Pic Of The Day #969

Getting all your ducks in a row, at the Compo Beach channel (Photo/Jamie Walsh)

Persona Of The Week: Westport’s Human Services Department

With the holiday season in full swing, Westporters frantically shuttle between shopping and holiday parties.

Yet despite our perceived affluence, many families here struggle to buy gifts for their kids, or pay heating bills as the weather gets colder.

In this week’s “Persona” 06880 interview, Rob Simmelkjaer sits with Susan Stefenson and Annette D’Augelli of Westport’s Department of Human Services. They discuss how Westporters can lend a hand to neighbors in need this holiday season.

Field Trip For Chickpea Butter

Tom Donigan’s kids can’t bring peanut butter sandwiches (or any nut butters) to school. They were tired of sunflower seed butter.

So — working in Matt Levey’s kitchen — Donigan developed chickpea butter.

It’s nutty, delicious, and a little sweet.

It’s also the first vegan product line for Field Trip. That’s the jerky company whose world headquarters — and only retail store in the world — is located Westport, on the Post Road opposite Design Within Reach.

The all-natural chickpea butter is available in 3 flavors: classic, cinnamon churro and chai spice.

They’re sold online, in over 10,000 stores nationwide — and at the downtown outlet.

And — because Field Trip calls Westport home — Donigan and Levey are offering “06880” readers 20% off, for stocking stuffers or Hanukkah gifts. Just say “06880” — and enjoy!

Dost Thou Remember?

Staples High School graduate Catherine Webster now lives in Oklahoma. Her congregation — First Unitarian Church of Oklahoma City — is celebrating the tricentennial of the carol “Joy to the World.” On Facebook, she wrote that last Sunday’s service focused on the idea that music transcends the intellect, and speaks directly to the heart and soul.

During the lay reflection, Catherine described the traditions of Staples’ Candlelight Concert. It was a joy, she said, to share both “Sing We Noel” and “Welcome Yule” with her beloved community. Here are her beautiful, heartfelt remarks:

Dost thou remember the Prophet of old
Who that most wond’rous story told
How of a virgin pure and mild
Should be born a perfect child?
The seer spake true: The virgin so fair
A son from Heaven doth declare
Sing we Noël, Noël, Noël.

If this song is unfamiliar to you, fear not: I bring good tidings of great joy! It’s exceedingly obscure, and you won’t be hearing it any time soon on KMGL’s all–holiday line-up.

But for me, it’s a Christmas classic. Every vocal music student from my high school back in Connecticut has learned this song since the 1950s. The 100-voice a cappella choir has used it as a processional for the annual Candlelight Concert, literally for generations. And will again next weekend (I checked.).

This is music that speaks directly to my heart, and the setting also adds to its power.

The Candlelight Concert is timeless. This shot, from 2011, was taken by Lynn U. Miller — a Staples choir member in the early 1970s.

In the dim of the high school auditorium, the school orchestra would play the instrumental introduction as the choir, robed in blue with white stoles, processed down the 3 aisles and surrounded the audience with the warm light of flickering (electric) candlelight.

Once everyone was in place, the orchestra played a big downbeat and the choir members would turn to face the audience. A high school teacher commented that he always associated that turn with the future that his soon to be former students – the graduating seniors — were facing, full of hope, candles aglow.

My family started to attend this concert in 1966, when it was already a long-standing tradition and considered the high school’s holiday gift to the town of Westport.

I had just turned 1 year old that year. We continued to attend the concert as youth from our church, babysitters, our friends’ older siblings and – finally – my brother and I made it to high school to take part.

In 1979, the annual concert was already 39 years old. Some of those performers — now with their own children out of college — will return this weekend.

Although clearly a Christmas carol, performing this song touched the hearts of my many Jewish friends and the several others, like me, who identified as non-Christian.

The power of the song, and of the tradition, transcended a particular theology and unified us. I know I was not the only student who felt the weight of history as we took our places, continuing the tradition that our elders had established, helping to continue and preserve it for those not yet born.

In an online forum related to my hometown, a woman who graduated in 1958 commented: “Can anyone explain why every time I see a post about Staples’ Christmas Candlelight concert I immediately start to sing ‘Sing We Noel,’ and get all misty-eyed?”

To which the original poster replied: “Because once you’ve been part of it, it’s part of your soul.”

It is certainly part of mine.

Antonio Antonelli, in the 2018 “Sing We Noel” processional.

So is the introit that the choir sang in the lobby prior to the processional. Unseen but not unheard, many of us held hands as we performed this number, which has for me a truly ancient feel. Here’s the final verse:

Welcome be you that are here
Welcome all and make good cheer
Welcome all another year
Welcome Yule!

(The 79th annual Candlelight Concert is set for tomorrow — Friday, December 13 — and Saturday, December 14. All tickets have already been distributed.)

The “Sing We Noel” processional — a part of every Candlelight Concert since 1940. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

Pics Of The Day #968

Compo Beach, in this morning’s snow … (Photo/Patricia McMahon)

… and Nash’s Pond (Photo/Katherine Bruan)

… and Ford Road (Photo/Michael Tomashefsky)

Unitarians Offer Musical “Journey Of Light”

Christmas songs are not for the faint of heart.

“Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” makes some folks puke. “Jingle Bell Rock” can push you over the edge. And don’t get me started on “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”

So it’s good to know that there is still some true holiday music out there.

This Sunday (December 15, 11 a.m.), the Unitarian Church in Westport hosts a special performance. Music director Ed Thompson has written a wonderful piece. Using uilleann pipes (Irish bagpipes), tin whistle, violin, organ, bodhran hand drum and harp — and backed by a chorus and soloists — “Journey of Light” celebrates the winter solstice.

It’s holiday music with a twist: secular, warm and melodic. The text is not biblical — but it is deeply spiritual.

“Journey of Light,” at the Unitarian Church.

With authentic Irish instruments, and rhythmic jigs and reels, Thompson’s work asks why we sing during the darkest of seasons. The answer: the importance of community, of sharing our own inner light, and the importance of yearly celebrations that date back thousands of years.

Thompson — Juilliard-trained, whose works have been commissioned throughout the US and Europe — has assembled noted musicians for the piece. Jerry O’Sullivan is one of the premier Irish pipe players on the East Coast, while Nicole Schroeder (tin whistle) has worked on Broadway.

The public is invited to enjoy this hopeful, exciting and celebratory work.

Unsung Heroes #127

I’ve had great service at Fetzer Tire — the shop just over the Westport line, in Southport. They’ve gone above and beyond — quickly, efficiently and professionally.

I’m not the only one.

Jessica Bleiman Hill writes:

Just wanted to give a shout-out to Fetzer Tire. They are so honest and lovely. This is the 2nd time I’ve gone to corroborate the “safety issue” our dealership tried to sell me on.

Instead of paying over $1,000, I took my car to Fetzer. They charged me nothing, and told me I have at least 10,000 miles before I need any brake work.

If you are looking for a place for service, definitely check them out.

It shouldn’t be news when a business says “we don’t want your business.”

But of course, it’s the right thing to do.

And it ensures that when we do need someone’s business, they’ll get it.

(To nominate an Unsung Hero, email dwoog@optonline.net)

Police Service Dog Koda Retires

The Westport Police Department says:

It is with a heavy heart that we announce the early retirement of police service Dog Koda, due to health concerns.

The 9-year old Belgian Malinois was imported from Hungary. He joined the department in February 2012.

At 18 months old, Koda completed a 10-week training course. He earned certification in narcotics detection, tracking, handler protection and criminal apprehension.

Since beginning his law enforcement career, Koda was partnered up with Officer James Loomer, who joined the department in February of 2010. Since then, they worked together full time in the patrol division.

Koda, with Officer James Loomer.

Loomer and Koda have responded to over 600 canine-related calls for service, in Westport and neighboring communities.

The Police Department will raise funds to purchase and train a new police service dog, to continue Koda’s impressive legacy.

The public is invited to a brief ceremony this Friday (December 13, 9:30 a.m.) in the classroom at police headquarters (50 Jesup Road).

Bespoke Readiness Outfitter Pops Up Downtown

Reading today’s headlines is not for the faint of heart. Disasters — natural and man-made — are all around.

Westport can seem immune. But Jesse and Sefra Levin know we’re not.

Since graduating from Staples in 2003, they’ve been on a mission: prepare people around the globe to survive. They’ve brought “readiness skills” to the veteran, disaster response and entrepreneurial communities.

Now they’ve popped up in Westport.

Literally.

The twins opened a pop-up shop at 29 Church Lane. Their company — Tactivate — outfits customers with gear, and offers advice and training, for every conceivable emergency. They call themselves “bespoke readiness outfitters.”

The Tactivate pop-up shop, at 29 Church Lane.

According to their website:

From classes on how to pack and use a serious go- bag and medical kit to how to communicate when there is no cell service, we partner with you to devise custom tailored solutions and training experiences delivered by professional first responders and military veterans on and off site.

Tomorrow (Thursday, December 12, 6:30 p.m.), they offer their first event: “Tequilas and Tourniquets.” They call it “paint and sip for bad-assery.”

Suffice it to say, they’ve hacked out a path quite different from most of their classmates.

While still at Staples, Jesse ran a small guerrilla marketing operation, doing X and Gravity Games promotions for SoBe.

Jesse Levin, in Puerto Rico.

He took wilderness survival school courses, and after graduating from Babson College went straight to Panama where he launched a cultural mediation advisory firm (and got his first exposure to disaster response, during floods).

He formed Tactivate in 2010, after working with local populations, the military, government, NGOs and the private sector following the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Most recently, he helped carry out a food and water security project in the aftermath of the Puerto Rico hurricane.

Sefra attended Staples, graduated from Greens Farms Academy and Colorado College, then earned a master’s in agro-ecological education from Cornell University. She built seed banks all over the world, while specializing in designing spaces quickly.

Jesse says that the Westport pop-up store was conceived only last week. Within a couple of days — with help from the Downtown Merchants Association and Bedford Square developer David Waldman, plus his sister’s “wild outfitting skills” — they had a lease and a decorated space.

“We employ the same sort of expediency and operational efficiency required to save lives in disasters to our business ventures,” he explains.

Jesse and Sefra Levin.

He says that his survival school experience — and all that followed — has empowered him. He wants others to experience “the freedom that comes from knowing you can help yourself and others in a very serious situation.”

Disasters can bring out the best in people, he has seen. Now he’ll show Westporters how to be ready for whatever may come.

“We want to expose people to the pleasure and comfort that comes from taking proactive steps to be of better service to others when it counts,” Jesse says.

“We have big storms, the power goes out and things are going boom around us. You can live in fear, react in an uninformed way when something happens and be a liability. Or you can take simple measures to get a little training and acquire a few critical pieces of gear to make you, your family and your business ready to provide for themselves and others in a time of need.”

So there it is: tactical preparedness, pop-up style. You can find it in the heart of downtown, right between the home furnishings of Anthropolgie, and the honey at Savannah Bee.

(For more information on Thursday’s “Tequilas and Tourniquets” event, click here.)

Post Road Real Estate: Tenants Needed!

In June of 2017, alert “06880” reader/Westport Museum of History and Culture house historian Bob Weingarten drove the entire Westport stretch of the Post Road. He counted the number of commercial buildings with either a “For Rent” or “For Sale” sign.

There were 50.

He shared the information on “06880.” It generated 57 comments.

Two years later he did it again. This time there were 65 commercial properties  looking for tenants — 15 more. Many — including 2 former banks, a gas station and several large retail storefronts — were still vacant from 2 years earlier.

The Mobil Self-Serve property next to Barnes & Noble remains vacant.

Once again, Bob’s story touched a nerve. Fifty readers commented.

The 3rd time — a couple of weeks ago — showed another increase. Now, 72 commercial buildings are available for rent or purchase.

Bob says that one bank building was added to the already empty two. Large retail storefronts still not occupied include the old Pier 1,  and XL Clothing building.

The Mobil gas station near Barnes & Noble, and the large garden center near Stop & Shop are still vacant.

Additionally, 2 new commercial buildings near the new Ignazio’s Pizza (just west of Sherwood Diner), with townhouses in the rear, are unoccupied.

Newly constructed — and not yet rented — space at the foot of Long Lots and the Post Road.

Bob is “alarmed” by the number of empty stores adjacent to Fresh Market.

A renovated large office building on Post Road West will start renting in January, for use as co-working and shared offices.

Empty space on Post Road West, just up the hill from Wright Street.

“I don’t understand how we can be told the economy is getting better and better, with the increasing number of available, empty commercial units,” Bob says.

And, he adds, his figures do not include the apartments that may be available across from Greens Farms Elementary School, or the new townhouses near the diner.

“Several empty available commercial spaces are now occupied — but they are relocations from other spaces on the Post Road, filling one spot but leaving another unoccupied,” he notes. These include Sam Slots Coins, Millie Rae’s and Earth Animal.

“What is going on in the Westport commercial economy?” he asks.

Tons of available space near Fresh Market. (Photos/Bob Weingarten)