Friday Flashback #308

The other day, Ronnie Presha posted some very interesting memories on Facebook.

They provide a fascinating look at Westport in the late 1960s and early ’70s, as seen through the eyes of a Black teenager in a neighboring town. Ronnie writes:

I was raised in Norwalk. But in my teens, I succumbed to the lure of Westport.

As a Black “spade” hippie, Westport had so much of what I believe contributed to my progressive liberal views that I still hold dear.

When I was 16 in 1966, my lifelong friend Rudy Costa would pick me up on Saturdays to stand with other progressive youth and adults along Route 1 in Westport, to protest the Viet Nam war at weekly peace vigils.

In addition to weekly peace vigils on the Post Road bridge, there were larger rallies against the Vietnam War. This is a portion of the crowd near the Fine Arts Theater (now Barnes & Noble).  (Photo/Adrian Hlynka)

It was there that I met a group of kids who became my first Westport friends. They belonged to a social club called NEYO ( National Ethical Youth Organization). Their parents let them have weekly meetings in their homes. Rudy and I became popular members.

Westport had all sorts of activities for its youth. There was a coffee shop in a church, where local folk singers and poets performed. There were all manner of activities at Staples High School: concerts, films and sporting events.

Kids were given a wide berth by their very liberal parents. Sometimes, they were more liberal than I was accustomed to. Westport was the first place where I ever heard kids curse around or even at their parents with reckless abandon. I was 24 before my mother ever heard a curse roll off my lips, and that didn’t go over well.

These kids, predominantly white, all had long hair, and wore bell bottoms, paisley, moccasins and beads. Those who had religion belonged to the Unitarian Church.

Not far from the Post Road Bridge, teenagers hung out at the park by the Westport Library (now a concrete plaza at 1 Main Street).

One of my friends, Leigh Sobel, was friends with a local band that was looking for a singer and a sax player. Rudy played sax and I fancied myself a singer. I became one of 3 lead singers in this dynamite band.

The band included 15-year-old phenom Charlie Karp. He went on to play with Buddy Miles and Jimi Hendrix. Those were amazing days.

Managed by WICC program manager Mike Fass, the Soul Purpose played songs by James Brown, Sam & Dave, Otis Redding and other Black artists. They gained plenty of regional recognition. In Westport, they opened for the Rascals and Sly & the Family Stone. Sly was not yet well known, but through word of mouth the auditorium was packed.

Ronnie Presha posted this Woodstock-era photo on social media.

Ronnie wrote much more, about his later years in music. But for a while, he and his Norwalk friend Rudy provided Westport with a welcome beyond our borders — and a wonderful way to “dance to the music.”

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Ronnie Presha and his wife, in Norwalk’s Cranbury Park. They were not yet a couple. He was 19, she was 15. They eventually got together. Fifty years later, they remain happily married.

Ronnie Presha and his wife Karen, today.

15 responses to “Friday Flashback #308

  1. Fascinating story! And I loved the shout-out to the Unitarians. Still going as a liberal congregation.

  2. Jack Backiel

    Great story…Unitarians are also recognized for putting their last names when they post a comment.

  3. Dick Wingate

    Great story and photos!

  4. 50th anniversary congratulations to Ronnie and Karen! Oh, the FAB 70s! It was a wonderful time to raise my children (1965, 1968, 1970), when every women’s club and social service organization board had conscious-raising sessions with a ‘facilitator” – we wanted to make a difference in a ‘pluralistic’ society – serious stuff. My children in their 50s are still continuing the legacy of the 70s!

  5. I love these articles of personal experience in Westport of the past,

  6. Robert M Gerrity

    50 years! And Younger Than Springtime, it seems. Congrats!

  7. Cristina Negrin

    I remember hanging out with Ronnie and Rudy and others all together! Great story! Thanks!

  8. Laurie crouse

    I remember too! Is Charlie snacks her neighbor I was at a lot of those band practices. It would be great to get together and catch up on all times. I think I see a Korbel in one of those pictures above!

  9. Laurie Crouse

    I wish I could correct the typos above that spell check created from my phone. I meant to say “ as Charlie’s next door neighbor” and “I think I see Eddie Korbel “ And “catch up on old times” Hope this sends as written!!

  10. Linda Pomerantz Novis

    Great story!…Truly captures Westport,during some turbulent times..

  11. Very interesting times, indeed! And just a note on NEYO (National Ethical Youth Organization) and liberal religions in Westport – this NEYO chapter was the youth group for the Southern CT Ethical Culture Society, the local affiliate of a national Humanist organization called the American Ethical Union. The SCES held their meetings on Sunday mornings at Burr Farms School and my mother, Betty Sobel, was one of the founders of this chapter. AEU is very similar to UU in their basic orientation but with virtually no trappings of religion. NEYO was a magnet for progressive thinking kids in town…usually the offspring of liberal parents but not always the case. Though Westport had an active and vocal liberal element in the mid 60’s we were quite the minority so it was wonderful to find kindred spirits.

  12. Jack Whittle

    Great story, accompanied by photos from the time as well as present day – love that. And Charlie Karp sure could play!

    One thing from a kid who grew up in Westport from the early 70s forward – myself and all my friends were given a very wide berth by our parents, but that was not confined to just those kids with liberal parents (I wouldn’t identify any of my childhood friends’ parents as liberal, actually). I think there was just trust that we would be okay, and would learn best by making our own choices.

  13. There must be some sort of fountain of youth hidden in the area. First you got Ted and Carol Diamond, living to 105 and 100, respectively. Then you have Ronnie and Carol Presha. They’ve been married 50 years but look like they’re in their 40s. What’s going on? How come I missed out?

  14. Heartwarming story. Thank you for sharing. And happy anniversary!!