A View Of The Bridge

It’s been a while. It will be a while more. But Westporters are still talking about plans to “repeal and replace” the William Cribari (aka Bridge Street) Bridge.

The subject is as controversial as ever.

But here’s one thing we can all agree on:

This photo from John Videler’s drone is magnificent.

Click on or hover over to enlarge. (Photo/John Videler)

Kindertransport Conversation Comes To Playhouse

Every day, the world loses Holocaust survivors.

In an age of rising anti-Semitism and distrust of “others,” hearing their first-hand stories is more important than ever.

Margie Treisman

Recently, Margie Treisman — a Westport Country Playhouse trustee and Anti-Defamation League national commissioner — was asked to help develop educational programming around an upcoming Playhouse production of “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” about the Kindertransport children’s rescue.

She called Margie Lipshez-Shapiro. An ADL of Connecticut official and noted Holocaust educator, she knows almost every living survivor in the state who is willing and able to tell their tale.

Lipshez-Shapiro suggested Ivan Backer, a Kindertransport survivor who has written about his journey, and his life afterward. Backer will be at the Playhouse next Wednesday (March 29, 7 p.m.), as part of conversation called “From Hate to Hope.”

The event — sponsored by the Playhouse, ADL and TEAM Westport — is funded by the Anita Schorr “Step in and Be a Hero” Fund. Schorr — a longtime Westporter and Holocaust survivor who inspired thousands with her story of horror and hope — died last year. The event is free, but seats must be reserved by phone (203-227-4177). For more information, click here.

“The Pianist of Willesden Lane” follows a week later with a limited run at the Playhouse (April 5-9). The true story of a young musical prodigy, it intertwines the themes of family, hope and survival with piano selections by Chopin, Beethoven, Bach — even a little Gershwin. Click here for more information.

Schools Superintendent Outlines Budget Cut Consequences

Last week, the Board of Finance voted to cut the education budget by $1.7 million. Today, superintendent of schools Colleen Palmer announced possible reductions, if that cut is sustained.

Other reductions may also be added to the list. Right now, it includes:

  • Implementing “pay for play” at Staples High School
  • Eliminating freshman sports at Staples
  • Eliminating individual music lessons in grades 4 – 8
  • Reducing club and after-school offerings at the middle and high schools
  • Reducing the Workshop Program
  • Eliminating bus monitors
  • Deferring yearly technology purchases
  • Eliminating all 4 grade level assistants at Staples (the previous proposal eliminated 2)
  • Eliminating library paraprofessionals
  • Moving to a “double 3 tiers” of elementary busing, causing a 3:45 pm dismissal at either Long Lots, Coleytown Elementary or Greens Farms.

Palmer noted that according to union contracts, salary and benefits require at least a 3+% budget increase each year.

“The structure of education funding in Connecticut is grounded in binding arbitration for our union contracts,” she said.

“It is impossible to hold costs constant for education when there are built-in systemic accelerators which we do not control.  A $1.7 million cut forces severe reductions, impacting the quality of our district.”

The Board of Finance meets on April 5 at Town Hall (8 p.m., Rooms 201/201A). At that time, they may consider restoration of funds cut at their previous meeting.

The Board of Ed will discuss these issues at its own meeting this Monday (March 27, 7:30 p.m., Staples cafeteria). The meeting will be televised on Channel 78.

Friday Flashback #32

The Westport Historical Society’s “School Days” exhibit — highlighting Westport education from 1703 to the present — closes tomorrow. Visitors give it high marks.

Westport schools have come a long way in 3 centuries. Two in particular are worth noting.

Today, Saugatuck Elementary School is located on Riverside Avenue. It’s the same building that previously housed Bedford Middle School. Before that, Bedford Junior High School. And before that, it was Staples High.

Yet Saugatuck El started out on Bridge Street. That building is now “The Saugatuck” — senior housing.

But that’s the 3rd incarnation. Prior to Saugatuck Elementary, a wooden building on the same spot was called the Bridge Street School.

The postcard above was printed before 1916. That’s when a new wing was added.

Meanwhile, across town, the handsome, Charles Cutler-designed Greens Farms Elementary School we know so well opened in 1925.

But it too was not the first school on the site. Here’s the original building:

That building was not torn down when its replacement was constructed. Like so many other structures in town, it was moved. It is believed to still stand, not far away on South Morningside or Turkey Hill.

[UPDATE: According to alert “06880” reader Chris Woods, the structure is on Clapboard Hill Road, between Morningside and Turkey Hill. It’s currently being renovated — again.)

(Postcards courtesy of Jack Whittle)

Andrew McConnell Serves Bridgeport Tennis

The list of top Fairfield County high school tennis teams is filled with places you’d expect: Staples. Greenwich. New Canaan.

It does not include Bridgeport’s Central High.

That’s a problem.

But Central tennis players are athletes. They don’t run from a challenge — they embrace it.

So does their coach.

Andrew McConnell

As area teams begin practice for the coming season. Andrew McConnell is eager to talk about his squad.

Coaching is his 3rd career. Teaching 9th grade social studies is his 2nd.

For 20 years, McConnell worked on Wall Street, for firms like Bear Stearns and Greenwich Capital. He moved to Westport in 1992, and has been here ever since.

In 2007 he decided to follow his dream — and do something his parents and 2 sisters already did: teach.

Earning certification through Sacred Heart University, the former financier requested an urban school. “It sounds trite,” he admits. “But I wanted to make the biggest impact I could.”

McConnell was worried that, as an older white man, he might not relate to city kids. A former Central principal who was one of his professors reassured him: “If you care, they know it.”

He interned at Central, and was hired there in 2010. After plowing through several principals, the school has flourished under Eric Graf. A former teacher and athletic director, he has boosted morale among staff and students.

But Bridgeport’s perpetual financial woes were exacerbated this year by the state’s. Recently, the superintendent of schools slashed $200,000 from the athletic budget. Gone were middle and high school programs in golf, lacrosse, fencing — and tennis.

That saved $2,600 stipends for Central’s boys and girls tennis coaches. Nevertheless, they swung into action to save their teams.

A collage of Central High School’s boys and girls tennis teams.

Stop & Shop donated Gatorade and bagels (home teams traditionally provide food for themselves and their opponents).

The Connecticut Alliance for Tennis and Education has pitched in with racquets.

One of the biggest costs is transportation. McDonnell — who is on the board of First Serve Bridgeport — got that after-school program to serve as a conduit for fundraising.

He had a bold idea: Buy a van. That would not only help with transportation fees (school buses are exorbitant to rent); it could also be used by First Serve throughout the year.

Last year’s Central High boys tennis team.

Tennis is an excellent vehicle for city youngsters, McConnell says. Despite its country club reputation, it’s relatively inexpensive. There are many courts in Bridgeport — including beautiful new ones at Central High.

It’s a lifelong sport. It teaches leadership and character. Because players call their own shots — there are no referees — it’s an exercise in sportsmanship.

That’s not just a cliche.

“The FCIAC (Fairfield County Interscholastic Athletic Conference) has 6 of the 8 best teams in the state. We’re not one of them,” McConnell explains.

“We don’t win a lot. But our kids love to participate. They have terrific attitudes. They try their best, work hard and have fun. Our competitors recognize that. We’ve won the league sportsmanship award several times.”

McConnell says that by interacting with players from other towns, his Central athletes form friendships they otherwise could not.

And sometimes the impact of tennis can be life-changing.

During his first 2 years at Central, Bashan Rosa had little focus. His grades were poor.

But he discovered tennis. To maintain academic eligibility, his grades rose — to honor roll level.

McConnell got him a summer job teaching the sport at the Cardinal Sheehan Center. Bashan also works for First Serve Bridgeport.

He can’t play for Central this spring. He’s a 5th-year senior, earning enough credits to graduate.

He’s still part of the squad, though. McConnell asked him to serve as an assistant coach.

On a team that — if McConnell’s fundraising efforts come through — serves as an FCIAC championship story. Even if they never win a match.

(To contribute to the Central High School tennis program via GoFundMe, click here.)

The O’Kane Family’s “Life On Mar’s”

For the first 10 years after moving to Kings Highway North, Yvonne and Neil O’Kane did not do much in the way of renovations.

They were busy with their careers. They were raising 3 kids. Besides, they liked the 1908 house in one of Westport’s most historic neighborhoods.

The small rooms were cozy. The Mexican tile in the kitchen reminded them of their years in Arizona. The house was home.

But 4 years ago they put in a pool. They terraced their yard. That added a grade, which didn’t look right. They started thinking about other changes.

The year before, Yvonne had met Mar Jennings. Now, as she visited his home during the Westport Historical Society’s Holiday House Tour, she asked the designer/stager/lifestyle expert/author/TV host for the name of a project manager to help plan a few renovations to her exterior, kitchen and bathroom. Mar said he’d take a look himself.

He stayed for 6 hours.

Mar Jennings at the O’Kanes’ house.

Yvonne — who is trained as an architect — felt something click. When Mar suggested doing the renovation as a makeover TV show, she got even more excited.

Neil agreed. But, he said, we won’t use our names. And though the house could appear on air, the family wouldn’t.

The next 18 months were, Yvonne says, “a magical fit of parts and pieces.”

The O’Kanes lived in their house throughout the renovation project.

The outside, kitchen and one bathroom were done. Then came beams, new doors and windows, insulation, new clapboard and a cedar roof.

The family room needed work, so that was next.

They added a deck off the master bedroom, then redid the bedroom itself.

After that were the kids’ bathrooms, and their son Teddy’s bedroom.

Dormers and library work opened up more space.

Dormer work added space in the bedrooms.

They turned an unused downstairs room into Yvonne’s studio. They added a laundry room.

When they were done, the only part of the house that remained untouched was the dining room.

It was as long and involved a project as it sounds. The O’Kanes were without a kitchen for 6 months, and a bedroom for 9. For a while they all lived together downstairs.

They loved it.

Neil, Caroline, Alexandra, Teddy and Yvonne O’Kane. (Photo/Carolinei O’Kane/Mercilie Chiarelli)

“It was a great experience,” Yvonne says, sitting in the sun-splashed living room, surrounded by furniture she and Mar found everywhere from Lillian August to Goodwill. (They shopped locally for nearly every item, and repurposed much of what was already in the house.)

The family grew closer during the adventure. As part of the TV show they went on a trapeze and to Six Flags. (It did not take long for Neil’s desire for anonymity to go out the newly designed window.)

“Mar was amazing overseeing the project,” Yvonne says. “He kept it running brilliantly.”

She was no slouch herself. And during it she even got her real estate license.

The exterior, at the end of a long driveway on Kings Highway North.

You might expect that in a project like this, everything that could go wrong, would.

Nope. There were very few surprises. And expect for a bit of structural work, all the surprises they encountered were good ones.

For example, workers discovered a hidden staircase. Mar and Yvonne promptly included it in their plans.

“We were a great fit,” she says. They named themselves “MY Team.” For Mar and Yvonne — get it?!

“I love every inch of this home,” Yvonne says. “The space works really, really well. We live in every room. The insulation is great. The kitchen is fantastic. Everyone has space, but we’re still together.”

Yvonne O’Kane loves her new kitchen. The family congregates there, she says.

Teddy — a Staples freshman — is still at home. Caroline — who lived through the renovation — is now a Fordham University freshman. Alexandra is a senior at Georgetown.

The TV show — said to be the first complete home makeover series filmed in Connecticut — took place while the house was still being renovated. Crews filmed Mar and Yvonne collaborating, shopping, and laughing together.

The first episode aired on ABC’s WTNH in New Haven. Twelve more followed, through last June. Despite competition from football and baseball games, the show earned excellent ratings.

Now it’s ready for prime time — that is, Amazon Prime.

You won’t forget the name. It’s called “Life on Mar’s.”

Charlie Capalbo’s Biggest Battle

Charlie Capalbo is not a Westporter. He’s a senior at Fairfield Ludlowe High School.

But his ties to this town are long and deep. Everyone here knows his grandmother: writer/poet/storyteller Ina Chadwick. Her husband, Richard Epstein — Charlie’s grandfather — is a Westport native; his parents moved here in 1958.

Charlie’s mother, Jennifer Wilde Capalbo — Ina’s youngest daughter — is a Staples graduate. For many years, she worked at a Westport asset management company.

Charlie’s aunts are Nina Wilde and Becky Wilde Goldberg Jarit. Years ago — to support her former Staples boyfriend, who suffered from lymphoma — Becky began running in charity events. She completed her first New York Marathon this year, at 50.

Ina Chadwick’s daughters: Nina, Becky and Jennifer.

Charlie has led a pretty good life. This winter as a goalie, he helped the Fairfield co-op ice hockey team make history. For the first time ever, the Mustangs qualified for the FCIAC and state Division I tournaments.

But other parts of his life are not good at all.

A few years ago, his house burned down. And just a couple of weeks ago — after making 27 saves in Fairfield’s 5-2 state tournament loss to West Haven — Charlie was diagnosed with cancer.

Charlie Capalbo (Photo/Dave Gunn)

His tumor is located near his heart and lungs, and has spread to his lymph nodes. Doctors say right now, an operation is not possible.

Charlie has already had a 5-hour biopsy at Yale-New Haven. Many more procedures lie ahead. Chemo starts tomorrow.

The Fairfield community — led by his coach and teammates — have rallied around Charlie.

Charlie Capalbo’s teammates lend support, as he heads to the OR.

A GoFundMe page was created Sunday night. In just 3 days, it’s already brought in over $129,000.

And that’s without most of Westport knowing his story.

Now we do.

(Click here for Charlie Capalbo’s GoFundMe page.)

Jim Marpe Runs For Re-Election On His Record

Jim Marpe grew up in Canton, Ohio. After earning a BA from Case Western and an MBA from Wharton, he embarked on a career with Accenture that took him to Chicago and Copenhagen.

Transferred to New York in 1989, Marpe and his wife Mary Ellen were attracted to Westport by the quality of education, amenities like Compo, and the beauty of Longshore. They also appreciated the town’s arts heritage. A performance at the Westport Country Playhouse sealed the deal.

They joined New Neighbors. The very first person they met was from the country they’d just left: Denmark.

That story illustrates everything Marpe loves about Westport. It’s also a reason why — as he completes his first term as first selectman — he looks forward to running for re-election.

First Selectman Jim Marpe

When he ran 4 years ago, Marpe — who had retired from Accenture as a senior partner — believed he could use his business skills, his experiences on the Board of Education (interim chair and vice chair) and Town Plan Implementation Committee, as well as his leadership roles with the Westport Weston Family YMCA, Homes With Hope, Westport Rotary Club and Greens Farms Congregational Church, to help his town.

“I love this place as much as anyone here,” he says.

He cites his accomplishments: improving town finances; keeping property taxes flat; upgrading Compo and Longshore; beautifying downtown; promoting Westport as an attractive place for business; updating tax policies for senior citizens, and improving the Senior Center; creating a Commission on People with Disabilities, ensuring the town remains inclusive for all residents (and their families).

He’s running again, he says, because there is still work to do. “Hartford has placed problems in our laps. We’ve made great strides in creating a budget to address the lack of any significant revenue coming from the state, and any new bills or taxes we can try to mitigate.”

First Selectman Jim Marpe and Westport Library director Bill Harmer, at work in the first selectman’s office.

Marpe adds, “Hartford’s problems are huge. They won’t get solved in one year. We’ll have to keep our own financial house in order for many years. We’ve been conservative in dealing with town finances. We have to work even harder at that, so Westport continues to be an attractive place to stay in, or move to — one of the most active and exciting communities in the country.”

For example, the first selectman says, a public hearing next month will examine rehabilitating the Compo bathhouses in a way that is “acceptable to all, at a cost we can afford.” Similarly, while the Longshore golf course rehabilitation has made it one of the top 8 public courses in Connecticut, the Inn and other parts of the property can also be improved.

Marpe says he is in “total agreement” with his potential challenger, fellow Republican Mike Rea, about the need for continuous improvement. “That’s what I’ve built my professional career on,” Marpe notes. “We can never rest on our laurels. We have to keep what Westporters hold dear, and make sure this is a town we’re all proud of.”

Personally, he is proud of his administration’s non-partisan approach to problem-solving. Marpe says he has “staffed committees and given assignments to the best qualified people, regardless of party. That’s how Westporters like to address issues.”

Jim and Mary Ellen Marpe, with their daughter Samantha.

Second selectman Avi Kaner will not run for re-election, due to increased demands of running his family business. But he’ll chair Marpe’s campaign, and will continue to work on special projects.

Marpe lauds Kaner’s work, and is “thrilled” that Board of Finance member Jennifer Tooker joins his ticket. “With her background, which also includes the Board of Education, she understands the financial challenges, and the important impact education has in Westport.”

Third selectman Helen Garten was Marpe’s Democratic opponent in 2013. “We’ve worked together as a team,” he says. “All three selectmen play to our strengths. That’s helped make our administration a success.”

He looks back on the past 4 years with satisfaction. Little moments stand out: thank-you notes sent after he attended local events; Memorial Day parades and ceremonies that honor individual citizens, the town and our country as a whole.

Nearly 30 years after moving here, Marpe, his wife and his daughter Samantha — a product of the Westport school system — appreciate more than ever all that Westport is, and does.

Right now for instance, he’s preparing for a panel on April 1 about Syrian refugees.

“Not many communities this size would have that discussion,” he notes. “But in Westport, we have debates like this. Some of them are heated. But when they’re over, we all go to the Black Duck together.”

Jim and Mary Ellen Marpe outside the Black Duck, during last year’s Slice of Saugatuck.

(Democratic State Representative Jonathan Steinberg has set up an exploratory committee to examine a run for first selectman. He declined an interview, citing his state legislature commitments on the budget.)

Mike Rea Explores A First Selectman Run

Growing up on Evergreen Avenue, Mike Rea attended almost-in-his-back yard Bedford Elementary School.

His alma mater now serves as Town Hall. And Rea is trying to figure out whether he wants to work there full time.

He’s done many things since graduating from Staples High School in 1970. Rea helped found Festival Italiano, was a Parks and Recreation Commission chair, headed the Bedford Middle School building project, spent 12 years on the RTM, and now serves as vice chair of the Board of Finance.

He’s formed a committee to explore a run for first selectman. If he enters the race, he’ll challenge incumbent and fellow Republican Jim Marpe.

“For years, people have asked me to run,” Rea says. “I owe it to myself to see if the interest is out there now.”

Mike Rea (left) after his first Board of Finance victory. On the right is current 2nd selectman Avi Kaner.

A Bronx native who came to Westport at age 4, Rea has long been active in town. Soon after his Staples graduation, he opened Mr. Sandwich — a popular lunchtime restaurant — on Bay Street.

He attended Norwalk Community College at night. He married Carla, spent a brief time in real estate, and for the past 34 years has worked for Gen Re. He’s currently vice president of corporate services and global real estate.

His first political activism came before he was a teenager — for the Democrats. “Thelma Ezzes and Ruth Soloway got me to sell tickets for a JFK memorial concert,” he recalls. “Thelma always said I slipped through Democratic fingers.”

He later joined the Young Republicans, and became state national committeeman. He chaired the Republican Town Committee, and was a 2-time John McCain delegate at national conventions.

Mike Rea at the 1978 Republican state convention. In the background is longtime political leader Ed Capasse.

When Rea’s sons Michael and Alex were young, an earthquake devastated Italy. Rea was part of a Westport group that raised $250,000 to help, then brought 21 youngsters and their mayor from a small town to Westport.

The Sons of Italy rose from that group. They sponsored the Italian Festival, a summertime Saugatuck staple for over 25 years.

Mike Rea (left) with the Sons of Italy group, at an early Festival Italiano.

When his boys played sports, Rea got involved in a project to build more athletic fields. First Selectman Doug Wood appointed him to the Parks and Recreation Commission. Wood’s successor Joe Arcudi named Rea chair.

Under his direction, Parks and Rec helped develop Wakeman Park, renovated Ned Dimes Marina and brought a skating rink to Longshore.

Gene Cederbaum — a Democratic Board of Education member — recruited Rea to head up the Bedford Middle School building project. Rea and his group — including “fantastic volunteers” like Russ Blair, Howard Lathrop and Joe Renzulli — “brought new construction techniques and accounting principles, and combined them with state and local educational specs and budgets,” to produce a handsome school on a former Nike missile base.

Rea is proud that another Democrat — Wally Meyer — called him “Mr. On Time and Under Budget.”

In his 6 terms on the RTM, Rea chaired the Finance and Environmental Committees, and served on the Ethics Committee. “I really enjoyed the give-and-take from ‘the citizens’ podium,'” he says.

Mike and Carla Rea (2nd and 3rd from right), with their children and granddaughter.

He left the RTM to run for Board of Finance. Rea was elected twice, in 2011 and 2015, when he was the top Republican vote-getter in town.

So why might he challenge a fellow party member for the top spot?

“Why not?” he replies. “I wouldn’t run against Jim. I’d be running for Westport, and myself.”

His exploratory committee will examine whether issues like the condition of the beach, and finance and planning, are areas he could address.

“I’m a business guy, a facilitator, a project manager,” Rea says. “That’s my wheelhouse. It’s not a question of bad management now. It’s a question of, could I do better? When you commit large sums of expenditures to education, parks facilities and public works, you have to make sure you’re doing it right.”

Rea calls Marpe “a very capable, nice, down-to-earth guy. I really like him. He’s not doing the job wrong. I just think with my years in public service, and my skill set that augments the first selectman’s job, I might do better.”

Rea also says he’s friendly with Jonathan Steinberg, the Democratic state representative who is exploring his own run for first selectman.

Rea concludes, “I like people. I love Westport. I think I’d be good for the town. This is just the first step on a journey.”

That journey started decades ago at Bedford Elementary School on Myrtle Avenue. It may wind its way back there, in November.

(Tomorrow: Jim Marpe talks about his campaign for re-election.)

I Figure Memorial Day

Spring arrived at 6:28 this morning.

But no matter how nice the weather gets, this pile o’ smushed-together, salted-in, iced-over snow won’t melt any time soon.

(Photo/Britt Steel)

It’s not the only one. An even bigger and blacker mound looms over the Compo Shopping Center parking lot, opposite Planet Pizza.

But this photo is the one I’m running.

Because I really want to know why there’s a highway cone sitting on the hood of that Mercedes.