Category Archives: Looking back

Sam Vail, Fukushima, And Why Westporters Should Be Very, Very Worried

For better or worse, Westporters are experts at the NIMBY game. Cell towers, group homes, a new synagogue — there are tons of good reasons those things should go in your back yard, not mine.

In 1967, we thought we took care of the NIMBY nuclear power issue for good. A utility company’s plan to build a nuclear power plant on Cockenoe Island — a mile from Compo Beach — was defeated (despite many Westport proponents). We now own the rocky isle.

So — as tragic as the 2011 failures at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant were — they generated little concern here. After all, Westport is 6,578 miles — one vast ocean, one large continent — away.

Of course, as “60 Minutes” made clear last Sunday, the disaster is far from over. The crippled plant still releases high levels of radiation daily. It seeps into ground soil, evaporates into the air, and leaks into the Pacific.

Children are particularly vulnerable to radiation. And — because wind and ocean currents know no borders — even affluent, suburban Americans may be at risk.

Sam Vail knows the dangers well. A native Westporter, his career took him to the very same Fukushima plant that continues to spew poisons today.

He is very, very worried.

After graduating from Staples in 1982, Sam learned commercial diving at the Florida Institute of Technology. He joined an Essex, Connecticut company that cut and welded dams and other underwater structures — including power plants.

In 1989 he became certified to work on nuclear reactors. Soon, he was sent to Fukushima. He returned a couple more times. It was lucrative work — but the more Sam saw, the more worried he became about the safety of nuclear power.

Watching news coverage of the earthquake, tsunami and subsequent power plant disaster was “mind-blowing,” Sam said last week. He was about to leave for Costa Rica — he’s now a solar power consultant — but he wanted to talked about what he’s seen.

The start of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster.

The start of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster.

“The first reactor that blew up was the first one I’d worked on over there,” Sam noted. “I knew how bad things would be.”

The more he’s learned over the past 3 years, the more worried he’s grown.

“This is the worst man-made industrial accident in the history of the planet — hands down,” Sam said. “I’m not a physicist. I just helped fix the reactors. But I don’t think they can entomb this. It’s an incredibly serious situation.”

Sam is surprised that — notwithstanding the “60 Minutes” report (which focused on the life of one displaced farmer) — scant media attention has been paid to the ongoing Fukushima crisis.

On Tuesday, April 29 (6:15 p.m., Westport Library), he’ll do his part to raise local awareness. The World Network for Saving Children from Radiation is showing “A2-B-C,” a documentary about the aftermath of radiation exposures.

Cockenoe Island, off Compo Beach. In 1967, it almost became the site of a nuclear power plant.

Cockenoe Island, off Compo Beach. In 1967, it almost became the site of a nuclear power plant.

Immediately after the film, Sam will join a Q-and-A session. Other panelists include Mariko Bender (a Fukushima native now living in Connecticut), and Dr. David Brown, a Westporter and Fairfield University professor who is an expert in environmental ethics and toxicology.

“This isn’t about politics,” Sam said. “It’s about the health of our planet. The particulates are already here.

“Five years after Chernobyl, there was a spike in thyroid cancer and other thyroid abnormalities.

“Well, Fukushima will make Chernobyl look like a tea party.”

Sam applauds environmental organizations that are trying to educate people about nuclear power (including the dangers of not-very-far-away Indian Point).

His library appearance is another way to do that. Sam Vail will be in his home town, half a world away from the Fukushima nuclear reactors he worked on.

But in many ways, Fukushima is also in our back yard.

 

 

 

Remarkable Downtown Scene

Really old Westporters remember the corner of Main Street and Parker Harding Plaza as the site of a sea captain’s house-turned-map store.

Relatively old Westporters know it as the Remarkable Book Shop.

Newbies called it Talbots.

Now it’s — who knows what?

Remarkable Book Shop 2014

The iconic building that long symbolized downtown Westport is being transformed once again.

I had to use a little filter to keep it pink.

 

“We Rob Banks”

In 1968 — a few months after the movie “Bonnie and Clyde” swept the nation — a few Staples seniors and friends thought it would be cool to imitate the legendary outlaws.

The high school campus was open; students came and went as they pleased during free periods (and sometimes during not-so-frees). It was spring; giddiness filled the air. Hey, why not?!

Five guys dressed up like ’20s gangsters. They drove downtown, sauntered into Westport Bank & Trust — now Patagonia — and, with a “getaway car” idling outside, pulled out a fake .38 pistol and said, “Stick ‘em up!”

Ha ha!

A few customers scrambled for cover. The tellers didn’t know what to think, but eventually realized it was just a prank. Cops were called, and hauled the Gang of 5 across the street to the police station.

The Westport Town Crier covered the “let’s pretend” robbery jovially. They described the teenagers’ suits and fedoras in detail.

Times sure have changed. Banks — not to mention the ATF, FBI and NSA — don’t look kindly on fake stick-ups.

If this stunt happened today, a full-scale investigation would be held. School administrators and the Board of Education can’t have kids dressed as bank robbers leaving school in the middle of the day, then pretending to rob a bank.

And the Westport Police would certainly not allow 5 teenagers, dressed in fedoras and holding cigarettes, to pose jauntily in the station lobby, looking like they’ve just pulled off the heist of the century.

The Town Crier photo of (from left) Thomas Skinner, Stephen Ambrose, Michael Simonds, Frank Rawlinson and Anthony Dohanos. Anthony posted the photo on Facebook. He now lives in Hawaiii -- far from the scene of the "crime."

The Town Crier photo of (from left) Thomas Skinner, Stephen Ambrose, Michael Simonds, Frank Rawlinson and Anthony Dohanos. Anthony posted the photo on Facebook. He now lives in Hawaiii — far from the scene of the “crime.”

 

 

 

Remembering Susan Wynkoop

Susan Wynkoop died last night, of pancreatic cancer. She was 60 years old.

Susan Wynkoop

Susan Wynkoop

Susan was a special Westporter: one of those passionate, always-ready-to-help, very effective yet down-to-earth people who quietly (and in so many ways) make this town special.

Susan had a fascinating life story. She was past president of the Westport Historical Society, a deacon at Southport Congregational Church, and among the 1st 200 women hired by the FBI. After 12 years with the agency, she became director of the FBI Foundation’s Oral History Project.

From 1990 until yesterday, she lived in the oldest house in Westport. Built around 1683, it’s the only pre-1700 structure in the entire town.

Passionate about preservation, she gained WHS “local landmark” certification for the home. As a result, it can never be torn down.

Susan Wynkoop did many things in her too-short life. That may be her greatest legacy of all.

The Wynkoops' home: 187 Long Lots Road. (Photo by Larry Untermeyer)

The Wynkoops’ home: 187 Long Lots Road. (Photo by Larry Untermeyer)

(To read about Susan’s FBI career, click here. For a story on her historic Westport house, click here.)

Remembering David Royce

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Thank You, Allen Raymond

Allen Raymond has lived on Compo Cove since 1922.

The unique, beautiful spit of land drew his parents to Westport nearly a century ago, and kept Allen here ever since. (He added a house on King’s Highway, which is perfectly fitting. It’s the most historic part of town, and no one knows Westport’s history better than Allen Raymond.)

Allen is 91 years old now, and his heart is failing. This afternoon – the 1st sparkling day of spring — he visited his beloved Old Mill home. It’s rented out, but he sat on the porch, gazed at the rippling high tide and spectacular views of Compo Hill, and reminisced.

Allen Raymond this afternoon, in the Compo Cove home he has loved for 91 years. (Photo/Scott Smith)

Allen Raymond this afternoon, in the Compo Cove home he has loved for 91 years. (Photo/Scott Smith)

Allen spoke about his childhood days on the water, his summers growing up, and the life he’s lived here — and loved — ever since.

What a remarkable 9 decades Allen has spent in town.

He’s served on more boards, brokered more good and smart deals, and contributed more to every facet of life — educational, recreational, spiritual — than anyone since the Bedfords. (And there were a lot more of them than him.)

The Westport Y has named the entrance road to their new facility at Camp Mahackeno after their longtime friend.

The Westport Y has named the entrance road to their new facility at Camp Mahackeno after their longtime friend.

Allen has contributed unfathomable amounts of time, energy (and money) to the Green’s Farms Congregational Church, and the Y. He led the Westport Historical Society into (paradoxically) the modern era, and Earthplace to sustainability.

He has advised nearly every elected official in town, at one time or other. He’s saved many of them from political disasters, and us from the financial fallout.

It is safe to say Westport would not be the town it is — nor would we be the people we are — without the love (sometimes gentle, sometimes tough) that Allen Raymond has lavished on us for longer than nearly any of us have been alive.

Perhaps his greatest gift to the town, though, is the 169 acres on South Compo Road known as Longshore.

Allen Raymond, circa 1963.

Allen Raymond, circa 1963.

Few Westporters realize that our town jewel camethisclose to being something else entirely. In early 1960, the privately owned Longshore Beach and Country Club — with a golf course, tennis courts, pools, marina, inn/restaurant and play areas — came up for sale.

The typical Westport response — build houses! — was strongly considered.  But First Selectman Herb  Baldwin and his kitchen cabinet decided to make a bid, on behalf of the town. Baldwin put his best adviser in charge of the project: Allen Raymond.

The group had to act quickly. In just 18 days they put together a $1.9 million package — then earned approval from the Board of Finance and RTM.  The latter vote was 38-0. (The RTM doesn’t even name bridges or approve jUNe Day unanimously.)

A month and a half later — on May 28, 1960 — Longshore Club Park opened to the public. It’s been one of the town jewels ever since.

As has Allen Raymond.

He is a remarkable, inspiring, truly wonderful man.

Allen Raymond, last month. (Photo/Scott Smith)

Allen Raymond, this winter. (Photo/Scott Smith)

Famous Artists School Draws NY Times’ Attention

Today’s New York Times Arts & Leisure section includes a long look back at popular arts correspondence courses of the 1950s and ’60s.

Writer Randy Kennedy says “the most prominent” — Famous Artists School of Westport — “became a cultural phenomenon, a highly profitable business operating out of a gleaming Modernist office complex along the Saugatuck River.”

(Newbies, take note: that “gleaming” complex turned into the sterile, soon-to-be-vacated Save the Children headquarters on Wilton Road.)

Describing Famous Artists’ talent test, Kennedy notes: “No one, of course, failed.” Instead, they were used “to dispatch a salesman to the door, with a big leatherette binder touting the benefits of a job in art.” Some were real. Others? “A bit far-fetched.”

Norman Rockwell (center, bow tie), with some of the Famous Artists School's faculty.

Norman Rockwell (center, bow tie), with some of the Famous Artists School’s faculty. (Photo courtesy of Norman Rockwell Museum)

At its peak, FAS had more than 40,000 students. At $300 per course, that was real money pouring in. (And real postage pouring out. Famous Artists — and its offshoots, Famous Writers and Famous Photographers Schools — placed heavy demands on our post office.)

Kennedy describes another reason FAS was financially successful: “Few students ever persevered through the entire course, freeing up manpower and saving the school money.” Far fewer students ever became famous artists — let alone capitalized  ones (in both senses of the word).

Famous Artists over-expanded, and went bankrupt in 1972. Its assets were bought in 1981 by Cortina Learning International, which continues to run it from Wilton.

But Famous Artists remains tied to Westport today: in the memories of anyone who lived here during its heyday. And in the minds of the thousands of “students,” who “corresponded” back and forth using the prestigious Westport address.

(For more on the Famous Artists School in Westport, click here.)

An advertisement from the 1950s. Perhaps Famous Artists could have hired a famous agency to create a more compelling ad.

An advertisement from the 1950s. Perhaps Famous Artists could have hired a famous agency to create a more compelling ad.

Sam Waterston Channels F. Scott And Zelda

Nearly a century after F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald lived there, 244 South Compo Road hosted another famous name.

Actor Sam Waterston recently toured the historic home, now owned by Jeannine Flower. He then sat for an interview with Professor Walter Raubichek, a noted Fitzgerald scholar at Pace University.

The walk-through and interview were filmed by Westporters Deej Webb and Robert Steven Williams. They’re working on a project about Fitzgerald’s time in town.

Channeling F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (from left): Professor Walter Raubicheck, Sam Waterston, Robert Steven Williams, Jeannine Flower and Deej Webb.

Channeling F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (from left): Robert Steven Williams, Sam Waterston, Professor Walter Raubicheck, Jeannine Flower and Deej Webb.

The filmmakers believe that Fitzgerald’s 6 months in Westport — May through October, 1920 — were pivotal to his writing.

(It was certainly pivotal to the newly married couple’s relationship. According to Webb and Williams, “their love was still in full bloom.”)

Scott wrote in his essay “100 False Starts” that a writer has 2 or 3 great life experiences, then recycles them over and over.

“We’ve set out to prove that Westport is one of those great experiences,” the filmmakers says. “We’re posing this to the international Fitzgerald community, and getting remarkable responses. That journey is what this film is all about.”

The film will premiere at the Westport Historical Society. No word on whether Sam Waterston will attend.

Robert Lambdin’s Old Mural Gains New Life

Westport has a poor batting average for saving old homes.

But when it comes to preserving murals, it’s all grand slams.

Restored murals by John Steuart Curry and other noted artists hang in our public schools, fire station and Town Hall.

The Westport Art Rescue Committee — led by the late Mollie Donovan, her sister Eve Potts, Judy Gault Sterling and Ann Sheffer, among others — saved Robert Lambdin’s WPA-era “Pageant of Juvenile Literature” when Saugatuck Elementary School was converted to senior housing. It’s now on display at the Westport Library, admired by hundreds of people every day.

Lambdin also painted the grand “Saugatuck in the 19th Century” — actually 3 works. Two — dating to 1964-65 — were installed in the handsome main lobby of Westport Bank & Trust Company, which commissioned the work.

They remained there as the local bank was swallowed up in a series of takeovers by now-forgotten, bigger ones. The building — in the heart of downtown — is now Patagonia. The cool, functional clothing store has lovingly preserved Lambdin’s murals.

Robert Lambdin's old-time murals lend a touch of Westport history to modern-day Patagonia.

Robert Lambdin’s old-time murals lend a touch of Westport history to modern-day Patagonia.

The other “Saugatuck in the 19th Century” painting was hung at Westport Bank & Trust’s Charles Street branch — in the heart of Saugatuck. It was painted around 1969, when the branch opened.

That large mural depicts a lively Saugatuck. It shows agriculture, stables, the railroad and river trade; businesses like Elonzo Wheeler’s button factory; the Bridge Street bridge, and the Saugatuck Bank (Westport Bank & Trust’s forerunner), whose founding partners included Horace Staples.

Though the view was composed with artistic license, Lambdin conducted painstaking research. Town residents modeled for him, including (at the center) Captain Serano Allen.

Robert Lambdin's Saugatuck mural.

Robert Lambdin’s Saugatuck mural. Hover over or click to enlarge.

The Saugatuck mural was a point of pride in the neighborhood, even as the branch lost its local roots. Eventually it became a TD Bank.

When TD (whatever those initials stand for) closed the branch last November, the mural’s future was unknown.

The building is being sold. The mural is headed for storage.

But — thanks to town art curator Kathie Motes Bennewitz, and the Westport Arts Advisory Committee — “Saugatuck in the 19th Century” has a new life.

After touch-up work, it will hang in Town Hall. An exhibit is planned too.

The gift from TD Bank is valued at $25,000.

But you can’t put a price on preserving history.

Last Thursday, the mural was removed from the old bank building.

Last Thursday, the large mural was removed from the old bank building.

Literary Fox

In most towns, foxes hang out wherever.

Westport is not “most towns.”

Our foxes pay sly homage to our literary heritage.

Alert “06880″ reader Jeff Giannone snapped this photo the other day. As every Westporter knows, it shows the South Compo Road home where F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald spent the summer of 1920.

Literary fox

Pretty wild.