With the music of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and the singing of the Westminster Presbyterian Church choir, the community remembered M&T Bank Chairman Robert Wilmers, who died in December at the age of 83.
Wilmers was a successful banker, a strong supporter of the arts and a highly visible activist in the community. He built M&T from a struggling local financial institution in 1983 when he became chairman and CEO into a major regional bank across the Middle Atlantic states with a strong brand and a national image as a community banker.
He was also well known for riding bicycles to work in Buffalo and in midtown Manhattan. He was a father, grandfather, stepfather, owner of a French winery and part-owner of a New England newspaper chain.
Community leaders, both on a highlight reel of his life shown on the giant screen of Kleinhans Music Hall and as speakers on stage, praised him. Son Christopher told the crowd his father was proud of his ties to Buffalo.
"My dad was born in New York City, moved to a new town roughly every two years until high school, went to college and graduate school in Boston, spent summers and weekends in the Berkshires and raised his family in New York City," the younger Wilmers said, "but when he'd meet someone for the first time and they'd ask where he was from, he wouldn't hesitate. 'Buffalo,' he would say with a big proud smile on his face."
Wilmers said his father was proud of his work supporting the Westminster Community Charter School and the surrounding Buffalo Promise Neighborhood.
"Over many years, he and others at the bank worked with the administration and teachers at Westminster to do everything they could to make Westminster a school that would enrich their students with strong values and a sterling education, though the effort was not without its frustrations," Wilmers said. "My dad liked to tell the story of how it took over four years to install a new phone system."
Former Moog Chairman and CEO Robert Brady spoke of being encouraged by the banker to get involved in education. Moog eventually developed a high-tech relationship with the Charter School for Applied Technologies, as M&T had become involved with Westminister Community Charter School.
Buffalo Niagara Partnership President and CEO Dottie Gallagher-Cohen remembers a conversation that changed her community role.
"I said, 'Bob, I need a female executive who can serve on the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority' and he said, 'What about you? I think you would be great. You ought to do this.'" Gallagher-Cohen said. "I was like all joke, but by the end of the conversation, of course, I was primed to be on the authority and still am."
The bank chairman worked up until his death. Other speakers cited his incessant curiosity, talking about meeting the banker in his office for lunch, only to never be able to eat because they had to answer so many questions about their business, their job, their organization or their government.