As an author, he published his work under the name E.R. Baxter III.
Many of his friends and colleagues knew him less formally as “Bob.”
Still others referred to him fondly as “Baxter.”
Suzanne Parry knew Bob Baxter differently.
She knew him as the man who entered her family’s life at a time when she and her siblings needed a caring father figure. As a parent, she said, Baxter did an “amazing” job.
“Bob knew how to love us and he cared about who we were before we even knew who we were,” said Parry, reflecting on her stepfather who died on March 15 at the age of 84.
Baxter lost his own parents at a young age. His mom when he was 13. His dad when he was 16. After his parents’ death, Baxter and his sister, Brenda, were raised by their mom’s sister.
At age 31, Baxter married Parry’s mom, Loraine. She was 37 at the time and a mother of three children, including Suzanne, age 12, and Suzanne’s 10-year-old sister and their 15-year-old brother.
“He had the courage to take on two preteens and a teenager and it made all the difference in our lives,” Parry said.
Bob and Loraine created a loving home on their family farm in Ransomville. There they raised chickens, pigs and cows. They did their own haying into their 60s.
Family outings included trips to the gorge where Bob, Loraine and the children hiked, fished and, on one memorable occasion for Parry, ate frog for dinner.
“He always felt like he got such good deal when he married my mom,” Parry said. “She loved the adventure he wanted them to live.”
“Our house was filled with laughter,” Parry added. “We sat around the dinner table most every night and we ate dinner at home. We had many, many dinners together and we talked a lot about books and a lot about writing. We laughed a lot.”
GROWING UP IN NIAGARA
Born and raised in Niagara Falls, Baxter grew up on Virginia Avenue in what he described in a 2014 interview with the Buffalo News as the “industrial fringe of the city proper.”
As a younger man, he enjoyed hunting — an activity he stopped doing later in life — and spent a lot of time exploring nature along the lower Niagara River and the Niagara Gorge.
Those experiences, along with growing up in a city that was once — for better and for worse — a hotbed of industrial activity, helped shape Baxter’s thoughts as a person, and most especially a writer.
“There were about 15 families spread along the three blocks of those avenues, homes dispersed among the bare fields, the nearby factories and railroads as backdrops,” Baxter recalled in his interview with the Buffalo News. “We thought it was a wonderful place as kids. We were acquainted early on with the basic elements: factory smokestacks spewing smoke, huge coal piles, cinders (that paved our avenues), steam engines and railroad cars, steel, pallets, chain-link factory fences with strands of barbed wire along the top – and also the nature of the fields where we ran and played, the weeds, the wildflowers, daisies, Queen Anne’s lace, burdock, milkweed … monarch and other butterflies, praying mantises, the toads and snakes, field mice, and so on. Our fathers and grandfathers worked in those factories, and some of us would work there when we were old enough.”
Baxter graduated from Trott Vocational High School where he learned carpentry, a skill he later applied while serving as a “carpenter’s helper” during the construction of the Niagara Power Project. He did a stint in the U.S. Army in the early 1960s before returning home to work at local factories. He also once had a job as a Viewmobile driver on Goat Island.
Niagara Falls, his daughter said, was just part of him.
“He was really devoted to the Falls and the beauty that it held,” Parry said. “He hated the commercialization, hated what happened to downtown Niagara falls and what happened to Niagara Falls, Ontario.”
BAXTER THE TEACHER
In 1970, Baxter joined the faculty at Niagara County Community College where he specialized in teaching English and creative writing.
That’s where Bob Borgatti, a professor of digital media and coordinator of NCCC’s Digital Media and Public Communication programs, met him for the first time.
Borgatti described Baxter as a “a bit of a loner” who, over time, became a valued colleague and friend.
“Once you got to know him, not only was he a very interesting person, he was also a very kind and generous person,” Borgatti said. “He liked people despite what some people might think.”
Over the course of his more than 25-year career at NCCC, Baxter interacted with hundreds of students.
One of them — Canisius College English professor and author Eric Gansworth — ended up developing a 39-year friendship with Baxter after the aspiring writer, who was actually studying to be a medical technician at the time, took Baxter’s creative writing course at NCCC.
Gansworth said he was in a stage of his life where he was mostly reading horror fiction, especially anything by Stephen King. Baxter introduced him to different genres and a much wider world of authors, which he said helped him to grow as a writer himself.
“I was not a a particularly well-read person, but I was very interested in writing. He just really broadened my horizons, rapidly and diplomatically,” Gansworth said.
Gansworth said he found the perfect mentor in in Baxter who was generous with his time and understanding about how to give a novice writer like him the right amount of constructive criticism without discouraging them from pursuing the craft.
The pair remained close, taking turns editing each other’s work in the decades since their first meeting. Today, Gansworth’s body of work includes 13 books, all of them written with help from Baxter.
“He was able in the creative writing classroom to really give people feedback that was critique where their work had some weaknesses and they were able to hear it and not be defensive about it,” Gansworth said. “It was an incredible talent as a teacher.”
Baxter’s daughter, Parry, also became an author. She released her latest book, “Lost Souls of Leningrad, a Novel,” last November.
“I’m not sure I would have had either the skills or the understanding of the writing process and how to become a writer without having had him as a parent,” she said.
“I think the legions of students he had, he equipped them in life in many ways, including being a harsh and demanding teacher, which is something we can’t measure,” she added.
In his 2014 interview with the Buffalo News, Baxter, a Professor Emeritus of English, described what being a teacher meant to him personally.
“What I enjoyed most about my over 20 years at NCCC was the free exchange of ideas with students, the back and forth, the discussions, the analysis of pieces of writing with them – all an absolute joy in my memory,” Baxter said. “There’s little that beats the pleasure of seeing that light go on in someone’s eyes: They “get it!” It was really something to see a student write something good after long struggle, and we both knew it!”
BAXTER THE WRITER
“There wasn’t a time when I decided to be a writer,” Baxter told the News in 2014. “I just “always was one,” writing little stories and what I thought were poems since I was a little kid. I have a friend whose wife once said about him, “I don’t think he’s ever done anything on purpose in his life.” I laughed when she said that, but it described me, too, to some extent.”
Baxter described himself as a “late-night writer” who routinely started work at around 11 p.m. He said he usually scribbled out a first draft by hand in pencil or pen, often on notebook paper while jotting notes in the margins when the ideas flooded in faster than he could write.
“I try to tell the truth about human relationships, the joys, the sorrows, the aggravations and conflicts – and to do so in memorable language – or at least in language that doesn’t for one reason or another get in the way of the thought or story. My writing “style” is for others to make judgments about,” he told the News.
Baxter’s process helped him produce dozens of pieces of poetry, essays and short stories. His works include “Niagara Lost and Found: New and Selected Poems,” “Looking for Niagara,” “A Good War,” “Hunger” and “What I Want.”
Baxter was a fellow of a New York State Creative Service Award for fiction and a past recipient of a Just Buffalo Award for Fiction. He appeared in the Albany Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Hartford Courant, New Madrid, Stone Canoe, Underbeat Journal #2, and in Wormwood Review.
His book, “Niagara Digressions,” considered by many to be his finest work, was selected in 2012 by ForeWord Reviews as one of three Books of the Year in the category of adult nonfiction, ecology and environment.
Baxter was also a contributor and long-time supporter of Slipstream, a small literary press established in 1980 that publishes an annual anthology featuring poets from around the world.
Borgatti, a co-founder and co-editor for Slipstream, said Baxter’s contributions as a poet and writer cannot be overstated.
“He was a writer. He was a philosopher and he was a story teller,” Borgatti said. “One of the things that most impressed me about him was not only that he was a good writer, but I think he was a keen observer of humanity.”
“I just think, probably, and this is not an exaggeration, he is one of the best writers I think I’ve ever read,” Borgatti added. “As a poet and short story writer, he is just phenomenal.”
Gansworth said he considered the diversity of Baxter’s reading audience as a testament to the quality of his writing.
“One thing I noticed, consistently over the years, was that his readings drew an incredibly wide range of people,” Gansworth said. “Such attendance was a window into the many avenues of interest he had on the Niagara frontier and how well-loved he was by such a broad spectrum. He had a dedicated and devoted following that transcended many demographics in ways I couldn’t even imagine. People who never went to other literary events at all, faithfully attended his, and always seemed delighted in their commitment to him.”
A LASTING LEGACY
Of course, the name Bob Baxter is synonymous with his most ambitious project — the removal of the Robert Moses Parkway in favor of the full natural restoration of the Niagara Gorge.
He was a founding member of the Niagara Heritage Partnership, a citizens group created to advocate for the preservation and restoration of the region’s natural environment and encourage socially responsible development.
For years, the partnership pushed for full removal of the 6.5-mile section of the parkway running along the Niagara Gorge from Niagara Falls to Lewiston. Baxter and other Partnership members believed it important to restore the natural environment, including indigenous trees, grasslands, wildflowers, and create a hiking and biking path along the upper rim of the gorge.
In his piece, “Why I want the Robert Moses Parkway Removed,” Baxter explained that while NHP’s proposal “generated both ignorant and purposeful misrepresentations of its position, hostility and desperate fabrications from opponents,” supporters were steadfast in their belief the gorge deserved the respect of a reclaimed Frederick Law Olmsted Park wilderness that is free of “food shacks and other inappropriate commercial intrusions.”
“Without going into details here, it’s possible, we conclude, for some people to love a highway beyond reason, even if it does degrade a world famous natural landscape,” Baxter wrote.
In 2016, Baxter and other Partnership members experienced what outsiders might have viewed as a breakthrough when then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that the state would commit $40 million to reconfigure the parkway from the city line to Findlay Drive.
Two years earlier, in an opinion piece submitted to the Niagara Gazette, Baxter described the as-yet-funded plan as the “half-baked removal to Findlay decision.”
While Baxter bristled at the idea of partial parkway removal being a sign of success, his daughter, Parry, reminded him that his persistent advocacy helped produce tangible change.
“I said to him, ‘What do you mean? Look what you have done,’ “ Parry said. “Look what has been accomplished.”
In August, Baxter’s vision of parkway removal to Lewiston got a boost when officials agreed to commit $1.5 million to create design concepts and solicit public input for the continued reconfiguration of the roadway that Moses built.
In 2000, the Buffalo Audubon Society, Inc., presented Baxter with the Harry Jay Kord Recognition Award for “outstanding contributions to the cause of education and conservation in Western New York.” He was also presented with the Friends of the Buffalo Niagara Rivers 2004 Award for “Outstanding Commitment to the Buffalo Niagara Rivers for his efforts to restore the Niagara River Gorge and Niagara Reservation.” His founding of another group, the Niagara Frontier Wildlife Habitat Council, was a part of those efforts.
Borgatti said it was Baxter who brought him around to the full potential of parkway removal and gorge restoration, causes he came to support himself.
“Up until that point, I hadn’t really given it much thought,” Borgatti said. “After talking to him and hearing his philosophy about preservation and the whole story of Fredrick Law Olmsted and that the original vision of what the park was created for had more or less been abandoned, I’d say it was a compelling argument that he was making. I felt like, ‘yeah, I’d like to get involved in this.’”
When asked about her father’s long-term legacy, Parry noted that he took great pride in teaching and writing but she believes it will be his willingness to take a stand in favor of removing the parkway that he will be remembered for the most.
“The parkway removal — that’s forever,” Parry said. “I feel like his legacy in focusing the region’s attention on the importance of protecting this kind of amazing gift. That is a legacy. Fifty years from now, that will still exist, whether his name is part of it or not.”
Bob Baxter’s family is planning a gathering in his honor. Arrangements will be announced and publicized at a future date.
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