Remembering David Royce

David Royce – for years one of the most controversial private citizens in Westport, who made a career out of tweaking those in local government — died on Friday, 3 years after being diagnosed with leukemia. He was 82.

Nearly 30 years ago — just a few weeks after I began writing “Woog’s World” in the Westport News – I profiled David Royce. I was fascinated by his always-under-construction wood house on Main Street next to Willowbrook Cemetery, mostly hidden behind a monstrous cement wall. I wondered not only what was behind the gate – which hardly ever swung open for visitors — but what was behind the man who was always called a “gadfly.”

I was one of the few people to be admitted behind the wall. I discovered that he had built “an octagonal pool, a 39-foot swing and a birdhouse-like tree fort” in his back yard.

David Royce's house on Main Street, at the foot of Cross Highway. For decades, Westporters wondered what was behind that wall.

David Royce’s house on Main Street, at the foot of Cross Highway.

I learned that he’d bought his house — “for about $1,000″ — 17 years earlier. It was in disrepair — it took a long time to fix up — and I wrote that that was one reason people didn’t like David Royce.

Another was that he was a “househusband” by choice. His wife’s income was the family’s sole means of support, and that meant he didn’t “fit the Westport mold.”

And, I said, a 3rd reason he was disliked was because

he makes waves. He’s a citizen activist who delights in pointing fingers at people when he thinks they have made, are making, or are about to make a mistake, and he doesn’t care whether they’re town officials, volunteer board members, teachers or neighbors.

I quoted his own, 4th reason, why people did not like David Royce: “I have a personality problem. When I get up to speak I sound like an insufferable, arrogant pain in the neck. Hell, I would never invite me over to dinner.”

Royce spoke equally forthrightly about his background. He applied to only one college — Harvard — “because I knew I was in.” He was acting brigadier general during the Korean War, and got into court-martial-worthy scrapes several times.

After the war he worked as an editorial cartoonist, and tried his hand at ballooning and several odd jobs. None took. “I’ve never had the knack of fitting in,” he told me.

His last real job was “feeding rats for American Cyanamid,” which he got by being a strikebreaker. “I’m not real employable,” he reiterated.

David Royce, speaking up in later years. (Photo courtesy of Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com)

David Royce, speaking up in later years. (Photo courtesy of Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com)

Royce discussed his citizen activism since moving to Westport in 1970. He got in a dispute with neighbors and Public Works over a dam on his property. Describing town government metaphorically, he said, “if they’re gong to fart around in my back yard, then I’m going to fart around in their back yard.”

In 1979, he ran for the Planning and Zoning Commission as a Republican. He finished last.

He was on both sides of town battles. He fought construction of Canal Street housing and lost, but helped drive the conversion of Bedford Elementary School to Town Hall.

He told me: “When you have somebody like me in town, a lot of people think before doing something, ‘What if Royce gets onto this issue?’ I’d like every town to have 10 of me.”

But, he added that day in 1987, he had no great love for Westport. “I don’t think there’s anything wonderful or terrible” about the town he’d already lived in for 17 years.

I think Westport is just another damn town. Once in a while my wife will say, “If they’re going to treat you this way, why don’t we move on to some other dumb town?”

I’ll say, “That’s the key: The other town would be just as dumb.” In fact, it would be worse, because it wouldn’t be broken in yet. It took half a dozen years before people in Westport believed I wouldn’t be bullied. If we moved to a new town, I’d have to do it all over again. It’s hard work.

Nearly 3 decades ago, I asked David Royce about the future of Westport. Needless to say, it was not good.

We’re too cheap to pay for good zoning, so we get what we pay for. If we truly wanted Westport to deteriorate at minimum speed, we’d hire a good staff so that that would happen. By having an unpaid P&Z, we take a 60-hour-a-week job and make it voluntary.

The result, he said, was the town “gets worse at a 10 times unnecessary pace.” He foresaw the empty space that became Winslow Park, as well as Birchwood Country Club, turning into “great cities of condos.”

David Royce fought to have Bedford Elementary School turned into Town Hall.

David Royce fought to have Bedford Elementary School turned into Town Hall.

But, Royce said, he might not be around to see it happen. “Even though I hate to train a new town, I’ll probably have to get out as soon as the kids are educated.”

That didn’t happen. David Royce stayed another 27 years — for the rest of his life, as it turned out.

And he mellowed. According to WestportNow.com, in 2008 he told an RTM meeting in Town Hall:

I was here before most of you and I’ll be here after most of you leave. I love Westport. In fact, the reason you are sitting here tonight instead of in a brick box by the river is because a long time ago I alone fought for the use of this former school instead of a new building as our Town Hall.

His wife Nina told WestportNow’s James Lomuscio that there may be a memorial service in that very place: “He had no religious affiliation. Town Hall was as close as he had to a religion.”

 

 

 

18 responses to “Remembering David Royce

  1. Mary Ann West

    Blessings to Nina and rest in peace David

  2. Nick Thiemann

    Westport already misses David. Where was he when the Gunn house move was discussed? Where was he when talks about “improving” Compo Beach were under way? He wasn’t always right but he tested conventional wisdoms. He said the King wasn’t wearing any clothes. And, thankfully, he didn’t seem to care if he made enemies when he said it.

    My sympathies go out to his wife and children. As a town we should also mourn the loss of an important civic presence.

  3. Peter Barlow

    I knew David Royce briefly after he had written an article about ballooning for the New York Times Magazine. The Times told me he lived in Westport
    so we met and talked about ballooning. But I knew his house from many
    years back when Ruth Fay lived there and gave piano lessons. At eight years old I would walk from Bedford Elementary to that house for a piano
    lesson. Ruth, later Ruth Manning, was a genuine maverick and wonderful
    person. You could do a story on her.

  4. David wasn’t about NIMBY, he could spot something that was amiss from miles away. He was brilliant and everyone who knew him understood this. The town hall idea was one that will live on and on and on. We worked together on something many years ago and I still appreciate his enthusiasm that saw me through to the right conclusion. I know he loved his family. I saw him take his daughter’s hand in his so gently once, that it still brings a tear to my eye when I picture it. Sincere condolences to Nina and the kids.

  5. John G. Lambros

    I always wondered about David Royce, who he was and what ran through his head. Thank you Dan, for providing an insight to this person.

  6. Anya Liftig

    Lots of Love to Nina and the whole Royce family. A true group of intellectuals and scholars.

  7. Great reporting. Thanks Dan. David was one of the unique personalities that make Westport special. He will be missed. RIP.

  8. Dear Dan,

    With my editor/publisher hat on, I say…that “Remembering David Royce” piece is excellent. Worthy of both you and him.

    My compliments.

    Russ Barnard
    New York City

  9. Blessed are the Gadflies, who like Mr. Royce, step up to the podium, and bring sensiblility to our lives and community. Where’s community?

  10. Mary Maynard

    David had a tender soul, and I am happy we were friends. I will miss him very much. My love to him and to Nina, whom he loved.

  11. It wasn’t so difficult for many here in town to think of David Royce as the conscience of Westport. One of the first times I became aware of his special brand of civic activism was in the mid-80s when Ray Charles was scheduled to perform at the Levitt Pavilion (as he is again this summer). Back then, and maybe even now, it was a tradition to present the headlining performer of the season with a portrait. Ray Charles was no exception. He received a lovely portrait of himself. I recall David Royce remarking something to the effect: why ever would Ray Charles (who is blind) be given a portrait of himself when with a little thoughtful sensitivity, a sculpture could have been commissioned? Made sense to me. And he often did. His unique kind of caring will be missed here in our town. And of course within his family. Much love and sympathy to Nina and kids.

  12. Jamie Walsh

    Maybe this time… a sculptor can come to the rescue…and well…commission a Royce! I disagreed with him on many issues but then …found clarity in his wisdom on other issues…albeit very few! But he was a brilliant man never the less and cared passionately about our town.

  13. Tony Masiello

    When I worked at the school bus company sometime in the late 80′s, David came to us, concerned about the high incidents of cars running the bus’s stop signal. He had devised a rear facing, bracket mounted camera system that could be triggered by the bus driver as a car illegally passed the bus. It was a dash-cam, ahead of it’s time. David worked with us and the Police department, and finally got the go ahead to setup a trial on one bus. In the end, I don’t think the quality of the photos were enough for the police to issue a ticket, but it was an amazing experiment that originated from a concerned citizen who sincerely cared about the well being of the children.

    Before this, I had read about David’s problems with the town, and drove by his wall daily and was not quite sure what to think about him. But in my experience with him, he was charming, sincere, and very committed to what he believed in.

    My condolences to his family.

    • Cross Highway is a dead end road at the beginning because of David Royce too. Those of us who cut through, thought it was ridiculous.. but it’s been very good for Westport and the owners of real estate on Cross Highway and for the safety of our children. I wonder, Tony, if the mirror thing was developed to help busses see behind them because of that intersection near his house?

  14. It should be called The Royce sculpture for Ray Charles.

  15. Zachary Royce

    A fair and perceptive portrayal, Dan. FYI, though: he was never an acting Brigadier General, and never claimed to be so. He was trained as an enlisted infantryman but, because of his education and typing skills, was made a clerk in the office of the Judge Advocate General in Korea during the war. In this capacity he was informally delegated many responsibilities normally handled by a judge advocate, and thus sometimes said that he served as “an acting judge advocate general.”

    Also, my mother never said anything about “some other dumb town.” That was my dad’s way of talking, not hers; and she disclaims ever saying it.

    The Cross Highway thing became an issue after a young man was hit by a car at that formerly-dangerous intersection (once two-way). My father found his shoe about one hundred feet away in our back yard. There were several accidents like this, right in front of where his children played, and thus he decided to build the infamous “white wall” and agitate for the one-way intersection. The school bus camera thing came after the Cross Highway change and had nothing to do with it. Thank you, Tony, for recalling that memory. There are so many like that that I had forgotten about it myself until you brought it up.

    Thank you so much, everyone, for your thoughtful comments. Our family has been deeply touched that so many people remember him, and with such regard for his complexities as a person.

    • Zach,
      My condolences. Your father was always kind, albeit witty-sharp, to me. Really enjoyed all those afternoons we spent playing together. When can we get together for another Monopoly match?

  16. Flavien Freedman

    I was one of the few who were invited behind the wall. I will always have fond memories of playing in the awesome tree house, swimming in the pool and running around the backyard when I was a kid.

    My parents and I ran into David and Nina at the Sherwood Diner not too long ago and David took the time to tell me a very charming story about his time in the military.

    Whether you agreed with him or not Westport and the planet has lost one of the great ones.

    Please know that my thoughts and prayers go out to the family during this time.