Lillian Wald: The Sequel

Tuesday’s “06880” story on the Westport Library’s suffragist exhibit included some information about Lillian Wald. 

The Round Pond Road resident was revered nationally for addressing social ills like child labor and racial injustice. She worked tirelessly for immigrants’ rights, world peace and women’s full franchise. 

But there is much more to Lillian Wald’s story. Kathie Motes Bennewitz and Bob Weingarten fill in the blanks.

Lillian Wald was born in 1867 in Cincinnati. She graduated from high school at 15, and spent the next 6 years traveling around the globe. After moving to New York City she studied nursing, then entered the Women’s Medical College become a doctor.

In medical school she volunteered her services to the immigrants and poor on the Lower East Side. She became so engrossed in that care that she left medical school. In 1893 she organized the Henry Street Settlement and Visiting Nurse Service of New York. She found her calling.

Henry Street Settlement.

Wald was a dynamic organizer. She started with 10 nurses. By 1916, 250 nurses served 1,300 patients a day.

She worked out of 265 Henry Street, a 5-story walk-up, cold water building on the Lower East Side. Wald helped to educate those she served on health care and personal hygiene, and expanded to assist in housing, employment and education. In 1903 she persuaded President Theodore Roosevelt to create a Federal Children’s Bureau.

Lillian Wald

In later years, Wald was recognized for her efforts in nursing and as an author.

In 1970 she was inducted into the Hall of Fame for Great Americans through the dedicated effort of Aaron Rabinowitz — Ann Sheffer’s grandfather — who knew Wald from childhood, and in the 1930s had moved to Westport to be near her.

She had come to Westport in 1917, as a summer resident. When she retired, she moved full-time to the 1868 house on the pond across from Longshore. She enjoyed watching neighborhood youngsters skate there in winter.

The library exhibit focuses on her suffrage work. In 1914 Wald wrote::

Democracy brings people nearer together…. When women share equally with men the responsibility for righteousness in government and when their counsels on matters of public welfare are given the dignity the ballot bestows, there will follow a new sense of comradeship, a new sense of fellowship between men and women: woman win not be the unacknowledged power behind the throne—she will share the throne!

The suffrage movement in Connecticut.

In the 1910s Wald hosted suffrage events at the Settlement, and delivered addresses. On November 4, 1915, she fed supportive “watchers and pickets” at Lower East Side assembly districts as men voted on New York state’s suffrage amendment.

These polling sites, The New York Times reported, were lively with “constant cheers and cries of ‘Votes for the Women!’ from small boys in the street. Here and there an Italian voice chimed in ‘Vota for Women.’”

When she left New York for Westport, a stream of distinguished guests visited. Eleanor Roosevelt came several times, enjoying tea and staying at the home of Ruth Steinkraus on Compo Road South.

Lillian Wald’s House on the Pond.

In 1937, the First Lady visited for Wald’s 70th birthday. She wrote:

The neighbors in Westport got together and made a book for her, one of the most interesting books it has ever been my pleasure to see. Westport is the home of many artistic people, but this included the names of all her friends, even if their talent was only that of being able to love another fine human being.

They all signed their names, those who could draw, drew pictures, those who could write, wrote verses and prose, and I think that book will be for her a joy in many hours when she perhaps would not have the energy to take up any occupation, or even to look at anything new.

I was interested in the cover of this book, nicely worked in cross-stitch, but designed so that many of her daily interests were right there for you to pick out. Two little Scotties down in the corner; the ducks which waddle down to the pond and eat chunks of bread up near the house; the birds of peace.

Lillian Wald’s birthday book cover. It is owned by Ann Sheffer.

Wald is by far the most famous — but just one of many fascinating Westporters whose stories are told in the Westport Library exhibit. Click here to access the full gallery.

Lillian Wald’s house today.


12 responses to “Lillian Wald: The Sequel

  1. Bonnie Connolly

    What a great Westport connection. I skated on that pond all winter long (albeit a few years later than when she was there). I was good friends with Cookie Lawder, Daughter of Wally). I am pretty sure that was the same house Where they lived.

    • Bonnie , Indeed 4 Round Pond was my childhood home. And I remember skating on that pond until my toes were frozen!
      My father used to mention Lilian Wald from time to time but I was in grade school (with you!) and didn’t know her story. It was fun to read about her—Round Pond was one of my favorite homes growing up.

  2. Sarah Wunsch

    Great story. I too skated on that pond as a kid. Wish we had studied Lillian Wald’s connection to the town.

  3. Dan a fascinating story, thank you for the many unknown details. Too often those in our midst who do the most good remain unheralded until it is too late to thank them in person. Appreciation to you, too, for bringing us our several daily stories and photos — don’t you ever sleep? — during our isolation.

  4. Julie Shapiro

    Fascinating, so interesting.

    Dan, on another note – was thinking about those in need in Bridgeport (article about Mercy Learning Center) one of the items they need is toilet paper, which none of us can find. Perhaps you can suggest that the restaurants in Westport that are closed could donate their supply – that would be helpful

  5. This is what I remember about the Wald family: Her son, Harold Wald owned/operated a retail dress shop in town in the 1960’s called “The Babette Shop”(named after his wife). It was located next to “The Paint Bucket” and the Pickle Barrel luncheonette. They were close friends of my parents. Occasionally I’d overhear them remark in conversation about Harold’s incredible mom. Sadly, Harold developed heart trouble in 1968 and went to Houston for heart surgery performed by Dr. Michael Debakey, but did not survive. Babette continued to operate the shop for a couple more years, but it wasn’t the same without Harold, and it eventually closed in the 1970’s and Babette retired.

    • Scott, are you sure about that family connection? I don’t think Lillian Wald had any children.

      In any case, Dan it was fascinating to hear more about the Westport backstory here.

  6. Wendy Crowther

    Years ago, when doing research on something else, I happened upon a news story announcing that Lillian Wald had installed lights by her pond so that people could continue to skate after the sun went down. Imagine that happening today! What a loving, generous woman we had in our midst.

  7. Hi Dan, Is there any way to find out who signed Wald’s 70th birthday book?

  8. Mary Cookman Schmerker

    This is wonderful. A slice of history we did not know before. I used to skate on that pond in the 1950’s . I noted the connection to Ruth Steinkraus, hosting Mrs. Roosevelt. Thank you.