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By Frank Thomas Croisdale

It's a funny thing having one of your dreams come true.

Today, as I write these words, my first book went to press. Thousands of copies were printed and they will be distributed to all major booksellers in Western New York. Within a month's time, people will be able to go into their favorite bookstore and pick up a copy of my book. My name will be on the spine, my picture inside the back cover.

It hardly seems real, but I've pinched myself and it is.

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The book is entitled "Buffalo Soul Lifters: A Homespun Collection of Inspirational Stories." As I state in the introduction, "It began with a simple purple balloon."

Astute readers may recall that I wrote on these pages of the purple balloon that I found along the banks of Hyde Park Creek in October of 2002. Whitney Raymond, a third-grade student, had released the balloon from in front of her school in Ogden, Utah. Miraculously, the balloon traveled nearly 2,000 miles to Niagara Falls.

When I wrote about the miracle of Whitney's balloon for the paper, I received all sorts of e-mail from people inspired by the tale. That got me to thinking that there must be other stories in Western New York of folks and their deeds that would touch people's hearts the way that Whitney's balloon had. I began using the term "purple balloon" as a metaphor for people who reached out to their fellow man in an effort to make the world a little kinder and a little gentler place to live.

Now here's the amazing part: Other people understood what I was going for and jumped on board with the notion.

The first was my wife, Dawn, and the second was Buffalo Books publisher Brian Meyer. I contacted Brian with the idea of putting out a book of these inspirational tales. We set up a meeting and, to my great surprise, he agreed to publish the book by the time we stood and shook hands to depart.

We worked on an 18-month timetable and the next year-and-a-half would prove to be the most rewarding period, both personally and professionally, of my entire life.

The first challenge was to put together a list of stories to be included in the book. That proved to be relatively easy.

The next step was far more difficult.

Contacting the people to be interviewed and scheduling a time and place convenient to meet was tricky and time-consuming. Eventually, however, one by one, the times were set and the interviews completed.

It was during this period that I went through a phenomenal metamorphosis. I'd always known that the hearts of Western New Yorkers were big, but I guess I never knew just how deep our capacity to care for one another truly is.

The people I spoke with and the stories they spun will stay with me forever.

There were Jim and Jill Kelly speaking candidly about their son, Hunter, and his struggles and triumphs over Krabbe Disease. A Hall of Fame quarterback and a world-class mom both letting their love for their only son pour freely with each word uttered. Hunter himself acknowledged my presence with a smile that would melt the heart of the surliest cynic.

I left their home believing that miracles do indeed exist.

Speaking of former Buffalo Bills, I will always relish the opportunity I got to interview Doug Goodwin. Doug was a fullback on the teams that won the championship of the AFL in the mid-'60s. Doug underwent a heart transplant in New York City. His new heart was flown in from Logan Airport in Boston. All of this happened on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center almost had one more casualty in Doug Goodwin.

Fortunately, the gods were smiling on Doug and he and his new heart are doing fine.

"I tell people, don't feel bad for me, with my new heart I'm just 4 years old," Doug said, and the laughter in his voice was like music for my soul.

Marty Giles loved his brother Rob so much that he put his own health on the line to save Rob's life.

Rob was in desperate need of a liver transplant and no suitable donor could be found. Marty heard of a pioneering surgery being done in Cleveland, in which a portion of a living donor's liver could be transplanted into a person with a diseased organ. Although the surgery was very risky and quite painful, Marty forged ahead without hesitation and Rob Giles has a bright future as a result of his brother's sacrifice.

The stories of John Clary and Carly Collard were written through many tears. John and Carly had many things in common. Both were teen-agers with bright smiles and sharp minds. Both loved children. Both came from strong families where they had much love and support.

And both died at an unthinkably young age from inoperable brain tumors.

It is what Carly and John decided to do with the short time they were given that made them so special. They reached out to other sick kids and helped make their illnesses more manageable and their lives enriched.

If you're looking to make a list of the strongest, kindest families of Western New York, it better begin with "C" for Collard and Clary.

The book contains over 30 of these stories, each chronicling people who are "purple balloons" for all of us on the Niagara Frontier.

From Roger Woodward, who survived an accidental plunge over the falls in 1960, to Gary Carella, the Niagara Falls firefighter who saved a man's life on the brink of the falls, the people detailed in "Buffalo Soul Lifters" proved to me there are no finer people than those we on the Niagara Frontier call neighbor.

"Buffalo Soul Lifters" will hit bookstores by the end of September. While I certainly hope that it sells well, I realize that, for me, the book has already paid dividends far beyond what can be measured by any list put together by The New York Times.

I always thought that my dream was to take the final step of a journey that would see my name on the front of a book cover.

What I came to realize is that the treasure was in taking all of the steps that led to that point.

Frank Thomas Croisdale is a Contributing Editor at the Niagara Falls Reporter. You can write him at NFReporter@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Aug. 31 2004