In Remembrance of Flavia C. Gernatt
(April 2, 1921 – November 27, 1995)
By: Michele Babcock-Nice
Flavia C. Gernatt was born Flavia Schmitt in Langford, New York – a small farming community near Buffalo – on April 2, 1921. Before age 20, she was married, and founded with her husband a dairy farm in 1938. In the 1950s, she was a partner with her husband in owning and managing the largest milking cow herd in Erie County.
Following World War II, Mrs. Gernatt’s family began to provide bank-run gravel to the community from their property. Beginning with one truck, this endeavor grew into a large multi-company corporation that currently boasts nine sand, gravel, cement, and asphalt enterprises throughout Western New York State and Eastern Pennsylvania. These companies are now known as the Gernatt Family of Companies, headquartered in Collins, New York.
In the 1960s, Mrs. Gernatt and her family began investing in race horses, while on a golfing vacation in North Carolina. This investment grew into a business of breeding and racing harness race horses – mostly identified with the name “Collins” to represent the locale where Mrs. Gernatt and her family lived – in Western New York and New York State.
A couple of the most well-known of Mrs. Gernatt’s family horses were Sir Taurus – my personal favorite as a gentle, powerful stallion – as well as Elitist, a spunky and speedy stallion. For many years, Mrs. Gernatt and her family also sponsored a horse race named for Elitist, one of the family’s champion stallions that earned $250,000 in winnings in just his first two years of racing with them about 25 years ago.
Very well-known about Mrs. Gernatt, her family, and the Gernatt Family of Companies is the financial support provided by them to the Roman Catholic Church, locally in Gowanda, New York, as well as to the Diocese of Buffalo. In 1992, Mrs. Gernatt and her family donated a newly-constructed rectory for the family’s main local parish of St. Joseph in Gowanda. The maintenance and upkeep of the St. Joseph campus, including the church and school, is much a reflection of the generosity of Mrs. Gernatt and her family.
Mrs. Gernatt, her family, and the Gernatt Family of Companies are also well-known for their generous financial contributions to and being benefactors of St. Joseph Church, St. Joseph School, and Roman Catholic education in the Diocese of Buffalo. Her family members as well as dozens of extended family members have been blessed by attending a variety of Roman Catholic schools in the Buffalo and Western New York area throughout approximately the past 90 years.
Mrs. Gernatt’s husband has also been honored and recognized by receiving the highest award from the Bishop in the Diocese of Buffalo for supporting Roman Catholic education. The powerful financial and social influence of Mrs. Gernatt and her family in Catholicism and Catholic education have been profound.
As active and supportive members of the Republican Party, Mrs. Gernatt and her family have also had a very powerful impact on law, politics, and government at the local, state, and federal levels. Supporting government leaders in all areas of government – particuarly members of the Republican Party – are those endeavors important to Mrs. Gernatt and her family.
Many charitable organizations have also enjoyed the financial support of Mrs. Gernatt and her family through contributions directly from her family and those from a foundation created in she and her husband’s names. Providing monies to assist organizations with feeding those who are less fortunate, as well as those that support healthcare – including the American Red Cross – and local endeavors – such as creating a helipad at the local hospital – have also been causes championed by Mrs. Gernatt and her family.
Throughout most of my life, I knew the Gernatt family and extended family; and I came to know Mrs. Gernatt only in the last eight years of her life. An avid walker in later years, Mrs. Gernatt walked between 1.5 to 4 miles each day, nearly every day of the week. Thus, she and I had something in common since I typically jogged the same route that she walked.
After having seen her walk through my neighborhood several times, I asked another community member who she was. That individual stated to me that she was simply “Feggie.” I thought it interesting that the person who identified her to me expected me to know who she was, particularly at my age of 16 at the time.
When I expressed to the community member that I did not know her, she was then identified to me as her son’s mother and her husband’s wife. I then realized who she was. Therefore, because she was so often known in the community as her son’s mother and her husband’s wife, I have purposely not identified them here to provide her the honor of focusing on and appreciating her as a person.
Therefore, it was at that time when I was 16 that I came to know Mrs. Gernatt. Occasionally, I would walk with her throughout our neighborhood, conversing with her about daily living, our families, exercise, the weather, and other general topics. I especially appreciated her great wisdom, insight, and spirituality in regard to people and life. I once inquired with Mrs. Gernatt about certain questions I had in relation to my brother, and she put me at ease with her answers, which I appreciated.
An extremely intelligent woman, Mrs. Gernatt and I had an understanding about each other. Have you ever looked at a person in the eyes and just knew that they understood you? That is how Mrs. Gernatt and I interacted during our time walking together.
Upon inquiring with Mrs. Gernatt and her husband one Christmas holiday when I was at home from college and my vehicle needed repairs, I asked if she and her husband could give me a ride to and from daily mass at our local church. Since I was old enough to drive, I had attended daily mass at our church for a more in-depth religious and spiritual experience, and also attended as much as possible during holidays.
Therefore, Mrs. Gernatt and her husband very kindly transported me to and from daily mass several times during that holiday season. I also got to know them better by eating breakfast with them at church following daily mass on one morning, at which time both Mrs. Gernatt and her husband showed the utmost kindness and courtesy to me by including me in their gathering. Feeling somewhat uncomfortable and undeserving of being a part of their group, Mrs. Gernatt conveyed confidence and authority in her inclusion of me with her, for which I am also forever grateful.
What struck me most about Mrs. Gernatt was her love for God, and her dedication and faith in our shared Catholic religion. As a generally quiet woman who kept to herself, Mrs. Gernatt was a daughter, sister, wife, mother, successful businesswoman, devoted fellow Catholic, and honorable friend. Mrs. Gernatt served as Eucharistic Minister in our church, and she was a member of the Power Elite of business owners and entrepreneurs in New York State. Being a board member of her family’s highly successful, multi-million dollar corporations, as well as serving as a spiritual guide and moral compass for her family, Mrs. Gernatt always made time to give thanks and praise to God.
As the matriarch of her family, Mrs. Gernatt was also a wonderful role model for everyone, including her family, those whom she knew, members of her parish, and individuals within the community. As a person gifted with the power to do so much good for others, Mrs. Gernatt was a person who was fully present in many endeavors to strengthen and improve the Roman Catholic Church, Catholic education, and her community.
In the days before her death, I remember the strength, dedication, and perseverance of Mrs. Gernatt in continuing – not only to attend Mass – but to walk, independently, to the altar to receive Eucharist. I am witness to Mrs. Gernatt’s strength, faith, spirituality, character, dedication, and perseverance at a time in her life that was most difficult. Her strong will, honorable nature, and moral and ethical direction continue to be an inspiration to me in my life.
In good times and in bad – including while battling the illness that took her life – Mrs. Gernatt continued to have her strong and unyielding faith in God that compelled and guided her to the altar to receive Communion. As a fellow Catholic, that is profound in itself, and says multitudes about her faith, beliefs, and spirituality.
I am thankful for the opportunity I had to get to know Flavia C. Gernatt, and discover for myself that she was a “real” person – not necessarily one who was on the pedestal on which others placed her. So often, we may feel so unlike people of enormous wealth, however this was not the case with Mrs. Gernatt.
Though my socioeconomic status was and is far at the other end of the spectrum from Mrs. Gernatt, she always made me feel as ease. Her confidence and authority caused me to feel comfort. Her wisdom, insight, and intelligence spoke to my soul. In Mrs. Gernatt, if even for a short while, I found a kindred spirit. I am grateful for that, and know she is looking down on me with those same qualities today.
“Gernatt’s Horses Plug Collins,” (Harlan C. Abbey) 1984, The Buffalo News, Buffalo, New York.
“Gowanda Area Chamber of Commerce Spirit of Gowanda” Newsletter, February 1996, Gowanda, New York.
“Obituary of Flavia Gernatt,” November 29, 1995, The Buffalo News, Buffalo, New York.
St. Joseph’s Catholic Church (Pictorial Directory), 2003, Gowanda, New York.
The Holy Bible (1979). Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers.
Villa Maria College, Grants Office, Recent Grants, Buffalo, New York. Gernatt Family Foundation Grant. From http://www.villa.edu/grants_office.html. February 3, 2012.