Category Archives: History

Calling All Veterans!

Like a true veteran, Ted Diamond keeps serving.

He’s 100 years old. He’s a former Memorial Day parade grand marshal.

And he wants to make sure that every vet — particularly those who, like he, served in World War II — get a chance to participate in the event.

For the past 10 years, he has arranged transportation in the parade. Once again, he’s made sure there are a few cars available, for vets to ride in.

Any veterans wishing to participate next Monday should call Ted (203-227-7680), or e-mail him: tdiamon2@optonline.net.

As for the rest of us: We’ll line the route, waving and giving our thanks.

Ted Diamond, at last year’s Memorial Day ceremony.

 

Larry Aasen Leads Memorial Day Parade

“This is incredible. I’m 95. At my age, you don’t get many awards.”

That’s Larry Aasen’s reaction to being named grand marshal of the 2018 Memorial Day parade.

The World War II airborne sergeant — and 55-year Westport resident — will ride the route from Riverside Avenue down the Post Road, and up Myrtle Avenue to Veterans Green, on Monday, May 28. There, he’ll give the keynote address.

Aasen — and many other Westporters — hope the 3rd time’s the charm. The 2 previous Memorial Day parades have been canceled due to weather. The grand marshals delivered their addresses in the Town Hall auditorium.

Larry Aasen, at last year’s Memorial Day parade.

Aasen has a lot to talk about.

He was born in a log cabin in the middle of a North Dakota snowstorm. There was no electricity, running water, central heating — not even a bathroom.

Aasen rose to sergeant in the 13th Airborne. After training in North Carolina, he was sent to France. His division had 20-person gliders, with no protection. The mission was to drop behind enemy lines, and destroy anything of value. Gliders had a 70% casualty rate, Aasen says.

His job was cryptographer, encoding and decoding secret messages. He had a security clearance from the FBI.

After his discharge in 1946, Aasen earned a journalism degree from the University of North Dakota. He headed east, for a master’s at Boston University.

Aasen moved to New York, “to seek my fortune.” He spent 14 years with New York Life Insurance, rising to vice president of public relations, then 20 years with the Better Vision Institute on campaigns urging Americans to get their eyes checked. Aasen worked with Bob Hope, Muhammad Ali and other celebrities on those projects. (He’s also met 6 US presidents.)

When they posed for this photo, President Obama said to Larry Aasen, “let’s put the rose (Martha Aasen) between 2 thorns.”

In 1963, he, his wife Martha and their young children moved to Westport. “We needed more room than a New York apartment,” he explains. “There were a lot of media people here, and they loved it.”

He and Martha live in the same Ellery Lane house they bought over half a century ago. He calls it “the best investment we ever made.”

Aasen served 17 years on the Representative Town Meeting (RTM). His other volunteer activities include the Democratic Town Committee, Y’s Men, Rotary Club and Saugatuck Congregational Church.

Larry and Martha Aasen have not missed a Memorial Day parade in 54 years. This year, he’ll have a special role in it.

A well-deserved honor for one of Westport’s favorite 95-year-olds.

Westport’s African American History: Long Overlooked, At Last Remembered

The history of Westport was written by white men and women. This was — and continues to be — a predominantly white town.

But African Americans have a long history here.

From 1742 to 1822 the logbook of Greens Farms Congregational Church recorded the births, deaths, marriages and baptisms of nearly 300 black Westporters.

More than 240 were slaves. Their forced labor helped build our town’s prosperous farms and shipping businesses.

They fought in the Revolutionary War — on both sides. Some hoped for freedom in return for their service. Others departed with the British at war’s end.

Connecticut struggled with its place in the slave trade. It banned the importation of enslaved people, and very gradually — from 1784 to 1848 — abolished slavery.

Newly freed African Americans searched for a place in the community. Henry Munro — the first black landholder in Westport — built a house on Cross Highway in 1806. His family lived there for nearly 100 years — and the dwelling still stands.

The Munro house at 108 Cross Highway, today.

Others found work only a step above what they endured as slaves. They were laborers, domestic servants and farmhands. Some suffered from assault, false imprisonment, arson and murder.

But they persevered. They became educators, freedom fighters, artists, patriots and respected citizens.

Their stories are not well known. Later this month, the Westport Historical Society finally shines a light on the lives and contributions of these overlooked Westporters.

“Remembered: The History of African Americans in Westport” opens May 11. It’s an opportunity to rectify the myths about our town, state and New England, says WHS executive director Ramin Ganeshram. She hopes visitors will leave enlightened, and eager to learn more.

The interactive exhibit — created by Broadway set designer Jordan Janota — includes objects and artifacts from the 1700s through the civil rights era. There are slave documents; details about 22 1/2 Main Street, the alley boardinghouse for black families that mysteriously burned to the ground around 1950; material relating to Rev. Martin Luther King’s 1964 visit to Westport, and original artwork by Tracy Sugarman, an important figure during the Freedom Summer.

This newspaper clipping from 1964 — part of the Westport Historical Society exhibit — shows Rev. Martin Luther King at Temple Israel. He’s flanked by Rabbi Byron T. Rubenstein (left) and congregation president Dan Rodgers.

TEAM Westport — the town’s multicultural commission — partnered with WHS throughout the research, planning and installation of the exhibit.

“The generally accepted narrative is that the history and legacy of African Americans in Westport span the range of little to none,” says TEAM Westport chair Harold Bailey.

“This exhibit turns that narrative on its head. For the town of Westport, it adds profound dimensions to where we’ve been, who we are, and where we can go in the future.”

A corollary exhibit — entitled “Rights for All?” — explores the effect of Connecticut’s 1818 constitution on emancipation, enfranchisement and civil liberties.

Judson’s store stood near today’s Beachside Avenue. This 1801 ledger entry — part of the WHS exhibit — gives credit to a free African American man. Many African Americans in the area were still slaves.

National attention has focused recently on important new institutions, like the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the just-opened memorial in Montgomery, Alabama dedicated to thousands of lynching victims.

Soon — in our own way — Westport joins those efforts. It’s an exhibit that everyone in town should  — no, must — see.

(“Remembered: The History of African Americans in Westport” opens with a free reception on Friday, May 11, from 5 to 7 p.m.)

Staples, Ludlowe Meet In Lacrosse: Rivalry Dates Back 365 Years

In 1653, Roger Ludlow* — one of the founders of both the colony of Connecticut and the town of Fairfield — accused Mary Staples of being a witch.

Roger Ludlow

Staples was Ludlow’s neighbor. Her husband Thomas sued Ludlow for slander. Ludlow was fined 15 pounds.

Mary Staples was the great-great-great-grandmother of Horace Staples. 231 years later, he founded Westport’s high school.

Ludlow was the namesake of Fairfield’s first high school, and a middle school.

This Saturday at 7 p.m., Fairfield Ludlowe High School hosts Staples High in a boys lacrosse game. The winner will receive a witch’s broom, commemorating the rivalry between the high schools and their famous ancestors.

Who will win? No one knows. But it should be a great game. The Wreckers are 9-2; the Falcons are 7-2.

Yet one thing is certain: When they first met in 1653, Mary Staples trounced Roger Ludlow.

*It’s unclear from his signature whether he spelled his last name with or without an “e.” Both schools named after him include the letter; most historical references do not.

This is a witch — not Mary Staples. She was acquitted of the charge.

Westport’s History, In 100 Objects

The Westport Historical Society has a history of mounting fascinating exhibits.

Subjects have ranged from Saugatuck and famous artists to rock ‘n’ roll and our town 50 years from now.

But while the Sheffer Gallery in the back pulses with life, the front of 223-year-old Wheeler House on Avery Place has been oddly shut.

Now the WHS has opened its Victorian front door to visitors. And — just inside — a long-neglected display case offers an intriguing look into Westport’s past.

“The History of Westport in 100 Objects” opens tomorrow (Monday, April 16). Every 2 weeks for the next year, the items will change. They’ll start with the original settlers in 1637, and work up to today.

Kewpie dolls will be on display later this year. In 1909, Westport illustrator Rose O’Neill created the characters.

Artifacts include books, land deeds, farming tools, clothing, toys, a railroad tie — anything that helped make this town what it is.

Each display will include a “mystery object” (though not necessarily from the era depicted). Visitors can guess its identity. One — drawn from all correct answers — will win an item from the gift shop.

A passport/online check-in will help children record their visits. After coming enough times, they’ll get scrip for gift store purchases.

An 1882 shipping book includes the noted Westport name “Wakeman.”

As each case changes, its items will be archived in a digital exhibit on the WHS website.

The Historical Society has plenty of objects. But they’d love more. If you have an item that might work for the exhibit, email 100Objects@westporthistory.org.

(“The History of Westport in 100 Objects” opens tomorrow — Monday, April 16 — with a 4 p.m. reception focused on 5th through 8th graders.)

Another artifact: part of Westport artist Stevan Dohanos’ 1950s watercolor of our Memorial Day parade.

Tim Jackson’s “Chappaquiddick”

Tim Jackson is a man of many talents. And many stories.

He sat behind the Nixon daughters when the Beatles appeared on “Ed Sullivan” in 1964 — an event that launched his musical career.

He got kicked out of the Staples High School orchestra for “not being serious.” His band, The Loved Ones, opened for the Rascals at Staples.

Jackson majored in drama at Ithaca College. He went on to play drums in several bands (and open for Bruce Springsteen).

He toured with Tom Rush and LaVern Baker, and recorded often. His ’60s band — The Band That Time Forgot — has performed for over 30 years.

Jackson earned a master’s in education, and taught film history and production. He’s making a film about Westport poet and author Joan Walsh Anglund.

Joan Walsh Anglund and Tim Jackson. (Photo/Ted Horowitz)

He’s acted in enough plays, films and commercials to get — and keep — his SAG and AFTRA cards. “I’ve been in nothing you’ve ever heard of,” he says.

But you’ve heard of his latest gig. “Chappaquiddick” opened a couple of days ago. The movie explores the 1969 story of Ted Kennedy. The Massachusetts senator drove his car off a narrow bridge on an island off Martha’s Vineyard, killing Mary Jo Kopechne, a 28-year-old former campaign worker of his slain brother Bobby, with whom he had been partying all night.

Jackson plays Kopechne’s father, Joe. He’s seen at her funeral; dismissing Kennedy’s cousin and confidante Joe Gargan, in order to talk to the senator; and watching Kennedy’s nationally televised speech a few days after the accident.

Tim Jackson (center) and his screen wife at their daughter Mary Jo Kopechne’s funeral, in “Chappaquiddick.” He says he got the role because of his “mournful countenance.” (Photo courtesy of Dennis Jackson)

“I spent all day watching a fake TV, looking depressed with the woman who plays my wife,” Jackson says about that scene.

All afternoon he puffed on a cigarette that emitted plenty of smoke (but had no tobacco). He prepared by channeling his mother, a chain smoker. The cameraman wore a gas mask.

Director John Curran’s former art teacher was cast as Kopechne’s neighbor. He and his screen “wife” deliver a casserole to the Kopechnes, who shoo them away. The teacher was nervous, but Jackson — a longtime drama teacher — reassured him: “Don’t act. Just be the neighbors.”

Tim Jackson (2nd from right), and (right) his movie wife, Gwen Kopechne. The couple on the left play the Kopechnes’ neighbors in “Chappaquiddick.”

Jackson calls the film “a dark comedy of manners. It’s not absolutely accusatory about Kennedy’s criminal act. It just shows him in a situation that raises a lot of questions, in a family with a lot of questionable dealings. It doesn’t go for the jugular. It’s ambivalent.”

One of Jackson’s previous roles was in “Unsolved Mysteries.”

Sounds like a perfect description of “Chappaquiddick” — the movie, and the real life story.

(Jackson shares many more insights about the film on the Arts Fuse blog. Hat tip: Peter Gambaccini)

Leonard Everett Fisher’s “GI Jews” Film Airs Nationally

Leonard Everett Fisher is a Westport icon.

One of our our town’s most cherished artist/illustrators, he’s designed 10 US postage stamps. His works hang in the collections of the Smithsonian, Library of Congress, New York Public Library, Yale Art Gallery and New Britain Museum of Art.

At 93 — and a member of the Westport Arts Center’s board of directors — he’s working hard to create a Westport Artists Museum at Baron’s South.

But just as important to Fisher was his service in World War II. Between 1942 and ’46 he was a topographical mapmaker. He planned, edited and produced ground maps for invasions and campaigns in Italy, France, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and the aborted invasion and occupation of Japan.

Leonard Everett Fisher at Westport’s Memorial Day last year.

More than 70 years after the war, his contributions are finally drawing national attention.

This Wednesday (April 11, 10 p.m.), PBS airs “GI Jews: Jewish Americans in World War II.” Fisher is one of the interviews in the film.

He’s in good company. Henry Kissinger, Mel Brooks and other Jewish Americans — some famous, others unknown — share their experience as part of the 550,000 men and women who fought for their nation, struggled with anti-Semitism in their ranks, and emerged transformed, to fight for equality and justice at home.

The film has already been shown at the Westchester Jewish Film Festival, and the Center for Jewish History. It will be screened this Tuesday (April 10), at the JCC Manhattan.

Fisher is one of the oldest living World War II veterans in Westport. Every one has an intriguing story.

But only Fisher’s will be told on national television this week.

(For more information on “GI Jews,” click here.)

Trey Ellis And Martin Luther King: In The Wilderness

Fifty years ago today, a bullet ended Martin Luther King’s life — and changed the course of American history.

Two nights ago, HBO aired “King in the Wilderness.” The 2-hour documentary showed a side of the civil rights icon and Nobel Peace Prize winner that’s seldom discussed today: a conflicted leader who, at the time of his death, was assailed by critics on both the left and right.

Trey Ellis

Westporter Trey Ellis served as executive producer. He’s accomplished plenty in his life. He’s written movies, books, TV shows and a play about the Tuskegee Airmen. He’s been a political pundit, social critic and Huffington Post contributor; won a Peabody and been nominated for an Emmy.

He teaches at Columbia University, was a non-resident fellow at Harvard, and taught or lectured at Yale, NYU, and in Brazil and France.

But this project was special. Ellis spent a year crisscrossing the country, interviewing 17 men and women who lived, breathed and molded the civil rights movement.

John Lewis, Jesse Jackson, Marian Wright Edelman, Joan Baez — all spoke with candor and insight about Martin Luther King. Ellis also interviewed unsung heroes of the movement, like Diane Nash.

A special camera allowed Ellis and his subjects to look directly into each other’s eyes as they talked. Each 2-hour interview was thrilling.

“It was a very collaborative effort,” Ellis says of the film. He worked closely with director Peter Kunhardt (a 6-time Emmy winner) and co-executive producer Taylor Branch (who wrote the landmark trilogy “America in the King Years”).

In the midst of so many gauzy, hagiographic 50th-anniversary retrospectives, this documentary is different.

“When most people think of Martin Luther King, it’s ‘I have a dream,'” Ellis says.

“He was 25 years old when he first worked on the Montgomery bus boycott. He was 39 in 1968. His great successes were behind him. But he still kept working for social justice. He loved humanity.”

In the last year of his life, King was criticized by some whites for speaking out against the Vietnam War — and by some African Americans for his insistence on non-violence. His embrace of economic inequality issues also drew criticism.

Ellis’ film examines all of that, unflinchingly.

“He wasn’t perfect. He was human,” the executive producer says. “He was funny, irreverent, and at the end of his life he was depressed.”

Dr. Martin Luther King

“King in the Wilderness” premiered in January at Sundance. It was was shown at the Smithsonian’s Museum of African American History, and at New York’s Riverside Church, where on this day in 1967 — exactly a year before he was murdered — Dr. King preached a fiery sermon that denounced not just Vietnam, but America’s entire foreign and domestic policy.

“It’s been a wild ride,” Ellis says of the past year.

His adventure continues. Today he’s in Montgomery, Alabama — the city where King first preached, and helped organize the year-long bus boycott.

Ellis is there working on his next project: an HBO documentary on the history of racial violence in America.

That’s a subject as important today as it was 100 years ago.

And on April 4, 1968.

(For more information on HBO’s “King in the Wilderness” — including viewing options — click here. For an interview with Trey Ellis and Peter Kunhardt about the film, click below.)

Episcopal Church Tackles Legacy Of New England Slave Trade

Nationally, the Episcopal Church has spent years working on racial justice issues.

Locally, Christ and Holy Trinity Church is doing the same.

Recently, parishioners read — and discussed — Debby Irving’s thought-provoking Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race.

“It was a soulful venture,” says Rev. John Betit. “People talked openly and  honestly about their own ignorance and stuggle.”

But, he adds, some congregants felt dissatisfied. They were unsure how to move forward on thorny issues of race.

They — and anyone else in Westport who wants to come — will take a step in that direction this Sunday (March 18, 11 a.m.). CHT will show “Traces of the Trade,” a true story of producer/director Katrina Browne’s ancestors — the largest slave-trading family in American history.

They were Northerners.

The documentary traces Browne and 9 cousins, as they work to understand the legacy of New England’s “hidden enterprise.” Family members are shaken by visits to Ghanaian slave forts and dungeons, and conversations with African Americans.

After the film, Dain Perry — one of Browne’s cousins — will facilitate a conversation about race, reconciliation and healing.

Perry — whose family are longtime Episcopalians — says the church shares responsibility for the slave trade. It condoned slavery, while the leading denomination in early America.

“Systemic racism is so big and hard-wired,” Betit notes. He hopes for a “softening of the ground,” as people “take a deeper look, and broaden their circle of awareness” about issues like slavery.

(The discussion also includes lunch. For more information call 203-227-0827. Click here for the film’s website.)

The 1st World Trade Center Attack: 25 Years Later, A Westporter Remembers

Yesterday marked the 25th anniversary of the 1st terrorist attack on US soil. Seven men packed a rental van with over 1,300 pounds of explosives, drove into the World Trade Center parking garage, and ran.

The explosion killed 6 adults and an unborn child. It injured more than 1,000 people, creating a 93-foot hole that leveled the entire garage.

But the goal — to bring down both towers — failed.

One of the victims was John DiGiovanni.  The Long Island resident parked one floor below the van. As he got out of his car, the bomb exploded. John dug himself out of the concrete, rebar and debris. He was rushed to St. Vincent’s Hospital, where he died of internal injuries. He was 45 years old.

John was not married. His closest relatives were the Colabella family.

Yesterday, the Colabellas — longtime Westporters — celebrated John’s life, along with the 6 other families who lost loved ones.

Andrew Colabella — an RTM member from District 4 — says, “Bound by terror, life’s paths crossing one another, some friends and some strangers, our families were brought together to cope and speak, to celebrate and cherish their unique spirits and souls that brought light to our lives, and existence on this earth.”

Andrew Colabella honors his father’s cousin, John DiGiovanni.