Category Archives: History

All Eric Burns, (Nearly) All The Time

It’s tough to counter-program against the Super Bowl pregame show.

Then again, C-SPAN2’s audience is a bit different than the CBS’.

Yesterday, the “BookTV” show aired a 3-hour interview with Eric Burns.

Eric Burns

Eric Burns

The longtime Westport author and media critic talked about his books, including his most recent: The Golden Lad: The Haunting Story of Quentin and Theodore Roosevelt. 

Burns and his host took viewers phone calls, and responded to tweets — for 3 hours. That’s a long time — though mere seconds compared to the pregame telecast.

This Thursday, Burns heads to the Savannah Book Festival. On February 25 he’ll be at the Westport Library, discussing his TR opus.

Meanwhile, if for some reason you were watching CBS instead of CSPAN2 yesterday — but you want 3 hours of Eric Burns — click here.

MLK

This story ran last year. Several readers asked me to republish it today. Here it is.

Today is Martin Luther King Day. Westporters will celebrate with a day off from school or work.  Some will sleep in; others will ski, or take part in a Staples basketball clinic for younger players. Few will give any thought to Martin Luther King.

Twice, though, his life intersected this town in important ways.

Martin Luther KingThe first was Friday night, May 22, 1964. According to Woody Klein’s book Westport, Connecticut, King had been invited to speak at Temple Israel by synagogue member Jerry Kaiser.

King arrived in the afternoon. Kaiser and his wife Roslyn sat on their porch that afternoon, and talked with King and 2 of his aides. She was impressed with his “sincerity, warmth, intelligence and genuine concern for those about him — our children, for instance. He seemed very young to bear such a burden of leadership.”

King’s sermon — to a packed audience — was titled “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.” He analogized his America to the time of Rip Van Winkle — who also “slept through a revolution. The greatest liability of history is that people fail to see a revolution taking place in our world today.  We must support the social movement of the Negro.”

Westport artist Roe Halper presented King with 3 woodcarvings, representing the civil rights struggle. He hung them proudly in the front hallway of his Atlanta home.

Artist Roe Harper (left) presents Coretta Scott King with civil rights-themed wood carvings.

Within a month Temple Israel’s rabbi, Byron Rubenstein, traveled south to take place in a nonviolent march. He was arrested — along with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.

In jail, the rabbi said, “I came to know the greatness of Dr. King. I never heard a word of hate or bitterness from that man, only worship of faith, joy and determination.”

King touched Westport again less than 4 years later. On April 5, 1968 — the day after the civil rights leader’s assassination in Memphis — 600 Staples students gathered for a lunchtime vigil in the courtyard. Nearby, the flag flew at half-staff.

A small portion of the large crowd listens intently to Fermino Spencer, in the Staples courtyard.

A small portion of the large crowd listens intently to Fermino Spencer, in the Staples courtyard.

Vice principal Fermino Spencer addressed the crowd. Movingly, he spoke about  his own experience as an African American. Hearing the words “my people” made a deep impression on the almost all-white audience. For many, it was the 1st time they had heard a black perspective on white America.

No one knew what lay ahead for their country. But student Jim Sadler spoke for many when he said: “I’m really frightened. Something is going to happen.”

Something did — and it was good. A few hundred students soon met in the cafeteria. Urged by a minister and several anti-poverty workers to help bridge the chasm between Westport and nearby cities, Staples teachers and students vowed to create a camp.

Within 2 months, it was a reality. That summer 120 elementary and junior high youngsters from Westport, Weston, Norwalk and Bridgeport participated in the Intercommunity Camp. Led by over 100 Staples students and many teachers, they enjoyed swimming, gymnastics, dance, sports, field trips, overnight camping, creative writing, filmmaking, photography, art and reading.

It wasn’t easy — some in Westport opposed bringing underprivileged children to their town — but for over a decade the Intercommunity Camp flourished.

Eventually, enthusiasm for and interest in the camp waned. Fewer Staples students and staff members wanted to devote their summer to such a project.  The number of Westporters willing to donate their pools dwindled. Today the Intercommunity Camp is a long-forgotten memory.

Sort of like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. Even on his birthday.

MLK speech

After 70 Years, A Flag Heals War Wounds

“06880” reader Hiroshi Asada sends along this astonishing story:

Last February, Westporter Harold Gross — a World War II veteran (11th Airborne Division) and member of a Japanese Language Group at the Westport Library –met Barbara O’Hare at the Los Baños Prison Rescue dinner in Manhattan. The annual dinner honors those who participated, and the prisoners they saved.

Barbara’s father was with the 11th Airborne Division’s 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment. On February 23, 1945 they participated in one of the most successful rescue operations in modern history: Along with Filipino guerrillas, they rescued more than 2,100 Allied internees held behind Japanese lines.

At the 70th anniversary dinner, Barbara showed a discolored Japanese flag her father obtained in the Philippines during the war. She kept the flag after he died.

There are handwritten messages on the flag, but neither she nor Harold could read them. He suggested that Barbara bring the flag to one of our library meetings so that I — a native speaker of Japanese — could see it. In April, Barbara brought the flag and other items.

The 70-year-old Japanese flag.

The 70-year-old Japanese flag, on a Westport Library table.

She wanted to find surviving family members of the original owner, so the flag could be returned to them.

During WWII, it was common for Japanese families to ask relatives, friends and neighbors to put their names on flags. They were given to soldiers as farewell gifts — or perhaps good luck charms — when they left. I heard about such flags, and saw images in movies, but this was the first time I saw a flag like that in person.

I kept the flag to study it. Some of the Chinese characters (Japanese write in Chinese as well as Japanese characters) are in fluid cursive style, which I had trouble reading. So I sent pictures to my mother and aunt in Japan, both of whom had studied and practiced Japanese calligraphy.

One of the challenges is that the soldier’s name is not written on the flag. There is no geographical information either. I figured we probably could not find where the flag came from.

But on the flag are more than 60 names, along with farewell messages for the unidentified soldier. As I finished listing the names on a sheet of paper, I realized more than half shared the same last name: Tachigami. It is an uncommon name.

Perhaps, I thought, the soldier’s last name was Tachigami. I felt he must have come from an area where extended family and relatives lived nearby. He was likely from a rural town — or at least not a major city.

A close-up view of some of the messages and names on the flag.

A close-up view of some of the messages and names on the flag.

My detective work began. First I searched the internet. I found only a few hundred Tachigami households in Japan. They’re concentrated in a relatively small area – in and around Fukushima City, about 100 kilometers east of Hiroshima.

I became more optimistic, and thought I might be able to find someone who knows who the soldier was. I used social media and made international calls. But the effort led nowhere.

While unsure what to do next, I learned from one of my wife’s friends that Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare has an office that might help us find a surviving family member.

I contacted them immediately, sending pictures that showed details on the flag, along with my comments, observations and analysis. I did not hear back for a while. Hope faded.

But in mid-November, 7 months after starting this search, a letter arrived from the government agency. They located Hideko, the oldest daughter of the soldier.

I confirmed that her last name is on the flag. I could tell the handwriting was of a child. They are indeed from Fukuyama City.

I called Barbara. Of course, she was very excited.

Hiroshi Asada, with the flag.

Hiroshi Asada, with the flag.

Hideko, 81, is the only surviving daughter of Kakuichi Tachigami. He was in the Japanese Navy, and sent to the Philippines. Hideko was 10 or 11 when the war ended, so she was very young when Kakuichi left his family. He probably died in the Philippines, where the 11th Airborne Division was at that time.

I have not spoken with Hideko directly. But I talked to her son, Kazuhisa, and daughter-in-law over the phone. Hideko spends a couple of days a week in a special care facility. While she has good and bad days, her son told me that she does remember the flag.

Interestingly, I realized that Hideko and my parents are around the same age. In fact, Kazuhisa and I was born the same year, 1960 — 15 years after the war ended.

Barbara will come to Westport from New Jersey to see the flag one last time, later this month at the library. We’ll take a picture of her, Harold and me, then send the flag to Japan. She is also considering the possibility of personally delivering it to the family.

This has been a special experience for me. I am glad Harold suggested Barbara bring the flag to our meeting. Also, without the library’s Japanese Language Group, Harold and I might not have had a chance to know each other — and this search with a nice ending would never have happened.

The Japanese Language Group -- and the flag -- at the Westport Library. A's detective work began here.

The Japanese Language Group — and the flag — at the Westport Library. Hiroshi Asada’s detective work began there.

Facing Down The Communist Menace

More than 6 decades ago, the McCarthy witch hunt — highlighted in the current film “Trumbo” — affected all Americans. Area residents like Fred Hellerman — who sang with Pete Seeger in the Weavers — saw their careers torpedoed, in a frightening, country-wide rush to judgment.

TrumboIt took the courage of men like Kirk Douglas and Howard Fast — both with Westport and Weston connections — to break the blacklist. Douglas surreptitiously hired screenwriter Dalton Trumbo to adapt Fast’s novel “Spartacus,” a major step toward helping restore many writers’ good names.

A couple of years before McCarthy, Westport faced its own charges of communism. But officials here reacted in a very different way.

According to Westporter-Herald newspaper accounts unearthed by alert “06880” reader Fred Cantor, in early April 1947 Fred Hollister wrote a long story in Inklings, the Staples High School newspaper. It described a new organization: American Youth for Democracy.

David Hollister, as a 1947 Staples High School senior: class vice president, Yale applicant, alleged communist.

David Hollister, as a 1947 Staples High School senior: class vice president, Yale applicant, alleged communist.

Hollister — a senior — was awaiting word on admission to Yale. He was vice president of his class, editor of the new literary magazine Soundings, and a member of the Norwalk chapter of AYD. That group — an “interracial teen-age club” — offered “a program for economic security and opportunity, education, housing, health, farm youth, recreation, juvenile delinquency, veterans, civil liberties, and peace,” the Westporter-Herald reported.

The AYD wanted to build “more and more inter-racial clubs in our country, clubs where young Negro and white people, by working, playing and fighting for the same things together, learn through actual experience that there are no ‘superior’ and no ‘inferior’ races.”

FBI director J. Edgar Hoover called it “part of the Communist party.”

A front-page story in the local paper said that “school officials, P-T.A. officers, School Study Council members and parents of high school students are all considering ways and means to check the infiltration of what the U.S. Chamber ofo Commerce has called subversive ideas fostered by the AYD.”

A poster of the "radical" American Youth for Democracy.

A poster of the “radical” American Youth for Democracy.

Superintendent of Schools Gerhardt Rast conducted an investigation into the “publication of the AYD propoganda.” He “emphatically” cleared Inklings’ faculty advisor, social studies teacher Eli Berton, of “any blame.” Rast said that Berton had no idea what the AYD was. However, the superintendent said that he would ask the Board of Education to take action to “prevent its growth in the school.”

“The article’s listing of the organization’s aims could be that of any liberal organization, except for an emphasis on federal aid for various projects,” the Westporter-Herald noted.

An editorial took a patronizing tone. High school is a time “when youngsters look up on the world and worry about its imperfections. They are dissatisfied with the picture of war, famine, hatred and intolerance. Naturally they dream of making the world over, fashioning it to be without sin or greed.”

That’s not the way the world works, the paper continued. But perhaps Hollister should be thanked, because by “its careless publicity (the AYD) has ruined its chances for successful proselytizing in the high school  here.”

The editorial concluded: “Fellow traveler, whither now?”

Eli Berton was a long-time, and very well-respected, Staples High School social studies teacher.

Eli Berton was a long-time, and very well-respected, Staples High School social studies teacher.

In the days that followed, the American Legion asked the Board of Ed to place more importance on the teaching of American history in Westport schools.

The board discussed the matter, but refused to remove either Hollister or Berton from Inklings. 

The superintendent took a similar stand. In fact, he said, “We do teach the Bill of Rights to our students….How can we reconcile action denying David Hollister the right to publish any further articles with what they students know about Article I?…I don’t believe such action would be wise or consistent.”

And so the communist menace in Westport was dealt with: intelligently, graciously, and with no inflammatory rhetoric.

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.

L’chaim!

(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 9/11Day.org.

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 WestportNow.com)

Bruce Allen (Photo/Larry Untermeyer for WestportNow.com)

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].)