Last week, Staples Tuition Grants handed out over $300,000 in scholarships to more than 100 graduating seniors, and high school alums already in college.
It was a warm, wonderful evening — a celebration of very hard work by the recipients, as well as all who make the grants possible.
But the highlight may have been the keynote speech, by Dr. Albert Beasley.
Speaking without notes — and without missing a beat — the 90-plus-year-old retired pediatrician talked about the importance of STG, and what it means to him personally. One of the oldest named awards — initiated 45 years ago — honors his late wife and fellow pediatrician, Dr. Jean Beasley.
In his 65 years in Westport, Al Beasley has watched the town grow from a small artists’ colony, through the baby boom, into a suburb filled with businessmen and Wall Street executives.
But he has seen it all through a unique perspective, and with a background different from most people who live here. He shared some of that last week too, in his low-key but inspiring way.
Al’s grandfather, a Harvard-educated Boston attorney, helped found the NAACP. Al’s father also went to Harvard – and became a doctor. His mother graduated from Radcliffe. Those were proud accomplishments, in an era when educational opportunities for black men and women were limited.
Al’s parents wanted him to have a well-rounded education. He got one, at the Walden School and Columbia College. He married a high school friend, Jean. Both earned medical degrees – Al from New York University. Both became pediatricians.
As a captain in the Air Force during the Korean War – based in Houston — Al first experienced overt prejudice. But he persevered, and in 1953 the Beasleys moved to Westport. He wanted his children to experience the same freedom he’d found at the Walden School. The Beasleys rented a home on 11 acres, for $90 a month. They were one of only 5 or so black families in town.
They bought land from a fellow physician, Mal Beinfield. The Beasleys had trouble getting a mortgage – the banks’ excuse was “they did not like contemporary dwellings.” But Westport Bank & Trust Company president Einar Anderson said to the Beasleys’ request for $20,000: “There’s no problem. Let us know when you want it.”
In addition to his professional accomplishments – private practice as a pediatrician; co-founder of Willows Pediatrics; associate clinical professor of pediatrics at Yale School of Medicine, and an emeritus staff member at Norwalk Hospital – Al immersed himself in community work.
He was a pediatrician for the Intercommunity Camp; a member of the Selectman’s Committee for Youth and Human Services; a board of directors member for the United Way; member of the scholar selection committee of A Better Chance of Westport; trustee of Earthplace, where he organized the Green Earth series on health and the environment.
Al’s wife Jean died in 1973. Six years later he married Janet, a native of Berlin and a survivor of a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia.
Al says: “When Jean and I moved to Westport in 1953, it was a magical town. It opened its arms to us, welcomed us, and made us feel special.”
Al adds: “My birth certificate said ‘colored.’ Then the preferred term changed to ‘Negro.’ Later it was ‘black,’ then ‘African American.’ I am a man of color, but I like to be accepted for what I have to offer. The town has done exactly that.”
Looking back on his career, Al says,“I’m an activist. I tried to give my utmost to the community, and I think the community appreciates that. This is a wonderful town. I thank everyone who entrusted their most precious commodities – their infants, their children and their young people – to me.”
And we thank Dr. Al Beasley, this week’s Unsung — but Very Deserving — Longtime Hero.