While New York City and Los Angeles tend to get the most credit for being home to celebrities, most people don’t realize that many historic and modern public figures were either born or raised in Buffalo, NY.
From business and politics to music and entertainment, Buffalo has been home to some of the most accomplished and well-known names throughout history.
We’ve taken a deep dive into the lives and influence of some of the most important people to call Buffalo home.
Historic & Modern Public Figures From Buffalo
John R. Oishei (1886 – 1968)
John R. Oishei was born in Buffalo in 1886 and is most known for his philanthropic and business contributions. According to WKBW, he attended Central High School in Buffalo but never graduated. Despite this, he went on to become one of Buffalo’s most successful businessmen and wealthiest citizens.
According to the Oishei Foundation, in 1916, Oishei was traveling down Delaware Avenue near Virginia Street in downtown Buffalo during a rainstorm when a bicyclist ran into his car. Because of the rain, Oishei never saw him coming. Luckily, the cyclist was not seriously injured, but it inspired Oishei to prevent it from happening again. He searched for the best technology available at the time and worked to create the first automobile wiper blades, eventually helping to popularize their use worldwide. He founded Trico Products Corporation in 1917 to manufacture and distribute the blades. The business eventually became Buffalo’s largest private employer, according to WGRZ. Trico’s main office remained in Buffalo until 1998, and its original Buffalo manufacturing facility closed in 2002.
As a businessman and philanthropist, Oishei made significant investments in Buffalo. He started a foundation named after his wife and daughter and served as president from its founding until his death in 1968. It was later renamed the John R. Oishei Foundation, but until 1997, all foundation contributions were made on an anonymous basis. The foundation still gives away $20 million annually and provided a $10 million donation to develop the now-renamed John R. Oishei Children’s Hospital, which opened in 2017.
Rick James (1948 – 2004)
James Ambrose Johnson Jr., better known by his stage name Rick James, was born in Buffalo in 1948. His father left when James was 10, so James spent much of his childhood with his mother while she worked on her route as a numbers-runner for the Buffalo mafia. This took him to many bars and clubs, where he had the opportunity to watch musicians such as John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Etta James perform. He attended Bennett High School, located on Main Street in the University Heights neighborhood (now the Lewis J. Bennett High School of Innovative Technology), but dropped out due to issues with violence and drugs, according to the New York Post.
James moved to Toronto in 1964 and began his musical career. He later came back to Buffalo to form the locally popular Stone City Band in 1976. It was after that that James began to find commercial success, signing with Motown’s Gordy Records. He released the album “Come Get It!” in 1978 which featured hits such as “You & I” and “Mary Jane.” In 1981, James released his most successful album, “Street Songs,” which featured some of his most career-defining hits such as “Give It to Me Baby” and “Super Freak.” “Super Freak” became his biggest crossover single, mixing elements of funk, disco, rock, and new wave. James also had a successful career as a songwriter and producer for other artists including the Temptations, Eddie Murphy, and Smokey Robinson.
Throughout his life James struggled with drug abuse and faced various lawsuits and assault allegations, including a conviction that led him to be jailed for five years. He died in 2004 and his funeral was held at St. John Baptist Church and his ashes were buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery, according to The Buffalo News. Despite his troubles, James left a strong legacy and is one the most influential people to come from Buffalo. He is notable for helping make “punk-funk” mainstream, breaking down the color barrier in rock ’n’ roll, and calling out mainstream entities like MTV for primarily playing white artists, according to the New York Times.
Tim Russert (1950 – 2008)
Tim Russert was a highly accomplished and internationally respected journalist who embodied the passion and hard-working ethos of his hometown. He was born in South Buffalo and lived on Woodside Avenue in South Buffalo until age 11, according to Visit Buffalo Niagara. He attended Canisius High School. After graduating from college and law school, he ran the Buffalo office for U.S. Senator Daniel Moynihan, and he later served as special counsel and as chief of staff.
Russert was hired by NBC News’ Washington bureau in 1984, became bureau chief by 1989, and eventually became host of the Sunday morning program “Meet the Press” in 1991. Russert would go on the host for 16 years, becoming the longest-serving host of the show. Audiences connected with his in-depth interviews with public figures, in which Russert was known for his extensive research and cross-examining style. The show had more than 4 million viewers per week and was considered one of the most important sources of political news at the time. As a result, Time Magazine named Russert one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2008.
Russert also became known for his work during political elections. He moderated several political campaign debates and calculated possible Electoral College outcomes using a whiteboard during the closely contested 2000 Presidential Election, summing up the outcome as dependent upon “Florida, Florida, Florida.” TV Guide would go on to describe the scene as “one of the 100 greatest moments in TV history.” According to The Washington Post, the phrases “red states” and “blue states,” connoting Republican-leaning and Democratic-leaning electorates, became popularized by Russert. In addition to his accomplishments, Russert was known for his love for the Buffalo Bills and often closed Sunday broadcasts during the football season with an exclamation of “Go Bills!” or an enthusiastic statement about the team.
According to Visit Buffalo Niagara, upon Russert’s death in 2008, Woodside Avenue in South Buffalo was renamed “Tim Russert Way,” Around the corner on South Park Avenue is Tim Russert Children’s Garden, a formerly vacant lot that Russert funded to turn into a park. There is a wooden carving of Russert in the middle of the garden. Another park on Indian Church Road in the town of West Seneca is also named after Russert, as is a stretch of Route 20A in the town of Orchard Park near Highmark Stadium.
John Rzeznik (1965 – ) & Robby Takac (1964 – ): The Goo Goo Dolls
It seemed like you couldn’t go anywhere in the late 1990s without hearing the music of the Goo Goo Dolls, led by frontman John Rzeznik and bassist Robby Takac. They were two founding members of the wildly successful band, and both were born in Buffalo. Rzeznik grew up in a working-class East Side Polish neighborhood and attended Corpus Christi Grammar School. He later attended McKinley Vocational High School, where he began playing the guitar, and briefly attended Buffalo State College before dropping out after his first year. He was 19 when he met Takac and formed the Goo Goo Dolls, according to The Vogue.
Takac grew up in West Seneca. He graduated from West Seneca East Senior High School in 1982 and later graduated from Medaille College. He joined a band called the Beaumonts, which included Reznik, and they decided to form a new band together. They eventually found a drummer in Mike Malinin and called themselves the Goo Goo Dolls. Their first big single was “Name” in 1995, followed by the hit that made them household names, “Iris,” in 1998. The song appeared on the soundtrack to the popular movie “City of Angels” and spent a then-record 18 weeks at number one in Hot 100 Airplay and a then-record 17 weeks at number one on the Billboard Adult Top 40 chart. It also received Grammy nominations for “Record of the Year” and “Pop Performance by a Duo or Group as well as “Song of the Year.”
The album featuring “Iris” was “Dizzy Up the Girl,” which sold 4 million copies. Other top-40 singles from the band’s most successful album included “Slide,” “Broadway” and “Black Balloon.” In October 2012, Billboard’s “Top 100 Pop Songs 1992–2012” chart included “Iris” at number one, “Slide,” at number nine, and “Name” at number 24. The Goo Goo Dolls are the only musicians to have three songs chart on the list.
The band continued to enjoy mainstream success in the early 2000s. Their 2006 album featured singles such as “Give a Little Bit” and “Let Love In.” The album helped them hit a record 13 top 10 hits in Adult Top 40 history. On June 19, 2008, Rzeznik was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
The band has continued to tour and release music, always making sure to pay homage to their hometown despite their wild success. Takac is still heavily involved in the Buffalo community, having started his own Buffalo-based record label, Good Charamel Records, in 2003. He has attempted to highlight local bands and in 2003 founded the Music Is Art Festival, a not-for-profit organization that seeks to promote music’s cultural, social, and educational impact on the community. The organization hosts programs and events throughout the year, including collecting and donating instruments to local schools, mentorship programs, and youth band competitions.
Other Notable People Born in Buffalo
Willis Carrier (1876 – 1950)
Willis Carrier was an engineer best known for inventing air conditioning. He developed the first electrical air conditioning unit in 1902 and founded Carrier Corporation, a company specializing in the manufacture and distribution of HVAC systems, in 1915. Carrier was born in Angola, graduating from Angola Academy in 1894 and from Buffalo High School in 1897. Prior to founding his company, he worked at the Buffalo Forge Company. He died in 1950 and is buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery. He was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1985.
Rear Admiral Clarence Wade McClusky, Jr. (1902 – 1976)
His name may not come up often in history books, but C. Wade McClusky is an extremely important historical figure. McClusky was a United States Navy aviator during World War II and the early Cold War period. He is credited with having played a major role in the Battle of Midway in WWII. This battle was considered the turning point in the U.S.’s fight against Japan. During this battle, McClusky made the critical decision that led to the sinking of two of Japan’s fleet carriers, Kaga and Akagi. McClusky was born in Buffalo in 1902 and graduated from South Park High School in 1918 at the age of 16. The Buffalo and Erie County Naval and Military Park has commissioned and dedicated a bronze sculpture of McClusky, which can be viewed in its museum.
John Roberts (1955 – )
John Roberts has served as the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court since 2005. He was nominated to the Court that year by President George W. Bush, replacing Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. He has been described as having a moderate conservative judicial philosophy. Roberts was born in 1955 in Buffalo and spent his early years in Hamburg, near where his father worked as an electrical engineer for the Bethlehem Steel Corporation, according to his biography by Joan Biskupic.