Humble grocer quietly gave away millions: Waldemar Kaminski's death unlocks his story
By OWEN HEAREY
Buffalo News 6/23/2006
Waldemar Kaminski, who quietly ran a food stand in Broadway Market for more than 50 years, has been revealed to be a self-made millionaire and philanthropist who anonymously gave millions to Buffalo charities and neighbors in need. He died at home Wednesday night from complications of a long illness. He was 88. "He didn't want anyone to know him, but I just had to thank him," said Anne Gioia, co-founder of the Roswell Park Alliance Foundation, to which Kaminski donated several million dollars. "Now I think we should shout it from the rooftops." He made his hidden fortune in the stock market, carefully investing his hard-earned money over the course of his lifetime. The sole luxury in his unadorned flat, situated directly above Kaminski Meats, was the computer that he used to track his investments. "Sometimes I feel so guilty that there's so much, and it's just me," he said humbly to Cindy Eller, vice president for development at Roswell Park, when he showed her around the apartment he lived in for much of his life. "He felt that if you died a wealthy person, you had not lived a worthwhile life," Gioia said. "I don't think he had any regrets." Kaminski gave so much to so many that it's difficult to quantify just how much he's given. He donated millions to Roswell Park - including $1 million for an endowed chair in pediatrics and $1 million to build a two-acre park on the institute's campus. He gave handsomely to other groups as well, including the Father Baker Home, the Salvation Army, Hilbert College and Camp Good Days and Special Times. He even helped neighboring families with mortgage payments, college tuition and lines of credit at his stand. "It wasn't a handout. He was supportive and helped them maintain their dignity," said one of his nieces, Marsha Kaminski of Oakland, Calif. "If they were helping themselves, he wanted to help, too," Eller said. His gifts were kept quiet both because of his deeply humble nature and for his personal safety. Kaminski had been beaten and robbed several times over the years, and publicly revealing his wealth would only make him a larger target. But now that he has died, no one who knew him is holding their tongue. The green space he helped create will be named "Kaminski Park" in his honor. "We were all afraid he would leave this world, and no one would know what constituted [his] greatness," Gioia said. Born July 23, 1917, in the Albany area, Kaminski first came to Buffalo in 1927 when his family opened a small grocery store in the Broadway Market. At age 17, he opened two food stands of his own, sometimes working as many as 18 hours a day. Though he was brilliant enough to pursue higher education, he turned down a college scholarship and kept working so his late brother, Dr. Chester Kaminski, could go to University of Buffalo Medical School. His grocery career was interrupted only once - when he joined the Army during World War II. As a first sergeant, Kaminski trained more than 1,200 men between 1941 and 1946. "He led a very clean, beautiful, uncomplicated life," Gioia said. "He was a true philanthropist in every sense of the word." Kaminski enjoyed talking with friends and those who came into his store about life, politics and stocks. And he loved to fish, taking a boat out on Lake Erie "whenever he could." When he was younger, he would take his brother's children tobogganning or kite-flying. "He was more of a kid than we were," recalled another niece, Patricia Kaminski of San Francisco. "We had trouble getting the kite away from him." Those who knew Kaminski said he felt most fulfilled when he was giving back to society. "He didn't need the material things for happiness. He enjoyed just being with people and doing what he could for them," Marsha Kaminski said. "When he sat in the park and watched others, that was his gift to himself," Eller said.