It was a life well lived and one that touched tens of thousands in the Syracuse area. When Don Waful died last September at the age of 103, he left a legacy of charity, friendship and charm that will far supersede his century on this Earth.
Born in Newark, New York, in 1916, Waful and his family made the 60-mile move east to Syracuse when he was a toddler. With roots established, he became a staple of the Central New York region for the next 100 years, helping define a sense of community there.
Known to fans of Triple-A Syracuse as its longtime president, Waful's mini-celebrity ran far deeper than the baseball diamond. An alumnus of Syracuse University, a World War II hero and prisoner of war and an active member of his church, he made the most of his life. Those he came in contact were all left with the same feeling: Don Waful was someone special.
'Just the best guy'
At the end of 2013, Waful was 97 years old and long since gone from his role as president of the Syracuse Chiefs (now the Mets). That's when Jason Smorol was hired as general manager. The job provided Smorol with an opportunity to run one of the International League's oldest franchises -- and also to rub elbows with Waful.
"We had a fantastic relationship," Smorol said. "After I was hired, Don wanted to get to know me, so we had numerous conversations and get-togethers where he shared his knowledge and history of the franchise. It blossomed into a fantastic friendship with myself and my family. We always showered him the respect he deserved."
That respect was earned early on. After graduating from Syracuse, Waful enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1941. He was halfway through Officer Training School when Pearl Harbor was attacked, thrusting the country -- and the young man -- into World War II. The 26-year-old eventually found himself in Tunisia fighting Germans with the 1st Armored Division. Waful was captured and held prisoner for 28 months. Coincidentally, one of his fellow prisoners was Frederick Johnson, a tank commander and father to a baby who grew up to be longtime Major League player and manager Davey Johnson.
When the war ended and Waful returned to life in the U.S., he began making his mark in the Syracuse community. An avid fan of Orange football -- Waful is said to have attended every game at the Carrier Dome since it opened in 1980 -- he also loved to attend baseball games at MacArthur Stadium, continuing a trend he started with the park's inaugural contest in 1934.
Waful remained in Syracuse and started a family with his first wife, Olga, who gave birth to two sons, Don and Peter. While Don preceded him in death, Peter is a therapist in Cape Cod and looks back on his dad's ties to the community with fondness and admiration.
"My dad had sports, baseball and the community in his blood," Peter Waful said. "I always wondered aloud why he didn't run for mayor [of Syracuse]. That's how active and recognized he was in the community."
Waful's ties to professional baseball began to take shape, thanks to his friendship with Al Deisseroth, a college buddy who hired him to work at the Bruns Insurance Agency. A civic leader and co-owner of the Syracuse Nationals professional basketball team, Deisseroth helped orchestrate the purchase of the Syracuse Chiefs in 1961 after the original incarnation had left the International League in 1956 and New York altogether in 1957.
His friendship with Deisseroth, business acumen and ties to the community made Waful the ideal choice to become president of the Chiefs when the club returned four years later.
"Don was instrumental in bringing baseball back to Syracuse," Smorol said. "The Dodgers cut ties with the [Triple-A] Montreal Royals several years after moving to Los Angeles, so the franchise was available. Don was on that airplane along with $50,000 to pay Los Angeles for the rights to bring professional baseball back to Syracuse"
The return kicked off a 35-year run as Chiefs president, which carried through seven different affiliations. He played a large role in the development of NBT Bank Stadium, which opened in 1997. Along the way, he continued his work in the community while helping baseball become a mainstay in Central New York.
"The city of Syracuse is what drove him," Peter Waful said. "Anything that brought positive attention to the city, especially sports, meant everything to him."
'He was a gem'
His tenure as Chiefs president ended in the mid-'90s, but his ties to the club did not. In addition to attending games, Waful made sure the Syracuse faithful continued coming to the ballpark. He helped sell ticket plans and had nearly 200 accounts, even as the candles on his birthday cake totaled 100. Smorol estimates Waful sold $13,000 worth of tickets after he passed the century mark ... and bought a number of season tickets himself.
"I made sure Don knew that he was our best ticket salesman and that we needed him back every year," Smorol said. "He'd say, 'Oh, I don't know if I want to be doing this again,' but there he was, year after year. [Syracuse baseball] became ingrained in his life. It was just who he was. He had 180-something accounts and he would try and set up visits with two or three of them per day. It was a big part of his life and everyone appreciated the personal touch. Don loved the team and knew it needed him.
"I'm sure many of those who bought tickets enjoyed the games and experience, but a lot of people would buy them because Don was selling them. They loved him."
Over the years, accolades piled up for Waful, who led the club's annual offseason coupon book sales drive. He was the 1978 recipient of the Tom Higgins Bull Pen Chief Award, given annually to a community leader who has provided exemplary support for professional baseball in Syracuse. He took his rightful place on the Syracuse Baseball Wall of Fame in 2010. And he was honored with his own exhibit by the Onondaga Historical Society.
Not long after celebrating his 100th birthday, Waful was honored with the Spirit of the International League Award.
"In a way, it's almost like he's still here," Peter Waful said. "I have so many memories, and he touched so many lives. Whether it was the YMCA, church, the Chiefs or Syracuse University ... it didn't matter. He was always involved because he wanted to make the city of Syracuse shine."
Smorol considers Waful one of the iconic figures, not only in the history of Syracuse baseball but in general.
"Don truly stood the test of time. There was nothing about the Chiefs he didn't love or find himself involved with in some way," Smorol said. "Even in his advanced age, he'd drive himself to day games. At night, he couldn't see as well, so interns would pick him up and drop him off. If the weather was too cold, he loved sitting up in the radio booth listening to the announcers call the game."
Even at 103, during the 2019 season, Waful could be found at NBT Bank Stadium, chatting up anyone who would listen, including Smorol. Those are the memories the GM relishes.
"We'd always talk about the game. He loved talking baseball in general or the players that had come through here," he said. "Even in his final year, Don was completely with it. The mind never went, but as is the case with all of us, the body did.
"I'll miss him. He was a gem."
Michael Avallone is a writer for MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @MavalloneMiLB.