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Remembering Phil Haberstro: Loved ones aim to build on the wellness leader's legacy

Updated: Jun 22, 2021

Buffalo News - Refresh: June 18, 2021

It turns out Phil Haberstro really was irreplaceable as executive director of the Wellness Institute of Greater Buffalo.

The institute has foundered since he was diagnosed with cancer in spring 2020 and soldiered on to keep it afloat before he died unexpectedly last November, at age 72, while undergoing treatment.

Board members discovered along the way that the organization had lost its nonprofit status, which limits its ability to secure grant money, as it continues to seek a new executive director.

“Phil had such an amazing mission, and amazing vision of what Buffalo can be, and that's why we’re moving this forward,” said Mark Donnelly, board chairman.

Donnelly, 67, a retired marketing professor who runs a small publishing business, is working to expand the board of directors, restore the nonprofit status and rename the institute Elevate Western New York, which he said better reflects the overarching mission of the organization.

“We're looking at scaling up immediately,” he said. “I've got a couple of grant writers that are looking to get started with this as soon as the 501c3 (nonprofit status) is finalized. We’re looking at putting together all the elements to build an ecosystem for not-for-profits.”

Haberstro for three decades was a familiar organizer and presence at community health fairs, health conferences and walks across the region. He also was a strong, persistent force in promoting personal and community wellness.

Phil Haberstro plowed much of the grant money he secured back into the the Wellness Institute of Greater Buffalo so it could continue to impact wellness and health policy in the region, said Mark Donnelly, one of several close friends who seek to preserve and expand his legacy.

A storied past

He grew up in the Town of Tonawanda and graduated in 1965 from Cardinal O’Hara High School. He got a degree in physical education from SUNY Brockport and played on the school football team. He was a member of the Buffalo Old Boys Rugby Club and Twin City Geminis semi-pro football team.

Before his cancer diagnosis, he had never been hospitalized or taken medication, he told a reporter last summer.

“I certainly lived by the book of regular physical activity, good nutrition, stress management, all of those things,” he said.

Haberstro was a personal trainer and fitness consultant when he co-founded the institute in 1989 with attorney John Giardino, whom he met in 1982 while working at the Buffalo Athletic Club. They labored together on grant writing. Haberstro handled program development and legwork, while Giardino looked after legal matters.

Haberstro handled the bulk of work, particularly after Giardino moved his practice to New York City 14 years ago. He also served as one of three institute board members. The others, Donnelly and Pauline Giles-Fears, remain on the board.

Grants provided Haberstro a salary and the ability to hire interns to practice a brand of health engagement steeped in the Healthy Communities movement of the 1980s. It drew a direct line to the Buffalo Complete Streets, municipal walkability planning and Green Code of today.

Jan. 17, 1948 – Nov. 18, 2020

Despite a small staff and resources, organizations and events that got their start at the institute included GObike Buffalo, the Buffalo Marathon, Massachusetts Avenue Project, Reddy Bikeshare, Explore Buffalo, Buffalo CarShare, Drums Along the Waterfront and Youth Advantage Sports.

The outsized role belied its limited resources.

“The organization hasn't made more than $55,000 a year for many, many years,” Donnelly said, “and he was taking very, very little and giving most of that back to the Wellness Institute.”

At the time of his death, Haberstro was helping a young protégé he hoped would take his place.That task became a bit too daunting for Lucy Connery, who graduated from Daemen College little more than a year ago with a master’s in public health but lacked the abundant contacts in the regional health and wellness field, as well as the deep institutional knowledge Haberstro did not have time to fully impart.

“It was more than a full-time job,” said Connery, now a research coordinator with the University of Buffalo Department of Emergency Medicine.

She is among those working with Haberstro’s family – including wife Bonnie Zimmerman and brothers Jim and Greg – to honor the region’s leading public health figure next Saturday with a walk and remembrance service in the Town of Tonawanda. Connery also will provide input toward moving the institute forward, though that work falls mostly to Donnelly and a growing number of those who knew and adored Haberstro because of their work on related programs and projects.

Mark Donnelly, a retired marketing professor who runs a small publishing business, is working with others who knew and loved Phil Haberstro to reinvigorate and rename the Wellness Institute of Greater Buffalo.

The plan

Donnelly, too, met Haberstro at the old BAC downtown branch, almost 40 years ago. The two were among those who spearheaded work to make Greater Buffalo an All America City in 2002, six years after Haberstro led the first effort that successfully placed the Buffalo Niagara region among 10 city regions honored annually.

“Phil taught me how to play racquetball," Donnelly said, “and would clean my clock on a daily basis. He brought me in to the institute because of my marketing background.”

The Wellness Institute on the sixth floor at Buffalo City Hall has sat mostly dark since the Covid-19 pandemic. Donnelly and others who aim to salvage the organization are looking for new office space nestled among other nonprofit groups aimed at improving health and well-being in the region.

Phil Haberstro was among advocates for the Tonawanda Rails to Trails section, which has added to the string of health and recreational offerings in the town where he lived.

Two people with strong environmental and advertising skills will join the board, along with someone else in the real estate and fitness field. A city law firm is helping re-establish the organization as a nonprofit under the new name.

As things change for the institute, Donnelly said, the mission will remain the same: create healthier communities.

“There was so much light involved with Phil’s vision, cast in such a long direction, it makes it easy to follow in those footsteps,” he said. “I just can't walk as fast.”

Connery wishes she’d had more time to work with Haberstro to right the Wellness Institute. She is thankful nonetheless, like so many others, that she now has an opportunity to continue his legacy.

Daemen administrators have asked her to teach the environmental health course her mentor taught for six years at her alma mater, one that she took while she was a student.

Phil Haberstro Remembrance Day

A day of activities will take place next Saturday to celebrate the life and work of Philip L. Haberstro IV, former executive director of the Wellness Institute of Greater Buffalo, who died last November.

10 a.m.: “Spirit of Phil” walk on the Tonawanda Rails to Trails path, starting behind Haberstro’s high school alma mater, Cardinal O’Hara, 39 O’Hara Road, Town of Tonawanda

11 a.m.: Walk reception

Noon: Nondenominational remembrance ceremony

1 p.m.: Memorial reception, with beer, wine, water and food provided by family and local businesses

Attire: Casual for all events

Registration: Family members request attendees register online by Thursday so they can get a headcount. A donation of $30 is requested, though not required, and will support the Wellness Institute and Cardinal O’Hara. Register at or on-site at the high school at 9:30 a.m. next Saturday.

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