Remembering Ruth Bedford

An era has ended.

Ruth Bedford — the last surviving grandchild of Edward T. Bedford, who was a director of Standard Oil, the founder of the Westport Family Y and namesake of Bedford Middle School — died Saturday. She was 99.

Years ago, Ruth Bedford hosted this Westport Y event. She is shown with Lester Giegerich (left) and Dr. Malcolm Beinfield. (Photo courtesy of Westport Y)

Years ago, Ruth Bedford hosted this Westport Y event. She is shown with Lester Giegerich (left) and Dr. Malcolm Beinfield. (Photo courtesy of Westport Y)

Ruth died 2 days before the 90th annual meeting of the Y — the last to be held in the original Bedford Building. When the Y moves to Mahackeno in September, the downtown site will be replaced by a retail/residential complex called, fittingly, Bedford Square.

Ruth was also a longtime supporter of the Y. She was a trustee for many years, and at her death continued as a trustee emeriti. In her younger days, she was also an avid sailor and pilot.

According to the Y, Ruth volunteered with American Red Cross in World War II, and was stationed in England during bombings. 

Like her sister Lucie Briggs Cunningham Warren, Ruth was a major supporter of the Norwalk Hospital, and many other local charitable causes. 

Her sister died 2 years ago, at 104. Ruth’s niece, Lucie Cunningham McKinney, died last month, age 80.

When Ruth’s sister Lucie died in in 2012, “06880” posted these recollections from Charlie Taylor. In honor of the remarkable Bedford family, we publish it again:

I worked as a landscape gardener and laborer for Ruth Bedford and her father Fred (Edward T. Bedford’s son) on their Beachside Avenue estate from 1958 — when I was a Staples sophomore — until I graduated from college in 1965. What a great place to work!

Edward T. Bedford -- Ruth's grandfather -- built an enormous estate on Beachside Avenue.

Edward T. Bedford — Ruth’s grandfather — built an enormous estate on Beachside Avenue.

My dad had encouraged me to go to Nyala Farms to get a job at the dairy, as a 15-year-old. (NOTE:  The 52-acre farm, now bordered by Green’s Farms Road and the Sherwood Island Connector, had been owned since 1910 by the Bedford family. Fred Bedford named it after the beautiful “nyala” — antelope — he’d seen on safari in Africa.)

Louis Gordon — chief gardener and estate caretaker — intercepted me. He told me to report on Saturday “down on the Shore Road. I’ll put you to work on the Bedford Place.” I stayed for the next 6 summers.

It took up 17 acres, mostly on the Sound. I spent all day cutting the front and back yard of the house, with a 6-foot Locke mower. I started at $1.10 an hour, for an 8-hour day.

There was a greenhouse where we grew cut flowers for the main house, and a truck farm across the road. I was in charge of storing a year’s supply of coal to fire the furnace for the greenhouse. A truck came at the beginning of June, and dumped a small mountain of coal. It took me 6 days — 8 hours a day — to move the coal into the bin.

The main house included a big game trophy room, and models of hulls of 12-meter racing boats.

The Bedford estate (front view).

The Bedford estate (front view).

The dock went probably 120 feet into the Sound. A little house at the end received guests in bad weather. Stairs went down into the water, to ease passengers onto the dock and walkway that led to the expansive backyard and rear entrance to the main house.

Mr. Bedford kept a long, black Cadillac limo for trips to his homes in New York and Palm Beach.

The Bedford estate gardens.

The Bedford estate gardens.

Numerous car commercials were shot on the estate, especially the semicircular pea gravel driveway. Every Friday I raked all the tire tracks from the driveway, in preparation for the weekend. It was so long, the job took 4 hours. I also weeded the driveway.

One day I was clearing brush. Mr. Gordon was talking to the man who owned the property next door. It was J.C. Penney himself. We were never introduced.

My favorite times were Friday evenings, at quitting time. Mr. Gordon would ask if I had a date that night. If I did, he’d whip up a corsage of carnations or other flowers for my date. If I was staying home, he’d make up an arrangement for my mom.

When I was in college, Mr. Gordon occasionally let me take dates down to the dock, to swim. He told me to be very discreet, however. And I was.

Charlie Taylor, today.

Charlie Taylor, today.

Mr. Gordon sent me on some dangerous assignments, like 50 feet into huge old elm trees to prune, or onto chimneys at the main house to cut back ivy. But I gained confidence during those summers. I learned to work and give all-out effort. He accepted nothing less than the best. There were no slackers on the Bedford payroll.

He made me very proud of myself. When he chewed me out, I deserved it. More to the point, he explained why he was chewing me out, and the importance of doing a good job.

I owe Westport, and the Bedfords, a lot. Miss Ruth, if you read this, thanks for the week I caught poison ivy so bad that when I showed up for work with a face and fingers so swollen, you sent me home — but you still paid me my $80 for the week I missed. I learned a lot from you too, Miss Ruth. Thank you.

(Charlie Taylor is now a senior development officer at the Vanderbilt University School of Engineering. He’s also a long-time musician. To keep busy while mowing the Bedford lawn, he made up song lyrics. He later studied songwriting at UCLA, and worked with musicians like Gram Parsons, Billy Preston and others.)

6 responses to “Remembering Ruth Bedford

  1. Chip Stephens

    God rest her soul and thank God for her and her family’s love and support of Westport.
    As Westport as a community grows and relocates its treasured resources such as the Downtown Y (Bedford) and Weeks pavilion , The Old Library (Bedford), and relocates buildings as we did with Bedford Middle (Jr Hi) and Staples we MUST recognize the founders spirit and financial contributions when naming new resources and keep recognizing their legacy. Otherwise we fall into that political and corporate mind sense “What have you done for us today? and we may loose the financial and volunteer support that will shape tomorrow.
    We MUST continue to remember, thank and recognize all the individual and families of Westport past that helped build and mold Westport into the unique community we enjoy today.

    • Sad news to share, but thanks, Dan, and Charlie, for adding such meaningful context and appreciation. Rest assured, Chip, that our Y is more than proud to recognize Ruth and her family’s continuing support. Our new facility will be known as the Bedford Family Center (more background, here: http://blog.ctnews.com/westporty/2013/10/01/honoring-90-years-of-y-families/#9182101=0)
      And as you may know, our original Bedford Building is poised to begin a bright new life and legacy as Bedford Square, through the efforts of local developer David Waldman and his partners. By the way, after F.T. Bedford (Y founder Edward’s son and Ruth’s father) helped the Y buy its summer camp property in the 1940s, we named it Camp Bedford. But the next year, F.T. suggested another name, and Camp Mahackeno it became…

  2. Taylor, Charlie

    Dear Dan:
    I’m writing this note with tears in my eyes. This is the end of an era. I can only say Miss Ruth helped my life in so many ways. She was generous to a 15 year old boy and loyal in that she held my place open at the Bedford Estate from my 15th year to 21st year.

    My deepest condolences to her surviving family…What a life well lived. What an example of giving back to the community.

    I hope that Westport chooses to honor the Bedford Family by creating a Bedford Day in the family’s honor…After all they, almost more than any other family, helped shape Westport into the community that it is today. I am so proud to have known her and to have worked for her for so many years. She had such a zest for living and such a beautiful smile and laugh. Ruth was truly interested in those around her regardless of their position in society. Oh and she loved her dogs!

    God Bless you and rest you Miss Ruth. I hope to see you on the other side someday.

    Charlie

    Charles Taylor
    Director of Major Gifts
    Vanderbilt University
    School of Engineering
    Mailing address:
    PMB 401531
    Nashville, TN 37240-1531
    615-322-4732-office
    615-294-9624-cell
    615-343-2060-fax
    Charles.taylor@vanderbilt.edu

  3. Peter Gambaccini

    I had a summer job with Ms. Bedford as a landscaper and painter (I painted her garage and her pier) when I was in high school. Having learned on an “automatic” transmission in my Staples driver education course, I was taught how to drive a pick-up truck by Ruth Bedford, who then trusted me to keep it our family home overnight. She was the first generous and empathetic “boss” I ever had, and she had not a trace of pretentiousness. She was one of Westport’s giants.

  4. Jack Harder

    Ruth Bedford was a wonderful woman. I’ll miss the conversations we had about everything from horses to bird hunting in Scotland. Sitting with her for a 5pm Scotch and listening to stories was a real treat.

  5. Great story and great comments. RIP Ruth.