Category Archives: People

1st Day Of School!

In honor of the 1st day of the 2015-16 school year, “06880” celebrates the very 1st day of a new school.

Back in 1953, Coleytown Elementary School opened its then-modern doors. Fred Cantor — an indefatigable researcher and (more importantly) 1965 Coleytown El grad — has unearthed a fascinating scrapbook documenting that initial year.

Created by 5th graders Marcia Sorisi, Karen Olson and Jan Pontius, it offers an intriguing look into bygone days.

For example, famed Saturday Evening Post and US postage stamp illustrator Stevan Dohanos created a mural for the lobby of the new building his young children attended.

Called “American Heritage,” it showed scenes like the Liberty Bell, flag and “American Indians.” Below, he puts the finishing touches on 1 of the 3 panels.

Coleytown El - Stevan DohanosTelevision was relatively new in 1953. Here’s how the school reacted:

Coleytown El - TV

The librarian — Mrs. Stevenson — said: “Nowadays … if children don’t become readers when they are small, they probably never will.”

Interscholastic sports were big in Westport’s elementary schools (in 1953, the others were Greens Farms, Bedford and Saugatuck). Besides the Coleytown baseball team — in spiffy Major League-type uniforms below — there were reports of the 6th grade girls playing Bedford in kickball, and the boys basketball team meeting Bedford as a fundraiser.

Coleytown El - interscholastic baseball

The 5th graders wrote about everyone getting polio shots — without any kind of anti-vaccine movement — as well as a “Dental Honor Roll.”

Coleytown El - Dental honor roll

The young Coleytown El students did plenty of writing, back in the day. Patricia Ferrone analyzed why she liked the school: “It is very modern. The teachers are very nice.” Also, Mrs. James gave gum chewing days. And there were water fountains, a built-in sink, maps of the world, plate lunches and a health room.Coleytown El - Why I like by Patricia Ferrone

One more tidbit from the scrapbook: the creation of a class newspaper. The goal was to experience “the task which faces newsmen in collecting the news.”

The editor-in-chief was a boy named Gordon Joseloff. Sounds like the experience served him well. Before winning 2 terms as 1st selectman, Joseloff was a CBS  correspondent, senior producer and bureau chief in New York, Moscow and Tokyo. Today, he’s editor and publisher of WestportNow.com.

If you’ve got memories of your 1st year in a new Westport school — or elementary school memories of any kind from here — click “Comments” below. Let’s celebrate the school year ahead with a fun look back!

(Hat tips: Fred Cantor and Carol Borrman)

Down By The Old Mill Art Show

Two of Westport’s identities — arts town and beach town — meet this Saturday and Sunday (August 29-30). Clark Hanford presents his annual Old Mill Beach Art Show.

Westport is also a hedge fund town. Fortunately, you don’t need to be a billionaire to buy some great art at this show.

It’s a wonderful, funky event. There’s a neighborhood feel, but everyone is welcome.

Clark — a 1962 Staples High School graduate — is a very talented artist. (If you’ve ever wandered by his house — the yellow gingerbread-style home bordering the Old Mill path to Compo cove — you’ve probably admired some of his work, in and around his yard. You’ve also seen his old-time electric car, but that’s another “06880” post.)

Clark Hanford advertises his art show, in front of his gingerbread-style house.

Clark Hanford advertises his art show, in front of his gingerbread-style house.

This year, Clark’s added a few others to his show. There’s noted designer (and 1965 Staples grad) Miggs Burroughs; whimsical clockmaker Steve Lunt; Westporter Ade Van Duyn; Compo Cove artist Greg Puhy; Old Mill artist Isaac Sonsino, and Claudia Schattman, whose mosaics decorate (among other things) the old-time parking garage behind Old Mill. (Click here to see her very cool work.)

The works will be spread out on Clark’s lawn, and hung on his front and side gates and fence. Every piece is unique. It’s all for sale — including this great wooden doghouse advertisement Clark created just for the show:

Clark Hanford - Old Mill Art Show

(The Old Mill Beach Art show runs Saturday and Sunday, August 29 and 30, 10 a.m.-5  p.m. The address is 31 Old Mill. Of course, parking is very, very tight.) 

Virtually Oculus

Two months ago, the Westport Library bought an Oculus Rift. They lacked a computer with a graphics card big enough for the virtual reality headset that generates a crazy, immersive virtual world — but that’s the way the library rolls.

The Rift was about to hit the general consumer market. Library staffers knew it would be big. They snagged one of the last 2nd-generation developers’ kits. Then they went to work, figuring out what to do with it.

Nate Allen — a Maker Space volunteer who’s home-schooled in Fairfield — put the appropriate computer pieces together. (I asked him if it took all summer. Nope: 2 hours.)

Alex Giannini (left), Nate Allen, the Oculus Rift headset and computer.

Alex Giannini (left), Nate Allen, the Oculus Rift headset and computer.

The other day, I took it for a test drive. I’d never donned a virtual reality headset before — I’m not exactly a hardcore gamer — but despite a warning from Alex Giannini, the library’s manager of digital experience, that I might get nauseous, I opted for the Rift’s rollercoaster ride.

I have to say: It’s pretty freakin’ cool. I zoomed up, down and through some crazy Alice in Wonderland-type scenes. But with the Rift, I also looked all around — even over my shoulder — and became immersed in some great virtual reality scenes.

The Rift will be available for everyone 13 and up. But, Alex knows, the core demographic is teenagers.

“That’s great,” he says. “This will get them to the library. They’ll play video games, but they’ll stay to help out. Maybe it will inspire some of them to get into developing games too.”

The Oculus Rift headset.

The Oculus Rift headset.

The Rift will be unveiled Labor Day weekend, at the library’s Blues, Views & BBQ booth. Later this fall it will be used as part of the library’s Teen Gaming Night.

Alex loves the Rift. “It’s so far beyond previous generations of virtual reality, I can’t even describe it,” he says. “We’re on the verge of something huge.”

As usual, the Westport Library leads the way.

Local Playwright Scores At The Fringe

With 200 theater and dance offerings at venues spread throughout the East Village and Lower East Side — the New York International Fringe Festival has something for everyone.

TimeOut New York says:

The wild variety of Fringe offerings includes musicals, experimental pieces, classical revivals and ramshackle new works about small penises, Lena Dunham and pretty much every subject in between. Some may go on to glory (like Fringe Festival alumni “Urinetown” and “Silence! The Musical”), while others will fade into well-deserved obscurity.

One of those shows — perhaps the next “Urinetown”? — is “To Each Their Own.” It was written by Westporter Tracy Knight Narang.

The 5-actor show is about a couple who — after years of infertility — suddenly become pregnant. Soon, however, big moral issues and dark family secrets threaten their marriage.

It’s been called “provocative,” “intriguing” and “beautifully directed.”

To Each Their Own

The 1st 2 performances sold out. The next — and last — 2 are set for this Saturday (August 29, 7 p.m.) and Sunday (August 30, 12 p.m.) at the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center, 107 Suffolk Street.

Support your local playwright! Buy tickets here.

(Hat tip: Martha Aasen)

Ethan Zorfas Helps Lead Ted Cruz Crusade

When 10 candidates squared off in the 1st GOP debate earlier this month, plenty of Westporters watched closely.

Republicans searched for the best leader. Democrats anticipated a train wreck.

Ethan Zorfas wanted to see how well his boss would do.

The 2003 Staples High  School graduate is one of Ted Cruz’s senior advisors, concentrating on the Northeast. So when New Hampshire holds its 1st-in-the-nation primary 6 months from now, Zorfas’ work may well determine whether the Texan is on a path to the White House — or back to the Senate.

Ethan Zorfas' job is to help Senator Ted Cruz (3rd from right) break out of the GOP pack. Besides these 10, 7 other Republicans are running for president.

Ethan Zorfas’ job is to help Senator Ted Cruz (3rd from right) break out of the GOP pack. Besides these 10, 7 other Republicans are running for president.

It’s a job Zorfas would never have expected a dozen years ago. His main passion entering Staples was basketball. He played it well — and earned Academic All-State honors.

But in his first few days of junior year, terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Lis Comm’s English class spent days talking about how the world suddenly changed.

“I woke up to the outside world,” Zorfas recalls. “For the first time, I realized that policy matters.”

Social studies teacher Justin Cosell opened his eyes to politics. In class, Zorfas learned how to write a bill.

“He was a huge liberal. I was more conservative,” Zorfas says, of the instructor who happens to be Howard Cosell’s grandson.

But a friendship grew. Today, they still talk often about politics.

After graduating, Zorfas headed to Clark University in Worcester. “That’s another liberal school,” he laughs.

Ethan Zorfas

Ethan Zorfas

He joined with a few non-liberals to reactivate a dormant Republican  Club. And he earned $100 a day knocking on doors in New Hampshire during President George W. Bush’s re-election campaign.

After earning a master’s in public administration from Clark, Zorfas worked on a handful of campaigns. He joined the National Republican Congressional Committee in 2008 — “a tough cycle,” Zorfas admits — and stayed on to organize fundraising for congressmen Bill Cassidy of Louisiana and Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming. He then branched out into political consulting for others.

In 2010 he was hired as chief of staff by New Hampshire congressman Frank Guinta. At 25, Zorfas may have been the youngest chief of staff on Capitol Hill.

When Guinta was defeated in 2012, Zorfas restarted his small firm, MarblePort Consulting. (The name combines Marblehead — where he lived as a child — and Westport.)

Zorfas’ New Hampshire ties made him a hot commodity in GOP circles. After the 2014 election cycle, he examined the wide swath of presidential candidates to find the best fit.

Cruz rose to the top of Zorfas’ list.

“If you really want to change Washington and how things work, he’s the only one in the field who can do that,” the consultant explains.

Zorfas had breakfast with the senator in New Hampshire, then flew to Texas.

“I’d only seen him on TV,” Zorfas recalls. “But I was impressed that he’d been solicitor general of Texas, and a clerk for (Supreme Court Chief Justice William) Rehnquist. His constitutional knowledge blew me away.”

They talked about how Zorfas could help Cruz be competitive in New Hampshire. Then, wham: The 30-year-old signed on as a key advisor.

Senator Ted Cruz (Photo/NH Journal)

Senator Ted Cruz (Photo/NH Journal)

His job now is to develop and implement strategies for Cruz to succeed in the Northeast. Zorfas is helping build the campaign infrastructure, and provides perspective to other Cruz advisors.

He speaks frequently with the candidate. “He’s taking New Hampshire very seriously,” Zorfas says.

Zorfas has worked on local, congressional and Senate races. Yet a presidential campaign is orders of magnitude different. Half a year before the first primary votes are cast, he already feels exponentially more energy and enthusiasm.

This month’s Fox News debate marked a major moment, Zorfas says. He sat with 200 supporters at the carefully chosen Texas Roadhouse in Nashua. Like a true professional, Zorfas says, “The feedback is that the senator spoke well, and had a clear message.”

Zorfas knows that a pro-life, gun-rights, anti-same-sex-marriage, climate-change denying Texan is not the first choice of most Westporters. Especially those Westporters who graduated with Zorfas in 2003.

“I had a great group of friends,” he says with pride. “We still talk on a daily basis. Most of them are probably Democrats. But I think they’re very proud of me and my accomplishments, as I am of them. They think it’s great that I can grow my career like this.”

And, he says, “we always have great debates.”

So if Senator Cruz becomes President Cruz, what job would Zorfas want?

“It’s way too early to think about that,” he says with the ease of a practiced politician. “Right now we’re all just focused on winning a 17-person race.”

He has no desire to run for office himself. “Seeing candidates go through what they do, I’m happy where I am,” Zorfas noted. “I love what I do.”

And Ted Cruz loves having this Connecticut-raised, New Hampshire-tested advisor on his very senior national staff.

Remembering Leah Rondon

Colleen Rondon is a much-admired Bedford Middle School teacher. Former students remember how often — and lovingly — she spoke of her own 3 children.

The entire Westport community was stunned and saddened to learn of a tragic accident that took the life of her youngest child and only daughter. Leah Marie Rondon died last Thursday, at just 6 years old.

Leah was about to enter 1st grade, and looked forward to taking the school bus.

She played soccer, basketball and softball, and was the Ansonia Boys & Girls Club “2015 Girl of the Year.” She loved reading, and proudly listed all her summer titles on the refrigerator.

Leah Rondon

Leah Rondon

The family’s many friends have organized a GoFundMe campaign. The webpage says:

As the Rondons begin the heartbreaking task of putting Leah to rest, we are asking for donations to assist them with funeral and other miscellaneous costs they may incur during this difficult time, so they can focus on family, healing, and honoring their daughter’s memory. Colleen and Henry Rondon are amazing parents, educators, and caring members of every community in which they are involved. We know they would do the same for us and ask you to give whatever you can in their time of need.

A mass of Christian burial is set for tomorrow (Tuesday, August 25, 10 a.m.) in the Church of the Assumption, 61 N. Cliff Street, Ansonia. Family and friends may call at the church tonight, from 3-7 p.m.

In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made John C. Mead School Library, 75 Ford St., Ansonia, CT 06401; Ansonia Boys & Girls Club, 28 Howard Ave., Ansonia, CT 06401; or Ansonia Recreation Department, 253 Main St., Ansonia, CT 06401.

Lindsay Runkel’s Journey Forward

Lindsay Runkel’s family moved to Westport in 1993. She attended the Nature Center nursery school, then moved step by step through the school system.

Lindsay was a free spirit — a bit alternative but sweet, beautiful and very smart.

She attended college in Arizona, then moved back senior year to finish her degree in nursing at the University of Connecticut-Stamford.

Lindsay worked hard throughout high school and college to help pay her way. Burgers seemed to be a theme: She was hired by both Five Guys and Shake Shack.

Always physically active, Lindsay grew passionate about mountain biking. Through a shop in Ridgefield, she went on weekend biking excursions.

Last October 5, Lindsay and a group were riding in New Hampshire. Near the end of the day, Lindsay landed the wrong way on a jump. Her spine was severed.

She spent several weeks at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston. Just before Thanksgiving, she came home to Westport. A carpenter friend turned a downstairs office into a wheelchair-accessible bedroom and bathroom, and outfitted the main floor with ramps.

Lindsay Runkel

Lindsay Runkel

Lindsay did rehab at Burke Hospital in White Plains for as long as her insurance lasted.

She also learned of Journey Forward. The rehab facility combines exercise and neuromuscular stimulation in the belief that if muscles do not atrophy, a person may regain feeling and some movement. Lindsay’s parents drive her to Journey Forward twice a week for sessions. She is doing amazingly well for someone in her condition.

Lindsay also goes a few times each week to TTEndurance in Westport, to pedal an adaptive bike with her hands.

Her family is coping as best they can, though times for them are tough too. Meanwhile, Lindsay talks of returning to college, driving and living a full life.

To help with her Journey Forward costs, friends and relatives have organized a fundraiser. It’s set for SoulCycle on Saturday, September 12 (check-in 1:30 p.m., ride 2-2:45 p.m.). The suggested donation is $50 per ride.

To register, click here. For more information, contact Casey Berg: 203-984-8914; caseyberg1@gmail.com.

 

Bill Harmer: New Librarian For A New Era

Libraries, says Bill Harmer, are “places of connections.”

In one of his first library jobs, he met a mother and daughter. The younger woman had just been diagnosed with a very serious cancer. Day after day, Harmer helped them research the disease and treatment options.

One day, they brought flowers. “You’ve done more for us than our doctors have,” they said.

“Those are the moments that happen in this profession,” Harmer says. “It’s almost like a calling.”

The librarian has been “called” to a new position. Last month, he became executive director of the Westport Library.

Bill Harmer, in his new digs.

Bill Harmer, in his new digs.

Maxine Bleiweis is a very tough act to follow. But with passion, energy, creativity and a community-minded sense of purpose, Harmer seems poised to pick up exactly where she left off.

His path to Westport was “meandering,” he says. “I wandered in the forest of journalism and publishing.” His experience with libraries had been limited to “checking out books.” But the publishing job introduced him to reference sections, and the company paid for his graduate degree in library and information science.

He spent the past 9 years at the Chelsea District Library in Michigan, near Ann Arbor. His achievements included moving a rural library into a 30,000-square foot, state-of-the-art downtown building. He quadrupled his budget and staff, and turned the library into a beloved community asset.

He put the library on sound financial footing, during tough times. A millage increase passed by a landslide — just a few years after the bond issue to build the new library had squeaked by.

Harmer loved Chelsea, and his very innovative library. And Chelsea loved him.

Bill Harmer's old digs.

Bill Harmer’s old digs.

But when he saw a posting for the Westport job, he was intrigued. Harmer felt a “kinship” with this library’s vision and philosophy. He already knew about the Maker Space.

As he researched Westport’s broad and diverse programming, and saw the “talent, expertise and resources” of the community, he recognized a great opportunity. “People here have their hands in the arts, business, you name it. There’s the Maker creativity. And the library engages everyone, of all ages. It really is a community resource, from birth to death.”

The proposed transformation of the library for the 21st century was truly exciting.

“Ten or 15 years ago, no one could have predicted where libraries would be today,” Harmer says. “Chelsea’s building is beautiful, but we’ve found physical limitations. I love the flexibility in Westport’s plans. The potential to engage people, do exciting things and have an impact on the community are enormous.”

The Westport Library provides a warm home for all.

The Westport Library provides a warm home for all.

One of those “exciting things” occurred on his very first day of work. Salman Rushdie agreed to give the Malloy Lecture in the Arts in October. Harmer takes no credit for that coup — it was in the works before he arrived — but it was a vivid reminder that in this town, and with this library’s staff, “people make things happen.”

He’s spending his first weeks getting the lay of the land: talking personally with employees and patrons, learning the budget, figuring next steps for the Maker Space.

He’s also immersing himself in Westport. He’s meeting with Rotary clubs. Miggs Burroughs gave him a “Tunnel Vision” tour.

Jeff Wieser showed off the Gillespie Center. “I love what it does, and that it’s right across the street from us,” Harmer says. He’s made plans for his staff to prepare and serve a meal there.

Harmer is learning about the Y, Senior Center, Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Merchants Association and Arts Center. He hopes to collaborate with town organizations as much as possible.

He’s grateful for the “well-oiled machine” that Bleiweis left, and her “incredible legacy.”

He knows he’s filling big shoes. He knows too that expectations are high. Fortunately, Harmer says, “there are plenty of outstanding people, in the library and the community, to make sure we keep innovating and making a difference.”

Bill Harmer arrived in Westport in time for the summer Book Sale.

Bill Harmer arrived in Westport in time for the summer Book Sale.

Every move — career and personal — is filled with challenges. Was there one moment when Harmer realized that — despite those challenges — he’d made a good decision to come here?

It came quickly, he says. He decided to come a week before his official start date, to see what the huge Summer Book Sale was all about. An easy 2-day, 2-car drive east with his wife and 3 children ended with a horrendous, Friday traffic jam on I-95.

That evening coincided with the library staff’s annual Compo cookout. After 2 hours of gridlock, the family’s nerves were frayed. Just to be social, they headed to the beach.

“Before we set foot on the sand, a dozen staff members swept in,” Harmer says with awe. “They fed us, gave us a warm welcome, and made us feel part of their family.

“We saw the entire staff. There was a breeze, and a beautiful sunset. As we drove away, my wife and I knew we’d made the right move.”

 

 

Stephen Wilkes And MLB’s Cuban Connection

The thawing of relations with Cuba has led to many new opportunities, in that country and here.

Among them: a chance for a new generation of baseball players to make it to the Major Leagues.

Westport photographer Stephen Wilkes — who recently received a grant from the National Geographic Society to document national parks — decided to focus on the current crop of players. They defied tremendous odds to reach the big leagues.

Wilkes’ photo essay appears in today’s edition of the New York Times Magazine. Click here to read the story — and see the pros, through our neighbor’s eyes.

Cuba - Stephen Wilkes

(Hat tip: Russell Smith)

Sticking With Poetry

Some folks wander around Westport, waxing poetic about their surroundings.

If you’re on Sturges Highway, you’ll find poetry — literally.

Mark Yurkiw and Wendy Van Vie walk their dogs every day. Around the corner from their house, there’s “poetry on a stick.”

Poetry 1

Anyone is welcome to enjoy the offerings, which change regularly.

Poetry 2

Robert Frost took the road less traveled.

If you’ve got a choice in Westport, try Sturges Highway.