Remembering Dorothy Gambaccini

Dorothy Gambaccini, who resided in Westport for 56 years, died yesterday at Norwalk Hospital. She was 91.

Many of the friends and colleagues who knew her best are no longer part of the Westport scene, but her contribution to her community and impact on her family was extensive and deep. Her 2nd son, Peter, shares a bit of her story, conveying convey important aspects what made her so special and valuable to Westport.

My parents, Mario and Dorothy, were post-World War II pioneers, settling into the still unfinished cul-de-sac of Elizabeth Drive, off Old Road, at the same time as my father’s friend Bill Backalenick, his wife Irene and their family.

The houses were close together. It was neighborly, for certain, and our yard was the venue for some of the fiercest wiffle ball games of the Eisenhower and Kennedy years. As my two brothers and I grew larger and took up more space we adjourned to the Big House on High Point Road.

Dorothy was born in Hartford and attended Hunter College in New York, where Bess Myerson and Bella Abzug were notable students. She trained as a dietitian and worked at Fordham University, where she met my father. I only found out a couple of years ago that a last minute change of plans brought us to Westport rather than Valley Stream, Long Island, sparing us an existence of horrid accents and a dull stupor we easily avoided in Connecticut.

My parents were great believers in the Westport school system. Paul, myself and Philip got our scholarly foundation at Greens Farms, Long Lots Junior High and Staples.

My mother was a woman with no discernible egotism who scarcely, in our household, drew attention to her achievements. But we learned so much about diligence and service from her, and the Westporters — especially the women — who were her peers had such pride and confidence in her.

She became president of the League of Women Voters and the PTA Council, and of one or two school PTAs. She served several terms on the RTM. Various members would appear at our house briefly to exchange documents and reports, then disappear quickly into the night. I had no doubt that some quiet mission, for the benefit of Dorothy’s sons and our town, was afoot.

The Westport League of Women Voters, in 1966. Dorothy Gambaccini was a leader for women like these.

I marveled at Dorothy Gambaccini’s capability and equanimity, even before I could use “equanimity” in a sentence. This was before the rise of Ella Grasso, but honestly, I thought at the time that my mother should have been Governor of Connecticut. She was among those invaluable women who didn’t have “jobs” in the 1960s, but were the bulwarks of a growing and flourishing community.

Along with all that, she saw that we got tickets to the classical Young People’s Concerts in town, that all 3 of her sons learned to master musical instruments (okay, “master” may be hyperbole in my case).

She drove me to an endless stream of basketball games until my NBA aspirations ended at 5-11 and age 15. She took me to emergency rooms and doctors’ appointments for ailments mundane and unusual. I think I was the first Westport ever diagnosed with a “stress fracture,” and I had two at once.

She adored Westport but brought AFS guests into our house to make sure we understood there was a world beyond our sheltered privileged borders. She was tolerant and understanding, and kept her fears to herself, during those years when I would wander across America and Europe cheaply, often by thumb, ending up who knows where each night  in an era before cell phone service would have connected us.

She set the bar high for all 3 of her sons. And she defended us always, in any circumstances, at times when I may have been too timid to assert myself.

I know this experience is not unique to me, as  so many of us have had aging parents, but her final days were a torture to witness. Now, I’m choosing to remain in stunned shock — although writing something like this makes that far from easy — until the rest of the family arrives and shares the grief … and the deep affectionate memories. We’re a far-flung family now, but my brothers will arrive from their homes in England and Switzerland in a few hours. It takes 3 of us to shoulder the memory of this extrarodinary mother and Westport citizen.

Okay, forget about that “stunned shock” part. I’m weeping now.

There will be visitation for Dorothy Gambaccini this Friday (December 30, 10:30 a.m.) at the Harding Funeral Home, followed by a memorial service at 11:00 a.m. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the Westport Public Library.

9 responses to “Remembering Dorothy Gambaccini

  1. A beautiful remembrance.

  2. Carl Addison Swanson

    My mother was also a member of that driving force of League of Women Voters in the 1960’s and a colleague of the ever-present and energetic Mrs. Gambaccini. They helped form “Project Hope” in the late ’60’s that delivered monthly “care packages” to very Westport serviceman abroad. My condolences to her family. Westport has lost of one of their best but she certainly left her legacy on this town.

  3. My condolences. Obviously Westport would have been a different place without her.

  4. A magnificent written eulogy for a great lady, Pete. Your mom and mine were frequent collaborators on AFS matters when my parents were chapter presidents in the mid-60s. She was never a stranger in our house. God bless her and you, Paul and Phil.

  5. Paul Backalenick

    I remember her fondly from our days on Elizabeth Drive. A touching piece, Pete, and a moving testimonial to a wonderful woman.

  6. Charlotte Thorpe

    I lived on High Point Road as a child in the mid 70s and remember the Gambaccini family as kind and lovely neighbours. My condolences to you all, thank you for the great eulogy.

  7. Nancy Powers Conklin

    My father was the post man delivering mail on High Point Road at that time. He always spoke very highly of the Gambiccini family. One of the brothers was in my class at Staples, or the year before me or after me. The boys were always high achievers in school. I am sure their mother and father instilled that in them as young boys. Their mother was a grand woman and her memory will live on in the minds of Westporters who knew her!

    • Just as High Point Road VERY fondly remembers our favorite postman, George “Nooky” Powers (also one of the best athletes in Staples history!).

  8. Nancy Powers Conklin

    Thanks, Dan. You touched my heart!