|Robert Anderson will make one more run for council in an attempt to serve the people once more.
In Niagara Falls, the name is synonymous with public service. He is as accessible as Mayor Paul Dyster is unreachable. Anderson, the former City Council Chairman, remains one of the most popular public figures to ever occupy elective office in the city.
At 73 years, old, and for reasons known only to himself, he has decided to seek a fourth four-year term on the Council.
"I imagine I get more calls than the rest of the council and your mayor put together," Anderson said, "I at least always give them the respect and the time they deserve. And wherever I can I try to solve their problems. Many of the calls are from senior citizens. They have no one to help them. So I am there. Day and night. My phone never quits ringing."
Anderson said that, after a dozen years in public office, the people of Niagara Falls know who he is and whether they like him or not. He has abandoned traditional campaign methods for his fourth run.
"I am not going to have any fund raisers and I am going to buy my own signs," Anderson said.
Despite his popularity among the voters – he got more votes than Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster in the 2011 election – the independent Anderson has never been a favorite among the political hacks who control the Democratic Party here. As in 2011, he was once again denied his party’s endorsement.
He was the first prominent figure to call for former mayor Vince Anello’s resignation after a Niagara Falls Reporter investigation uncovered evidence of Anello’s taking around $40,000 in payments from downtown developer “Smokin’” Joe Anderson (no relation), and he also made headlines for offending Councilwoman Kristen Grandinetti’s delicate sensibilities by ordering a bottle of “dago red” one night at the Como restaurant.
This year, he is supporting his Council colleague Glenn Choolokian in his bid to unseat Dyster in the Sept. 10 Democratic primary.
"If people come out and vote in the primary, Glenn Choolokian has a chance. All he does is fight for the taxpayers of this city and all he does is get slammed by the opposition. But he has thrown his hat in the ring and that's what it's all about."
Clearly, Anderson is not in it for the money. The Niagara Falls Reporter reviewed records that demonstrate convincingly he has donated more than $74,000 of his salary as a Councilman to local charities that serve the poor. He has made between $8,000 and $12,000 annually during his 12 years in office.
He, unlike most of his colleagues, has never taken the health insurance opt out.
He has known his share of tragedy. His beautiful wife Marie passed away in 2011, and daughter Bernadette died in 2012, never having recovered from a beating by her ex-husband that left her comatose.
That Anderson has been a pioneer in opening up opportunities for African-Americans is beyond dispute. Born in the South Bronx Harlem neighborhood in 1942, he graduated from Morris High School six years behind Gen. Colin Powell. His mother, Thelma, was and is a deeply religious woman, and as a boy Anderson spent more than his share of time at Harlem's famous Mt. Olive Baptist Church.
"We did everything at church," he told the Niagara Falls Reporter. "Go to church at 8 o'clock Sunday morning, didn't come home until after Ed Sullivan was over at 10 o'clock at night. We ate three meals at church. I can still hear them at Mt. Olive, hundreds of people, mostly from the South, singing, and you could hear them in New Jersey or Connecticut. I was just a young kid growing up."
Mt. Olive is one of the oldest churches in New York State and is a focal point of community activity in the rejuvenated Harlem neighborhood today.
"I played basketball there -- There was a full court in the basement -- was on the TV and radio singing in the choir, and even got my job driving a Mister Softee ice cream truck through the church," he said. "There were no social service programs then. You didn't work, you didn't eat."
Anderson went on to put himself through high school with jobs at the New York Public Library, a Jewish delicatessen and Saks Fifth Avenue, learning what he could from each.
After graduation in 1959, he joined the Air Force.
The tumultuous 1960s seemed strange for the young man from Harlem, as one historic event followed another in rapid succession.
"Martin Luther King's march on Washington, the JFK assassination, the war in Vietnam. ... I thought, wow, what did I get myself into?" he said.
He spent the next 23 years in the service and learned a number of languages, including German, Philippino and Italian, serving in Europe, Southeast Asia and stateside. As he rose through the ranks, he often found himself the target of racist behavior.
"It was brutal at times," he said. "You learned how to cope. Those were the times, and if you didn't, it would just eat you up inside," he said. "You worked for the president of the United States. There's no union, no strikes, no layoffs. Yes, sir and no, ma'am -- that was the bottom line."
Following his retirement from the Air Force, he and Marie moved to Niagara Falls, where he eventually became suoerintendent of maintenance for the city school district.
In 2002, Anderson ran a successful campaign for City Council, garnering the highest vote total of any candidate in the race.
"I try to set an example," he said. "I donate everything I make as a Councilman to the churches and the children, so long as they don't beg. I don't like people who beg. I was taught not to beg -- if I lisp a bit, it's because my mother would hit me in the mouth.
"Today you see these young girls have six or seven kids out of wedlock, they don't even know who the sperm donors are, the black churches seem to be in some kind of competition with each other, and I wonder, why we aren't singing the same songs about God under one roof? The door is wide open -- it's not locked anymore. Take advantage of the opportunities."
Anderson's philosophy may be informed by the life he's led, but the life lessons he learned from his mother, at Mt. Olive Baptist Church and in the United State Air Force are never too far away.