As a teenager, David Mitchell LaClair dreamed of becoming an ironworker, like his father. His father, Thomas LaClair, wouldn’t listen to him. Thomas had spent his life working in high steel, but he had reason to hope that David would stay out of the business.
It was the same reason behind his son’s middle name.
David, 65, told the story on Wednesday, after a Buffalo ceremony that officially renamed the intersection of Main and Perry streets to “Skywalker Way.” Under gloomy Lake Erie skies, Skyway traffic jostled and rumbled above a rally honoring Mitchell LeClair, Gatlin White and Daniel Smith, three ironworkers who died in separate falls in 1955, during the construction of this monumental bridge.
A quest to honor the men who died building the Skyway will culminate on June 29. Officials plan to erect a sign at the intersection of Main and Perry streets. Travelers to this location will soon be able to drive, walk or cycle on “Skywalker Way”.
For David, who spells his last name differently than his uncle, it was a chance to both honor an uncle he never knew and represent his late father, who in his own way played a role central in the calendar of the ceremony. The tribute was the longtime goal of Celeste LeClair-Coleman, Mitchell’s youngest daughter, born months after her father’s death.
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Mitchell LeClair died while working high on the bridge alongside his brother Thomas and their father. The brothers were ironworkers, their father grew up in the legendary Mohawk community of Kahnawake, renowned for its entire families of ironworkers who shaped the horizons. The trade is so intertwined with Aboriginal culture that those who engage in it are often known as “skywalkers” among the Haudenosaunee, or Six Nations.
David said his father, there when the tragedy happened, never fully healed from witnessing his brother’s death. They were “almost as close as twins,” David said, recalling how his father was so hurt by the incident that he only told his own son the whole story once.
They had been out tending Mitchell’s grave in Mount Calvary Cemetery, a family ritual they followed each April, when Thomas broke from that job to offer this account:
The two brothers and their father worked together on the partially completed Skyway, the span that carries a highway across the Buffalo River. They had just finished riveting a section and were preparing to move on when Mitchell lifted a piece of scaffolding.
At that moment, a strong wind blew from Lake Erie. Mitchell, carried by the edge, had no chance. Knowledge of this loss has become a regular, dark part of the lives of Celeste and her sisters, June Mahfoud and Florence “Mickie” Golba, who always think of their father when they see the bridge.
Yet Celeste – aware of the grief her uncle could not escape – only launched a campaign for a memorial when Thomas died six years ago. She knew the constant reminders would have been too much for him to bear.
David’s career also honored his father’s wishes. As Thomas requested, the son did not become an ironworker. While working as a millwright for 38 years, he shared the same kind of love and reverence for his lost uncle that Jacqueline White Gibson felt as a child for her brother Gatlin, a guy she remembered best.” come down the hill” to greet his little sisters when he would return on leave to the Seneca Nation of the 82nd Armyn/a Airborne Division.
Gatlin was only 22 when he died. Sixty-seven years later, Gibson was thrilled to see her own lifelong appreciation echoed on Wednesday by her 16-year-old granddaughter, Neh-Ah-Lah-Nee Keyes, a great-niece of ironworker Seneca.
“It’s something about him that I will carry with me until I die,” Gibson said of the ceremony, “and then she will have what she witnessed to pass on to her children, who will continue to pass it on among our people.”
The memorial, made through the efforts of Common Council member Mitch Nowakowski and officially unveiled by Buffalo traffic light specialist Jeff LaFrano, simply reads “Skywalker Way,” placed next to an American flag.
LeClair’s family, while grateful, also offered some suggestions. Ron Coleman, Celeste’s husband, said he hopes the town adds a detailed plaque including the names of the three ironworkers and a bit of history, so visitors to nearby Canalside understand what the sign means.
As for David LaClair, considering the broader significance of Indigenous heritage and Skywalker Way, he suggests adding the distinctive Haudenosaunee flag to the display — another step city officials say they will investigate.
These requests underline a civic memory point made a few days ago by Celeste and her sisters. It’s similar to a thought underlined at the ceremony by Nation Councilor Seneca Ross John Sr., a former ironworker whose stepfather, Frank Patterson Jr., died while working in “high steel “.
Generational storytelling, they say, takes on valuable meaning within the Haudenosaunee, or Six Nations. They all shared the hope that the memorial provides some sort of living purpose that ensures no one forgets the three men killed on the job.
The ironworkers who helped build the Skyway in the 1950s were in the crosshairs of Lake Erie’s unpredictable winds. Today, the families of those who lost their lives during the construction of the bridge seek a permanent tribute to
“It’s a family legacy that runs through many people,” John said, while Buffalo musician Joe Mahfoud – born far too late to meet his grandfather – said Mitchell’s generational impact LeClair was so deep that “it was still a big part of my life.”
Daniel Smith, who died at 57, has his own classic Buffalo story. He spent much of his childhood at Father Nelson Baker’s Lackawanna orphanage, then was killed while building a historic bridge – a sacrifice almost entirely lost until Wednesday.
For his nephew and niece, Mark and Barbara Weber, the event was a testament to the importance of a quiet life and the perseverance of those who do not forget.
“What Celeste and the other women did to achieve this was just amazing,” Weber said.
The ceremony was coordinated by Ron Cook, post commander of Iroquois Post 1587, while Patrice Neyman of the Beaver Clan offered an invocation for the Skywalkers. Nowakowski, Representative Brian Higgins and Erie County Legislator Howard Johnson all addressed the crowd, and Jennifer Burse – Celeste’s daughter – thanked everyone who helped her mother and aunts make it happen. .
At the back of the crowd, retired ironworker Tom Greiner, 79, stood alongside Ironworkers Local 6 business manager Tom Halligan, watching as each family received a blanket as a ceremony of gratitude. Greiner has spent decades in high-grade steel, including going from the bottom up half a century ago when building what is now called the Seneca One Tower, Buffalo’s tallest building.
While Greiner was far too young to remember White, Smith, or LeClair, he appreciated the skill and passion of the many native ironworkers he encountered on the job. And he said there is an enduring bond of empathy and reverence between anyone who understands the awe-inspiring nature of the work and those who have given their lives in a city’s high places.
“I am here,” he said, “because they were brothers in the trade.”
In that sense, the real monument is what those workers were building when they died, as David Mitchell LaClair felt on Wednesday, in a big way. He lingered even after most of the crowd had left the Skyway on the right day to share the story his father once told him.
Sean Kirst is a columnist at the Buffalo News. Email him at [email protected]