Darius Pridgen ‘81, is an Air Force veteran who received his B.S. degree in Criminal Justice from Buffalo State College and his M.A. degree in Organizational Leadership from Medaille College.
To be nominated for the Msgr. John Zeitler Memorial Award, individuals must possess an extraordinary dedication to Community and Family Life as well as an outstanding reputation as a spiritual leader in the community. This year’s nominee, Bishop Darius G. Pridgen, certainly manifests these fine qualities.
Bishop Pridgen is a mentor, community leader and organizer as the Senior Servant of True Bethel Baptist Church located in Buffalo. This church provides the community with food, clothing and shelter through their Taste of Faith Pantry and the Clothes Closet which extends help for individuals in need during difficult times. In 2015, under the Bishop’s leadership, a Mobile Outreach Van and Information Opportunity Bus were created to serve multiple areas in the city. During the same year, Darius led the effort to build a Dollar General in the neighborhood.
Bishop Pridgen is also known as Buffalo Common Council President Pridgen. He is the first known cleric to be elected to public office in Buffalo’s history. He was first elected to the Buffalo Board of Education, where he served as Chairperson of the Big 5 School Districts and the Student Support Committee. He also served as Chair of the Rules Committee on the Council and currently is a member of the Board of Trustees at Medaille College.
To quote Bishop Pridgen, “I am called to build people who will build a community and who will change the world.”
Nicholas C. Costantino, this year’s recipient of the Earle Y. Hannel Award, graduated from Bennett in 1962 and was awarded his Bachelor’s Degree from U.B. in 1967. Nick cherished the education he received from BHS, weaing our orange tiger logo in his lapel at all times. Football was his chosen sport and he played for the Tigers from 1959-1961. During his undergraduate years at U.B., Nick, the passionate football player, was a defensive end for the Lackawanna Lancers semi-professional football team.
Upon graduation from U.B., Nick entered the John Marshall Law School in Chicago and received his law degree in 1971. In his final year of law school, he taught science in a Chicago inner-city middle school.
Upon returning to Western New York, Nick began to work in the Erie County D.A.’s office in 1974 and was chief of the Major Violent Offense Bureau until 1985 when he ran for mayor of the city. He then entered private practice and, for more than 30 years, his office was located down the street from Bennett at Main and Fillmore. During this time, Nick was involved in the Butler Mitchell alumni, supporting youth activities on the West Side.
Along with being an honorary football coach for the Bennett Tigers under head coach Steve McDuffie, Nick was most active as a Board Member in our Alumni Association. He was a loyal Sports Hall of Fame Committee member and a valued participant on Bennett’s Redesign Team, which formed in 2014. His family stated, “Nick worked passionately with others to keep Bennett High open when it was in jeopardy of closing”. Nick also worked very hard to develop a weight room adjacent to the Gym so our students could properly exercise with modern equipment that was not present before its inception.
Nick’s wife Karen, daughter Nicole, sons Justin, Andrew, Eric and Nicholas, his 20 grandchildren and one great grandchild are extremely proud of Nick receiving this prestigious award posthumously.
And, on behalf of the entire Bennett Alumni Association family, we will miss you, Nick.
Sean D. Waller, a 1986 graduate of Bennett High School, was a highly talented athlete in three sports throughout his high school career—-Football, Track and Field and Basketball. He received All High Awards in football in 1985 and in Track and Field in 1985 and 1986. Bennett was the Harvard Cup Champion in 1985 and won the Track and Field Scalp and Blade Championship from 1983-1986. In addition, Sean was named All-Metro in Football in the National Inner-City Youth Organization.
After graduation from Bennett, Sean first attended ECC in 1987 where he was named All Conference and All American in Track and Field in the one-mile relay. He then enrolled at Eastern Kentucky University where he played football for 3 years. The team won the Ohio Valley Conference Championship in 1988 and 1990.
Sean graduated from college in 1990 and, soon thereafter, joined the Buffalo Police Department. He remained with the department until 2003 when he was forced to retire after getting injured in the line of duty. At that time, Sean returned to his first love, football, and became a coach at Belhaven University in Jackson, Mississippi in the Big Sky Conference in 2005 and 2006.
Sean, the father of 5 children and 2 grandchildren, currently lives with his family in Franklin, Tennessee, which is outside of Nashville. He is working in sales and owns a food truck called Chat-Chow Snack Wagon.
Sean is absolutely thrilled to receive this prestigious award. He remarked, “Life is made up of many seasons and I credit all my seasons of life at Bennett making me into the man I have become.”
Bernice Beeks was an excellent multi-sport athlete with limitless potential. Unfortunately, in the Pre-Title IX era, girls in the Buffalo public high schools had no opportunity to participate in interscholastic sports. Before 1975, their only options were sports clubs, intramural volleyball, or joining a student run Pre-Title IX team.
Bernice played 4 years of intramural volleyball which was run by P.E. teacher Miss Blue. She also played 2 seasons of Pre-Title IX basketball. The girls on the team purchased their own uniforms and took city buses to games. Prior to their 1971 – ‘72 season, Bern hand sewed all the team members’ numbers onto the front and back of their uniform shirts. Practices were held in backyards, at the Kensington Playground and the Delaware Park Courts. In bad weather, practice took place on the 2nd floor hallway of Bennett with a trash can as a substitute for a hoop. Games were played against C.Y.O. teams, private, and Catholic schools. Bern was a vital member of a scrappy team that represented Bennett and the Buffalo public schools well. Thanks to her speed, jumping ability, and defense; her 1971 – ‘72 team had a 10 Win – 2 Loss season. One can only imagine how good she would have been with proper coaching and regular practices. She also played 2 seasons of Pre-Title IX softball. Those practices were held at Shoshone Park. She was also a 2-year member of the Bennett Horseback Riding Club of which Miss Blue was faculty adviser.
After high school, Bern continued her athletic pursuits. For 9 years, she played outfield for the “Soulful Queens” of the Buffalo Softball League. There, she won the Most Home Runs and 2 MVP trophies. She has been playing volleyball for “Hannah’s Team” for over 17 years at Houghton Park. She also bowled in the General Mills Ladies League. Her team the “Lucky Charms” won 2 First Place trophies. A couple of years ago. she took up a new sport – Pickleball. Just as in high school, if sports are being played, Bern is there.
Bernice recently retired from her job at General Mills. Her sons Tyrone, 46 and Nathaniel, 38 both played football for Seneca High School and the Lackawanna Dynasty. These days, Bern can be found in local gyms and parks instilling the love of sports and the benefit of an active lifestyle in her grandchildren.
Lothell T. J. Blackmon Jr. was an outstanding three sport athlete in the Buffalo Public Schools. T. J. stands in the unique position where he most certainly will be considered in two different high school Halls of Fame, Bennett and City Honors. T.J. is being honored today for his stellar 2-year career as quarterback for the Bennett Tigers football team during both the 1984 and ‘85 seasons.
The 1985 team was undefeated in 9 games and became Harvard Cup co-champions, and TJ was first team All- High. T.J. was the lynch pin in the Tigers revolutionary “run and shoot” passing offense, never before used in Harvard Cup competition. According to Coach “V”; the only thing that could stop T.J.’s passing attack, did. That came in the form of a huge snowstorm the night before and the morning of the 1985 Harvard Cup championship game. The game against Grover ended up in a 0 – 0 tie in very tough playing conditions.
Aside from T.J.’s football accomplishments, his other outstanding sports career in Buffalo was at City Honors High School. T.J. was a four-year star in basketball and baseball at City Honors, concurrent with his Bennett football career.
T.J. was a second team All-High in basketball in 1985 and ‘86 for the Section VI, class C champion City Honors team. In baseball for the Centaurs, he accomplished even more. T.J. was first team All-High in baseball in 1986 and named Buffalo “player of the year”. T.J. competed in the WNY high school all-star game at Pilot Field in 1986.
After high school, T.J. played basketball and baseball at Hilbert College where he was a Region 3 all-star. After Hilbert, T.J. attended Coastal Carolina College where he played baseball.
T.J.’s working career included 22 years as a Buffalo Fire Fighter. He and his wife Maria are proud parents of four children and two grandchildren.