Niagara Gazette — There was something about Nancy Gara’s death in May that struck me harder than most do.
We met a couple years ago, when I drove to downtown Buffalo to snap a photo of her for a 2011 Women of Distinction magazine. Neither of this paper’s veteran photographers were available that day so I had volunteered to go and snap a quick shot.
She was a vice president at Marine Midland Bank, and I had expected her to be a bit buttoned up. But, she was relaxed and open and it took longer than usual for the photo session because we enjoyed each other’s company.
I was told later that she loved that photo. But I don’t think the picture did her justice. She was a beautiful woman, so youthful in energy and appearance that I was shocked to find out she was a grandmother of nine. But, no matter how good of a photo, I think it’s only words that can provide some of the rest of the story, as Paul Harvey used to say.
So, today, some words about a woman who touched many in Western New York — so much so that an upcoming fundraiser which she had initially been set to chair — is being held in her memory.
I recently sat down with two of her dear friends and the stories they told me have been running through my head. What I keep thinking is that if you want to know how your life is going, consider the stories people will tell about you after you die.
Will you be able to say your loss was felt from the maintenance man to the company president? And that you helped to turn an important community resource, in Nancy’s case Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center, into a noted “Center of Excellence.”
“I don’t think I can think of anyone who has had a broader touch on this hospital,” said Patty Berggren, retired vice president of the hospital’s foundation and community relations, who worked with Nancy when she was on the foundation board in the early years of their careers. Even after Nancy left, when the board was dissolved and merged into the hospital’s board, “she was always a fundraiser for us,” Berggren said.
Whether as a mom, grandmother, banker, mentor or volunteer for a long list of local organizations, Nancy rose above the ranks with an investment of passion and energy, according to Judy Nolan Powell, who worked at Marine Midland and HSBC as a bank vice president with Nancy, and who recently became a hospital board member alongside Nancy. “She brought excellence to everything she did, without fanfare, without attitude.”
There are images of Nancy that her friends shared which I hold in my head, including how they laughingly described how she could go into her kitchen to make a great meal dressed in her best clothes, without getting a spot on herself or a hair out of place.
At the end of her career, Nancy returned to her hometown of Niagara Falls, as branch manager for the First Niagara on Main Street. Judy, now retired, told me about going into that bank shortly after Nancy’s death, when she was stopped by a man, who asked the identity of the bank officer that died. When told that it was Nancy, he remarked sadly, “I’m the cleaning man here ... she was wonderful.” The former president of Marine’s U.S. operations, Malcolm Burnett, was also moved by her death, and said so in a beautiful handwritten sympathy letter to Nancy’s family, mailed from his home in Britain. Her friends say she touched everyone, from clients large and small to the many bank employees she mentored.
“I think Nancy would have been absolutely overwhelmed by the community reaction to her death,” Patty told me.
It seems fitting that the love that Nancy sent out from her generous heart is coming home to roost in a place so important to her, the Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center. It is also the place where her life came to an end in May.
She was supposed to be the volunteer chairman of “Sing Sister Sing,” the hospital auxiliary’s fundraiser for women’s health services, a cause for which she was said to be a “ferocious advocate.” The event is being held from 6 to 9 p.m. Wednesday at the Niagara Falls Culinary Institute and features the Theresa Quinn Trio, along with appetizers, wine and basket raffles — and a tribute to Nancy. Tickets are still available for those who might like to attend by calling 545-7012.
Planners hope the event will draw new attention to the 100-year-old auxiliary which began when 200 women canvassed the community asking each family for a quarter to create the area’s first emergency care center.
Nancy Gara, deprived of the last chapters of her life with her loving husband, Sam, their six children and nine grandchildren, might never know about all those who will gather to honor her and support the hospital she loved. But, deeply moved by the strength of her spirit, her friends are determined to keep her vibrant memory alive — and, as such, they say, she will continue to serve this community for a very long time.