[OPINION] Eve Potts: Another Former WHS Board Member Speaks Out

Among the many longtime Westporters — and Westport Historical Society volunteers — who are saddened, distressed and/or outraged by the recent decision of the newly rechristened Westport Museum for History & Culture to remove the Sheffer name from the exhibition gallery to accommodate a new donation, it’s hard to find one with a deeper, stronger connection than Eve Potts.

She joined the WHS board in the 1970s. Here are her thoughts on the changes at the downtown institution, whose own history dates back to 1889.

Eve writes: 

This is a sad, sad story. The present Westport Museum for History & Culture embarked on making a transformational change without the benefit of any knowledge of its own history.

Mollie Donovan was, like many other Westporters, a longtime Historical Society volunteer with an interest in the arts.

Unfortunately a huge vacuum, left by the deaths of an incredible number of faithful, knowledgeable unpaid volunteers like Barbara Raymond, Katie Chase, Susan Wynkoop, Mollie Donovan, Barbara Van Orden and Maggie Fesko, enabled a strategic plan to be put into place that changed the focus of the Society and decommissioned the period rooms, to make way for “museum quality programs and exhibits.”

And now, the announcement that the Sheffer Gallery will be erased and replaced by a name that is totally unknown to most Westporters: the Offutt Gallery.

I have been on the board of the Westport Historical Society since the late 1970s, when we used the home across the street as our headquarters and looked longingly at handsome Wheeler House, then occupied by the elderly Mrs. Avery.

At the time, Betty Sheffer (Ann Sheffer’s mother) and Shirley Land curated the costume collection. They spent many hours conserving and documenting the vintage materials.

The Sheffers, from the very start, were totally supportive, and financially available to help achieve the goals of the Historical Society (as well as every other non-profit organization in Westport).

Ann has always had a world-view vision, and a hands-on ability to bring together diverse factions to reach the goals we all were striving to meet. For Ann, Bill and her family to be handled in such a thoughtless and cavalier fashion by the present board is simply not in the tradition of the stated mission of the Westport Historical Society.

When Mrs. Avery died, I went over to Town Hall to check out the Probate Court records. I discovered that the house had been left to Christ & Holy Trinity Episcopal Church.

Along with Eleanor Street, Joan Dickinson, Barbara Elmer, Bob Gault, Peggy Henkle, Mollie Donovan, Fran Thomas, Barbara Van Orden and a group of other active unpaid volunteers, we worked with the church to put together a plan to purchase the house.

Our goal was $300,000. Through massive fundraising events — and the support of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, and the combined fundraising efforts of Jo Fuchs, Connie Anstett and many willing volunteers — we managed to come up with the funds, as well as the expertise to refurbish the house to its Victorian era splendor.

Wheeler House, on Avery Place.

In 1987 I wrote the book, “Westport…A Special Place,” with Howard Munce as its graphic designer. All of our efforts and expenses were totally without charge to the Society. In addition, we contributed all funds (well over $100,000) from that effort to the WHS, to support future publications to benefit the Society.

Those funds have supported the publication of a whole string of other important historical publications and videos. [NOTE: The Eve Potts Book Fund supported publication of my own book, “Staples High School: 120 Years of A+ Education.” — Dan Woog]

In 2014, with incredible support from then-president Dorothy Curran and the board, we mounted a very successful exhibit. “Cover Story” (in the Sheffer Gallery!) was admired by Fiona and  Andrew Bentley, along with thousands of visitors.

So intrigued were Andrew and Fiona with the artistic New Yorker history of Westport that Andrew got in touch with me. We collaborated on a book about the New Yorker covers.

The cover of Eve Potts and Andrew Bentley’s book.

Thanks to the vision of Ed Gerber, who was president at the time, the book — “The New Yorker in Westport” — was published without cost to the WHS, with funds from the Bentleys and from the Potts Book Fund.

All funds raised from the sale of that publication have gone directly to the Society’s regular yearly budget. They were desperately needed at that time for necessary repairs, including a roof, new furnace and lighting system. The book continues to sell well, and funds continue to go to the WHS annual budget.

It is pitiful to see how all the hard work of so many dedicated Westport volunteers over so many years has been totally disregarded in a determined effort to erase the past by the unwitting actions of the present Westport Museum hierarchy.

51 responses to “[OPINION] Eve Potts: Another Former WHS Board Member Speaks Out

  1. J.W. Kaempfer, Jr

    Good follow on, thank you, Joey

  2. I am curious to know of any response to these opinion pieces have been received.

  3. Kelly Marr Asbury

    Eleanor Street was my neighbor on Tamarac Road. (This has nothing to do with Trump… good grief). Unfortunately Westport has a history of erasing contributions… recently the Saugatuck Congregational church erased any mention of my mother who started the Nursery School there. My father, Douglas Marr was the Associate Pastor at the time under Gibson Daniels. No mention at all… of either of them anywhere. She was the Director for years. She got Huntington’s Disease and died on August 31, 1998. Nancy Gilbert Marr.

  4. Howard Matson

    The decision to rename and cast aside an honor well deserved by an integral contributor to the Society’s history is akin to the Westport Library’s board electing to warehouse and no longer display the “River of Names” wall.

  5. That ain’t hard………..and it’s just about complete thank God. Erasing the near debacle that was obama is precisely what 63 million AMERICANS voted for him to do.

    You people just can’t help yourselves can you? This informative article has zero to do with PRESIDENT TRUMP. Get over it – he won and the vile, lying, corrupt hag lost.

  6. Nancie Rinaldi

    I was very confused when I read the original article. My very first thought was “how could they rename the Sheffer Gallery which was named after original donors?” You can’t just erase the name of one family and replace it with another who just happens to be a more recent donor. Guess “you’re only as good as your last donation” and you can be erased at anytime. They say “buyer beware” but in this case it’s “donor beware”.

  7. I no longer live in Westport but I am saddened by all the changes the “new” regime has made to the WHS!

  8. Meredith Hutchison

    Bravo to Eve Potts and all those who worked so hard to establish & maintain the Westport Historical Society to make it the vibrant place that it is.
    History cannot be erased.
    Shame on the new stewards for their disregard of this piece of Westport History.

  9. I cannot fathom the blatant disregard for the history of our town and those who have been a part of it for generations that this ill-considered decision represents. I just read through the posts and am left with nothing but sadness and, unfortunately, a growing disdain for people I do not even know who made this choice. I can only imagine that the small gallery named after my mom, Mollie Donovan, is long since gone. People like my Mom, my aunt Eve Potts and their wonderful and dear friend Ann Sheffer (and so many others like them who have influenced my life) are knitted deeply into the fabric that make up this town. They are part of the reason why my wife and I decided to raise our family in Westport, making our kids the 3rd generation of Westporters. I want whoever made this decision to know that I speak on behalf of my entire and extended family that my mother is rolling in her grave. Shame on you all.

    • Thank you, Dan. You represent a generation behind Mom and all of us. When I was there last, your Mom’s legacy lived on. Cannot guarantee today.
      I have no clue what has driven the many changes. This last decision – to erase the Sheffers and replace with someone with whom we are not acquainted- is disturbing. Yes, I know it is a huge donation etc. Did anyone approach Ann Sheffer before going after this donation???
      All Best Dan,
      Pat Porio

    • As Mollie’s nephew–and Eve’s son–I second cousin Dan Donovan’s angry remarks and my mom’s statement. The actions of the new stewards of the WHS are a disgrace–and we know there’s even more outrage that hasn’t been made public. They should be ashamed at how they’re besmirching a Westport historical legacy they’re supposed to be honoring.

    • I have been thinking of your mom too. I have a photo of her hanging in my office at home. The photo in this article is so beautiful. I am happy I came to know her and work with her at WHS. It was my great good fortune to be involved with the Exhibits Committee when she was there. I do believe she would be so saddened by all of this.

    • I think of Mollie so very often. I still cook one of her recipes. She wasn’t trying to, but she taught me so much about volunteerism and aesthetics and a love of Westport History. I’ve read Eve’s books and marvel at how they both gave so much to town..Mollie lived across from me. I’m curious if there has been any response to this yet by the WHS? I bet they wish they handled it differently.

  10. Eric William Buchroeder SHS ‘70 BA MA JDE

    Having just viewed the names of numerous longtime, well known Westporters on the Museum of Haute Couture and Revisionist History’s website. I would think, in the immortal words of former Westporter Ricky Ricardo that they may “have some ‘splainin’ to do” as regards recent events in the museum’s history

  11. Carolanne Curry

    “what you sew, you shall reap”….
    Not to borrow from
    a familiar saying, BUT this is all I can say in light of the reaction to the decision to cast out the Sheffer name that means so much to all of us.
    Somebody made a big mistake.

  12. Where is the TOWN OF WESTPORT ON THIS!!! I have not read a single post from the administration!! Other than Jimmy izzo. Come on now. Chip Stephens, Jack Whittle, Jim Marpe, and everyone else that are ardent westpoters

    • Rich – Unfortunately all I can say is Eve Potts’ post here is a few years overdue (I remain very supportive and appreciative of her – and her “family’s” dismay here). The WHS lost my support – financially and otherwise – when their Board decided to change their name in 2017, and that was much more than a name change; it represented an “out with the old [literally] and in with the new” mindset, taking direction from consultants, wanting to keep up with other Historical Societies as they evolved (devolved, really) into the latest fad. And so they lost sight of their core values and mission: a historical society that honors the Town’s history and path, and those who made this Town great through their commitment of time and resources. Like Ann Scheffler. No disrespect to the new generous contributors, but the Board should never have dishonored past contributors to the WHS, surely there was another way to honor the recent donors.

      This isn’t a Town (municipal) thing as much as it’s a town (Westporters) thing. Become a member, show up at their Board meetings, and voice your displeasure. I wouldn’t even consider donating my historic Westport items to them at this point.

    • How about some response from the WHS or WMHC or whatever they decide to refer to themselves as?

  13. Gloria M. García

    After 35 yrs living in Westport, we moved to a place with warmer climate. It is with sadness I learned of the unfortunate changes. For years I worked with a dedicated group of volunteers for the WHS. Was there any NEED for the change?

  14. The history of Westport is all about the people who made the history. It is also about the people who donated time and money to see that the Historical Society would never have to write their own obituary. This act by a Board that seems to be disconnected from what makes history has degraded the Sheffer family which is the family that was instrumental in keeping the Historical Society a vibrant part of Westport.
    This travesty can’t be swept aside and must be corrected.

  15. William G Chase

    Eve Potts is a longtime, dedicated supporter of the, now, Westport Museum for History and Culture. However, I think she is mistaken in a number of her comments. I have been working as a volunteer in the Archives for over four years, starting after my late wife, Katie Chase, died. I have seen and see everyday the amount of work that is being done by volunteers, particularly in support of work done by previous volunteers. All of us take great pride in caring for the history and artifacts of the past. And I can say, emphatically, knowing my wife after of 40 years of marriage, that she would have been very pleased and supportive of the direction now taken by the society/museum. I suspect, also, that this would be true for a number of the women that Eve mentioned early in her lettter.

    No one at museum is forgetting the work performed by past volunteers. They are building on it. They are expanding the programs, putting artifacts on exhibit, letting visitors see our past in many perspectives.

    I think that if critics of the changes at the museum visited and looked at what is being done, they would be pleasantly surprised. A great deal of work and thought is being put into making the Westport Museum for History and Culture even a better place.

    • Linda Gramatky Smith

      Bill, you probably knew Katie better than I did, but I loved her very much and worked with her at the WHS, especially when she was president. But she did NOT “suffer fools gladly” and I absolutely don’t believe that that wonderful woman would have been behind this awful move to rename the Ralph & Betty Sheffer Gallery. Katie would have celebrated the current volunteers, as would all of us, but she wouldn’t have supported this terrible misjustice!! Not Katie, God rest her soul.

      • Carolyn Barton Scholl

        I have a huge problem with “rebranding” – costs money, time, erases legacy and often, as in this case, loses goodwill. This is a good example of it and many are asking “Why?”

  16. Ironic that the historical society is failing to remember its roots.

  17. As President of the Board of a large non-profit myself, I appreciate the importance of generating new donors for sustainability. But of all organizations, the Westport “””Historic””” Society should appreciate the importance of legacy and history. Eve Potts was also my neighbor and you could not find a more committed, self-sacrificing, contributing and stand-up Westporter- with an important point of view here. Thank you, once again, Eve.The Society needs to right this mistake and find a way to achieve their fund raising needs while still honoring the legacies of those who got them to where they are. (And thank you Dan, again, for your great forum.)

  18. As with so many things,the unexplainable is explained when you follow the money.

  19. Susan Hopkins

    The handling of this “transition” is a misguided travesty compounded by a blatant display of disrespect to all who have gone before. Shameful in every respect.

  20. I had missed the prior stories so simply want to request that this ignorant and insensitive decision to remove the Sheffer name must simply be reversed by those responsible. The Trustees must make it known publicly that their donation is not dependent upon the removal of the Sheffer name. Do the right thing. Mistakes can be corrected. Do it and do it now.

  21. Mary Cookman Schmerker

    I saw the first two posts this morning and was shaking my head in disbelief and had to think before adding my own response. Then our internet went down. tonight I have read all three posts and all the responses. It warms my heart to see so many familiar names speak up. I hope that reason and doing what is right prevail. A tree has a root system that holds it in place in storms and feeds the tree. Holding on to our roots and not forgetting how we got to where we are today is important for a person, a family, a town and a country. If we forget where we came from and how we got where we are today we are lost. I’ll be cheering you all on. Thank you Dan for keeping us all informed.

  22. Dan – I wrote the following to the Museum this morning, but wanted to share my thoughts for your readers as well as the town still processes this news after yesterday’s post.

    I was shocked and saddened to learn about the Sheffer Family name being removed from your facility. The Sheffer Family has been a core part of this town and that is something that cannot be erased. And still, the Westport Museum, an institution “dedicated to preserving, presenting and celebrating the history of Westport since its founding in 1889” is doing the exact opposite. You – the Executive Director, its Board, and even the Daniel E. Offutt, III Charitable Trust – are erasing the contributions of the past – not honoring them in your actions.  

    I understand the need to raise funds to improve your facility for future generations. Gifts of any size accomplish this – be them small or large. But to value one contribution from the Daniel E. Offutt, III Charitable Trust over previous ones is painful to observe. Just look at the words you use in your own press release:

    “We are thrilled to be able to name this significant cultural resource after Mr. Offutt who was a generous and active member in the local community. His interest and support has helped many cultural organizations here and around the nation,” says Ramin Ganeshram, Executive Director of Westport Museum. “I only wish Mr. Offutt were with us to see the value his good work will bring to this and surrounding communities.”

    How hurtful and upsetting this must be for the Sheffer Family to hear. Without batting an eye you dismiss the Sheffer’s financial contributions to your facility in 2002 (plus years of time, energy, and dedication to Westport’s history) to prioritize the latest and greatest.  

    Even look at your response to when Dan Woog asked for comment. Executive Director Ramin Ganeshram wrote:

    “Please find the official press release regarding the exciting opportunity to upgrade the Exhibition Hall in order to continue the Museum’s transformative path toward excellence in providing world class exhibits in the tradition of our award-winning ‘Remembered: The History of African Americans in Westport.’”  

    I do not fault you for wanting a better, more equipped, better funded facility – that should be celebrated. But I do fault the arrogance that is being shown in this process and the pain the Museum inflicts on those who have given much in the past. That is not a celebration of Westport’s history, but an insult to Westport’s past. I argue that Westport residents (past and present) deserve a clear and mindful response to this news – and have the right to hear about your Museum’s complete revaluation of its processes in accepting major gifts. The town needs a clear, coherent answer – so we can all learn from mistakes, our history, and improve in the future.

  23. I grew up in Wspt, and moved back here a few years ago for work reasons. Yes, the town has changed, some for the better some not. However, what should stay constant is preserving the history of the town and that includes the names of many who worked w/ the WHS- my parents included, Tony Lowe, long time member of the RTM and town moderator (’89-’95) and Colby (Judy) Lowe, a long time volunteer.
    Shocking to read about the changes and direction….but really, how can I be surprised…we only have to look to the recent reopening of the Westport Library and the blatant disregard for those patrons who helped support the library in years gone by!
    We should be embracing those local community members who dedicate their time to our beautiful town!!!! That, my friends, is a treasure!

  24. Dorothy Broadman

    Regarding the name change, is that not how it generally works? To attract new money, the new donor’s name replaces the past donor’s name? Or, are you saying that this process is unique to Westport? I thought it was common. If the Sheffer’s (close family friends for decades) wanted the name to be permanent, should they have set up periodic gifting throughout time? Don’t know what is in the period rooms or what type of museum exhibits are planned, so can’t comment on that change. There’s nothing surprising about old-timers objecting to changes. I’m an old-timer, and so if I were still in Westport, I’d probably be upset too, while knowing that new ideas, efforts to make improvements are inevitable. Hopefully these will be good ones.

    • Kate Mozier-Tichy

      It depends on the donation stipulation. Some museums have donations they cannot change based on an agreement 100 years old. See: https://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/05/arts/design/museums-grapple-with-onerous-restrictions-on-donations.html
      Keeping a donor’s name somewhere does not usually require multiple donations over time.

      Again, its great that they get new donors, but it just seems unusual to replace a name after only 17 years. Many organizations change names to celebrate both donors, thus you see hyphenated gallery names, etc.
      One person, on one of these conversations, said that he was involved at the time and mentioned the word “perpetuity”, in quotes. If that is the wording in the original donation agreement, then they could have legal problems on their hands.

      • Dorothy Broadman

        Certainly hope they checked the legal documents. I don’t know that museum donations are relevant here. But, it sounds like a major faux pas in not consulting Ann and Jon. My guess (only a guess) is that the foundation is giving a very large donation and wanted this, or perhaps their legal incorporation-related documents require something like it. I think Ann is rightly upset for having been overlooked, but having known Betty my whole life until her horribly premature death, I don’t think she would have cared. She was a role model among few for having great inherited wealth while remaining humble, understated, and incredibly generous (like her sister, Susan Malloy, also of Westport). She was a remarkable person.

  25. Eileen Wiseman

    Every organization is entitled to determine its own future and change, though people mostly don’t like it, is inevitable. I can’t speak to the merits of the re-branding and re-naming of WHS. But it is possible to create change AND to take care of your people. Paying attention to and including the people and families who have loved and supported your organization is Fundraising 101. It is central to your organization’s sustainability and to community goodwill. And when something as visible and personal as naming is at stake, communication and sensitivity are essential. I took over the Westport Arts Center in 2000, when community goodwill was at an all time low following the departure from The Greens Farms School. Rebuilding that rapport while establishing new relationships and new programs is not easy but worth every effort. And it’s the right thing to do. It may be too late to make amends with Ann and her family but it’s time for WHS (or WCHP) to come forward and acknowledge its missteps and demonstrate by its actions that they intend to do better by the people whose hard work, financial support, and devotion are central to its story.

  26. Bobbi Essagof

    Just awful but not surprised. I’ve only been here 30 but have seen enough poor behavior masked as futuristic improvement. Why couldn’t they at least kept the Original name and just added to it. Embarrassing and shameful. So sorry to hear this.

  27. Peter Gambaccini

    I’ve read all three stories on this topic and over 100 comments and all but one or two seem to be of the same mind. The crucial thing to note about that this matter, plus people’s experience with the library, is that it really could leave people having second thoughts about bequests to the town. I have long been thinking about endowing an appropriate tribute to my parents (who were on the library “wall”) but rather than make it in Westport, I may end up with something in New Haven, my father’s hometown.

  28. While not as personal or deeply
    hurtful as the present unfortunate
    issue, it seems that the town’s
    roots took another hit earlier this
    year with the Minute Man replaced
    by “The Flying W”

  29. This story just gets worse! The volunteers of unique non profits are so often the heart and soul of the place, and they are the institutional memory. Thank you for this history! This decision is begging for full throttle, immediate, heartfelt, sincere apology and honesty. Talk about bad Ju-ju😳

  30. Dorothy Broadman

    Thank-you for this information. I was wondering why people were getting spun up with so little information. But, that seems to be the theme of this time. I suppose you’re remaining anonymous for a good reason. Please tell the people working and volunteering at the museum that not everyone is having this reactive, negative response. All this ruckus led me to look at the website and I thought the work being done was very impressive. If Ann doesn’t want to talk with them, they could try to reach Jon to seek his input.

  31. As one of the unpaid workers on the original committee to purchase Wheeler House I am disconcerted by this article. Everyone who was associated with the campaign to purchase, restore, preserve, accumulate Westport’s treasure did so with the thought that those items and certainly the names of all who worked so hard to accomplish so much was certain that these this would be just what they were intended “history of Westport in the hands of the Westport Historical Society where they would be preserved.”

    Once history is removed it is gone.

    In most places I have lived if there were to be changes for various reasons,
    not just because preserving history is currently not considered chic, they
    have gathered donors, etc. to devise a plan agreeable to all.

    In many others new and more current historical structures have been
    purchased and restored to continue the chain of Historical Preservation for their town or city.

    I am dismayed that courtesy to those who were donors in one way or another
    has not been shown.

    I am in total agreement with Eve Potts who has unquestionably devoted her life to preserving history in Westport.

    My hope is that everyone involved and come together so Westport’s
    History can be preserved and the children of the future will enjoy going
    to Wheeler House to observe the history of the town and the third grade
    tours to various historic sites will continue well into the future.

    • Dorothy Broadman

      Can someone explain what history is gone? Have archives been destroyed? Which ones? Regarding the Sheffer name, if people haven’t seen it, the Board Chair responded and it’s posted on the museum website. Below is a link if anyone is interested. The FAQs on the website also address many of the concerns expressed here. It sounds like an effort was made to contact Ann by postal mail and email, but she didn’t respond. I’m guessing for some reason she didn’t receive them. Hopefully, now that it’s understood that the Board Chair did reach out to her, she and the museum can meet and come to an agreement. Really, this shouldn’t be difficult to resolve and people will just talk with each other. https://westporthistory.org/blog-post/chair-statement/?fbclid=IwAR3YJkvsB3BT_u3sqO-8buDGMmQkEalb6TIicHtpim7lmZsykDMI6ES0aQ8