Category Archives: History

Sholem Aleichem Lives On

Most people don’t know their great-grandparents.

Then again, most great-grandparents are not Sholem Aleichem.

Sandy Rothenberg is the famed Yiddish writer’s great-granddaughter. The longtime Weston resident grew up hearing his stories — and attending performances of “Fiddler on the Roof,” the musical based on his tales of Tevye the Dairyman.

She’s seen the original on Broadway, and its several revivals. Her daughter Lindsay was in the show, at Weston High School.

Sandy looks especially forward to this month’s “Fiddler” production by Staples Players. “They always do a wonderful job,” she says. (They do. The show opened last night, to rave reviews.)

Sholem Aleichem

Sholem Aleichem

Every year on his yahrzeit (anniversary of his death), Sandy and her extended family celebrate Sholem Aleichem’s ethical will — a document that passes values, blessings, life lessons, hopes and dreams, from one generation to the next. They read his stories, in a ceremony that’s grown from a small gathering to one held at the Brotherhood Synagogue in New York (with professional readers).

2016 marks the 100th anniversary of Sholem Aleichem’s death. How appropriate that a few months early, in a town next to her own, Sandy Rothenberg can watch her great-grandfather’s story live again.


(Thanks to robust ticket sales, Staples Players has added one more date for “Fiddler on the Roof.” It’s Thursday, November 19, 7 p.m., with reduced ticket prices of $10 for adults, $8 for seniors and $5 for students. The show also runs this weekend and next. For times and ticket information for all performances, click here.)

The staging, acting, choreography and sets of "Fiddler on the Roof" is spectacular -- as Staples Players shows always are. (Photo/Kerry Long)

Staples Players Riley  Andrews, Julia Mandelbaum, Jordan Goodness, Jacob Leaf and Caroline Didelot perform “The Sabbath Prayer.”(Photo/Kerry Long)

Hillary O’Neill’s Very Special Birthday Gift

Nearly 3,000 people were killed on September 11, 2001.

Another 13,328 Americans were born that day.

They were just 1 year old in 2002, when on the 1st annual 9/11 Day of Service millions of people turned that horrific tragedy into something good.

9-11 Day of ServiceThose 9/11 babies were only 10 in 2011, when the 10th anniversary was honored with the single largest day of service in US history.

Now they’re 14. They’re old enough to act themselves, and make their birthday into something more than a date no one will ever forget.

A special “Born on 9/11” project involves those youngsters who came into the world that fateful day. Those teenagers urge everyone to do at least one good deed on their birthday. After all, they say, “hope was born that day.”

The face of that project — and the centerpiece of an inspiring video that gives it special poignancy — is Hillary O’Neill.

She was born in Norwalk Hospital. Today she’s a Staples High School freshman. Her father, Glenn O’Neill, is a very popular Coleytown Middle School social studies teacher.

Glenn and Heather O'Neill, with Hillary.

Glenn and Heather O’Neill, with Hillary.

In the video, Hillary notes how dramatically the world changed the day she was born — and how much more it’s changed since.

Still, she says, “I like looking at the best of things. I have the power to change things.” Because of the volunteer work done by so many — more than 40 million last year alone — the 9/11 children call their birthday “a blessing.”

Hillary O’Neill

On Friday, Hillary will ring the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange, with the founders of 9/

Because she’s busy that day, she got a head start on service. On Sunday she set up a lemonade stand near her home, benefiting Al’s Angels.

Kids are supposed to get gifts on their birthday. Thanks to her video — and her wonderful, life-affirming spirit — Hillary O’Neill has given us one of the greatest birthday presents of all.

If your browser does not take you directly to YouTube, click here. For more information on the 9/11 Day of Service, click here. The Facebook page — with lesson plans for middle and high school teachers — is called “9/11 Day.” Twitter hashtags are #onegooddeed and #911day. )

Ted Diamond To Receive France’s Highest Honor

Bob Loomis is not the only Westporter being honored by the French government for heroism during World War II.

Next Friday (July 3), Ted Diamond receives France’s highest medal: the insignia of Chevalier (knight) of the Legion of Honor.

The award — established by Napoleon in 1802 — acknowledges the longtime Westporter (and former 2nd selectman’s) enduring contribution to the success of Operation Dragoon, a military campaign to free the nation from Nazi domination.

Ted Diamond

Ted Diamond

Diamond was an Army Air Corps combat navigator with the 15th Air Force. He flew 50 missions over highly secured military installations throughout Europe, often leading a group of 28 B-17s.

Diamond has spent the last 60 years in Westport. In addition to 3 terms as 2nd selectman, he was a 3-term RTM member, and volunteered on numerous town committees, commissions and boards.

The Legion of Honor ceremony takes place at 5 p.m. on Pier 15 at the South Street Seaport. The site is fitting: in front of the frigate Hermione, an exact replica of the 18th-century ship that brought Lafayette here to support General Washington.

July 3 is the day before America’s national holiday. It’s also Diamond’s 98th birthday. He says he is humbled by the honor, and wishes the 9 other crew members on his 50 missions were alive to share it with him.

He does call it “one helluva birthday present.”


Felicitations, Bob Loomis

In the 1930s, Bob Loomis lived on the outskirts of Paris with his American father and French mother. When the Germans occupied the country, his parents moved to the US.

Loomis was drafted in 1942. On D-Day, he landed on Utah Beach. With many other soldiers, he fought heroically to recapture that important territory. He earned a Silver Star for saving his troops from a grenade that landed in their foxhole.

After the war, Loomis became a commercial artist. He’s lived in Westport for 55 years, including a long stint as art director for the marketing giant MCA.

In his mid-50s, Loomis went to nursing school. For decades, he served as a member of Westport’s Volunteer Emergency Medical Service corps.

In 1985, Bob Loomis designed the logo for Westport's 150th anniversary celebration.

In 1985, Bob Loomis designed the logo for Westport’s 150th anniversary celebration.

Tomorrow morning (Wednesday, June 17), he’ll welcome a special visitor to his Kings Highway home. Connecticut’s honorary French consulate is coming from Hartford, to award him the Croix de Guerre: France’s medal of honor for bravery in combat.

It’s part of the French government’s ongoing effort to recognize American soldiers, for their help in the liberation of France.

Remarkably, this is the 3rd Croix de Guerre for the Loomis family. His father received the honor for his heroism as a fighter pilot in World War I. And Loomis’ cousin was awarded the same medal for working with the Underground in World War II, hiding soldiers from the Germans.

That cousin is 96, living in Paris. Loomis and he are often in touch.

Now — thanks to the French government — they have one more special bond.

Bob Loomis proudly displays some of his medals. Tomorrow, he'll add the Croix de Guerre.

Bob Loomis proudly displays some of his medals. Tomorrow, he’ll add the Croix de Guerre.

(Hat tip: Patricia Broderick)

Bruce Allen: A Reluctant Grand Marshal

The stereotype of World War II veterans is that they don’t like to talk about their service. They did what they had to. They came home. They got on with their lives.

Tomorrow’s Westport Memorial Day grand marshal fits that stereotype perfectly.

Bruce Allen  was a combat infantryman, serving as a gunner in the 78th Division. His decorations include a Purple Heart (for wounds at the Remagen River Bridge in 1945), Bronze Star and Croix de Guerre.

Bruce downplays it all. After the war, he says, “I wanted to be away from all that. I never look back. Always forward.” He’s been to just one high school reunion, and did not join any veterans group.

Bruce Allen (Photo/Larry Untermeyer for

Bruce Allen (Photo/Larry Untermeyer for

After his service, he majored in theater and English at Wesleyan University. He worked in TV production at NBC and ABC (and freelanced at CBS), and became a producer/director at J. Walter Thompson and Grey Advertising. He was also a vice president and production supervisor at Grey.

Bruce and his wife Marjorie moved to Westport in 1957. His brother and sister-in-law (who was also Marjorie’s sister) already lived here. Bruce and his wife loved the water.

While scoutmaster of Troop 39, 13 boys became Eagle Scouts. He was director of community services for the Y’s Men, and has been active in Greens Farms Congregational Church as moderator, chairman of deacons and a church school teacher. Bruce also spent 46 years as an auxiliary and special police officer.

He says he is embarrassed to be named grand marshal. Speaking for many others of his generation, he says: “We did what we did. Then we went on with our lives.”

Tomorrow morning, Bruce Allen will lead Westport’s parade reluctantly. He’s been in it before — but only as an Indian Guide, police officer and Y’s Men member.

In recent years, he and Marjorie have brought chairs, and sat near Town Hall. He never imagined he’d be the one that so many paradegoers cheer on, and wave to.

“It’s a great day to honor all those who sacrificed for our country,” he says simply. “It’s a nice day for the town.”

(The Memorial Day parade begins Monday, May 25 at 9 a.m., at Saugatuck Elementary School. It travels up Riverside Avenue, across the Post Road bridge, then turns left on Myrtle Avenue before ending at Town Hall. Memorial services — definitely worth watching — follow immediately on Veterans Green, opposite Town Hall.)

Staples Players Bring “Laramie Project” To Life

When Staples Players director David Roth announced the spring Black Box Theater production — “The Laramie Project” — 80% of the actors had no idea who Matthew Shepard was.

But why would they? The oldest were 2 years old when the gay University of Wyoming student was beaten, tied to a fence and left to die in the Laramie night.

Roth and co-director Kerry Long are adept at presenting theater that educates audiences. This time, they’re educating their cast too.

“I don’t think kids in this community have any idea how tough it still is to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans in other parts of the country,” Roth says. “A lot of teenagers here don’t realize how we’ve gotten to this place of acceptance.”

Part of the reason Staples is a high school where students feel comfortable being who they are — whoever they are — is because of John Dodig. The principal has worked hard to create an environment of acceptance and inclusion. He retires this spring after 11 years at Staples — and 47 in education — so Roth and Long are proud to dedicate this year’s “Laramie Project” to him.

Sophia Sherman, Keanan Pucci and Nick Ribolla, ensemble members of “The Laramie Project.” (Photo/Kerry Long)

It’s the 2nd time Roth and Long are directing this show with Players. The 1st production was 8 years ago.

This set design is completely different. So is the use of technology, showing the use of TV cameras as world media descended on Wyoming.

Different too is that “The Laramie Project” now has a companion piece. In 2008 — 10 years after Matthew Shepard’s murder — the Tectonic Theater Project returned to the town. They interviewed many of the same people who contributed to the first play, as well as others — like Matthew’s mother Judy, and his 2 killers. All showed what had — and had not — changed in the intervening decade.

The result was another play: “The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later.” It recently become available for licensing. Players will be one of the first companies anywhere to produce that show next year.

Each cast member plays multiple roles in

Each cast member plays multiple roles in “The Laramie Project.” (Photo/Kerry Long)

Roth and Long are excited about the opportunity to do their 1st-ever cycle. Some of this year’s cast will audition for the same roles a year from now. It’s a challenging way for them to look at their character’s growth — and their own.

The directors savor the chance to work with an ensemble. The cast of 18 covers over 60 roles. Each actor must understand multiple, nuanced characters. The hate crime evoked complex reactions among many Laramie residents.

It’s all part of the educational process that began when this generation of Staples students first heard the name “Matthew Shepard.”

(“The Laramie Project” will be presented in Staples’ Black Box Theater on May 28, 29, 30 and 31. Click here for times, and ticket information [available starting Saturday morning].)

Eric Burns Remembers 1920

Like Sam Cooke more than 50 years ago, most Americans today don’t know much about history.

Eric Burns does.

Eric Burns

Eric Burns

The longtime Westporter — an award-winning media analyst and former NBC News correspondent– has just written a new book: 1920: The Year That Made the Decade Roar.

The few folks still alive then probably don’t remember much about that year. The rest of us probably wouldn’t peg it as any different from, say, 1919 or 1921.

But Burns does. In a recent interview with Salon, he explained:

 1920 was the year of the first terrorist attack on U.S. soil. It was the only year in which there have been 2 amendments to the Constitution (Prohibition and the women’s vote). For the entire year, we had a female president— not elected, obviously; she was the de facto president, not the president de jure— because of Woodrow Wilson’s stroke. Isn’t it ironic that for the entire year of 1920, the year women got the vote, there was a woman running the country?

1920 was also the year of Charles Ponzi (cue the Bernie Madoff comparisons); debates over “homeland security” (following the alleged terrorism by anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti), and immense changes in art and literature.

In fact, according to the Salon writer who interviewed Burns:

The America of the 1920s, especially during the very first year of the decade, really was eerily similar to America today! The country was recovering from a war of choice that not only led to results far less inspiring than originally promised, but caused a toxic level of division and rancor within the body politic; the economy was turbulent, with new technologies and social norms wrenching an agricultural society ever-more toward the cities; immigration was changing the very face of the average citizen, often in a way American nativists could not stand; and terrorism was forcing a political culture built on dual loyalties to liberty and safety to engage in a precarious rebalancing.

There’s much more — and Burns will talk about it all at the Westport Library this Thursday (May 21, 7:30 p.m.).

Attendance is free for anyone 95 years or older. And everyone else, too.

1920 book - Eric Burns

Missing Meeker Musket Ball

Yesterday’s commemoration of the 238th anniversary of the Battle of Compo Hill — with ceremonies honoring the Minute Men who battled the British on the way to and from their arsenal-burning in Danbury — got Mark Yurkiw thinking.

He lives in a very historic saltbox home on Cross Highway.* By the time the Redcoats marched past in 1777, the house — owned by Samuel Meeker — was already nearly half a century old.


The “Meeker house” in the 1930s, as photographed for a WPA project. After the Revolutionary War, Benjamin Meeker built the barn in back. It — and the house — still stand today.

As Samuel’s great-great-grandson Edward Franklin Meeker wrote in an application to the Sons of the American Revolution in 1895, the British expedition included a number of Tory guides.

They knew who along the way were Patriots. So en route to Danbury the Redcoats took Samuel Meeker’s son Benjamin and Daniel prisoner. They “sacked and gutted his house,” and butchered his cattle. The brothers were taken to New York, and held in the Sugar House Prison for 18 months.

The Meekers did not go easily. A musket ball was lodged in their front door.

There it stayed for nearly 2 centuries — silent witness to a historic past.

But sometime in the late 1940s or ’50s, the musket ball vanished. “Oral history tells us it disappeared after a local Boy Scout troop visited the house for a tour,” current owner Yurkiw says.

The door today. The hole left by the missing musket ball can be seen on the left side, underneath the knocker.

The door today. The hole left by the missing musket ball can be seen on the left side, near the bottom.

Yurkiw wants the musket ball back — or at least closure. If anyone knows where that small ball is, he’d like to know. He hopes to restore it for future tours, of what is the only known house in Westport still standing that the British passed on their way north.

Click “Comments” if you know. And don’t be shy. The statute of limitations is long gone.

Just like the Redcoats.

*BONUS FUN FACT:  Cross Highway gets its name from the fact that it “crossed” the “long lots” on what is now Bayberry Lane and Sturges Highway, near Long Lots Road.

Daniel Meeker died in 1784. His wife Abigail (Gorham) died 5 years later. They are buried in the cemetery bordered by Greens Farms Road and the Sherwood Island Connector. Daniel's brother Benjamin outlived him by 33 years. He married another Abigail (Burr). This photo -- and information about the Meekers, and the house -- comes from current owner Wendy Van Wie, Mark Yurkiw's wife. She is a law professor and historian.

Daniel Meeker died in 1784. His wife Abigail (Gorham) died 5 years later. They are buried in the cemetery bordered by Greens Farms Road and the Sherwood Island Connector. Daniel’s brother Benjamin outlived him by 33 years. He married another Abigail (Burr). This photo — and information about the Meekers, and the house — comes from current owner Wendy Van Wie, Mark Yurkiw’s wife. She is a law professor and historian.

Minute Man And Friend

Today’s ceremonies — marking Westport’s role in the Revolutionary War, 238 years ago today — drew a good-sized, historic-minded crowd.

One of the highlights was a walking tour from Compo Beach — where the British landed on April 25, 1777, en route to raiding the Danbury arsenal — to the Minute Man.

Our beloved (and newly renovated) town icon was joined by a kindred spirit: a member of the Sons of the American Revolution.

Minute Man with Son of American Revolution

Tour-goers learned plenty. Here are 3 things I never knew:

  • It’s “Minute Man,” not “Minuteman.” At least, that’s how it was punctuated during the original dedication ceremony in 1910. So that’s how I’ll write it from now on.
  • It’s a “monument,” not a statue. We should focus on all the elements — sculpture, knoll, fence, stonework — rather than just the Minute Man himself. That was the whole idea, 105 years ago.
  • There are only 4 Minute Man monuments in the world. The other 3 are in Concord, Lexington and Framingham, Massachusetts. When ours was dedicated, speakers declared it would be as famous as the 1875 one in Concord.  It isn’t — but of the 4, ours is the only one depicting a patriot kneeling, at the ready. And that was the whole idea: to be ready “in a minute.”


Listen, My Children, And You Shall Hear…

…of the Minute Man statue we hold so dear.
Not any one man is now alive
Who remembers back to 1775
Or the march of the British from Compo’s shore
To Danbury north, and its arsenal store
Or the days that followed, as they marched back south
And ran right into our militia’s mouth
The Battle of Compo Hill became quite a story
And Westport’s Minute Men earned all their glory
But seldom today do we give any thought
To all that our patriot ancestors wrought
We pass by the statue with ne’er a glance
For far more concerned are we with the chance
To sunbathe and swim, go boating and grill
Or enjoy yet another modern-day thrill
As the Minute Man stands, a sentinel silent
To a long-ago chapter so bloody and violent
But hark! For on Sunday we look back and praise
The remarkable heroes of those valiant days
(Click here for the details of all the events
Then read further this poem; ’twill make much more sense).

Minuteman statue 2

In 1906 Daniel Webster moved here
Though just 29, his sculpting talent was clear
Four years later he was asked (in part by the state)
To design, develop, cast and create
A sculpture to show a patriot kneeling
With flintlock in hand, and a strong steely feeling
‘Twould be placed near the beach, at the same exact spot
Where the Battle of Compo Hill had been fought.

Robert Penn Lambdin's

Robert Penn Lambdin’s “The British Landing at Cedar Point, April 25, 1777” oil painting is part of the Westport Schools Permanent Art Collection.

Lewis P. Wakeman is a name from the past
He’s the model from whom the Minute Man has been cast
In bronze, where he sits on a mound of green grass
From his perch now he’s watched a full century pass
The Westport statue is one of just four
Saluting a Minute Man to remember that war
Feelings were stronger in the year 1910
The unveiling was quite an event way back then
A clambake, parade, music and speeches
Made June 17 a red-letter day at the beaches.

The Minute Man statue, around the time of his 1910 dedication.

The Minute Man statue, around the time of his 1910 dedication.

In the 10 decades since then, much has been seen
The Minute Man’s patina turned brown to green
Rain storms eroded the earthen knoll’s contour
The fence fell into disrepair even more
But now, thanks to a passionate, hard-working team
The Minute Man once again shines with a gleam
His hill is restored, his fence now is steady
And once again with his flintlock he kneels at the ready
To remind us that once upon men, bold and brave
(Some of them buried in a near shallow grave)
Defended this land with a spirit so strong
That to forget their sacrifice must surely be wrong
So this Sunday — and all days — think, if you can
Of the saga of Westport’s beloved Minute Man.

(To learn more about this Sunday’s Minute Man celebrations, click here.)

(Photo/Katherine Hooper)

(Photo/Katherine Hooper)