For Sports­men’s owner, a diploma based on high hon­ors in life

The Buffalo News - - PICTURE PAGE -

Dwane Hall was near the door of his Sports­men’s Tav­ern on Thurs­day evening when Michael Anelli walked in. Anelli had been Hall’s prin­ci­pal at River­side High School in Buf­falo in the early 1970s, and Hall was pretty sure he re­mem­bered their last true con­ver­sa­tion.

They were sit­ting in Anelli’s of­fice with a tru­ant of­fi­cer about 48 years ago, while Anelli kept telling Hall he had to stop skip­ping school.

At the bar, Anelli, 84, didn’t seem wor­ried about the past. “I hear you’ve got free beer,” he said to Hall, 64, and they laughed and shook hands. Anelli said he

was head­ing up­stairs, a guest at a meet­ing of the River­side Alumni As­so­ci­a­tion. Hall planned on stop­ping up later, but the sight of Anelli, for an in­stant, caused a fa­mil­iar gut re­ac­tion.

Some­where, he felt a faint ache of re­gret.

“He doesn’t think he’s done any­thing to de­serve what he gets,” said Hall’s wife, Denise, an An­nun­ci­a­tion grad­u­ate who grew up a cou­ple of doors away from Hall on Mil­i­tary Road in Black Rock, then mar­ried him when they were both 18, in 1972.

Sean Kirst

She was also one of the co-con­spir­a­tors in mak­ing sure her hus­band fi­nally re­solved an ab­sence that had both­ered him for decades.

Anelli was there to sur­prise Hall with a high school diploma, the one Hall never re­ceived be­cause he left River­side as a ju­nior. The plan­ning started two years ago, when Hall ca­su­ally men­tioned to old friend Harold Christie that he had never grad­u­ated from River­side.

Christie took the idea of grant­ing him a diploma to alumni as­so­ci­a­tion of­fi­cers Ann Mal­iszczak, Cindy Kosanovich, Lauren Poveromo and Rita Kon­tak, who quickly asked Denise to join their cause.

They stepped into lead­er­ship po­si­tions when long­time as­so­ci­a­tion pres­i­dent Ruth Hard­ing Hawthorne, now 85, wrote in a newslet­ter that the group might be in trou­ble with­out some new blood. Kosanovich, con­cerned, started re­cruit­ing her friends.

Like the neigh­bor­hood it­self, the as­so­ci­a­tion is rebounding in mem­ber­ship and pas­sion, and its of­fi­cers looked for a gal­va­niz­ing cause.

Com­ing to­gether around Dwane Hall was an easy choice.

“He’s done so much,” Mal­iszczak said. “He never fin­ished high school but he had a dream and the work ethic and de­sire to make it come true. He al­ways wanted to stay in the neigh­bor­hood, and now he’s a big part of the re­ju­ve­na­tion.”

That jour­ney is reap­ing high hon­ors. In 2015, the Ameripoli­tan As­so­ci­a­tion named Sports­men’s the best venue in the world for Amer­i­cana, which Hall de­fines as roots mu­sic. Last year, the Buf­falo Mu­sic Hall of Fame brought in Hall as a Pi­o­neer Award-win­ning in­ductee. This Au­gust, Sports­men’s will be­gin host­ing out­door shows as a reg­u­lar at­trac­tion, be­hind the tav­ern.

Hall comes across as a soul­ful, blue-col­lar guy who un­der­stands how to evolve and ad­just with­out sur­ren­der­ing what mat­ters, an apt corol­lary in 2019 for what his city wants to be.

Denise knows her hus­band strug­gles to see it in that way.

“Many times,” she said, “he thinks about ‘what ifs.’ ”

She met him when they were chil­dren. Hall’s fa­ther was a back­hoe op­er­a­tor who played coun­try gui­tar. Her dad worked at a lum­ber­yard. Long be­fore they dated, the cou­ple hung around with the same group of kids. Their courtship was part of what Dwane calls a “nat­u­ral state,” the way every­thing in his life seems to roll out the way it should, with­out too much over­think­ing.

While he started out as a fresh­man at River­side in 1968, Hall soon came to ac­cept a sim­ple truth. “I hated school,” he said.

He and a good friend named Dave would hide their fish­ing rods in the woods, near a hole in the fence by the foot­ball field. They would walk in the front door and flee out the back, some­times pur­sued by Anelli and his staff. Once safely away, they would fish at the Ni­a­gara River, un­til the ab­sences piled up and coun­selors cor­nered Hall one day and sug­gested a new desti­na­tion.

They thought it would be a good idea for him to at­tend a tightly mon­i­tored in­dus­trial school. Hall had no in­ter­est. Even as a teen, he felt he was drift­ing and needed a big change. He went to his fa­ther and said he wanted to quit school and join the Marines.

“The great­est thing that ever hap­pened to me,” Hall said. It was the Viet­nam era. While he was not sent into com­bat, he said the Marines gave him dis­ci­pline, di­rec­tion, a much clearer sense of self. He mar­ried Denise, and their old­est son, Ja­son, was born in Hawaii. Once the cou­ple came home, they knew ex­actly where they wanted to be.

They set­tled in Black Rock. For 10 years, Hall sang and played gui­tar at night and did such jobs by day as high-pres­sure wash­ing chem­i­cal tanks. Denise’s fa­ther loved to stop at Sports­men’s for a beer, and Hall started go­ing there to shoot some pool. In 1985, he and Denise agreed to man­age the place when the own­ers ran into some health prob­lems.

“It was still a beer joint,” Hall said, but the band he founded decades ago, the Stone Coun­try Band, be­gan play­ing there rou­tinely, and pretty soon they were invit­ing friends to per­form. By 1988, the Halls owned the build­ing. Even­tu­ally they added a stage, and they knocked out some old apart­ments on the sec­ond floor and cre­ated a bal­cony. Be­fore long, well-known per­form­ers were walk­ing through the door.

They stayed there when the neigh­bor­hood seemed frag­ile, when many peo­ple lost hope, and now they can feel so much is com­ing back. They are grand­par­ents, and their sons Ja­son, Jef­frey and James all work with them. Denise looks at her hus­band as a guy who lifted his city and stayed close to his fam­ily and man­aged to reaf­firm his own art, enough true suc­cess to make any­one proud.

Still, she knows he some­times won­ders what he missed by leav­ing school. “I must have thought about get­ting my GED a gajil­lion times,” Hall said.

His friends and class­mates de­cided to re­solve that is­sue.

They went to Com­mon Coun­cil Mem­ber Joe Golombek Jr. He took their re­quest for a diploma to the school dis­trict, where staff mem­bers made use of a pro­gram that pro­vides de­grees for wartime vet­er­ans who left school early to join the mil­i­tary.

The process re­quired spe­cific doc­u­ments. Denise sneaked them out of the house. Fi­nally, the River­side alumni of­fi­cers asked Hall if their as­so­ci­a­tion could have what seemed to be a rou­tine mixer on the sec­ond floor of Sports­men’s, and they hunted down Anelli, River­side’s lon­gre­tired prin­ci­pal, and brought him in to help pull off the sur­prise.

Thurs­day, Mal­iszczak used a mi­cro­phone to call for ev­ery­one’s at­ten­tion. She told the gath­er­ing the of­fi­cers wanted to say a quick thanks to the Halls. The cou­ple went up front, where Anelli was wait­ing, and all the prepa­ra­tion came to­gether per­fectly.

Out came a pur­ple cap and gown and the diploma. Off went a Marine Corps hat and on went the mor­tar­board. Hall, in dis­be­lief, raised his fists in tri­umph.

Anelli – the same guy who once brought down the dis­ci­plinary ham­mer – of­fi­cially handed over the diploma, and the scene trans­formed into a bliz­zard of hugs. Hall leaned over and kissed Denise, then stepped back to wipe away tears that were rolling down his face.

“This is be­yond well-de­served,” said his son Jef­frey. “He’s a superstar. Things like this just don’t hap­pen to ev­ery­one.”

As for Hall, no big fan of talk­ing about him­self, that kind of praise left him un­sure of what to say. Yet Mal­iszczak said there was no need to find the words.

Two hours later, when she left, Hall still wore the cap and gown.

Robert Kirkham/Buf­falo News

Dwane Hall wipes a tear while hold­ing his high school diploma at the Sports­men’s Tav­ern dur­ing a sur­prise grad­u­a­tion cer­e­mony there on Thurs­day. His wife Denise, far left, kept the grad­u­a­tion a se­cret for sev­eral months.

Robert Kirkham/Buf­falo News

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