Sean Kirst: With Bruce Smith as ally, retired officers vow that Aaron Salter’s sacrifice is never forgotten

The original goal was simple. When retired Buffalo police officers Earl Perrin, Bradford Pitts and Nate Goldsmith announced their plans for a scholarship in honor and memory of their close friend, Aaron Salter Jr., they hoped they could raise enough money to help one graduating senior at Hutchinson Central Technical High School.

“Things evolved,” said Perrin, a retired detective, laughing softly at the magnitude of his own understatement.

Once they went public with the idea six weeks ago, an eruption of support instantly amplified the dream. Perrin summarizes what has become a full-time volunteer effort for himself and his close friends by pointing to the passionate involvement of Bruce Smith, the football Hall of Famer and legendary Buffalo Bill.

Smith, in a long conversation Tuesday, said his motivation is to do whatever he can to ease the trauma in a community he loves, a word that was both the pivot in everything Smith said and one that he sees as defining Salter.

Bruce Smith East Ferry Street

“Like the rest of the community, I’m just devastated,” Bruce Smith said upon visiting the memorials at Tops after the attack. Longtime Bills teammate Jim Kelly is to Smith’s left.

“I give so much credit to this hero … for his sacrifice in preventing this from being an even worse tragedy,” Smith said, “because one would believe that there would have been other acts of violence and murders and killing that would have taken place if it had not been for the heroism of Aaron Salter.”

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Investigators say Salter, a retired police lieutenant who worked as a security guard at the Tops Markets on Jefferson Avenue, died after exchanging gunfire with a white supremacist murderer in body armor who killed 10 African-American women and men and wounded three other people.

Thursday marks two months since that act of mass murder, and Smith said discussion of the long-range impact of the scholarship program – an initiative Salter’s friends expect to be a shared purpose for the rest of their lives – underlines what he believes is the sweeping point.

Smith described the aftermath in Buffalo as “our moment to really show what love is all about, with compassion and empathy and sympathy and to understand that this is an opportunity for us to be better, to love one another, to encourage one another and to be a living example of what our Lord and savior would do.”

“There have been a lot of helping hands here,” said Tops Maintenance Manager Tim Bowen. “There will also be something inside the store, but this is sacred to the community, and we want to respect that.”

He spoke of families that have lost “matriarchs and patriarchs,” living treasuries of generational knowledge. He spoke of the permanent absence faced by survivors of those who died and the difficult journey of the wounded, as well as the suffering endured by shoppers, staff and neighbors struggling with images no one should see or hear. The two-month mark, Smith said, becomes a moment for remembering this imperative:

“We have to make sure these families in the community feel our love, not only in the week it happened, or a month after it passed by, but six months from now, a year from now, two years from now, five years from now,” said Smith, wrapping in the scholarship fund that elevates Salter’s sacrifice as an element of what he hopes is lasting civic commitment.

Salter scholarship

Retired Buffalo Police officers and longtime friends of the late Aaron Salter, front from left: Bradford Pitts, Earl Perrin and Nate Goldsmith, outside the E District building where all served when they were young and new to the department.

Pitts, one of the founders of the effort, said the response has been “just shy of overwhelming.” He knew Salter when they were children together at Buffalo’s Public School 78. As kids, Pitts believed his friend – a guy dedicated to math and science, and a guy who had already figured out how engines work – would end up as an engineer or in some similar profession.

Instead, Salter became an officer, a decision his friends say came down to one central philosophy: He saw it as a chance to make a difference in the neighborhood that shaped his life.

“Basically, we think his sacrifice should never be forgotten,” said Goldsmith, who considered Salter to be both friend and mentor.

The initial vision was creating that single scholarship for a Hutch-Tech student who reflected Salter’s passion and curiosity. But within hours of the announcement, the three retired officers received a flood of calls – none more meaningful or symbolic than one from a close friend of Smith’s, who said the football Hall of Famer was deeply moved by the idea.

The next day, Perrin met Smith for the first time, a handshake that quickly transformed into a friendship. As a direct result, they are planning an Aug. 29 fundraising golf tournament in Salter’s memory at the Lockport Town and Country Club, an event in which Smith predicts many good friends from football and the business community will participate. 

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Organizers say the tournament – information available at – could lead next spring to as many as 10 citywide scholarships. Beyond that goal, Perrin, Goldsmith and Pitts all say Smith encouraged them to broaden their scope, to “not put a ceiling on what we might be able to accomplish,” as Pitts explains it.

They talk now of what they might be able to do for all the families of those lost or wounded at Tops, as well as for the stunned and traumatized Cold Spring neighborhood at the heart of the attack.

“Aaron was always about making the community better,” Goldsmith said.

The three old friends – working closely with Salter’s family – envision their nonprofit as eventually becoming a gateway for routing neighbors unsure of their next step toward financial counseling, therapy, mentoring, health care and housing resources.

It would be an appropriate testament for Salter, Goldsmith said, “whose name carries a sense of pride and what it means to be at your best when things are the very worst.”

As for Smith, he downplays his own role, giving credit to many others whom he maintains have far deeper roles in the community – specifically his Hall of Fame teammate, Thurman Thomas, and Patti Thomas, Thurman’s wife.

Looking back, Smith – now of Virginia – said Jefferson Avenue and the African American community around it were a central part of his life during his years in Buffalo. As a young Bill, he used to go to the Metropolitan Style Shop for haircuts, and for two years he traveled to the house of a neighborhood barber who would cut Smith’s hair inside.

The late Larry White, a city police officer, was a confidant, and Smith speaks with longing of the “good home cooking” he would find at Lee’s BBQ, operated by the late Lee Smith, another longtime friend.

Tops reopening

Michael Hill of the Langston Hughes Institute helps rearrange items at a memorial to those killed two months ago today at the Tops Market on Jefferson Avenue. (Derek Gee / Buffalo News)

In late May, Smith wept when he joined a contingent of National Football League luminaries at the memorial, outside of Tops, which is reopening for the first time Friday. He intends to make a significant contribution to the Salter scholarship fund, but he also reflected on a different investment of much higher meaning.

“One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that giving money is one of the easiest and simplest things you can do, but your presence and your time are the most valuable things you have in your possession,” he said.

The greatest tribute any of us can offer, Smith said, is to remain close to those suffering from the attack, “to look them in the eye and show them you care, not just for one moment, but by staying in contact and giving them real presence. That’s one of the most powerful healing tools we can give to those families and that community.”

Smith, now 59, said age and perspective have only deepened his sense of the almost mystical connection between the city and the Bills. Family tributes to many of the lost and wounded on May 14 reflect years of faith and devotion to the team – a bridge reaffirmed by neighbors who grieved with Smith when he dropped to his knees at Tops.

“It’s an overwhelming feeling,” he said, “the feeling of love they give me every single time I come back to Buffalo.”

What he vows, like Salter’s friends, is lifetime proof it goes both ways.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at

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