Photos and story by Susan Mikula Campbell
Former Town of Niagara hairdresser Sally Benchik, who at 96 is the town's eldest resident, sparkles with humor as she pats the hairdo she had done for the party.
F. Ray Collins, who will be 84 the day after Easter, still reports for work every day at Ray's Auto Electric, the business he bought from his cousin in 1964.
These were the type of people honored last week as part of the Town of Niagara's bicentennial celebration. Town Board members and political representatives handed out proclamations to the town's eldest citizens and the businesses that have been in the town for 50 years and more, and a birthday cake was cut at the Calvin K. Richards Senior Center in Veterans Memorial Park.
Benchik has been a town resident for 92 years, moving here from Canada with her family when she was just 4 years old and never leaving.
"I just kind of like the town. It was a nice, clean friendly place to live. My husband (Frank) and I built the little house I live in today," she said.
She was a hairdresser for 55 years, starting working with a hairdresser in Niagara Falls then working out of her home.
"Most of my customers are gone, but I'm still happy to be here, and I'm as active as I can be," she said.
Benchik, who will be 97 in June, doesn't let age deter her, although she admits still being a bit peaked from a winter bout with pneumonia.
She's a Eucharistic minister and lecturer at the St. Leo's Church site of St. Vincent de Paul Parish. She laughs as she describes recently going for a driver's license check. When asked how long she had been driving, she responded 79 years, and was told, "I don't want to know how old you are, I want to know how long you've been driving!"
Benchik started tooling around town in a little Model T when she was 16, and has never received a traffic ticket or had an accident.
She plans to attend as many of the bicentennial events as she can this year.
"I think it's great. There's a lot of wonderful things going on," she said.
•The senior citizens honored, in addition to Benchik, were: Lillian Broda, 94, town resident 53 years; Sadie Clare, 96; Lillian DuBois, 92, lifelong resident; Martin Greaser, 90, town resident 66 years; Emily Kciuk, 96, town resident 63 years; and Gladys Kurowski, 96.
The secret to running a successful business in the town has been good customer relations, Ray Collins said. Ray's Auto Electric has been at the same Military Road location since 1960. He admits business in the area has been a little tougher since the big plants, such as Hooker (Occidental), Washington Mills and Carborundum closed, but he points out that he's had a lot of returning customers over the years.
"I took care of them and they took care of me - that's why the business kept going," he said.
The business is still a family affair. His wife, Sheila, has done the bookkeeping over the years ("She does a good job, too."), and his son Dennis started working in the business after school when he was about 8 or 9 years old ("I still own it, but he does most of the work").
"He's probably the oldest working guy in the Town of Niagara," Dennis Collins fondly says of his father.
Like father, like son ... Dennis Collins, in addition to working at Ray's, sells real estate and volunteers at Mount St. Mary's Hospital and Health Center and is active in the Lions Club and the town Board of Assessment.
The yearlong bicentennial celebration is a big thing for the town, Ray Collins said. "It should be a good year here. I'm glad to be a part of it."
•In addition to Ray's Auto Electric, businesses operating in the Town of Niagara for more than 50 years that received a salute from the Bicentennial Committee were: Alcliff Landscaping & Nursery Inc., Armand Cerrone Inc., Capitol Cleaners, Colato Manufacturing, Cooper Sign, Cruisers, Electro Mesh Systems Group Inc. and Northeast Wire & Cable Inc., Felicetti Concrete, Firth Jewelers, Garlock Auto Parts, Larry's Liquors, Mariposa Sub Shop, Marsh's General Store, Niagara Monuments Works, Pete and Paul Hardware, Ray's Auto Electric, Ray's Military Barber Shop, Richards Motor Service, Scott Furniture, Vaughn Door Center, Viola Cabinet, Viola's Submarine Shop and Whistle Pig.
•The committee also took time to honor the volunteers participating in creating the bicentennial cannon display at Military and Packard roads, including: Villani Landscaping, CMC Concrete, M & M Electric, Lafarge Inc., Lime Energy, Fashion Outlets of Niagara, Wayside Nursery and Gui's Lumber.
The next Town of Niagara bicentennial event will be May 31, when there will be Memorial Day tribute with the Town of Niagara Lions Club at Six Corners (Packard and Military roads), where the cannon display will be located. A full schedule of events for the year is available at the town website at www.townofniagara.com.