Category Archives: Children

Remembering Walt Melillo

To generations of Westporters, Walt Melillo was a beloved elementary school teacher.

I’m one of his former pupils — from 3rd grade, in Burr Farms School. Ever since those long-ago days, he remembered me. And I’ve remembered him.

Walt Melillo died yesterday, at 91. Today I’d like his many friends to remember him, through a 2010 “Woog’s World” column I wrote for the Westport News. If you did not know him, please read about the life of a proud native Westporter — and a wonderful man.

Walt Melillo teaching a Project Concern student, at Burr Farms School.

Walt Melillo teaching a Project Concern student in 1972, at Burr Farms School.

Born in 1924, Walt Melillo grew up on Franklin Street in Saugatuck. During the Depression the house – which stills stands — was filled with 25 extended family members. Melillos, Romanos, Reales, Espositos, Carreras – all lived and grew up together.

They grew vegetables in a backyard garden; baked their own bread, and made Prohibition-era wine. Each October, a neighbor butchered a pig. Every family got a part.

Walt attended Saugatuck Elementary School on Bridge Street – where his parents had gone – and then Bedford Junior High (now Kings Highway Elementary) and Staples High School (the current Saugatuck El).

Staples was small. “We knew everyone,” he recalled. “There weren’t a lot of course options, like today. But it was an excellent school.”

He was influenced by legendary teachers like Gladys Mansir (English) and Eli Burton (social studies). He played baseball well enough to earn a tryout with the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds (in 1941), and football well enough to earn a spot on the Staples Wall of Honor (in 2004).

Walt Melillo, as a young man.

Walt Melillo, as a young man.

Right after graduation in 1942, Walt joined the Navy. He was on active duty in the Atlantic Ocean and North Africa campaign. His destroyer escort sailed to the Pacific, patrolling through invasions of Okinawa and the Philippines.

A kamikaze plane crashed into his ship. Melillo was blown from the signal bridge to the forecastle. His unit shot down four Japanese planes, and received a Presidential Unit Citation. Seventy years later, he chokes up recalling those events.

The dropping of 2 atom bombs saved Melillo from participating in the invasion of Japan. His ship survived another hazard: a typhoon in the shark-infested North China Sea.

“I was a lucky sailor,” Melillo said. He appreciates his chance to serve – and to see the world. “I met all kinds of people. Before I enlisted, the furthest from Westport I traveled was New Haven.”

The GI Bill sent Walt to college. He majored in physical education at Arnold College (now the University of Bridgeport), then earned a master’s degree from Columbia University and a 6th-year from Bridgeport.

In 1951 he was hired as a teacher by the Westport Board of Education. His salary was $2,800 a year — $300 more than usual, thanks to a $100 bonus for each year of military service. “That was a lot of money in those days,” Melillo noted. His first assignment was Saugatuck Elementary School – his alma mater, across the street from where his brother lived.

After 7 years, Melillo moved to the brand new Burr Farms Elementary School. There was tremendous camaraderie between students, staff, parents – even custodians. Principal Lenny Metelits was an ex-Marine; the talented, lively staff included Matt Rudd, Sam Judell, Ed Morrison, Lou Dorsey and Ace Mahakian.  The number of male teachers was extraordinary.

“The parents were just fantastic,” Walt said. “They were so kind to us. They understood that teaching was a tough job for everyone.”

Walt Melillo inspired thousands of Westport elementary school students. This is his Burr Farms Class of 1973.

Walt Melillo inspired thousands of Westport elementary school students. This is his Burr Farms Class of 1973.

After nearly 2 decades at Burr Farms Melillo moved to Green’s Farms Elementary School, then Long Lots. He retired in 1986, after 35 years in education.

He kept busy, attending  Senior Center functions and playing tennis (he and partner Paul Lane won tournaments in the Over-40 and Over-60 age groups).

But teaching and athletics were only part of Walt’s story. In 1947 he organized Westport’s 1st summer Beach School, at Compo Beach. He was still in college, without a degree, so football coach Frank Dornfeld ran the first year. But Walt soon took over, and for 29 years he and Bedford Junior High instructor Carol Bieling Digisi were in charge of a popular program involving thousands of children.

“It gave me another chance to meet great parents,” he said. “And the entire staff was teachers.”

Two boys in that initial beach school group were Jack and Bill Mitchell. Several years later their parents, Ed and Norma, opened a small men’s clothing store. Walt was the first non-family member  they hired.

Walt stayed there —  working Friday nights and Saturdays – for 13 years.

Bill Mitchell (left) and Walt Melillo.

Bill Mitchell (left) and Walt Melillo.

Walt’s life was full. He and Ann – his wife of 60 years – had 4 children. When they moved to Hogan Trial in 1960, it was the 1st house on the road; now there are 40. As a child, Walt hunted there.

“This is my town,” he noted. “As Paul Newman said, ‘Living in Westport is a privilege.’ I love it here.”

The family will receive friends on Tuesday, Dec. 9 from 4-7 pm at the Harding Funeral Home, 210 Post Road East. The funeral will take place Wednesday, Dec. 10 at 11 a.m. at Assumption Church, 98 Riverside Avenue. Burial with full military honors immediately following mass. Interment will be private. Contributions in lieu of flowers may be made to the Westport Center for Senior Activities, 21 Imperial Avenue, Westport, CT 06880.

It’s Official! Holiday Season Is Here!

Well, as official as something like this can be.

This evening, First Selectman Jim Marpe lit the Christmas tree at Town Hall. Then hundreds of Westporters trooped around the corner to Christ & Holy Trinity Episcopal Church.

There — in one of Westport’s newest traditions — the Orphenians sang. A band played. Soup, chili, pizza and wine were served. Nearly 2 dozen non-profits handed out flyers and candy.

And, of course, Santa Claus came to town.

CHT Xmas 1

A small portion of the large crowd in Branson Hall.

A small portion of the large crowd in Branson Hall.

The 1st Night folks had a cake.

The 1st Night folks had a cake.

State Senator Toni Boucher and Oscar's owner Lee Papageorge enjoy the evening.

State Senator Toni Boucher and Oscar’s owner Lee Papageorge enjoyed the evening.

 

Westport Robotics Team Helps Solve World Problems

The Coleytown/Bedford Middle School robotics team has once again advanced to the state final.

Ho hum. The “Mechanical Masterminds” do that about as regularly as you or I breathe.

It definitely is a big deal. This year’s FLL World Class Competition challenged more than 265,000 children from 80 countries. Teams must solve a problem that requires research, creative thinking and robot programming skills.

Each team designs, builds and programs a robot; poses a question that addresses the annual challenge; researches the topic, and develops a solution.

The Mechanical Masterminds, with Save the Children CEO Carolyn Miles (left).

The Mechanical Masterminds, with Save the Children CEO Carolyn Miles (left).

The Mechanical Masterminds chose to research the question: How can we help young people and their families in developing nations learn basic solutions to life challenges, in a way that hasn’t been done before?

The team developed a unique teaching app. It can be used on a solar-powered Samsung tablet, and distributed through existing networks to some of the poorest countries in Africa.

The app — which can run without Wi-Fi access — can teach someone without basic literacy skills how to build and deploy simple solutions to complex challenges like a lack of clean drinking water; food insecurity, and communication and public health issues.

For example, app users can build a mini-wind turbine out of simple PVC piping and wire to create enough energy to power a light bulb, cell phone or other small electrical device. They can also learn how to desalinate water.

The group met with Save the Children CEO Carolyn Miles, and were in touch with executives at Google, Samsung, the World Bank and Coca-Cola as they prepared their project.

Presenting the app to Save the Children CEO Carolyn Miles (right).

Presenting the app to Save the Children CEO Carolyn Miles (right).

The state final is this Sunday (December 7) in Shelton. Good luck to team members Nick Ambrose, Rob Diorio, Ben Jia, Daniel Kornbluth, Justin Schmidt, Joe Xiang, Josh Zhang and Andy Zheng, head coach Steve Diorio and assistant coach Mark Kornbluth.

Human Services’ Holiday Help

If you’re like me, you’re excited by the holiday season — and annoyed at the rampant commercialism that accompanies it.

But if you’re like dozens of Westport households here, you wonder how you can afford any gifts at all.

Holiday giftsOverlooked in all the ho-ho-ho-ing are local families for whom the holidays may not seem merry or bright. Job loss, medical expenses, foreclosure, divorce — those circumstances and others may add extra stress to this time of year.

Fortunately, riding shotgun with Santa is Westport’s Department of Human Services.

It’s a great, confidential way for Westporters to provide gifts for kids — and ease the financial burden on entire families. Last year, 432 residents — including those served by Homes With Hope, the Westport Housing Authority, Project Return and the schools’ Open Choice program — received holiday assistance.

One recipient — whose life changed drastically 4 years ago — cried after picking up gift cards.

A mom of limited means thanked DHS for easing the stress she felt on Christmas morning.

A longtime Westporter — who can afford to live here only because her apartment is owned by her family — says that without the program, her son would have only one present under the tree.

Another says simply, “the Holiday Gift Giving Program has made all the difference.”

Contributions come from individuals, as well as garden and book clubs, scout troops, schools, churches and businesses. Donors and receivers are assured of confidentiality.

For years, Audrey Hertzel has organized a huge effort at Sterling Investment Partners. She collects stuffed animals and books for the Holiday  Giving Program.

For years, Audrey Hertzel has organized a huge effort at Sterling Investment Partners. She collects stuffed animals and books for the Holiday Giving Program.

“Some of the most appreciated gifts are grocery and gas cards of any amount,” says Human Services director Barbara Butler. Also well received: gift cards to local stores.

Cash donations are always welcome. They allow Human Services staffers to buy last-minute gift cards for clients.

Cards and checks (made payable to “DHS Family Programs,” with “Holiday” on the memo line) can be mailed to Human Services, 110 Myrtle Ave., Westport, CT 06880 at any time (the sooner the better, of course). They can also be dropped off in Town Hall Room 200 during business hours.

If you’d like to shop for a family’s actual gift request — in full or part — or for questions, contact Patty Haberstroh (hsyouth@westportct.gov; 203-341-1069).

Families needing extra support during the holidays should call 203-341-1050.

 

An Adams Family Mystery

In 1932 — the depths of the Depression — the University of Chicago’s hospital lowered its rates for delivering babies. The new price: $55, for a 10-day stay in a 4-person room.

A little child wrote the hospital. In careful, misspelled cursive, she said:

Dear sir

If i send you $55 will you send us our baby cause our baby aint come yet an i wont wone.

It was signed M. Adams, Westport.

The letter from M. Adams...

The letter from M. Adams…

The letter reached Jessie F. Christie, a nurse and superintendent of what was then called the Chicago Lying-in Hospital and Dispensary.

She replied:

I am sorry we cannot sent you a baby for $55.00. You would have to send your mother to us before any arrangement could be made. The stork will only fly for mothers, not for little boys or girls. I think it is a very poor arrangement but it is one we cannot alter. I hope your own baby will come soon.

...and the response from Julia Christie.

…and the response from Jessica Christie.

The letter — addressed to “Miss or Master M. Adams, Westport, Connecticut” —  never got here. The post office returned it, due to insufficient address.

For nearly a century, the yellowed letters were tucked away in a University of Chicago Medicine & Biological Sciences filing cabinet. Now — 82 years later — they’ve been found.

UC news office assistant director Ashley Heher asked the Westport Library for help. Jaina Lewis checked historical records. She found a listing for an Adams family in 1930. But the only child whose name started with “M” was 19 years old.

storkBridgeport’s 1940 records show a Marjorie Adams, age 16. That would make her 8 in 1932. No younger children are listed in 1940. But her mother was 39 in 1932 — meaning she would have been at high risk if pregnant.

Now that the letter has been discovered, Chicago officials want closure. So they reached out to “06880” for help.

If you have any information about M. Adams — or his or her mother or sibling — contact Ashley.Heher@uchospitals.edu.

And tell “06880.” This is our mystery now too.

(Click on the University of Chicago blog “Science Life” for more details.)

The Wheels On The Bus…

First Selectman Jim Marpe and the Board of Education have created a joint Bus Parking Task Force.

Eight high-powered members will explore a variety of school bus parking arrangements. They’ll see if a public or privately owned site can bring down the cost of parking those 8 trillion Dattco buses.

Let’s hope they succeed. The current spot — behind the gas station opposite Playhouse Square — creates a traffic nightmare. (And I’d say that even if I didn’t live in the condos across the street.)

But if the task force really wants to solve a transportation problem, how about attacking the most pressing school bus issue in town:

The fact that every kid in town has a personal bus stop. Even if he or she lives 3 !@#$%^& feet away from another one.

Pretty soon, each kid will get his or her own personal bus.

Pretty soon, each kid will get his or her own personal bus.

 

Veterans Day: The Sequel

Veterans never tire of serving their country — or their community.

Each year, Bedford Middle School marks today by hosting veterans from the Y’s Men. They talk about what they did, why and how they did it, and provide an important link to yesterday for tomorrow’s leaders.

This morning’s event was lively. A number of veterans brought mementos of their service. Their stories were insightful, poignant — and often laced with a bit of humor.

Among the attendees were the 2 most recent grand marshals of Westport’s Memorial Day parade: Leonard Everett Fisher (left, below), and Bob Satter.

Leonard Everett Fisher and Bob Satter

(Photo/January Stewart)

Both are World War II veterans. Though — except for their uniforms — you wouldn’t know it by looking at them.

Westport Students: BYOD

New York City is finally ending its long ban on cellphones in schools.

At Brien McMahon High School, a student said recently, anyone who brings a laptop to class is considered weird.

Westport, meanwhile, plows ahead with its “Bring Your Own Device” initiative. Beginning next year, students will be required to provide their own technology during the school day.

Technology 1 - NBC News

Students use their own devices — which tie in to classroom technology like Smart Boards. (Photo/NBC News)

According to Inklings, the Staples newspaper — accessible online, of course — the Board of Education heard a BYOD progress report last month.

A PowerPoint presentation (natch) noted that this month, parents will be advised of specifications for “devices that may be purchased.” The months ahead brings parent information sessions, student input and “boot camps” for students and teachers.

Inklings reported that the Westport School District will provide “refurbished devices” for elementary and middle schoolers who are financially unable to purchase their own; Staples students will get new Chromebooks. Funding comes from a $30,000 line item for new technology purchases this year.

Electronic devices don't necessarily lead to isolation. In fact, they can increase collaboration.

Electronic devices don’t necessarily lead to isolation. In fact, they can increase collaboration. (Photo/HerffJones)

According to Inklings, townwide director of technology Natalie Carrignan said that 60% of students already bring their own devices to school.

At Staples, that percentage seems low. Laptops, tablets and cellphones are everywhere. They’re used constantly — often for schoolwork, occasionally not.

Each month, it seems, fewer and fewer students sit at the desktop computers that fill the library and learning centers. And the laptops that teachers can sign out for class use are often slow, unreliable and out of date.

Sure, Staples students use laptops to play games or watch videos. But even in the cafeteria, the amount of schoolwork that gets done is compelling.

Sure, Staples students use laptops to play games or watch videos. But even in the cafeteria, the amount of schoolwork that gets done is compelling. (Photo/www.District196.org)

If you think there should still be a debate about using technological devices in school, you might have argued a century ago that cars may not be the best replacement for horses.

Westport students live their lives online. So do most teachers.

Our school district’s job is to prepare young people for life through the end of this century. Administrators and the Board of Ed are figuring out how to harness technology, to best serve education in the sciences, humanities and arts. They recognize reality in many forms (including financial).

But if you’d like to offer your own insights, click “Comments.” On whatever electronic device you’re using right now.

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Which Of These Halloween Candy Wrappers Seems Different From The Rest?

Halloween candy

Halloween Update: Live From The Epicenter

An “06880” reader who wishes — for obvious reasons — to hide behind a mask of anonymity wrote at 4 p.m. today:

Greetings from Oak Street, the epicenter of trick or treating for Weston children* whose families cut through here to avoid the light on Main St. and Clinton.

I just put 475 candy bars into baskets. I ran out last year at 7 p.m. Now I am pondering not the ethics of this Weston tradition, but an etiquette question:  Would a sign saying something to the effect of “happy to be of use to you and your family again this year; now would you consider slowing down that Range Rover, and maybe stopping at either of the stop signs the next time you blast past my house?” be okay?

*Scientific fact:  My neighbor taught elementary school in Weston for 30 years. She said 75% of the kids she saw were from Weston.

"Hah! We live in Weston, where there's 2-acre zoning. Your houses are MUCH closer together!"

“Hah! We live in Weston, where there’s 2-acre zoning. Your houses are MUCH closer together!”