An Old Video Causes “Concern”

Not much gets by Bill Scheffler.

Somehow, the 1966 Staples grad spotted an eBay ad for a 16mm film. It couldn’t have been more obscure — an introduction to the field of social psychology — but Bill was intrigued that it included “community reactions to bussing and integration in Westport, Conn.”

He bought it sight unseen.

Because 16 mm projectors are almost as rare as 8-tracks, Bill had it copied to DVD. The other day, he gave me a copy.

The video focused on a long-ago local controversy: Project Concern.

In 1970, a number of Westporters — backed by the 2 Congregational churches, the Unitarian church and Temple Israel — urged the town to follow Hartford’s lead, and bring a small number of Bridgeport children to our schools.

In April, 1000 people packed a tense Board of Ed meeting. There were hisses, boos, and tearful speeches on both sides of the issue.

In December the board voted 3-2 to bus a limited number of Bridgeport youngsters — on a voluntary basis — to Westport. Almost instantly, a campaign began to recall Board of Ed chairman Joan Schine.

Republican Allen Raymond, Democrat Jim O’Connell and Westport Education Association representative Dick Leonard led the battle against recall. The fight reached the state Supreme Court. The 3-2 vote was upheld, and in 1971 25 or so Bridgeport children enrolled in Burr Farms, Coleytown and Bedford Elementary Schools.

Burr Farms Elementary School. (Computer image by Steve Katz)

They continued on through junior and senior high school, with other children taking their place in the lower grades. They joined after-school activities; slept over in Westport homes, and became valued members of our community.

Project Concern ended in the 1980s, when state funding for the buses ended.

The video Bill Scheffler bought focused on the experiences of 2 Project Concern students in Walt Melillo’s 3rd grade Burr Farms classroom. A few years before the program began, I had been a Burr Farms 3rd grader — and Mr. Melillo was my teacher.

The video — a “Psychology Today Film” — is not exactly The Hunger Games. Talking heads pontificate about the pros and cons of busing. “When black kids get to white schools, they sing white songs that is part of colonization,” one says.

Walt Melillo

Another “expert” offers: “It is bewildering for white kids to have black children suddenly disgorged in their midst. They probably talk with their parents about it. Liberal parents explain slavery and poverty, and say, ‘We don’t talk nastily to them.'”

The tape shows 2 boys — one black, the other white — hugging each other. When the white child smiles at the camera, the same “expert” explains that the white child was “seeking normative approval.”

The videos taken inside Mr. Melillo’s class, and on the Burr Farms playground, are far more compelling. The teacher helps 2 Project Concern children — Leonard and Durwin — with lessons, interact with classmates, and sing and play.

Mr. Melillo is interviewed at length (though never identified by name). He describes the differences between the 2 boys — one is very outgoing, the other introverted — and talks about how he treats them very differently based on their personalities.

He says, “This has been a tremendous experience for me. And this year my classroom is a richer place.”

The talking heads dissect Mr. Melillo’s methods, as if he and his students were creatures in a zoo: “The teacher is quite conscious of helping. He is very skillful….The teacher is willing to physically touch them. Many of us are not willing to do that.”

Walt Melillo's 1973 class did not include any Project Concern students.

The video also includes scenes of furious protest meetings. “Are we going to get a colored teacher or white?” one woman wonders. “What if (our kids) don’t understand the lingo?”

Another accuses educators of “trying to bring people from the jungle here.”

Those are not Westporters. The meetings shown were taped in Great Neck and Boston, during similar busing controversies. The video does not make that clear. On the other hand, it also does not make clear exactly who Mr. Melillo is, or where the Burr Farms scenes take place.

But I know. I remember Mr. Melillo, Burr Farms and Project Concern.

I know how much the program contributed to Westport.

And I know something the “experts” never mentioned: That as much as the Bridgeport youngsters got out of Project Concern, Westport got far more back in return.

(Thanks to Woody Klein’s Westport, Connecticut: The Story of a New England Town’s Rise to Prominence for some of the historical background.)

28 responses to “An Old Video Causes “Concern”

  1. Good for you…this is such a touching and sad reminder that not much has changed…Westport would be much “richer” with more programs like this.

  2. Estelle T. Margolis

    Our kids (four of them) were in Bedford El during Project Concern. We fought for the program.
    When the fight to recall Joan Schine started, Manny Margolis became her
    attorney and fought the case all the way to the Supreme Court.

    I have had many reasons to be proud of Manny. That was one of the most important cases he handled with success.

  3. I was a Westport student in the 70’s and 80’s. The kids from Project Concern added so much to our schools and our town. I remember the Foremen family. Mark and his sister (Idid not know her) both went to Yale. Albert went to UCONN on a full academic scholarship. I know the boys became very successful. Stew Thomas became a Marine and made a Career out of it. Jimmy Smith went to Occidental in California after Staples. I think Bobo DeWitt is a youth counselor. I hope I don’t embarrass anyone. They such good people who added some much to our community.

  4. Don Willmott

    I’ve said it here before…the program, and my parents’ decision to sign me up as a “host” (i.e. pre-assigned friend) to one of the incoming students way back in 1971 had a profound impact on my worldview. I had no thoughts about all that at the time, of course. I just had fun playing with Charles.

  5. I was a child of the 70’s/80’s and the only thing I was really”taken” by was the fact
    That they came by school bus “all the way” from Bridgeport , a city far away i had never been to. And I remember being excited they were here and having sleep overs at my house with the twin Brawley sisters. I also remember feeling like it was sort of an honor, that we were kind of ambassadors. That we should make efforts to be nice to them because they were a small group of strangers trying to make their way through our school. I went to Bedford and Coleytown and knew most everyone. I also remover being so proud of the accomplishments and opportunities of my PC classmates. I remember one kid flying through the WIMP math program in a week or so and it took me all semester. I didn’t recognize what it was then but I knew it was good.

  6. Ann Bacharach

    I remember those Board of Ed meetings. As a high schooler, it was my first introduction to the workings of government. I have to say that, despite the rancor then, I was impressed with the process. And I despite the rancor now, I still think government actions can make a positive difference in individual lives.

  7. Why is it that Assumption School is never mentioned in these Project Concern articles. Monsignor Donnelley, pastor at Assumption Church, aware of the controversy went directly to the powers to be in Bridgeport and started up Project Concern at Assumption School. I think that was in 1972 when my daughter was in 5th grade. The kids, about 5 per class, and an aide, Mrs. Davis, were bussed in from Bridgeport. She and her classmates welcomed with open arms the kids who came. She and some of her classmates maintain contact to this day with a couple of the Bridgeport kids. Let’s tell the WHOLE story, please. Let’s hear it for Monsignor Donnelly too please.

  8. I checked with my daughter who told me it was 1971, so allow me to correct the date it started at Assumption.

  9. Oh everybody is a historian! Project Concern may have started in the Westport Public Schools in 1971. However, in September of 1970, Project Concern began at Assumption School. Jeanie Bacharach was a third grader there and made a very fine connection with the Bridgeport youngsters, as did other Assumption families – sharing sleep overs, birthdays etc.
    Joan Schine, Board of Ed chair at the time, after a visit to Assumption School was encouraged and made strong efforts to have the public schools participate. Leadership- strong leadership by Joan Schine and Monsignor Donnelly made it happen to the benefit of ALL involved. I include myself, Jeanie’s mom as a beneficiary as well.

    I guess Project Concern planted a seed. A BETTER CHANCE is another flourishing root. Fantastic !

    Dolores Bacharach

  10. I was at that first Project Concern meeting at Burr Farms School. It wasn’t pretty. And the subsequent brouhaha over Joan Schine was downright disgraceful. But here’s the sequel. When we moved to Essex, my husband was on the phone with People’s Bank changing our accounts. When the transactions were completed, the woman asked him, “Are you the Mr. Potts who lived in Westport? Are you Amy and Abby’s dad?” Turned out she was Lisa, one of the Project Concern kids who stayed at our house a number of times with her Project Concern friend Anjetta. Bob asked her about Anjetta, who stayed overnight with us every Tuesday so she could go to Mrs. Whitely’s choir practice before school in the morning. She said, “Anjetta is now a vice president here at People’s Bank”.

  11. I was class of Staples ’66 as well but that time period befronted the nasty and ugly issue of busing that divided the country under Nixon. In addition, Westport had a more diverse population then. There were certainly some poor kids here then as seem missing today. I am still surprised at the reaction to this Project. I thought Westport was far more tolerate of miniorities and their education then neighboring towns? A sad blemish on the town’s progressive history. I wonder what would happen if they started busing 100 Black/Latino kids into Staples today?????????????????

    • Busing those kids in would be a great thing for everyone, CAS. Maybe that’ll happen in the future. We were gone from Westport when the furor over Project Concern erupted but our parents were still here. Mine were outraged at the recall attempt. My dad, Mr. Conservative, was revolted by the participation of several of his pals in that effort and thrilled and proud when Lou Nistico weighed in in support of Joan Schine and Project Concern, which apparently helped turn the recall tide.

      • And as I was reminded that busing does not work by private email from a commentator. My belief is the Staples students might benefit more from the interaction with minorities than those bused.

  12. Eric Buchroeder

    Those were tough times to be kids. And probably as tough to be parents. But we all survived. I think there were Westport parents who had killed themselves in the rat race to get their kids into a first-rate school system and could not process what the advantages were of exposing their children to members of “the other half.” It would have been interesting if they had tried to place Westport kids in the Bridgeport schools. Who would have volunteered for that duty? Clearly, Mrs. Schine and other progressives and their motives were misperceived by many at the time. History and retrospection tends to correct vision problems. Who would have thought that in 40 years we’d have a Democrat black president with Harvard and Columbia degrees who is being criticized by his Republican opponents as being an intellectual elitist?

    • Good point, Eric. We were much the Wonder Years in the mid-60’s although we had a African American classmate and running back that could tell you some stories about fitting into the vanilla society of Westport. Even today, the ABC kids will talk about difficulties integrating into the system. Yep, interesting criticism coming from the GOP considering that all candidates hold at least two degrees with the leaders holding three a piece. I guess it may have something to do with the color of our President’s skin being an elitist. Sad in this day.

  13. Another “historian” weighing in here. The “number of Westporters….who urged the town to follow Hartford’s lead” were actually a handful of women in the League of Women Voters. They were the ones who brought the whole idea to the community, in their usual methodical, grassroots and diligent way. If you’d like an account of who they were and how they did it, watch the video A League of Our Own: Women, Power & Politics in Westport at this link: http://vimeo.com/28252011
    If you don’t have time to watch all 43 minutes of it (although I’d love you to do so, as I directed and co-wrote it), go to 33:58 to see the segment on Project Concern.

  14. You can be sure if Project Concern was proposed today we’d have to listen to lengthy treatises on failed conservative economic theories and much hand wringing about “wealth transfers”… and that would be the non-offensive stuff.

    I have fond memories of my Coleytown classmates, Jason, Dorita and Angela and very much hope they are doing well.

  15. I was on the faculty of Staples in 1971 and remember clearly the effort to recall Joan Schine. It was not a gracious time in Westport. Of all the leaders who have occupied that position, none was as gentle and caring as Joan. I have always thought it was a disgrace to subject her to the level of vitriol she endured. I am proud to have been a part of the effort to defeat the recall and ensure the momentum of Project Concern.

  16. Dick Leonard

    In 1970,as a newly elected President of the Westport Education Association, I supported Joan Schine and vigorously opposed her recall much In 1970, as the newly elected President of the Wesport Education Association, I came out in loud opposition to the recall movement and offered strong support of Project Concern and Joan Schine much to the surprise and chagrin of the two thousand plus who had signed the recall petition in Westport. They thought the WEA and the Board could never and would never be on the same page. The Recall Committee called Joan Schine, Frank Graff and me an “unholy triumvirate.” With only 2 or 3 exceptions, nearly 500 teachers supported Project Concern even though their lives would be more difficult with the new children from Bridgeport. It was a wonderful program which worked quite well until state money dried up.
    Some 3 or 4 years later, after I had finished playing tennis at Longshore one Saturday morning, this woman came up to me and said:
    “Aren’t you Dick Leonard/”
    I said: “Yes.”
    And she responded: ” I want you to know that I was on the Recall Committee and we spent many hours trying to figure out how to scare you off. We eventually decided that we would never be successful in scaring you so we gave it up. Just thought you’d like to know.”
    That was perhaps the finest compliment I’ve ever received.

  17. I worked with Walt Melillo at Beach School. What ever happend to him?

  18. Dick Leonard

    As one can see, my typing skills as illustrated above are not as good as my thoughts but I guess you get the gist of my previous endeavor. BTW, Walt Melillo can be reached in Westport at 203 227 9181. We spoke today about “Concern.”.

    • The Dude Abides

      Walt was class of ’42 and good friends with a dear friend, Joey Karmanosky. Heck of an athlete in his time and from what Joey said,
      one helleva good guy.

      • Joey was right, Dude: Walt Melillo was and is a heck of a good guy. He lives on Hogan Trail in Saugatuck, a street that didn’t exist when the Melillos were our Saugatuck neighbors in the 50s and 60s. Terrific athlete at Staples — football and baseball; he got a tryout at the Polo Gropunds with the NY Giants (baseball) — whose name is on the Staples Wall of Fame for his exploits. Worked at Mitchell’s during school vacations when he wasn’t teaching at Saugatuck or Burr Farms. He made decent human beings of many of us, a truly major accomplishment..

  19. Jack Whittle

    I was in 4th grade at Burr Farms in 1972, Mrs. Glazer was my homeroom teacher but Mr Melilo was in the mix too. It seemed to me, then, that we simply had some kids that, sure, their skin was darker than mine, but mostly I just remember thinking they sure had a long bus ride. One of my best recess buddies in 4th grade was a guy named, improbably, Michael Jackson, who had that long bus ride. I think Dorita Bridges was in my class too, another member of the long bus ride club.

    The best thing about putting us all together at that age was the fact that RACE JUST DOESN’T SEEM TO MATTER at that age, you just see another boy, or girl, your age that you might play with.

    Dan – Don’t forget to give a shout out to Mr. Rudd, the best damn librarian, of any color, ever!

  20. I loved this program and have so many great memories of all the PC kids. I especially remember Leonard and Durwin – they were in my class with Mr. Melillo (and I think Mrs. Glazer was part of the mix, as Jack said).

    Leonard would walk on his hands with the attendance sheet to the office – it was very impressive. His sister Lisa and another girl Anjetta used to stay over at our house. We felt honored to have them stay with us.

    Durwin loved to make us all laugh – and they were both the “source” for NowLaters (cause for some reason we couldn’t find them in Westport).

    So happy that we got that opportunity to be with this group!

  21. Pamela Kinsey

    What a treat to see all of these names from the past….I was in grade 4 with Jack Whittle in Mrs. Glazer’s class and I echo exactly his sentiments. We were not the ones who felt the color of skin mattered. HOWEVER, I remember my Mother being very concerned…it was out of her comfort zone because it was an exposure she had never had. Fear is often of the unknown. I can’t tell you last names the way Amy and Jack can, but I remember Beverly…she was such a sweet young lady and I thoroughly enjoyed having her in our class. Many of the ‘Bridgeport kids’ added to our school programs and our lives were richer, even though we didn’t analyze it as such. Though I have not lived in Westport for many years, I use that experience now, every year, as a teaching opportunity with my own students about racial acceptance and how WE (children of the 60s and 70s) really did live through some of the remarkable growing pains…but for children, they are aren’t viewed as such, just (perhaps!) playground pains.
    Kudos to Joan Schine and the others who made the project happen.
    Westport should be proud of the fortitude and foresight required to bring this program into our community, when it obviously would have been easier for some had they not.
    Dan Woog…I would love a copy of the DVD if you are making them available.
    Pamela Hancock