Remembering Cliff Barton

Cliff Barton — a longtime Westport educator — died last week.  He was 90, and had recently suffered a stroke.

An outstanding student who attended Florida A&M University on an athletic scholarship, he was a skilled practitioner of jewelry casting before earning a masters degree in education and organizational theory from Columbia University’s Teachers College.

He joined the Westport school system in 1958, and over the next 29 years served as a teacher, speech pathologist and assistant superintendent.  Throughout his career he maintained a private practice as a speech pathologist and educational consultant.

In 1958 Cliff and his wife Sylvia purchased a home on Stonecrop Road in Norwalk, integrating the neighborhood.  Cliff involved himself in a wide range of civic affairs — including the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency, the Mayor’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Race Relations, the Carver Foundation, the Mid-Fairfield Child Guidance Center, Norwalk Hospital, and the Norwalk Power Squadron — that continued until his death.  He was a founding  member of the boards of the Norwalk Arts Council and Norwalk Maritime Center.

Veteran Westport educator Garry Meyers remembers Cliff Barton:

In my third of a century of Westport teaching experience, Cliff is one of the last of the greats.  He’s right up there with Gladys Mansir, Wyatt Teubert, Charlie Burke, Tony Arciola, Harold Allen, Nick Georgis and Gerry Rast, among others.

All these professionals, with diversified personalities and academic perspectives — committed to the quality education of every kid — put Westport on the Gold Coast map.

The local community of Gray Flannel suits in the time of the Famous Artists Schools wanted the best.  Then, with the Soviet challenge of Sputnik, the national government wanted the best in education as well.

The dialogue about various teaching approaches in the new Staples High School faculty room — for the first time mixed with males and females — was constant and intense, loud, humorous, sometimes angry, always provocative.

Cliff Barton, then a speech teacher who traveled among the different Westport schools and administrative offices, often punctuated the emotional dialogue with a non-controversial observation that was sane, possible and always respected.

Cliff put his words into practice as an administrator.  As the head of special education and a former teacher, he recognized the complexity of kids with physical, emotional and academic needs.  Cliff understood the political task of integrating them and their parents into the regular school community.

Adams Academy, where Cliff Barton worked his magic.

And he recognized the importance of his staff in getting the job done.  In characteristic gentlemanly style, Cliff insisted that all teachers tar themselves away from their demanding, often isolated involvement to meet every Wednesday in the supportive, informal Adams Academy — the 1-room schoolhouse away from typical, overly administrative property — where Miracle Workers could see each other as normal people.

Cliff exuded trust in us whenever we might lose trust in ourselves.  This respect and confidence ultimately extended beyond the meetings and beyond the school, into our private lives.

When I visited my former partner, former boss and old friend for the last time, I held his hand.  He clasped mine in return and whispered reassurance:  “Our paths will cross again.”

(Donations in Cliff Barton’s memory can be made to the Carver Foundation [] or the Norwalk Maritime Center Children’s Opportunity Fund, 10 N. Water St., Norwalk, CT 06854.)

5 responses to “Remembering Cliff Barton

  1. pamela burke

    Staples and Westport teachers and educators were always a cut above. I’m so grateful to have known so many worth remembering. How great that Dan has given us all his website to remember and follow along with today’s Westport and Staples happenings. Thanks Dan.

  2. For so many of us in elementary school in Westport in the late 1950s Mr. Barton was the only African American figure of authority we saw or knew. The only one. Think about that. Later on those of us who attended Bedford Jr. High were exposed to the marvelous Ernestine White, music teacher. And that was it. Mr. Barton, however, was far more than he appeared. Special education was almost non-existent until he arrived and learning disabilities were as yet unheard of. Those of us who were academically deficient back then dreaded becoming one of “Mr. Barton’s kids.” Eventually, however, out of pure desperation, my parents sent me, a floundering fifth grader, to Mr. Barton for private counseling at his office, which was only a couple of doors from our home on Treadwell Avenue in Saugatuck. What a wonderful man! I have never forgotten his kindness and gentle persistence. He didn’t solve my academic problems but his gift to me had lifelong value: hope. I’ve thought of him often through the decades, remembering his lithe energy as a roamed the corridors of Saugatuck School 1958-60. Fifteen years ago when I was a Wall Street executive speechwriter I was in a limo with two financial district titans, one of whom I wrote for. I thought to myself as we cruised along lower Broadway, “If only Mr.Barton could see me now.” God speed, Mr. Barton — and thanks. I’m proud to have been one of your kids.

  3. The Dude Abides

    Nice TA, very nice. My memory is not as good as yours and I am afraid I don’t remember Mr. Barton. Your writing makes me wish I did.

  4. Too bad you didn’t know him, Dude. He was quite a cool guy, once a child got over the silly stigma of being one of his “kids.” He exuded energy and enthusiasm. He was always in a hurry, sometimes with kids in tow, sometimes not. I’d never heard of Florida A&M before I met him. He used to talk about a football coach there named Jake Gaither that he’d played under and had run track for. Gaither, he told me, liked his athletes “ag-ile, mob-ile and hos-tile.” Jake Gaither would become nationally famous in the early 1960s when he coached a running back and sprinter named Bob Hayes, ’64 Olympic gold winner, the world’s fastest human for a time and a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Cliff Barton became famous in a much smaller arena but remains unforgettable. You would have liked him.

  5. The Dude Abides

    Thanks TA for the history lesson. Why is it that I remember that the janitor, “George”, at Bedford Junior High School could touch his nose with his tongue (he charged a penny to do it) and yet, do not recall Mr. Barton? Perhaps I should have been in his class. You obviously benefited from such.