Category Archives: People

Dave Elgart: “Southern Hospitality Exists In Westport”

Most Fridays starting at age 7, Dave Elgart took a taxi — by himself — to Grand Central. He’d buy a ticket, and board a train. His father — divorced from Dave’s mother — would meet him in Westport. They’d spend the weekend here; then Dave would return — alone — to New York.

The routine continued from 1955 to 1962. That year Dave’s dad moved away. Soon, Dave’s mother moved to West Virginia.

Dave joined the Navy, earned a master’s, became a partner his 1st year at Bear Stearns, and moved way up the financial services ladder.

But — more than 50 years later — the pull of Westport is strong. A couple of weekends ago, Dave found himself at an industry conference in Greenwich.

David and Barbara Elgart.

David and Barbara Elgart.

He lives in Atlanta now. Except for a trip to a Turtles concert at the Westport Country Playhouse, he’d never returned. His wife Barbara had never even been to New England.

So they drove up the Merritt, to revisit the town of his youth.

One of the first places Dave wanted to see was a store his father had once co-owned. Called the House of Buys, it sat next to a gas station he remembered was owned by Joe DeMattia.

The House of Buys lasted only a few years. The spot is now occupied by Torno Hardware. DeMattia’s service station was in business much longer — until just a year or so ago. It’s now being renovated into a Wheels store, next to Target Training.

As a teenager, Dave bought his first suit at a new men’s shop called Ed Mitchell’s. That tiny shop — now a People’s bank near Planet Pizza — has grown into the the luxury Mitchells of Westport store. Dave found Jack, Ed’s son.

The original Ed Mitchell's, on the corner of the Post Road (State Street) and North Compo Road.

The original Ed Mitchell’s, on the corner of the Post Road (State Street) and North Compo Road.

They talked for a long time. “He was a font of history,” Dave says. “And the store is amazing. They fawn over you, even if you don’t buy anything.”

Dave’s visit here was filled with similar propitious encounters. “The people could not have been nicer,” he says. “Everywhere we turned, they were so wonderful and kind. Southern hospitality definitely exists in Westport.”

Some places remain the same. The railroad station — where he spent so much time — looks no different (though the pot-bellied stove is gone).

Other places have changed. The state police barracks near the Sherwood Island Connector is now a Walgreens. There was no sign of a doctor he remembered, named Eldridge.

But the new Westport is as welcoming as Dave remembered the old. They ate dinner at Arezzo, where the owner “couldn’t have been nicer.”

Even Westport’s infamous drivers are “no crazier than in Atlanta,” Dave says.

“The roads aren’t great” here, he notes. But they’re “charming.” In fact, he calls the entire town “bucolic.”

Despite new construction, Westport looked "bucolic" to Dave Elgart.

Despite new construction, Westport looked “bucolic” to Dave Elgart.

Westport was “gorgeous,” Dave adds. “It’s even more beautiful than I remember it. It’s so much fun.”

Dave’s visit was so great, he and his wife will return this spring — with friends. They’ll tour the area, and take the train to New York to see a show.

It will be a reverse route than the one Dave was so used to taking, more than half a century ago. Of course, Metro-North has replaced the New York, New Haven & Hartford.

But sometimes, it seems, you can go home again.

Bagel Maven Bounces Back

Living in Cos Cob, Phil Nourie and his wife loved walking to their neighborhood bagel shop on weekends. So they were delighted when — moving to Westport — they discovered Bagel Maven on a weekend stroll.

After their son was born in 2009, owner Alex Perdomo delivered bagels and coffee to their home.

That’s the kind of guy Alex is. And it’s the kind of place Bagel Maven was.

But in mid-September, Alex told Phil that he might have to close. He’d missed a rent payment last winter. He took 4 months to pay back, and his landlord was unwilling to take another risk.

Phil — whose day job is in PR and marketing, with plenty of experience in crisis management — offered to help.

He advised Alex not to disparage the landlord — not that Alex would have. He knew he’d made a mistake, and that commercial real estate is a business too.

Alex Permodo on September 30. Despite closing that day, he managed a smile.

Alex Perdomo on September 30. Despite closing that day, he managed a smile.

Phil suggested Alex give away bagels on his last day. “You don’t know what can happen,” Phil said. “You never want to burn bridges.”

“06880” broke the story on Bagel Maven’s closing. WestportNow and News12 followed up.

Phil created a Facebook page and Twitter account. Strangers emailed, asking how they could help.

The Sunday after he closed, Alex met with Phil and another patron. They talked about the possibility of wholesaling, or finding new space in Westport.

Bagel Maven logoAlex was receptive. But research showed those options were not viable.

Phil suggested Alex talk to his landlord.

The conversation went well. Alex was forthright about his past error, and his current situation. The landlord — who had seen the press stories and social media activity — realized Bagel Maven was not just another shop.

Alex got a new lease. The landlord agreed to pay for painting.

Two patrons offered to pay for renovations. Alex and some friends have already taken apart the floor. The oven will be upgraded, and the interior opened up so customers can see the bagels being made. They’ll smell them, too.

Alex and some friends have already started renovating the interior.

Alex and some friends have begun renovating the interior.

The target date for reopening is November 8.

Phil calls this one of the most gratifying projects he’s worked on.

“It’s a great story about how people can come together, and do more than anyone thought possible,” he says.

“And it’s been done without any sense of outrage. This is a story of reality — of mistakes, and what can come out of them.”

Phil adds, “I got way into this — far more than I thought. But I couldn’t just walk away.”

Soon — thanks to Phil Nourie, and a community-wide effort — all of us can walk back into Bagel Maven.

Happy Friday!

And what better way to welcome the weekend than with Stacy Waldman Bass’ photo of this morning’s sunrise over the Sherwood Mill Pond?

Sunrise over Mill Pond - Stacy Waldman Bass

Enjoy the day!

Tyler Paul: Art For All

It was the mid-1990s. Tyler Paul is not sure of the year, or his grade. But 2 decades later, he vividly recalls a day at Long Lots Elementary School.

A group of actors and puppeteers arrived for a “very special school assembly.” The troupe used original skits and puppets to talk about bullying.

Tyler remembers other special assemblies over the years, too: an original presentation of Maya Angelou’s works. A presentation on Chinese traditions. And many more.

Tyler Paul

Tyler Paul

Those events were only part of Westport’s long history of fostering and encouraging an arts environment. Between the Westport Country Playhouse, the PTA’s Cultural Arts Committee and the superb drama departments at Staples and the 2 middle schools, arts have been integrated into the curriculum at nearly every level.

Today, Tyler is executive director of the Northeast Children’s Theatre Company. Earlier this year he was contacted by a member of the Cultural Arts Committee. They wanted to bring his professional theatrical programming for young audiences into the elementary schools.

Coincidentally, NCTC had just commissioned and premiered a new musical. They were looking for a partner to pilot it in schools. With Julia Gannon and Diana Sussman, they brought “Jack and the Giant” to all 5 Westport elementary schools in March.

The musical teaches youngsters about perseverance, heroism, courage a self-identity. It fits in well with the curriculum core standards. The response was overwhelmingly positive.

Looking back on his own in-school and after-school theater arts enrichment here, Tyler calls it a “full circle moment.” No other town that he knows of boasts the in-school enrichment program that Westport does. That early exposure to the arts, he believes, is a large reason he now works full-time in that field.

Benj Pasek (left) and Justin Paul.

Benj Pasek (left) and Justin Paul.

Of course, every organization needs funds. On Saturday, October 25 (8 p.m., StageOne Theater in Fairfield), NCTC sponsors its 2nd annual “Broadway in Connecticut” gala. The evening of music is hosted by the Tony Award-nominated songwriting team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.

Yes, Justin is Tyler’s brother. He too has benefited greatly from Westport’s arts environment.

The concert includes performances by Broadway stars from “Wicked,” “Godspell,” “Bridges of Madison County” and “Next to Normal,” too. A live auction includes house seats to “If/Then,” followed by a backstage tour.

Proceeds from the gala benefit artistic programming for school audiences — and educational initiatives for underserved children in disadvantaged communities.

So that youngsters everywhere in the region — not just in Westport — can have the same awe-inspiring experience Tyler Paul had, back when he sat in his own very special school assembly.

(For tickets — which are limited — and more information, visit www.nctcompany.org/gala.)

A young girl in Bridgeport is inspired by NCTE's outreach program. Tyler Paul was inspired by the arts too, 20 years ago.

A young girl in Bridgeport is inspired by NCTC’s outreach program. Tyler Paul was inspired by the arts too, 20 years ago.

Arjun Dhindsa: Black Belt Busts Boards

Not long ago, while teaching materials study in his applied engineering class at Staples High School, instructor Humphrey Wong tried to break a board.

Arjun Dhindsa told Dr. Wong the board was curved the wrong way.

If students had been allowed to take a whack, Arjun would have stepped right up. He’d have given an impressive demonstration.

This summer, the Staples junior won a gold medal at the national tae kwan do black belt championship in San Jose. He shattered 30 boards in 2 minutes, earning the most points for style, accuracy and difficulty of breaks.

Arjun Dhindsa

Arjun Dhindsa

Arjun’s road to the board-breaking title began in 3rd grade, at Kings Highway Elementary School. A friend was taking classes at World Champion Tae Kwan Do, near the train station. Arjun thought that was pretty cool.

In the years since, he became a 2nd degree black belt (and is working on his 3rd).

Tae kwan do has changed his life, Arjun says. He’s learned to “respect everything,” which in turn has made him a better person.

“The core values are courtesy, respect, integrity, self-control and perseverance,” Arjun explains. “That drives me now.”

When he was younger, Arjun was targeted by bullies. Tae kwan do gave him confidence in who he was, and that he could stand up to anyone. However, that does not mean he busts up bullies as easily as he breaks boards.

His martial art should not be used against other people “unless absolutely necessary,” Arjun says. The point of the activity is “to make yourself better.”

Arjun Dhindsa shatters boards one way...

Arjun Dhindsa shatters boards one way…

Getting to nationals required 2 types of discipline: mental and physical. He trained constantly on technique, and developed his core, legs and arms. “If a normal, super-strong person tried this, it would be tough,” Arjun says in the same way you or I would talk about the ability to walk to the planet Zork.

The black belt competitor also prepared himself psychologically to break 4 boards — each an inch thick — at once.

“It’s important to visualize yourself doing it,” notes Arjun. “Otherwise it can be daunting and scary.”

In San Jose, Arjun broke boards with his palm, elbow, a punch and a triple front kick.

He knew if he “decimated” them, he’d have a good shot at the title.

...and another.

…and another.

The feeling after successfully breaking boards is “exhilarating.” The pain goes away soon. Arjun’s hand was swollen — he even went for X-rays — but it was fine.

Winning a gold medal at a national tae kwan do competition made Arjun proud. It also reinforced his desire to work even harder in the future. He wants to repeat as champion next year.

Not many Staples students know about Arjun’s U.S. title, though. “I’m not the type of person to talk about it,” he says.

Dr. Wong may not even know. After all, school rules did not allow his black belt pupil to show the class how to break boards like they were twigs.

Though that would have made for a very interesting science class demonstration indeed.

 

 

 

Not Just Another Teardown

Realtors love new construction: It sells. But there’s something to be said about old homes too — especially when the teardown is one you grew up in.

Back in the day, Toni Horton was a 1978 graduate of Staples. Today she’s Toni Mickiewicz, and a William Raveis realtor. She also blogs about real estate trends and local news on “From Town to Shore.” Yesterday, she wrote about another teardown. This one is personal: It’s the home she grew up in.

Toni says:

I was recently told that my mother’s house in Westport had a demolition sign on it. Even though we sold it three years ago, it will always be “my mother’s house.” Well, that is until it’s torn down.

The house of Toni's youth.

The house of Toni’s youth.

It wasn’t my favorite house. I actually always thought that it should be torn down. It was a combination of stages in my mother’s life. It started as a little tiny beach house with no heat and it sat on wine barrels. It gradually grew to have an architecturally designed front section with two floors that looked a little like a church.

When I went off to college it grew a backside with 2 floors, 4 bedrooms and 3 additional bathrooms. It never really matched the front, or anything else for that matter, but it added square footage and allowed my mother to rent it out regularly as we all moved out and she had to spend most of her time caring for my grandmother in Norwalk. The house worked for her and it gave her children what she wanted all along — a place to call home, an education in a town with a reputation for excellence, and a “castle” by the water.

Once, Toni asked her mother if there was room for a pool. Her mom replied: 

“Why would you want a pool when we have the beach?”  I was much older when I finally got how blessed we were to live where we did.

Views of the water, from the home.

Views of the water, from the home.

When I moved back to Westport — a grown-up having been married, raised children, divorced, and re-inventing myself — my mother let me live at the house, as a paid renter of course, but the house was there for me. It was my transitional home for 6 years. It wasn’t perfect, but it was my home, a place to provide my youngest with an education in a town known for excellence. It was our “castle” by the water.

Now it will be torn down. And while I know it’s the right thing to do to get the “highest and best use of the land” for the new owner, it still made me more emotional than I ever imagined.

This was my home, where I grew up and where I sought refuge. It provided me, my siblings, many cousins and lots of renters over the years, a lot of fun memories along with the challenges that an imperfect house can provide. It will only be in my memory now and that is a little sad for me.

Toni knows she is not alone. Many friends have experienced similar situations. And, she adds:

Toni Mickiewicz

Toni Mickiewicz

Much of the landscape of my childhood is gone. Allen’s Clam House, where I used to work in the kitchen, has been gone for a long time. Ten Pond Edge Road, where I lived with my “other” family when my mom rented out the house for the summer, has been torn down as well.

I could go on, but what I really want to say is that after tearing up a little and feeling woeful for a time, I realize that it is okay. I am who I am from my experiences and life lessons in this town and in this home, and I will always have that.

Thanks Mom, for what you did for us and allowing us to grow up in a castle by the water.

(To read Toni’s full blog, click for “From Town to Shore.”)

Another View Of Baron’s South

No, this is not another political view of the town-owned property that was — until a recent Planning & Zoning Commission decision — a possible site for senior housing.

This is a historical photographic view:

Baron's South - back in the day

Alert “06880” reader JP Vellotti found this shot of what is now the site of Fairfield County Savings Bank, on the corner of the Post Road and Compo Road South.

This view was taken from the current site of Winslow Park, across the Post Road, by the daughter of then-owner Dr. Ruland. JP got the photo from his grandson.

It’s interesting to note that the handsome architecture mirrors that of the buildings still on the west side of Baron’s South — the law and other offices on Imperial Avenue.

Lynsey Addario Honors International Day Of The Girl

Today is the International Day of the Girl Child. In honor of the UN-sponsored event, NPR asked 5 photographers — all renowned for documenting the lives of global girls — to share photos with special significance.

Though known as a public radio network, NPR’s website is robust and thought-provoking.

Lynsey Addario — the MacArthur “Genius Grant”-winning/world famous photographer/Staples graduate — does not disappoint. Her photos include a 13-year-old Syrian girl at her engagement party, and another young teenager from Sierra Leone who died delivering twins.

Check out Lynsey’s haunting photos — and many others — at the NPR website.

Lynsey says of this 13-year-old girl, photographed at her engagement party at a camp in Jordan: "Syrian refugees typically marry young. It's been exacerbated by the war. Families are scared something might happen to their daughter. They prefer to marry them earlier so they're under the protection of a husband." (Photo/Lynsey Addario for NPR)

Lynsey says of this 13-year-old girl, photographed at her engagement party at a camp in Jordan: “Syrian refugees typically marry young. It’s been exacerbated by the war. Families are scared something might happen to their daughter. They prefer to marry them earlier so they’re under the protection of a husband.” (Photo/Lynsey Addario for NPR)

Lynsey Addario photographed this young girl, who died delivering twins. The Sierra Leonean wanted to earn a degree, but at 14 was forced into marriage. (Photo/Lynsey Addario for NPR)

Lynsey Addario photographed this young girl, who died delivering twins. The Sierra Leonean wanted to earn a degree, but at 14 was forced into marriage. (Photo/Lynsey Addario for NPR)

(Hat tip to Siobhan Crise)

 

Town Takes Over Riverwalk Maintenance

In 1992, a volunteer committee led by the indefatigable Betty Lou Cummings created the Library Riverwalk and Gardens.

A 6-month fundraising campaign drew 5,000 contributors, donating cash as well as services.

Together with a 2nd phase 7 years later, the accomplishments are stunning:

  • 11,000 bricks, many of them engraved, in a path 638 feet long
  • 57 benches, 3 picnic tables, 23 pole lights and 2 sculptures
  • 127 shrubs and bushes, plus 19 trees (and a sprinkler system)
  • Stairs from the library to the water, and a boat launch walkway.
A small portion of the library Riverwalk.

A small portion of the library Riverwalk.

After 22 years, the committee has asked the town to take over responsibility for maintanance. They’ve turned over $15,000 in their account to help.

Parks and Rec is happy to accept the responsibility. Over the past several years they’ve taken a more active role in assisting the committee. With the opening of the renovated Levitt Pavilion nearby, the time is ripe for the transfer to happen.

The Riverwalk is one of Westport’s hidden gems.

Okay, it’s not really hidden. Plenty of people enjoy it, at all times of day and throughout the year.

But many others don’t know it exists. And not many know the back story of its creation.

Thanks, Betty Lou and the 5,000 donors who helped make it a reality. More than 2 decades later, your work is greatly appreciated.

And it looks better than ever.

John Dodig Lauded By Lambda

Fifteen years ago, Fairfield High School principal John Dodig made a life-changing decision.

“I decided I’d no longer hide who I am,” he says. “At the same time, I knew I wanted to be known not as ‘the gay principal,’ but as a principal who cares about all kids, and happens to be gay.”

That decision, he says, allowed him to create a school environment in which he hopes every student feels comfortable in his or her own skin. “Many — if not most — people carry scars from high school or middle school forever,” Dodig says. “I don’t think that has to be the case.”

John Dodig

John Dodig

Dodig retired from Fairfield High in 2003. Soon, he was named interim principal of Staples. He liked the staff, students, parents and Westport community so much, he applied for the permanent position. The Board of Education did not interview anyone else.

In 11 years at the helm, Dodig has directed much of his attention to what he calls “the affective domain.” Staples has always had high academic standards. Concentrating on the social and emotional aspects components of the school, he says, allows everyone to create an environment in which all teenagers feel welcome. And that, he notes, helps them perform at their best academically.

Dodig’s work has drawn praise from fellow administrators, staff members, students and parents. Now it’s gotten the attention of Lambda Legal. On Sunday, October 26 (12 p.m., Mitchells of Westport), the human rights organization’s Connecticut chapter will honor the principal for his impact on thousands of students, over his 45-year career as an educator.

“John leads by example and strength of character,” says Staples graduate Adam Stolpen, who nominated Dodig for the award.

At Staples, Dodig has created a warm, supportive environment in many ways. At nearly every faculty meeting, he stresses the importance that teaching “chemistry, US history or whatever” is not all that matters. “Each of us has to support, care and love everyone else,” he says.

John Dodig -- principal and proud Staples supporter.

John Dodig — principal and proud Staples supporter.

He is a ubiquitous presence, standing in the front hallway as students begin the day and in the cafeteria during the 3 lunch waves. He knows most students by name. He congratulates them on their athletic, artistic, academic or extracurricular achievements. They, in turn, approach him to mention an interesting class discussion, suggest a possible improvement in school life, or congratulate him on his recent marriage.

For a school of 1900 students, the incidence of name-calling is low. Many students “have bought into the message that in this high school, you should be free to be who you are,” Dodig says.

Not all do, of course. But those who don’t “know that it’s socially inappropriate to put someone down for who they are.

“Our culture  is visible every moment school is in session,” Dodig says. “It starts at the top. If a principal is mean or nasty, that trickles down to everyone. If the message is to help kids navigate high school with as few scars as possible, that trickles down too.”

At graduation, many students ask to pose for photos with their principal. In 2013, John Dodig stood with departing senior August Laska.

At graduation, many students ask to pose for photos with their principal. In 2013, John Dodig stood with departing senior August Laska.

Dodig is proud of the many small ways his message trickles down. On the 1st day of school this year, for example, he addressed all 4 classes separately about Staples’ culture. He followed with an email to parents, suggesting they talk with their kids to see how that message was received.

One parent responded with a story about her sophomore son. He didn’t think he could make it to the end of his cross country run, but an upperclassman stopped, asked what was wrong, and finished the course with him.

The next day, the mother said, her son saw a freshman in the same situation. This time the sophomore was the one who stopped, talked, and ran with his teammate to the end.

Dodig is proud too of the many emails he’s received from parents, saying that at Staples their child felt empowered to come out as gay.

Lambda LegalThat makes his Lambda Legal award particularly important. The decision he made 15 years ago has paid off in countless ways, for thousands of students. Dodig has impacted them, and they in turn have impacted many others.

Even those who — unlike everyone at Staples — have no idea who John Dodig is, and what he stands for.

(Click on the Lambda Legal website for tickets to Dodig’s award ceremony.)