David Royce — for years one of the most controversial private citizens in Westport, who made a career out of tweaking those in local government — died on Friday, 3 years after being diagnosed with leukemia. He was 82.
Nearly 30 years ago — just a few weeks after I began writing “Woog’s World” in the Westport News — I profiled David Royce. I was fascinated by his always-under-construction wood house on Main Street next to Willowbrook Cemetery, mostly hidden behind a monstrous cement wall. I wondered not only what was behind the gate — which hardly ever swung open for visitors — but what was behind the man who was always called a “gadfly.”
I was one of the few people to be admitted behind the wall. I discovered that he had built “an octagonal pool, a 39-foot swing and a birdhouse-like tree fort” in his back yard.
I learned that he’d bought his house — “for about $1,000” — 17 years earlier. It was in disrepair — it took a long time to fix up — and I wrote that that was one reason people didn’t like David Royce.
Another was that he was a “househusband” by choice. His wife’s income was the family’s sole means of support, and that meant he didn’t “fit the Westport mold.”
And, I said, a 3rd reason he was disliked was because
he makes waves. He’s a citizen activist who delights in pointing fingers at people when he thinks they have made, are making, or are about to make a mistake, and he doesn’t care whether they’re town officials, volunteer board members, teachers or neighbors.
I quoted his own, 4th reason, why people did not like David Royce: “I have a personality problem. When I get up to speak I sound like an insufferable, arrogant pain in the neck. Hell, I would never invite me over to dinner.”
Royce spoke equally forthrightly about his background. He applied to only one college — Harvard — “because I knew I was in.” He was acting brigadier general during the Korean War, and got into court-martial-worthy scrapes several times.
After the war he worked as an editorial cartoonist, and tried his hand at ballooning and several odd jobs. None took. “I’ve never had the knack of fitting in,” he told me.
His last real job was “feeding rats for American Cyanamid,” which he got by being a strikebreaker. “I’m not real employable,” he reiterated.
Royce discussed his citizen activism since moving to Westport in 1970. He got in a dispute with neighbors and Public Works over a dam on his property. Describing town government metaphorically, he said, “if they’re gong to fart around in my back yard, then I’m going to fart around in their back yard.”
In 1979, he ran for the Planning and Zoning Commission as a Republican. He finished last.
He was on both sides of town battles. He fought construction of Canal Street housing and lost, but helped drive the conversion of Bedford Elementary School to Town Hall.
He told me: “When you have somebody like me in town, a lot of people think before doing something, ‘What if Royce gets onto this issue?’ I’d like every town to have 10 of me.”
But, he added that day in 1987, he had no great love for Westport. “I don’t think there’s anything wonderful or terrible” about the town he’d already lived in for 17 years.
I think Westport is just another damn town. Once in a while my wife will say, “If they’re going to treat you this way, why don’t we move on to some other dumb town?”
I’ll say, “That’s the key: The other town would be just as dumb.” In fact, it would be worse, because it wouldn’t be broken in yet. It took half a dozen years before people in Westport believed I wouldn’t be bullied. If we moved to a new town, I’d have to do it all over again. It’s hard work.
Nearly 3 decades ago, I asked David Royce about the future of Westport. Needless to say, it was not good.
We’re too cheap to pay for good zoning, so we get what we pay for. If we truly wanted Westport to deteriorate at minimum speed, we’d hire a good staff so that that would happen. By having an unpaid P&Z, we take a 60-hour-a-week job and make it voluntary.
The result, he said, was the town “gets worse at a 10 times unnecessary pace.” He foresaw the empty space that became Winslow Park, as well as Birchwood Country Club, turning into “great cities of condos.”
But, Royce said, he might not be around to see it happen. “Even though I hate to train a new town, I’ll probably have to get out as soon as the kids are educated.”
That didn’t happen. David Royce stayed another 27 years — for the rest of his life, as it turned out.
And he mellowed. According to WestportNow.com, in 2008 he told an RTM meeting in Town Hall:
I was here before most of you and I’ll be here after most of you leave. I love Westport. In fact, the reason you are sitting here tonight instead of in a brick box by the river is because a long time ago I alone fought for the use of this former school instead of a new building as our Town Hall.
His wife Nina told WestportNow’s James Lomuscio that there may be a memorial service in that very place: “He had no religious affiliation. Town Hall was as close as he had to a religion.”