Category Archives: History

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.

Thanking Our Veterans, On Their Special Day

For some Westporters, Veterans Day is a holiday. For others, it’s business as usual.

No matter what today is, all of us — all Americans, really — should take time to reflect on the millions of men and women who, over the years, have sacrificed greatly to serve our nation, and the world.

Here are just a few of the many Westporters who deserve our deepest gratitude.

———-

In March of 1944 Emanuel (“Manny”) Margolis turned 18. He was a student at the University of North Carolina, but lacked a deferment. Drafted into the Army, he was chosen as a candidate for Officer’s Training School, and taught Morse Code.

Sent to England as a forward observer radio operator, he carried a 100-pound radio on his back. He weighed just 118.

PFC Manny Margolis, age 18 in June 1944.

PFC Manny Margolis, age 18 in June 1944.

He went to France and Belgium, to the Rhine River. The Germans had blown up all but 1 bridge crossing — a railroad bridge near Remagen. Made of wood, it was not meant to handle heavy tanks and artillery. The Army sent 100 engineers to remove dynamite, and shore it up.

Manny was among the first in his unit to be sent over the bridge. Radio operators had to report back to artillery how far to set their cannon fire.

Manny was not far into the woods on the other side of the bridge when the Germans began firing. He lay down behind a tree, and was shot through the leg and kneecap. He asked to be sent back to his unit, but his war was over. It was March 17, 1945 — 1 day before his 18th birthday.

The Army got some tanks and artillery over the bridge, but it collapsed with 100 engineers working on the underside. Many were killed.

Luckily, Manny’s leg was not amputated. He had 3 major operations in England, and more after returning home in the spring of 1946. He was awarded a Purple Heart, went back to UNC and graduated in 1947.

Manny Margolis, at a Town Hall ceremony. (Photo/Craig Skinner)

Manny Margolis, at a Town Hall ceremony. (Photo/Craig Skinner)

Thanks to the GI Bill, Manny went to Harvard. He earned a master’s and Ph.D. in international law. He taught at the University of Connecticut, then was accepted at Yale Law School with 1 phone call (no LSATs or interviews).

Manny worked for civil rights and civil liberties for 55 years, and lived nearly all his adult life in Westport. He died in August of 2011, at 85 years old.

———-

Stanley L. Englebardt landed on the beach at Normandy a couple of days after the initial assault. He saw action on the front line during the Battle of the Bulge. Initially a corpsman, he was put into infantry when the Germans broke through Allied lines in 1944. A longtime Westporter, he died this past March.

Stan Englebardt, age 18, soon after entering the Army.

Stan Englebardt, age 18, soon after entering the Army.

———-

Donald Snook was a B-17 pilot in the 369th Squadron of the 306th Bomb Group of the 8th Air Force. He was stationed at Thurleigh Air Force based north of Bedford, England during World War II. He flew 24 missions over Europe, and remained there with the Occupational Air Force until July 1946.

Don is now 91. He lives in Westport with his wife, Katherine.

———-

Bob Beeby served in the South Pacific during peacetime, just after the Korean War.

Bob Beeby

Bob Beeby

As a naval aviator he flew an anti-submarine aircraft to hunt for typhoons. With technology less advanced than that in today’s Prius, he went through the walls of a typhoons 1,500 feet above sea level, directly into the eye. He took readings with a sextant, and radioed the storm location to the fleet, in case they had to relocate.

Aircraft were often damaged by storms. Pilots risked their lives on emergency landings. Bob was one of them.

He has lived in Westport for 50 years. He logged over a million air miles a year as CEO of the international division of a major corporation. He is generous in time and spirit, and a loving father and grandfather.

———-

Byron Miller was a Special Forces radio operator in Vietnam. For the past 38 years, he's been a psychotherapist  in, and resident of, Westport.

Byron Miller was a Special Forces radio operator in Vietnam. For the past 38 years, he’s been a psychotherapist in, and resident of, Westport.

———-

Tom Feeley at Fort Benning Airborne School, 1962.

Tom Feeley at Fort Benning Airborne School, 1962.

———-

Robin “Bob” Custer Sr.  graduated from technical school in 1965, with a degree in drafting. He then served in the Army, seeing combat duty with the 1st Infantry Division (the “Big Red One”) in Vietnam from 1967 to ’68.

For years, Bob has played a big role in Westport. He’s been the sexton at Greens Farms Congregational Church for over 20 years (giving students on the Jennings Trail Tour the church  history), is quartermaster at VFW Post 399, and always marches in the Memorial Day Parade.

Bob Custer, standing amidst the flags he loves.

Bob Custer, standing amidst the flags he loves.

———-

Jay Dirnberger served with the 1st Cavalry Division in South Vietnam, in 1968.

Jay Dirnberger served with the 1st Cavalry Division in South Vietnam, in 1968.

 ———-

Kendall Gardiner Anderson was in Vietnam, with the U.S. Army

Kendall Gardiner Anderson was in Vietnam, with the U.S. Army

Kendall Gardiner Anderson's husband, Lt. Cdr. Robert Gavin Stewart Anderson, served in Cyprus with Her Majesty's Royal Navy. After moving to Westport and becoming a naturalized US citizen, he served his town on the Board of Finance and as second selectman.

Kendall Gardiner Anderson’s husband, Lt. Cdr. Robert Gavin Stewart Anderson, served in Cyprus with Her Majesty’s Royal Navy. After moving to Westport and becoming a naturalized US citizen, he served on the Board of Finance and as second selectman.

 ———-

And let’s not forget the Gilbertie family. John S. Gilbertie Sr. volunteered in World War I, and was awarded medals by the US, French and Italian governments for bravery.

He enlisted at 17 — just 12 years after emigrating from Italy — and served as a scout behind enemy lines in the Argonne forest, among other locations. He became a founding members of Westport’s Joseph J. Clinton VFW, was grand marshal of the Memorial Day parade, and helped organize Memorial Day ceremonies on Jesup Green for many years. His name is on the Doughboy statue on Veterans Green (with the Italian spelling, “Ghiliberti”).

John’s son Mario went to Korea. Anthony, who was younger, was a member of the Army National Guard.

Several grandchildren also served. Jay was in Vietnam, and was a member of the 1st crew of the aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy. Marty was in the Navy CBs during Vietnam. Tom joined the Air Force in the 1980s, while Peter was in the infantry then.

Trevor — a great-grandson — recently returned from Afghanistan, with the Army National Guard.

———-

Thanks to all the Westport veterans we’ve mentioned — and the many, many others who also served proudly served us, over so many years.

 

Jean Donovan, Remembered

More than 3 decades after her brutal murder, Jean Donovan is back in the news.

The Westport native was 1 of 4 American churchwomen killed on December 2, 1980 by Salvadoran national guardsmen.

Jean Donovan

Jean Donovan

Jean — a junior high and Staples High School classmate of mine — was a lay missionary working in El Salvador, helping the poor.

She and 3 nuns were beaten, raped, shot in the head, then dumped by the roadside.

Now, the New York Times reports that 2 Salvadoran generals — defense ministers during the “blood-soaked” 1980s — may be deported.

The Times says:

They were allowed to settle there during the presidency of George Bush, who, like his predecessor, Ronald Reagan, considered them allies and bulwarks against a Moscow-backed leftist insurgency.

But administrations change, and so do government attitudes. Over the past two and a half years, immigration judges in Florida have ruled that the generals bore responsibility for assassinations and massacres, and deserve now to be “removed” — bureaucratese for deported. Both are appealing the decisions, so for now they are going nowhere. Given their ages, their cases may be, for all parties, a race against time.

Longtime Westporter John Suggs says that in progressive Catholic social justice networks, “Jean Donovan is considered a saint.”

A Jean Donovan Summer Fellowship at Santa Clara University — a Jesuit school — supports students interested in social justice, while in Los Angeles the Casa Jean Donovan Community Residence houses members of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps.

A tribute to Jean Donovan  and fellow churchwomen, near the spot of their murder in El Salvador.

A tribute to Jean Donovan and fellow churchwomen, near the spot of their murder in El Salvador.

But, Suggs says, “in Westport she is all but forgotten.” The few who remember her, and mourn her passing each December, believe she has been forgotten by her town, her school and her parish. (There is a brief mention of her, he says, in the back vestibule of Assumption Church. And Staples graduate Cynthia Gibb played a character based on Jean in Oliver Stone’s “Salvador.”)

The New York Times has shed a new light on Jean Donovan’s murderers. Perhaps next month, she will not be mourned by so few.

(The New York Times story includes a fascinating 13-minute video.)

Day On Bald Mountain

Jono Walker’s family — the Bennetts — settled in Westport in the 1700s. They lived on South Compo Road through the early 21st century.

Jono is in Pennsylvania now, but his roots here remain strong. The other day, Googling for background info on a piece he’s writing, he found a few “06880” posts about Bald Mountain. He sent along this excerpt from his longer story.

Skonk!

My snowball splattered the middle of another Redcoat’s roof. Not a bad shot.

Snow-packed Imperial Avenue was directly below the steep hill I perched on top of. It was harder than you’d think for this wily Minuteman, on his home terrain, to hit the hapless British soldiers. I’d been at it for half an hour, and hadn’t made a perfect shot — the driver’s side windshield — but the accuracy of my sniper fire on that blustery February morning was steadily improving.

The site of this ambuscade was Bald Mountain, a 90-foot promontory overlooking the Saugatuck River. The name always confused me. The rounded top of the bean-shaped hill was covered in towering hemlocks, looking nothing close to bald.

blog - Bald Mountain

From its summit I peered over the brow, at the Gault Field Little League diamond covered in snow. Directly across the river, red-bricked Bedford Junior High and gold-bricked Assumption Church gleamed in the morning sun.

Upriver, I saw the stand of trees surrounding the Woman’s Club and police station. Further away, just over the roof of the Fairfield Furniture Store on the far side of the river, was Old Hill. 200 years earlier 1,000 Minutemen dug in, lying in ambush hoping to wreak havoc on an advancing column of Redcoats.

The Gaults were just starting to gouge out the eastern perimeter of Bald Mountain in those days, felling trees and mining the moraine for sand and gravel. It would take 20 years to flatten the place, at which point they paved a road and built a dozen McMansions on the level ground that had been a rolling hill ever since the last Ice Age.

For thousands of years the Paugussett Indians maintained a fishing and trading post in the “faire fields” and salt marshes around Bald Mountain. They called the place Machamux (“the beautiful land”).

In 1661 the Paugussetts were hoodwinked into selling a portion of their lands east of Bald Mountain (today’s Green’s Farms) to the newly established town of Fairfield for 13 woolen coats, plus a little wampum.

A member of the Paugussett tribe.

A member of the Paugussett tribe.

It only took another decade or so for the rest of Machamux — from today’s Sherwood Island west to the Saugatuck River, and north to the Aspetuck River — to be appropriated by colonists. By the early 1680s all of modern-day Westport was settled by dozens of industrious freemen and their burgeoning families.

Among them were my ancestors Thomas, James and John Bennett. They were granted nearly 1200 acres. The land they “improved” ran on either side of today’s South Compo Road, from roughly the Post Road south to what was once called Bennett’s Rocks (the jagged granite outcropping now bisected by Narrow Rocks Road).

Within their property was a steep-sided hill rising from the marshy banks of the Saugatuck River. They eventually cleared it for pasture, and it became known as Bald Mountain.

At 10 years old I knew nothing about this history, beyond a vague awareness of that patriotic military action atop Old Hill. So there I was, armed and ready — a brave patriot using his insider’s knowledge of the local landscape to defend his homeland from the foreign invader.

Bald Mountain.

Bald Mountain.

The enemy approached: a bright red Studebaker negotiating the wide turn around the base of Bald Mountain. My snowball landed with a splatter more spectacular than I could have dreamed, right on the driver’s side of the windshield.

The car skidded along the snow bank. Out sprang the driver, scanning the hillside. He was a surprisingly young soldier — and mad. When he spotted me high above him he shook his fist, swore, dashed across the road and up the hill.

But — like his hapless forebears — this man’s entire military strategy (and his attire) were ill-suited to the wilds of the new world. The enemy was angered and dangerous, fully capable of rendering me to shreds, yet dressed in slippery business shoes, he was completely outfoxed.

I watched his 3 vain attempts to scale the formidable redoubt. Then I calmly turned, melting into the deep and shadowy woods, unbowed and ready to fight another day.

 

Jono Walker, back in his soldiering days.

Jono Walker, back in his soldiering days.

Minuteman Statue: That’s A Wrap

The Minuteman statue just begs to be decorated.

Over the years he’s worn a Santa Claus hat and Easter bunny ears. He’s had flowers — and a bagel – stuck in his musket.

It’s all in good fun. Even if, every time, a few folks get all bent out of shape about the “desecration” of our town symbol.

This time, though, the entire statue is involved. The Minuteman looks like — I don’t know, an early Halloween celebrant.

(Photo/Betsy Phillips Kahn)

(Photo/Betsy Phillips Kahn)

But hold your fire. (Get it?!)

The wrapping job was official. The stones around it — and the statue itself — are being power washed.

Soon the cover will come off. The Minuteman will look as good as new. Or, at least as good as he did when the statue was dedicated in 1910.

And we can all go back to lovingly decorating the guy.

Local D-Day Vets Eligible For “Legion d’Honneur”

Earlier this month, America celebrated the 70th anniversary of D-Day. Each year, the number of folks who remember that occasion — especially those who were there — grows smaller.

The French government is bestowing the “Légion d’Honneur” upon eligible U.S. survivors of that memorable day, as well as eligible U.S. soldiers who fought on French soil and contributed to the liberation of that country.

Legion d'Honneur medal.

Legion d’Honneur medal.

One local man is taking that a step further. Jean-Pierre Lavielle does not work for the French government, or any organization. But he is French — the son of a paratroop officer who fought in World War II — so he decided to look for all eligible veterans living in Connecticut.

The “Ordre de la Légion d’Honneur” was founded by Napoleon in 1802 to reward his soldiers’ gallantry and valiance in combat.

So Jean-Pierre is searching for U.S. veterans who not only were in D-Day or other significant battles for the liberation of France — like the Battle of the Bulge — but who also accomplished something special.

Once he identifies potential recipients, he interviews them. Because they tire easily now, he limits his sessions — at least 6 of them — to 20 minutes each.He collects documents, discharge papers, pictures and newspaper clippings. After double-checking, he files an application with the French Consulate in New York. They contact Paris, where the file is scrutinized.

“This is a race against the clock,” Jean-Pierre says. “Unfortunately, many eligible veterans die every day.”

Any Connecticut veterans who may be eligible for the honor — or their relatives — should email jpl106897@gmail.com, or call him at 203-862-7373 or 203-635-3117.

Bonne chance! Et merci!

 

Freedom Summer At 50

PBS’ “American Experience” is honoring the 50th anniversary of the Mississippi Freedom Summer with a wonderful show. It showcases the thousands of student volunteers, organizers and local blacks who encouraged voter registration, created schools and challenged the segregationist state Democratic Party at the national convention in Atlantic City. That summer saw the murders of 3 civil rights workers, countless beatings, the burning of 35 churches, and the bombing of 70 homes and Freedom Houses.

Westport artist and writer Tracy Sugarman — who died in 2013 — played an important role in that effort. His words and drawings are featured prominently in the broadcast.

Channel 13 aired “Freedom Summer” last night. It will be repeated early tomorrow morning (Thursday, June 26, 2 a.m.) and Saturday (June 28, 2 p.m.). If you can’t see it live, this one is definitely worth recording.

Tracy Sugarman (above left, with his family), and some of his sketches, on the "American Experience" website.

Tracy Sugarman (above left, with his family), and some of his sketches, on the “American Experience” website.

(Hat tip to Dick Lowenstein)

 

Rabbi Rubenstein, Rev. King And Jail

Last month’s 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act drew well-deserved attention.

But the stroke of President Johnson’s pen hardly ended discrimination. In fact, just 2 months later — in June, 1964 — the largest mass arrest of rabbis ever took place, in St. Augustine, Florida.

The group — led by Rev. Martin Luther King — was striving to end segregation in the nation’s oldest city. Just a month earlier, he had spoken at Westport’s Temple Israel.

Rabbi Byron T. Rubenstein

Rabbi Byron T. Rubenstein

Now the synagogue’s leader, Rabbi Byron T. Rubenstein, returned the favor. He traveled south, and was part of the group that landed in jail.

Next month, St. Augustine commemorates the 50th anniversary of that event. There is  a panel discussion with 9 of the rabbis who are still alive; a reading of the letter the rabbis wrote and signed that night in the St. Johns County jail; a march to the church where the rabbis heard rousing calls to action by Rev. King, Rev. Ralph Abernathy and Rev. Andrew Young; lunch cooked by the woman who cooked for Rev. King 50 years ago; a tour of the jail where the rabbis were incarcerated and fed baby food (overlooking the spot where black protesters were held, surrounded by barbed wire with no food at all), and a curated display in the city’s visitor center that reviews the 450-year-old history of blacks in North America.

Rabbi Rubenstein died in 1990. But his son Jonathan has been invited to attend.

Rev. Martin Luther King and Rev. Ralph Abernathy in the St. Johns County jail.

Rev. Martin Luther King and Rev. Ralph Abernathy in the St. Johns County jail.

Rabbi Merrill Shapiro told him, “The story of your father’s role in the largest mass arrest of rabbis in US history 50 years ago is legend here in St. Augustine …. (Some consider this) the most ‘undertold’ story in the history of the Jewish community of North America.”

That story was told in a recent edition of the Southern Jewish Historical Society newsletter.

Half a century ago, as St. Augustine prepared to celebrate its 400th anniversary — and Congress debated the Civil Rights Act — shopkeepers proudly displayed Ku Klux Klan robes.

King asked the Central Conference of American Rabbis for help. 16 rabbis — including Rubenstein — and Reform Judaism’s social action director, heeded the call.

The group joined members of St. Paul’s AME Church, attempting to integrate a motel swimming pool and lunch counter.

Monson Motor Lodge manager James Brock poured muriatic acid into the segregated pool, trying to get a group of rabbis and blacks to leave.

The Monson Motor Lodge manager poured muriatic acid into the segregated pool, trying to get a group of rabbis and blacks to leave.

In jail — by the light of 1 bulb burning outside their cell — the rabbis wrote a letter.

We realized that injustice in St. Augustine, as anywhere else, diminishes the humanity of each of us. We came as Jews who remember the millions of faceless people who stood quietly, watching the smoke rise from Hitler’s crematoria. We came became we know that, second only to silence, the greatest danger to man is loss of faith in man’s capacity to act….

We came to stand with our brothers, and in the process have learned more about ourselves and our God.

The newsletter notes that while plenty has changed in St. Augustine in 50 years, much has not. There is only 1 black firefighter, and no police officer, city commissioner or school board member. Barriers continue to keep African Americans from voting.

Rev. Martin Luther King is dead. So is Rabbi Rubenstein. But — as the newsletter notes — “the voices of those arrested can still be heard.”

Next month — 50 years after those voices were raised — St. Augustine celebrates them.

The rabbis composed this letter in jail. It is titled "Why We Went."

The rabbis composed this letter in jail. It is titled “Why We Went.”

 

 

No More Trolls: The Sequel

We’re in the midst of an important Westport anniversary.

At dusk 237 years ago yesterday — April 25, 1777 — 2000 British troops landed at Compo Beach. Tory loyalists planned to guide them up Compo Road to Cross Highway, across to Redding Road, then north through Redding and Bethel to Danbury, where they would burn a major munitions depot.

Patriots fired a few shots at the corner of the Post Road and Compo, but the British marched on. In Danbury they destroyed the Continental Army’s munitions, then headed back toward their waiting ships at Compo.

Hastily assembled patriot forces fought them in the fierce Battle of Ridgefield. Led by Brigadier General Benedict Arnold — not yet a traitor — and outnumbered 3 to 1, the patriots deployed a strategy of selective engagement.

British forces landed at Compo Beach, marched to Danbury, marched back south and — after the Battle of Compo Hill — retreated to Long Island.

The next day — April 28, 1777 — patriot marksmen waited on Compo Hill (the current site of Minuteman Hill road). They did not stop the redcoats — 20 colonials were killed, and between 40 and 80 wounded when the British made a shoulder to shoulder charge with fixed bayonets — but they gave them a fight.

A very different fight took place in the days leading up to April 26, 2013. Here on the “06880” blog, a post about the new town arts curator devolved into nasty attacks on her and her appointment. Accusations flew about a waste of town dollars. Even after it was noted that she is a volunteer, she continued to be vilified.

A post about a summer party planned for the “06880″ community quickly degenerated into a political catfight. Much of the joy of the announcement was sucked away by anonymous commenters.

There is a word for anonymous internet bullies: trolls.

There is a word for anonymous internet bullies: trolls.

So a year ago today, I pulled the plug on anonymity. In a pissed-off post, I described the reasons I finally had it with “trolls.” By stirring the pot so virulently, they were poisoning the blog for everyone. They clothed themselves in free speech garb, but in reality they were just cyberspace bullies.

That post drew 91 comments. Almost all were positive. A few people predicted the end of “06880.”

So what’s happened in the year since, now that commenters have to use their real, full names?

Well, I’m working harder. Not everyone follows the rules. I spend time deleting occasional anonymous posts — I have not gone as far as to demand pre-registration — and sending requests to re-post (I’ll even do it for you).

The number of comments is down a bit — but not significantly. Instead of 2 or 3 bozos shouting at each other, we’ve had (for the most part) civil conversations.

The dark spirits are gone. “06880” is lighter, freer.

We now know who is part of the “06880” community. And doesn’t any community — a blog, a town, whatever — function better when everyone knows their neighbors?

In the nearly 2 1/2 centuries since the Battle of Compo Hill, the British have never ventured inland again.

And — as the past year proves — the trolls are also gone for good.

 

Abraham Lincoln’s Westport Golf Course

Today is Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. (Happy 215th, Abe!)

Once upon a time, that was a legit holiday. Now it’s been folded into the generic “Presidents Day,” lowering Lincoln to the likes of John Tyler, Zachary Taylor and Woodrow Wilson’s wife.

But The Great Emancipator deserves an “06880” shout-out. With, of course, a Westport twist.

Abe LincolnLincoln supposedly stayed at Hockanum, Morris Ketchum’s 69 Cross Highway estate near Roseville Road, during his presidency.  (Woody Klein‘s history of Westport says only that Salmon P. Chase — Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury — was a frequent guest.)  Hockanum still stands; there is a “Lincoln bedroom” upstairs, and the deed states that no changes can be made to that room.

Like the great realtor she is, alert “06880” reader Mary Palmieri Gai has unearthed some fascinating new information about Hockanum. It doesn’t involve Lincoln directly, but it does provide a chance for me to use his name and the word “golf” in the same sentence — something that has perhaps never been done before, even though 15,000 books have been written about him. (True fact.)

Mary discovered a May 21, 1900 Norwalk Hour story that says:

Westport golfists are getting ready their clubhouse on the Morris Ketchum estate to repeat the splendid experience there of last summer.

Players from Westport, Saugatuck, the Norwalks, Greens Farms, Southport, Fairfield, Greenfield and even Bridgeport think highly of the quarters like that former old house as a place to see and to wait while others are playing. The club has completed an addition to the building. Play is indulged in every day.

Mary explains that Ketchum’s Hockanum property extended far north, long past where the Merritt Parkway is now — all the way to Lyons Plains Road. (It included homes that still stand, like the 1856 house at 499 Main Street.)

1900s golfRecently, Mary says, the owners of a house that backs up to the Unitarian Church found golf balls on their property. No one could figure out where they came from.

The answer: the Hockanum golf course.

It wasn’t there when President Lincoln (supposedly) visited. It isn’t there now.

But it sure provides a great way to look at Westport’s recreational — and presidential — past.