Category Archives: People

Joe Valiante: Taxing Volunteer Work

The Staples High School 1961 yearbook listed 2 goals for senior Joe Valiante. He wanted to be an accountant. And he wanted a hole-in-one.

He got the ace.

He also took accounting courses at the University of Miami. But he left before earning his degree.

So the native Westporter spent 5 years working for Connecticut National Bank.

Joe Valiante's shirt honors 2 of his passions: the Fire Department and golf.

Joe Valiante’s shirt honors 2 of his passions: the Fire Department and golf.

In 1968 he joined the Westport Fire Department. For 35 years he worked his way up, from firefighter to lieutenant, then captain and assistant chief. He also earned an associate’s degree in fire science from Norwalk State Technical College.

Valiante fought some of Westport’s biggest fires: Klaff’s. Westport Hardware. Sherwood Square (twice). The bowling alley.

Before retiring, he saw an ad for the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program. Serving low- and middle-income people, it seemed like the perfect way to use his accounting talents.

Valiante underwent rigorous training. (He re-trains every year.) He signed a waiver, saying he would accept nothing for his work — no money, no gifts.

Then he went to work.

Each year — 6 days a week, from February 1 through April 15 — Valiante prepares returns. On Wednesdays he’s at the Senior Center. He splits the other days between the Fairfield and Norwalk libraries, and Norwalk Senior Center.

The Westport Senior Center offers an excellent free tax program.

The Westport Senior Center offers an excellent free tax program.

This year, he did 728 returns. That’s the most of any volunteer, for the past 10 years.

Some of his clients are elderly. Some are low-income. At the libraries, he sees anyone.

He also does pro bono work for the staff at Commuter Coffee. He did the wait staff at Mario’s too, until it closed.

Many of the men and women at the senior centers and libraries are repeat clients. Each year, they request Valiante by name.

It’s an enormous amount of work — with absolutely no pay. “Thank you is enough,” he says.

So why does he do it?

“I want to give something back,” Valiante says. “I enjoy it. I’ll go anywhere to help.”

Tax forms can be daunting for anyone.

Tax forms can be daunting for anyone.

“Besides, the people are so appreciative. And these are people who really need help. An accounting firm would charge them at least $300.”

So why is “06880” profiling a tax specialist in July?

Because Valiante is still doing returns. “There are a lot of extensions,” he explains.

Does he get an extension? You know — the cobbler’s children, and all.


“My taxes are done by the end of February,” Valiante says proudly.

Harold Levine: Westporters Must Help Bridgeport

Harold Levine emailed me recently. He’s 93 years old. But the famed  advertising executive — who is also chairman emeritus of Neighborhood Studios, an after-school, weekend and summer music, arts and dance program for Bridgeport students –is as passionate as ever.

Frustrated, too. The longtime Westporter writes:

I just received a troubling phone call. Our executive director projects that by the end of our fiscal year on August 30th, we will be over $80,000 in  debt.

We are seriously understaffed. So why the deficit?

Neighborhood Studios logoWhy can’t we get enough money to provide arts experiences to over 1,500 children? Is it because they are poor? Is it because they don’t live in our community? Is it because they are black and Hispanic?

I recently invited a Westporter to join me on a visit to our programs in action. I was told, “Oh, I don’t go to Bridgeport.”

Neighborhood Studios was founded over 35 years ago by Pat Hart, a young woman who became blind at 28. She was committed to teaching art and music to blind and other handicapped children. Over the years the organization has grown to serve all Bridgeport children.

For example, for private piano lessons we ask parents to pay $3 per sessions. Many tell us they cannot afford even that little.  Are we to turn that child away?  Of course not. That’s one reason we end the year with a deficit.

For the past 15 years we have sponsored Ailey Camp, a 6-week summer program in cooperation with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Company. Bridgeport is one of only 7 such camps around the country.

A dance ensemble class rehearses at Neighborhood Studios. (Photo by Autumn Driscoll/CT Post)

A dance ensemble class rehearses at Neighborhood Studios. (Photo by Autumn Driscoll/CT Post)

Besides a great dance program, youngsters are also trained in speech, writing, and feeling good about themselves. Many campers return as interns and instructors.

This is a program that everyone in Fairfield County should be proud to support.  The campers (and their parents) are carefully interviewed. Each family pays only $25 for the entire summer — yet each camper costs Neighborhood Studios over $1,000.

We are looking for patrons of the arts. I was once told that if Neighborhood Studios was headquartered in Westport, we would be loaded with money.

But we’re not. We are in Bridgeport, serving a community very much in need. So how about saying to the children of Bridgeport: “We do care about you.”

Our programs work. We are successful in getting a high percentage of our children to go on to college.  We must continue to serve the children of our neighboring community, Bridgeport.

(To donate to Neighborhood Studios, click here.)

Harold Levine asks Westporters to help their neighbors.

Harold Levine asks Westporters to help their neighbors.

Goodbye And Hello

As sad as Westport is to see Maxine Bleiweis go — and we are very sad — we’re not the only town sorry to lose its library director.

The Chelsea District Library bids farewell to Bill Harmer. And throughout Michigan, the tributes are pouring in.

Board president Elizabeth Sensoli calls him “brilliant … his talent and spirit have made our library a very special place … I will miss his unquenchable enthusiasm and ‘out of the box’ thinking.”

Trustee Robin Wagner adds, “Bill is a remarkable leader, driven by a contagious passion for continuously improving the library experience for guests, staff and community. Bill’s constant focus is understanding what is this library today, envisioning how can it be better tomorrow, and wondering how to get there sooner than tomorrow.”

Well, Chelsea’s loss is Westport’s gain. All those plaudits are for the Westport Library’s new director.

Harmer takes over from Bleiweis on July 27. Sounds like we’ve got ourselves another world-class winner.

Bill Harmer

Bill Harmer

ESPN: “Go Wreckers!”

This afternoon, Tom Haberstroh was a guest on David Lloyd’s “Sportscenter” ESPN show.

Haberstroh jokingly asked fellow NBA analyst Chris Broussard if the San Antonio Spurs could make him into a pro player.

Broussard laughed: “I don’t know. I’ve seen you play!”

David Lloyd, Chris Broussard and Tom Haberstroh on ESPN's "Sportscenter" this afternoon.

David Lloyd, Chris Broussard and Tom Haberstroh on ESPN’s “Sportscenter” this afternoon.

Lloyd — a 1979 Staples High School graduate — alertly noted that Haberstroh played hoops at Staples.

Sure, it was more than 2 decades after Lloyd graduated. But that gave Haberstroh a perfect opening. He drove the lane, and took it.

“Go Wreckers!” Haberstroh said, as the segment wound up.

Most of Sportscenter’s millions of listeners had no idea what that meant.

But Haberstroh, Lloyd and all of us do.

BONUS FUN FACT: Haberstroh also was featured on Colin Cowherd’s ESPN radio show. It’s produced by John Lawrence — another former Staples athlete. Quite a day for the Wreckers!

Newman’s Own Stamp

From Walt Reed and Stevan Dohanos to Miggs Burroughs, Westport artists have designed dozens of US postage stamps.

There have been so many, in fact, that the Westport Historical Society devoted an entire exhibit to the illustrators and their stamps.

Now, a famous Westporter is being honored with a stamp of his own.

Paul Newman’s very good-looking face will grace a “Forever Stamp.” It goes on sale September 18.

Paul Newman stampThere’s not enough room on the stamp to list all of Newman’s accomplishments. He’s been an award-winning actor, producer, director, race car driver, salad dressing/lemonade king, humanitarian, founder of a camp for kids with cancer, and contributor to many causes, around the globe and right here in his home town.

So it reads simply “Actor/Philanthropist.”

To which Westporters proudly add: Our actor/philanthropist.

(For more information on the stamp, click here. Hat tip: Melissa Chang)

An Ace Customer At Crossroads Hardware

If you’ve lived in Westport for more than 12 seconds, you know that Crossroads Ace Hardware is the place — for any home-related item you could imagine, for fantastic personal service, and for that sit-around-the-potbelly-stove community feeling you can’t get anywhere else.

Ace HardwareIf you don’t know and love Jimmy Izzo, his father AJ and the rest of the Ace crew, you should crawl back into your cave.

But if you’re like me, you’ve probably driven by at night after they’ve closed and thought, “Wow, they leave a lot of stuff outside. They must really trust people.”

They do. And here’s why.

Yesterday morning, Jimmy went to open up. Under the door, he found a handwritten slip of paper.

Overnight, a customer had helped himself to some bamboo sticks, copper pipe and plastic tomato stakes.

Jimmy Izzo - Ace Hardware

The customer listed all those items on that sheet of paper. He also slipped a check under the door for the total amount.

Plus tax.

“People are good,” Jimmy says.

Well, yeah. Because, Jimmy, you’re good to them.

Cynthia Armijo: New Arts Center Director Boasts Intriguing Background

Cynthia Armijo has a degree in biology. She spent most of her career in financial services. She’s been a management consultant, a director with regional and national Boys Town organizations, and CEO/executive director of the Norwalk YMCA.

WACThat may seem an odd resume for her new position: executive director of the Westport Arts Center.

On the other hand, the San Francisco native has prepared for her new gig all her life.

A Weston resident for 10 years, Armijo and her husband —  he’s also in financial services — “jumped at the chance” to move east. They knew New York well from work, and their oldest daughter thrived at Weston High.

Growing up, Armijo saw her family constantly give back through service to non-profits. She’s been a board or committee member of various organizations since her 20s. (Her first volunteer effort was with San Francisco’s Sisters of Mercy; she ended up as board chair.)

Starting in 2007, she’s leveraged her financial and management skills in the non-profit world. (That’s where Boys Town and the Y come in.)

“I look for premier organizations wherever I work,” Armijo says. “And the Westport Arts Center has the potential to be the premier arts center in Fairfield County.”

Armijo ticks off its pluses: a passionate base of supporters; an active, engaged board; broad, wide-ranging programs; strong leadership under artistic director Helen Klisser During.

Cynthia Armijo (Photo/Helen Klisser During)

Cynthia Armijo (Photo/Helen Klisser During)

Armijo saw the executive director position posted, applied, and was “hooked right out of the gate. There’s a great strategic vision to continue bringing great art to the community.”

Of course, there are challenges.

“The gallery is in a nice location, but the size limits us,” Armijo acknowledges. “I’d love to have a larger, more accessible venue.”

Her office looks across the river, to the Levitt Pavilion and Westport Library. “We need to be there too,” Armijo says.

But that’s ahead. Right now she’s happy to talk about programs like children’s after-school and summer offerings (“I have to close my door, or you’d hear 50 kids”), and inspiring outreach at Yale-New Haven’s Smilow Cancer Center, and Bridgeport’s Homes for Heroes.

She’s also looking forward to meeting the heads of important Westport organizations — many of whom (the library, Y, Staples High School) are or will soon be new, like her.

Cynthia Armijo's office in the Westport Arts Center overlooks the river -- and the Levitt Pavilion. (Photo/Helen Klisser During)

Cynthia Armijo’s office in the Westport Arts Center overlooks the river — and the Levitt Pavilion. (Photo/Helen Klisser During)

As for Armijo’s own artistic bent, the biology major/financial services professional/management consultant is a huge fan of impressionism. Another corner of her home is filled with 16th-century engravings.

“I dabble in oil too,” she says. “But you will never see anything of mine exhibited publicly.”

Remembering Jay Emmett

Jay Emmett — one of the entertainment world’s leading executives in the 1960s and ’70s, and a powerful influence in everything from Batman to the New York Cosmos — died last Monday night, at 86. The cause was heart failure, at his home in West Palm Beach, Florida.

Emmett was a longtime resident of Westport, while he built his career in movies and sports marketing.

He began his career working for his uncle in a family-run comic book publishing company that owned the rights to a number of superheroes, including Batman and Superman.

Jay Emmett

Jay Emmett

Emmett founded the Licensing Corporation of America, which expanded from licensing comic book and cartoon characters such as Bugs Bunny and Tweety Bird into sports marketing, leading to partnerships with Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association.

In 1964 Emmett joined Warner Communications — now Time Warner — and was named president, under chairman Steve Ross.

Emmett oversaw great growth in the company’s music and movie divisions during the 1960’s and 1970’s. When the company established the original New York Cosmos, he was instrumental in signing Brazilian star Pelé. The franchise went on to draw more than 70,000 fans each game.

Emmett’s close friendship with Washington attorney Edward Bennett Williams led to his meeting Larry Lucchino, a Williams protégé. Emmett helped Lucchino’s teams — the Baltimore Orioles, San Diego Padres and Boston Red Sox — set home attendance records.

Emmett’s love of sports led him to partner with Sargent and Eunice Kennedy Shriver in the early 1970’s. They worked to develop the Special Olympics into one of the most important charitable institutions in the world. Emmett served in a number of capacities, including as a member of its international board of directors

Family and friends in Westport remember Emmett for his charismatic personality, infectious enthusiasm for life, and his outspoken nature. In recent years, Emmett derived great pleasure from the success of his children and grandchildren.

Emmett is survived by his sons Steven and Andrew, and daughters-in-law Deborah, Marlene, and Geri. He leaves behind 6 grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his wife Martha and son Paul.

A public celebration of Emmett’s life will be held at Fenway Park this summer. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made in his name to the Special Olympics.

To express condolences and/or make donations, click here.

special olympics

Britt Hennemuth Breaks A Hip

Britt Hennemuth starred in great roles as a Staples Player — Mercutio in “Romeo and Juliet,” Gaston in “Beauty and the Beast,” and The Wiz himself, to name 3.

After graduating in 2008, he studied theater and film at Pepperdine University.

But school is school. No matter what he did, his fellow actors were all his age.

Hennemuth stayed in Los Angeles. Now he’s starring in “Break A Hip,” a web series set to debut Tuesday (June 30) on Vimeo on Demand. He plays a young, out-of-work actor who takes a job as a houseboy for an older actress. She uses him to get revenge on Hollywood directors, former co-stars and others who wronged her. Hennemuth calls it “a funny, outrageous but tender love letter to this sometimes strange industry town.”

I’ve seen it before its official release. I call it “clever, hilarious, warm, truly well-written, lovingly acted, and definitely worth downloading.”

Christina Pickles and Britt Hennemuth.

Christina Pickles and Britt Hennemuth.

His co-star is Christina Pickles, the 80-year-old actress known best as Judy Geller on “Friends.” Older TV viewers remember her as nurse Helen Rosenthal on “St. Elsewhere,” which earned her 4 Emmy nominations.

The Vimeo series — based on actor/writer/director Cameron Watson’s own Hollywood experiences — also stars Octavia Spencer, Allison Janney, Peri Gilpin and others. Working with veterans like those has been a great experience for Hennemuth.

But he’s bonded most closely with Pickles. They hang out often (he is often mistaken for her son, to the delight of both).

The 8 episodes — each 8 to 9 minutes long — were shot last year. It was a fantastic experience for Hennemuth, who had never acted on camera before.

Hopefully, “Break a Hip” will prove to be a great break for Hennemuth. He’ll have this fine web series on his resume, as he heads out for more auditions.

And, he hopes, he’ll never have to be houseboy in real life. Even for his good friend Christina Pickles.

(“Break a Hip” is available this Tuesday, June 30, through Vimeo on Demand. For the “Break a Hip” website, click here.)

Nate Greenberg Nails It

Last month, “06880” reported on Nate Greenberg. The 2010 Staples grad — and Ewing’s sacrcoma survivor — had just been selected to give the student address at Union College’s graduation.

A few days ago, he gave that speech. And whether you’re a Union alum or have no connection whatsoever with the school, it’s worth hearing.

Nate spoke strongly and insightfully about his battle. Cancer “can take you down, or build you up,” he said.

For him, that was the beginning of a new life. His disease “brought out the best in me,” Nate said.

A month before his graduation speech, Nate Greenberg was interviewed on Albany's News 10.

A month before his graduation speech, Nate Greenberg was interviewed on Albany’s News 10.

Of course, he had support. He cited lacrosse teammates who shaved their heads in solidarity, Union students he did not know who tied yellow ribbons or wore his #3, and alumni he never knew who reached out to him.

“This is what life is all about,” Nate said.

He cited the importance of virtues like kindness and compassion, noting that life is not just about accomplishments. It’s also about “moments.”

Nate concluded: “Be present. Love. Take time to feel. Appreciate this magical thing called life.”

Click below, to hear Nate’s full speech. Click here if your browser does not take you directly to YouTube.