher wrote his change of life master's thesis on what cities around the world are doing with abandoned grain elevators. Believe it or not, those cement mills, created for the first time in Buffalo, influenced modern architecture around the world. Google it if you don't believe me.

Now, as Buffalo leaders are coming to see the value of keeping old stuff around, people there have gotten behind efforts to save the city's mills, which are now the subject of historical tours, and the location of art exhibits, movies presentations and soon a climbing facility. Tom was on the leading edge of saving those grain mills.

Now Tom is back in this town.

On Wednesday, he officially accepted his appointment by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to sit on the Niagara Region volunteer citizen's commission advising the state's Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

And he's delighted to be back. He misses this city and especially the state park. After the commission meeting, we took a walk through the newly renovated Three Sisters Island, brimming with tourists admiring its magnificence. For nine years, Tom walked his dog, Ollie, in the park every day. They got to be so popular among park employees that the dog was asked to be in a promotional video. Wednesday, he was stopped by a parks employee who shook his hand and asked him how he liked his new job.

In case you're wondering, he likes it a lot. "This offers a whole new opportunity for me," he told me about the commission. "When I was a teacher and Louise ran a little bakery, believe me, we weren't taking our kids to Disneyland. We were taking them to all the parks around here. That was our recreation. To me, this is an opportunity to say to the parks, 'Thank You.'"

Tom's not just going to be helping to oversee the parks. The word "preservation" in the state parks' title means preservation of anything of value in or outside of the parks. And Tom's pretty much an expert on what should be preserved.  When he lived here, he helped get preservation status for about 20 different city treasures, including many churches like St. Peter's and the Unitarian Church. At the outset, he said, almost everybody was reluctant to get involved in registering their places as historical sites but he was able to sell them on the benefits.  

"I was able to help them understand that preservation is good for them," he said of those he worked within this city.

As we walked Three Sisters Island, which has been updated by the parks department as part of $25 million in planned improvements, humming with tourists, Tom stopped and admitted he's heard a lot of comments about the renovation, some good, some bad. He touched a black temporary fence — one that I've hated from the moment I first saw it — and said, "I wondered about this until I asked somebody," he said. "I was told it's to be removed once the plants take hold."

That's the thing about Tom: He asks questions. If something's happening that he believes is detrimental to the future of the city and the care of its history, he says "I am now in a position to ask them why." 

He said the people in the parks department have always been square with him. But, it's not the parks that he's got his eye on so much. It's the prevailing attitude about preservation in this city and so many others.

I asked what his goals were now that he's here once again.  He said two things. The first was in tribute to the desires of his lovely wife. "This boy has to learn to relax a bit," he said of himself with a smile. I reminded him that all the "relaxing" things he hopes to do are typically the activities that stir people's creativity and desire to create change. 

He laughed and announced he had another goal. What would that be, I asked. "Connecting young people to preservation as a way to better their lives." 

As such, then it's a good thing he's back in this city. Retirement may be beckoning, but he's still got a lot of work to do.

Contact Features Editor Michele DeLuca at 282-2311, ext 2263.