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[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.

Pics Of The Day #988

Seen at tonight’s 2nd annual First Light Festival, sponsored by the Westport Museum for History & Culture (formerly the Westport Historical Society) …

Face painting …

…. horse-drawn carriage rides …

… and a bonfire, tended by the Westport Fire Department. (Photos/Dan Woog)

 

Emergency! Celebrating 40 Years Of Westport Service

They’re always there when we need them.

We call 911. Within minutes, an ambulance appears. Along with police and fire personnel, EMTs — at least 2, often more — take over. Coolly, calmly, compassionately — and very efficiently — they assess the situation. They offer crucial care and reassurance.

It seems like Westport has always had an Emergency Medical Service.

We haven’t. Just 4 decades ago, the situation was very different.

Through the 1970s, Westport ambulances were a semi-private operation, contracted out by the town. Police assisted as first responders.

But the town was growing. Demands increased. The ambulance operators and police were all stretched thin.

Meanwhile, in the mid-1970s, the federal government began certifying Emergency Medical Technicians. Here — and around the country — volunteers took classes. In 1979, a small group incorporated Westport Volunteer Emergency Medical Service (WVEMS).

An ambulance was purchased. It was stationed in volunteers’ driveways.

Over the years, 2 organizations evolved. Residents don’t always understand the differences — particularly because their names are similar. Both are vital to our town.

Westport Emergency Services is a division of the Police Department. There are 7 paid staff members (including crew chiefs, and 4 paramedics). They handle schedules, training and maintenance of vehicles. Thanks to a contract with Norwalk Hospital, paramedics are on call 24/7.

In its early years, WVEMS responds to a call at an I-95 underpass.

Westport Volunteer Emergency Medical Services provides additional ambulance staffs and crew chiefs. They come from a pool of 100 volunteers: business executives, attorneys, housewives, retirees, students and more. All are certified EMTs.

Together, EMS and WVEMS answer 2,400 calls a year.

WVEMS also provides standby coverage for events like football games, road races and craft fairs. If there’s a big crowd, they’re on hand to help.

On call, at the Levitt Pavilion.

They offer educational programs for the public, like CPR and “Stop the Bleed.” And they sponsor a youth program. At 14, Westporters can be Emergency Medical Responders, helping out on ambulances. At 16 — following tons of training — they can become EMTs.

Many young EMTs have gone on to careers in medicine. They also gain important life skills, working side by side with adults on an equal basis.

Astonishingly, WVEMS also buys all the town vehicles — 3 ambulances and 2 support “fly cars” — as well as all equipment and supplies. That’s everything from stretchers for lifting patients automatically into the backs of ambulances and child immobilization devices, to band-aids and gauze pads.

Funding comes entirely from donations, via fundraisers and mailings.

Their appeals are low-key. But if you’d like to contribute — particularly if, like nearly everyone who lives or works in Westport, you’ve been  helped by WVEMS — click here.

An ambulance can cost $200,000. Equipping it adds another $150,000. “We like to have the best and most up-to-date apparatus,” notes WVEMS president Andrea Harman.

A “fly car” support vehicle.

The town provides the building for EMS and WVEMS headquarters (adjacent to the police station), and garages for the ambulances and fly cars.

In honor of this year’s 40th anniversary, WVEMS produced an oral history. Current and former volunteers — including those who were there at the beginning — trace the evolution of this vital service. (Click here to listen.) 

It’s fascinating. It’s also a story that few Westporters ever think about — certainly before a 911 call, and even afterward.

After 40 years, it’s time we give them their due.

(For more information on Westport Volunteer Emergency Medical Services, click here.)

 

 

 

Photo Challenge #259

The Unitarian Church is a Westport treasure — both spiritually and physically.

For well over half a century, the congregation has been at the forefront of many social justice battles. They’ve provided a home for folks of many faith traditions, and those with none at all.

Throughout that time, they’ve done it in a building that looks as beautiful and modern as the day it opened.

Set back in the woods — unnoticed from nearby Lyons Plains Road — its soaring sanctuary and large windows provide gorgeous, inspiring, ever-changing views of the world.

David Vita’s image of those woods in autumn — framed by church windows — was last week’s Photo Challenge (click here to see). Fred Cantor, Andrew Colabella, Molly Alger, Bill Barron, Stephen Axthelm, Rosalie Kaye, Seth Schachter, Annie Haskel, Richard Hyman, Jill Turner Odice, Carol Hanks, Luke Garvey, Peter R. Powell, Tom Risch, Bobbie Herman, Mari-Eleanor Martino, Susan Miller, Jo Ann Flaum, Jalna Jaeger and Stephanie Ehrman all knew exactly where those woods were.

At least some of those readers are not Unitarian Church members. But at some point, nearly every Westporter has found his or her way there — for a wedding, funeral, service, meeting or program.

If you haven’t been there yet: godspeed.

This week’s Photo Challenge is a tougher one. If you know — or think you know — where in Westport you’d find this, click “Comments” below.

(Photo/Jay Dirnberger)

McAlinden Succeeds Wieser At Homes With Hope

It’s not easy following in Jeff Wieser’s footsteps.

But Helen McAlinden seems like a home run.

Homes with Hope has selected the widely respected affordable and supportive advocate to serve as the organization’s next president and CEO.

For the past 35 years, Homes with Hope has addressed the needs and challenges of homeless families and individuals — and those at risk of becoming homeless.

Its services include case management; a food pantry and soup kitchen; emergency shelters for single adults and young women ages 18 to 24; permanent supportive housing; mentoring; youth education, and life skills training.

Wieser is retiring, after leading Homes with Hope through a period of enormous growth. McAlinden succeeds him on January 6.

She brings 17 years’ experience with The Connection, Connecticut’s largest social services provider.

Helen McAlinden

McAlinden’s most recent position was director of homeless outreach and development. She oversaw The Connection’s Supportive Housing Fairfield County program, HomeWorks, Milestone and the Women’s Recovery Support programs.

She is a frequent presenter at the state and national levels on issues related to affordable and supportive housing; a member of the Women and Children’s Legislative Workgroup, and an executive team member of Opening Doors of Fairfield County.

“Helen brings a strong passion to her work and has been a powerful advocate for the homeless throughout her career,” said Homes with Hope board chair John Walsh.

“We are confident that her energy, sensitivity and proven leadership working with people in need of supportive housing will strengthen and expand our network of partners and funders. I am impressed with Helen’s understanding of what makes Homes with Hope so special, and her deep commitment to addressing the challenges of homelessness.”

Now Streaming: 70 North

WWPT-FM was one of the first high school radio stations in the country.

Decades later, Staples again innovated — this time with an in-school TV show.

Now, our high school once again leads the pack.

Welcome to “70 North.”

With a soft launch last week, the site — named for the school’s physical address — became a clever, irreverent, YouTube-like destination for 1,900 students, scores of staff and faculty members, and anyone else in the world who wants to know what’s going on at that active, creative and very fertile campus.

It’s a work in progress. But what a work it is.

70 North marks the next step in the evolution of television. And whether that TV is based in a high school or broadcasts nationally doesn’t really matter, says media teacher Geno Heiter.

What counts is content. “70 North” has plenty of it. Sports, features, upcoming events, guidance and college news, humor, poetry, reviews, music department concerts, artwork — you name, it will find its way onto the site.

For over a decade, the school was served by “Good Morning Staples.” Devised by former instructors Jim Honeycutt and Mike Zito, and filmed, edited and hosted by students, the show aired 3 times a week, at 8:25 a.m. Every class watched — supposedly — an intriguing mélange of interviews, announcements, sports highlights and more.

It was fun, entertaining — and static.

The television landscape has changed a lot since “Good Morning Staples” marked a fresh way of providing information. Americans — particularly teenagers — no longer sit on a couch and watch a show at a predetermined time.

TV today is all about streaming. People watch on their terms, their schedule — and their devices.

70 North is television for the smartphone age.

A poster for one of the many episodes available from “70 North.”

Just as viewers no longer have to gather around a big screen, creators no longer lug around big (or even moderate-sized) cameras. Great video can be shot on phones everyone carries.

Thanks to TikTok, Snapchat and many other apps, students are used to telling visual stories. They have a different way of telling those stories too, than even people just a few years older.

“70 North” allows them to do just that. Yet it’s hard to describe, and still evolving.

Heiter says, “It’s a platform. It’s whatever they want it to be.”

Sam Gold — a crazily creative senior, and one of the driving forces behind 70 North — calls it “School updates that don’t suck.”

Max Dorsey, shooting a “70 North” show.

Heiter likens “70 North” to Netflix. “You choose what you want, from a lot of options. It’s not one video that’s forced on you.”

But it’s not the Wild West of the web. It’s still a schoolwide communication tool. It uses server space provided by the district. And it’s as educational as it is entertaining.

Geno Heiter (left) and Sam Gold, with “70 North” on the laptop.

Heiter says he’s still “teaching skills, teaching technical ability, teaching how to use sophisticated equipment, how to cover stories, how to engage and build an audience.”

But he’s doing it in a way that meets students — those who create 70 North, and those who watch it — exactly where they are.

Which, these days, is in front of a device. Not a TV screen. Accessible any time, anywhere, by anyone.

Once again, Staples High School is at the forefront.

Just as it will be in 2029, when a new, not-yet-invented form of communication supplants “70 North.”

(Click here for “70 North.” Then bookmark it!)

How To Help This Holiday Season

‘Tis the season to be jolly.

And to help those whose holidays may otherwise be less than joyful.

Eileen Daignault — director of Westport’s Department of Human Services — offers these ideas:

You and your family can ring the Salvation Army bell, December 14 at the Westport or Fairfield Stop & Shop. This date and these locations directly benefit Westport residents in need. To help, click here.

You can also deliver a meal to homebound residents on Christmas or New Year’s Day.

Brighten someone’s day by delivering a Christmas or New Year’s Day meal.

Volunteers meet at the Sherwood Diner mid-morning to pick up their food and route. They head to the home of the resident, knock on the door and offer the meal. Some residents even invite you in for a few minutes.

Volunteers deliver 1 to 4 meals. Families and friends can deliver together. To help out on one or both days, click here. For more information, email kmalagise@westportct.gov.

Human Services’ Holiday Giving Program is also in full swing. Last year, 412 people — including 229 children — were helped by this effort. To purchase gifts or gift cards, or donate cash, click here, then scroll down). For more information, contact sstefenson@westportct.gov.


Meanwhile, Westporter Joel Treisman and his daughters have initiated a winter clothing drive. They are collecting new and gently used adult winter gloves, hats and scarves for the Gillespie Center. Overflow items will go to nearby shelters.

Collection bins have been placed at Westport F-45 Team Training, 222 Post Road West (5:15 a.m. to 11 a.m., 3:30 p.m. to 8 p.m.); Steven Mancini Salon, 180 Post Road East (business hours, Tuesday through Friday) and JoyRide Cycling, 1200 Post Road East (weekday and and weekend mornings; weekday evenings).

Joel Treisman, JoyRide’s Michaela Conlon, and a collection bin.

For Serkan Elden’s 50th Birthday, A Special Gift

Like many Westport parents, Serkan and Nesko Elden have supported the sports their children, Efe and Deniz, played while growing up here.

Sports, nutrition, wellness and business are all important parts of the couple’s background.

Nesko is a high-level athlete who has her own coaching and consulting business. Serkan works in international finance, and teaches university courses.

Serkan, Deniz, Nesko and Efe Elden.

Serkan’s father Ahmet followed his dream of becoming a national athlete and physical education teacher in his native Turkey, inspired by the nation’s leader, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who said “healthy minds will only exist in a physically fit young generation.”

For 35 years, Ahmet and his wife Ozgun taught thousands of youngsters. Serkan and his sibling, Sibel, saw the importance of their parents’ work.

On Saturday — in honor of Serkan’s 50th birthday — his family and friends launched the Ahmet-Ozgyn Elden Scholarship for Raising Student Athletes.” It will help student-athletes in his native country pursue their dreams.

The day had another, equally special meaning: It was Teachers’ Day in Turkey.

Donations can be made to the Mohonk Foundation; put “Elden Athletic Students Scholarships” on the memo line, and send to Serkan Alan Elden, Mohonk, 66 Weston Road, Westport, CT 06880. For more information, call 203-451 4727 or email info@capitalinka.com.

100 Cows

Alert “06880” reader Robin Moyer Chung is the editor/writer for Westport Lifestyle magazine, and a lyricist, book writer and blogger. Her musical, “The Top Job,” is produced around the world.

She and her family recently had a profound adventure. She writes:

Crossing Thresholds is an organization that works with local leaders to create 3 schools in the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya, and a high school north of the city. They also organize trips to educate volunteers, who build and maintain these schools and interact with the students.

A school in Kibera.

I was ambivalent about writing about our trip. I knew people might accuse me of virtue-signaling, slum tourism, or voluntourism. But I’m okay with that. Call it whatever you’d like, just please keep reading. These are stories that need to be told no matter how we label them.

My only real hesitation was traveling halfway around the world for philanthropic purposes instead of focusing on vicinal needs. But a story about the Masai tribe reminded me that we’re all citizens of the world, and geography should not dictate our charity.

Robin Chung, reaching out in Kibera.

Kibera is roughly the size of Central Park, yet home to an estimated 800,000 to 1.5 million disenfranchised nationals. The government doesn’t “recognize” this rancid bit of land: they provide no electricity, water, sewage or police protection for residents.

Watching my children follow an armed guard down an uneven alley, cautiously stepping over rivulets of trash and sewage, brought the inhumane conditions into sharp focus. I thought images in movies and magazines had inured me to slums; I was wrong. The real brutality of poverty is a slap in the face.

Kibera, Kenya.

Yet within these hellish few miles, punctured with disappointment, clogged with desperation for survival, flickers an inexplicable hope. What tinders this hope is beyond Western reason. But there it is.

As a group we painted classrooms, scrubbed floors, carried firewall bricks, managed art projects, taught students games, and surrounded ourselves with dozens of children who craved our attention and affection. Every evening we returned to the hotel spent, hot and dusty.

Connecting halfway across the world: Robin’s son True.

Visiting a home in which these children live is an important part of the trip, to understand how poverty informs their lives and development. My oldest son requested that, after the visit, I not deliver a parental soliloquy about how lucky we are relative to these Kenyans. How he intuited my plan, I have no idea. But I relented.

This home is the size of 2 parking spots, typical for families of 7 or more. We crammed in. The renter, a woman, held her infant and told us she has 3 more children, but no husband.

Her home was full, with only a sofa nailed from wood planks, a chipped coffee table, and one mattress. Thin floral sheets hung from the ceiling and covered the sofa, masking the rusting metal walls and cheap wood.

Her “kitchen” was a brazier, a pot, and a few plastic dishes on a shelf. When she has money she makes gruel of flour. water and maybe a few vegetables. When she doesn’t have money, they don’t eat.

The dusty town.

It’s not unusual for a single mother to pour alcohol into her baby’s bottle so they sleep all day. Then the mother leaves home to find day work. If she works she can buy food; they may both survive. If she doesn’t, mother and child starve. Statistically, girls sell their bodies at age 14 to earn money.

We left the home quietly, shaken by her life and surroundings. No motherly monologue necessary.

But like I said, they have hope. They believe, despite living among dunes of rotting trash, that life will uptick. Even in the filthiest reaches of the slum, residents keep their clothes clean and fix their hair. They smile, greet us with Christian blessings and name their children Grace, Joy, and Sunshine.

Robin’s son Ty, and friends.

Slum residents are primarily descendants of Kenya’s many tribes. One of the largest is the Masai. Carter related a story of his friend Shani Yusef, a tribe elder:

Masai are famously resistant to modernization. Many live on earth too worn to yield significant vegetation. They work hard, beading jewelry and carving sculpture for tourists while raising herds of thin cows which are their currency.

Given their scant finances and isolation, Shani is one of the few Masai who has access to international news. On September 11, 2001, he was horrified to learn of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York City, a place he had only read about.

Shani gathered the Masai elders. After a few days of meetings, to help the people in a city few of them had heard of and none of them had seen, they decided to donate 100 of their cows, or roughly 30% of their wealth.

One hundred cows.

Hail To The Wreckers

Once again, Staples High School’s sports teams had a banner fall.

Field hockey — with another FCIAC championship trophy in hand — shoots for a remarkable 4th straight championship this Saturday. They face archrival Darien at Wethersfield High School, at 2 p.m.

Julia DiConza, Staples field hockey player. (Photo courtesy of John Nash for The Ruden Report)

Girls soccer — straight off its own FCIAC title — lost a 1-0 heartbreaker to Glastonbury on Tuesday, in the state semifinals. It was the only defeat of the year for the Wreckers, and only the 8th goal scored on them all year.

Boys cross country capped off its astonishing dual meet season — they’re now at 110 consecutive victories — with their 4th straight FCIAC crown. The runners then placed 2nd at the state LL (extra large schools) meet, 5th in the state open, and 6th at the New England championship.

Boys soccer stunned Glastonbury — top-ranked, two-time defending Connecticut champs, unscored on in state tournament play since 2016 — with 2 goals in the final 7 minutes to win 3-2, then tied Trumbull in the last 6 minutes before falling on penalty kicks in the state quarterfinals.

The girls swim and dive team placed 3rd in the state LL tournament.

Girls cross country and volleyball, and boys water polo, all had successful seasons too. Football battled adversity all year long, and looks to finish strongly on Thanksgiving Day against Greenwich.

Congratulations to all the Wrecker teams.

That’s right: They’re Wreckers.

Not Wreckers and “Lady Wreckers.”

That antiquated name still hangs around, even in 2019.

Despite 47 years of Title IX.

And even though it makes no sense.

What is a “Lady Wrecker”? We don’t call the boys teams “Gentleman Wreckers.”

“Lady Wreckers” is condescending. It’s demeaning. It’s wrong.

Most media outlets realize how strong and powerful female athletes are. They know girls train and compete as hard as boys. They’ve gotten rid of “Lady” Wreckers, just as the athletic world has tossed out hoop skirts for basketball players, and added girls to rosters in sports like football and wrestling.

But the term still pops up, from time to time. It’s even on a mural in the hallway near the girls’ locker room. It’s time to retire it, forever.

The “Lady Wreckers” mural, in the hallway outside the girls’ locker room.

Meanwhile, I hear you asking: What exactly is a “Wrecker”?

The nickname dates to the 1930s. In the last game of the year, the team played undefeated Norwalk High. Staples won — “wrecking” their season.

Some people don’t like it.

I do. There’s only one other Staples High School in America — it’s actually called Staples-Motley, and it’s in north-central Minnesota* — but I’m pretty positive there is no other team in the world named the Wreckers.

The problem comes with a mascot. What is a Wrecker? A tow truck? How un-Westport-y

Instead, decades ago, Tom Wall– a Staples grad who was coaching part-time — created a fierce-looking guy, in a hard hat. In later versions he carried a crowbar and hammer.

The mascot was painted on the gym floor, plastered on walls and decals, and even showed up as a foam rubber mask worn by a student at football games. (He left out in the rain one day, and it turned into a gloppy mess.)

The Staples Wrecker, by the door to the fitness center.

Recently, Inklings — the Staples newspaper — ran a pair of opinion pieces. The topic: “Should the Wreckers’ Mascot Be Gender-Neutral?”

Rachel Suggs argued yes. A male mascot excludes females, she wrote. She noted that professional sports teams like the Cleveland Indians and Atlanta Braves are modifying their branding to be more inclusive, adding that only 6 other FCIAC teams have mascots with a male image.

No, countered Remy Teltser. The mascot is our tradition — and a caricature — she said. As a female athlete, she never perceived the Wrecker negatively. In fact, she added, some girls teams embrace the term “Lady Wreckers.”

If you think Remy’s opinion is an outlier in this era of equal rights, think again. 450 students responded to an Inklings survey about changing to a gender-neutral logo.

18% voted to switch. 82% said to keep it.

This is not the first time the question has come up. Every so often, someone suggests going back to the informal nickname of the team, one used before “Wreckers” and occasionally since then.

In a nod to our town symbol and historic past, Staples could be called the Minutemen.

Or, if you prefer, Minutepeople.

*The Staples-Motley teams are the Cardinals. Bor-ing.