BUFFALO, N.Y. — He is seen in funny commercials, his photo greets travelers at the Buffalo Airport, and his face is on billboards across Western New York. But Russell Salvatore's kindness and generosity goes even further than most realize.
He's a good businessman and an even better philanthropist, and that's why Russell Salvatore is being celebrated in the WGRZ series "Selfless Among Us."
"I very seldom say no," Salvatore told WGRZ's Melissa Holmes in a recent interview. "You come and see me with it and it makes sense, I will make it happen."
And that's why you see the name Russell Salvatore on buildings all across Western New York. His decades of charitable giving has touched countless people and charities.
"I love giving. When I pass away, I don't want to have a penny. I want to give it away to the community, especially at my age, they are the ones that made me successful," said Salvatore.
Turning 89-years-old in April, and arguably the region's most famous restaurateur, Salvatore came from humble beginnings, quitting high school to work in his father's restaurant.
"I started at my dad's place, cleaning the floors, mopping the floors, cleaning the spittoons," he recalled.
Salvatore eventually opened his own restaurant in late 60s. He's been working 7 a.m. to midnight seven days a week ever since. He has his father's work ethic, and his heart, too.
"During the Depression my father fed everybody in the neighborhood from the restaurant and I'm a believer. I feel so good when I give," he said.
Through his charitable foundation he's donated to ECMC, Kaleida, Oishei Children's Hospital, Catholic Health, Brothers of Mercy, Kevin Guest House, the Red Cross, the Buffalo Zoo, Heritage Learning Centers, Buffalo State College, the Boys and Girls Club, Roswell Park, and the list goes on and on.
He said supplying televisions, and paying for the fees, for rooms in nearly every hospital in Erie and Niagara County may be the most important cause to him, because it's what really kicked off his charitable giving. He was astonished when he was hospitalized with a broken ankle and he had to pay for service for an old TV in his hospital room. He wanted to make sure others didn't have to do the same.
In mid-March he made another TV donation, this time one for every Catholic school in the Buffalo Diocese.
Then there are his flashier acts of generosity, like sponsoring 4th of July fireworks at the waterfront, and buying up thousands of Buffalo Bills tickets on multiple occasions to avoid TV blackouts. Salvatore estimates he's given away at least $15 million over the years.
"It isn't a lot," he said. "Others have given away much more than I have but they're just quieter about it."
Promising to give away every penny he has, he doesn't plan to slow his charitable ways any time soon.
"It's just a good feeling, giving, and I hope people out there are listening: Don't take it with you, give it to people who really need it," he said.
To see others featured in Melissa Holmes' "Selfless Among Us" series, click the videos below: