Category Archives: History

MLK

This story has become a Martin Luther King Day tradition on “06880.”

Today is Martin Luther King Day. Westporters will celebrate with a day off from school or work.  Some will sleep in; others will ski, or take part in a Staples basketball clinic for younger players. Few will give any thought to Martin Luther King.

Twice, though, his life intersected this town in important ways.

Martin Luther KingThe first was Friday night, May 22, 1964. According to Woody Klein’s book Westport, Connecticut, King had been invited to speak at Temple Israel by synagogue member Jerry Kaiser.

King arrived in the afternoon. Kaiser and his wife Roslyn sat on their porch that afternoon, and talked with King and 2 of his aides. She was impressed with his “sincerity, warmth, intelligence and genuine concern for those about him — our children, for instance. He seemed very young to bear such a burden of leadership.”

King’s sermon — to a packed audience — was titled “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.” He analogized his America to the time of Rip Van Winkle — who also “slept through a revolution. The greatest liability of history is that people fail to see a revolution taking place in our world today.  We must support the social movement of the Negro.”

Westport artist Roe Halper presented King with 3 woodcarvings, representing the civil rights struggle. He hung them proudly in the front hallway of his Atlanta home.

Artist Roe Harper (left) presents Coretta Scott King with civil rights-themed wood carvings.

Within a month Temple Israel’s rabbi, Byron Rubenstein, traveled south to take place in a nonviolent march. He was arrested — along with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.

In jail, the rabbi said, “I came to know the greatness of Dr. King. I never heard a word of hate or bitterness from that man, only worship of faith, joy and determination.”

King touched Westport again less than 4 years later. On April 5, 1968 — the day after the civil rights leader’s assassination in Memphis — 600 Staples students gathered for a lunchtime vigil in the courtyard. Nearby, the flag flew at half-staff.

A small portion of the large crowd listens intently to Fermino Spencer, in the Staples courtyard.

A small portion of the large crowd listens intently to Fermino Spencer, in the Staples courtyard.

Vice principal Fermino Spencer addressed the crowd. Movingly, he spoke about  his own experience as an African American. Hearing the words “my people” made a deep impression on the almost all-white audience. For many, it was the 1st time they had heard a black perspective on white America.

No one knew what lay ahead for their country. But student Jim Sadler spoke for many when he said: “I’m really frightened. Something is going to happen.”

Something did — and it was good. A few hundred students soon met in the cafeteria. Urged by a minister and several anti-poverty workers to help bridge the chasm between Westport and nearby cities, Staples teachers and students vowed to create a camp.

Within 2 months, it was a reality. That summer 120 elementary and junior high youngsters from Westport, Weston, Norwalk and Bridgeport participated in the Intercommunity Camp. Led by over 100 Staples students and many teachers, they enjoyed swimming, gymnastics, dance, sports, field trips, overnight camping, creative writing, filmmaking, photography, art and reading.

It wasn’t easy — some in Westport opposed bringing underprivileged children to their town — but for over a decade the Intercommunity Camp flourished.

Eventually, enthusiasm for and interest in the camp waned. Fewer Staples students and staff members wanted to devote their summer to such a project.  The number of Westporters willing to donate their pools dwindled. Today the Intercommunity Camp is a long-forgotten memory.

Sort of like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. Even on his birthday.

MLK speech

What Would Martin Do?

Looking for a way to honor Martin Luther King?

Excited — or frightened — about the presidential inauguration?

Westport’s 11th annual Martin Luther King Day Celebration fills both bills.

This Sunday (January 15, 3 p.m., Westport Country Playhouse), check out an intriguing talk. It’s called “WWMD: What Would Martin Do in the Era of Post-Race Racism?”

Professor Tricia Rose

Professor Tricia Rose

The keynote speaker is Dr. Tricia Rose. She’s a Brown University professor of Africana studies, director of its Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America, and a well-respected scholar of post-civil rights and black US culture.

Rose — who has been featured on PBS, CNN, NPR and many other media outlets — will talk about race in the current political environment, from the perspective of King’s philosophy. A Q-and-A session follows.

There’s also music from the Men’s Community Gospel Chorus of Norwalk; a spoken word piece based on King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” presented by students from Trumbull’s Regional Center for the Arts, and refreshments.

The event — co-sponsored by the Playhouse, Westport/Weston Interfaith Council and TEAM Westport — is free. The Westport Weston Family YMCA will provide childcare and activities.

For more information on “WWMD: What Would Martin Do?” click here. For highlights of last year’s Martin Luther King Day celebration, click the video below.

 

A Westporter Says Goodbye To John Glenn

Jo Ann Miller — a longtime Westporter and resident and realtor here — is in Columbus, Ohio this weekend to say goodbye to her godfather, John Glenn. The astronaut/senator/American hero died last week, at 95.

John Glenn and his goddaughter, Jo Ann Miller.

John Glenn and his wife, Annie.

Jo Ann’s late father, Lt. Gen. Thomas Miller, went to flight school with Glenn at the outbreak of World War II.  They flew together at Midway, and several years later in the same squadron in Korea (along with baseball great Ted Williams).  Glenn and Miller grew as tight as brothers, and built identical houses next to each other in Arlington, Virginia in 1958. Their combined brood of 5 children became great friends.

In 1962, when Glenn made his historic orbits around the eaerth, Jo Ann served coffee and donuts to the press in Arlington.

Despite the scenes in the movie “The Right Stuff,” Vice President Lyndon Johnson never visited the house. Jo Ann’s “Aunt Annie” — Glenn’s wife of 73 years — was not afraid of anyone, Jo Ann says. “Especially LBJ.”

Jo Ann attended the 1980 Democratic Convention, when Glenn gave the keynote address, and in 1984 when he attempted to gain the nomination for President.

She and her father were at Cape Canaveral in 1997, providing commentary for NBC News, when Glenn returned to space at 77 years old.

Jo Ann Miller and John Glenn at Ohio State University.

Jo Ann Miller and John Glenn at Ohio State University.

Jo Ann also watched Glenn give the commencement address at Ohio State University in 2009, where the school of public affairs is named for him. Her “Uncle Johnny” shook hands with over 8,000 graduates — and had his picture taken with every one.

“John Glenn was a great American patriot who served his country for 47 years,” Jo Ann says. “He was a courageous hero who believed in God, family and country.

“But I knew him as a man of kindness, humility and compassion. Those are the traits I will remember him by.”

Glenn will be memorialized at Ohio State today by Vice President Joe Biden, and over 3,000 guests. He will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery on April 6th — his wedding anniversary.

(Hat tip: Carl Addison Swanson)

A Thanksgiving Wish

All summer long, kids swarm on the Compo cannons.

On a crisp fall day, there’s no one in sight.

Click on or hover over to enlarge. (Photo/Pat Gold)

Click on or hover over to enlarge. (Photo/Pat Gold)

But there they stand, reminding us all of the ideals our forefathers fought for, nearly 250 years ago.

Today, let’s think of them — and all the values we as Americans hold dear.

Happy Thanksgiving!

[UPDATE] Cynthia Gibb Remembers Jean Donovan And “Salvador”

It was the worst audition of Cynthia Gibb’s career.

Just a few years after graduating with Staples High School’s Class of 1981, the actress — already known for her “Search for Tomorrow” and “Fame” TV roles — was searching for a movie project.

Her agent found a part in “Salvador.” Written by Oliver Stone — who would direct it too, as his 1st major film — the story was based on real-life political struggles in El Salvador.

The casting director gave Gibb the wrong material. She and star James Woods were, she says, “literally not on the same page.” She went home sobbing, horrified at having done so badly.

Cynthia Gibb

Cynthia Gibb

Her agent convinced her to go back. She got the role — and learned a great lesson about recovering from bad experiences. Gibb uses that incident today, back home in Westport. A voice and dance coach, she tells students not to be flustered by a bad performance (or audition).

But there’s much more about Westport to this story.

Gibb’s “Salvador” role was based on the real-life Jean Donovan. She was one of 4 lay missionaries beaten, raped, and murdered in 1980 by Salvadoran military men.

Donovan was also a Westporter. She attended Westport schools, and graduated from Staples in 1971 — exactly 10 years before Gibb.

Gibb did plenty of research — in leftist publications, because there was little in the mainstream press — to understand Donovan’s character. But she had no idea they shared the same hometown until midway through filming in Mexico, when Stone learned that Gibb was from Westport.

That spurred her even more. She became fascinated with the woman whose story — unknown to many, even here — she was telling.

salvador Gibb — who is not Catholic — dove into the kind of work the missionaries did. She learned Spanish, which Donovan had done before heading to El Salvador.

And Gibb read even more political writing. “I wanted to be as informed about US policy in Central America as Jean was,” Gibb says. “And I wanted to be as passionate about Third World countries.”

The film was released in 1986. In Los Angeles, Gibb honored Donovan and her fellow nuns, by volunteering for Central American organizations.

She was invited to El Salvador for 5 days. She met the handsome and charming right-wing military man in charge of death squads. She also saw dirt huts, and the church where an archbishop was gunned down.

“That film changed my life,” Gibb says. “I’d never been politically active before.”

Her career continued, mostly on TV.  She married, had 3 children and divorced. Gradually, “Salvador” faded from her mind.

Jean Donovan

Jean Donovan

After she moved back to Westport, however, she met John Suggs. The RTM member has dedicated years to keeping Donovan’s memory alive. He says that in progressive Catholic social justice networks, “Jean Donovan is considered a saint.”

Suggs is particularly active this time of year. The anniversary of Donovan’s death is December 2.

Gibb will be thinking of Donovan too. Years after the movie was released, the actress spotted a small story in the New York Times. It described the declassification of documents relating Central America during the Reagan years. Sure enough, the US provided financial assistance to death squads that were responsible for the rape and murder of the 4 women, and others, during the Carter and Reagan administrations.

“There were horrific people doing horrific things, with our backing,” Gibb says.

“Jean Donovan and those women were there to help people. Her death was so useless.”

Perhaps now is the time for Donovan to be remembered in Westport. Suggs is raising $3,600 for a plaque honoring her, to be hung either at Staples or Town Hall. Click here to donate.

Gibb is helping.


Click here for “06880+”: The easy way to publicize upcoming events, sell items, find or advertise your service, ask questions, etc. It’s the “06880” community bulletin board!

A Staples Senior Looks At Veterans Day

Every year, Bill Vornkahl — organizer of Westport’s Veterans Day ceremonies — asks Staples High School assistant principal Rich Franzis to recommend a senior to speak.

Franzis — a veteran himself — always finds an outstanding 12th grader. This year was no exception.

Spencer Daniels — a Staples soccer team captain who has earned a nomination to the US Military Academy — delivered these remarks yesterday.

“The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.”  -G.K. Chesterton

Serving one’s country, motivated by patriotism, is the most honorable commitment one can make. Willingly accepting the negatives of war and battle in order to defend the freedoms we have been blessed with is, honestly, incredible.

Spencer Daniels delivers Veterans Day remarks at Town Hall.

Spencer Daniels delivers Veterans Day remarks at Town Hall.

All those who have dedicated their lives to serving our country know one thing for certain. While in service, as well as civilian life, the primary list of priorities, and the basis for nearly all vital decisions, is Mission, Men, Me, or “M.M.M.”

Soldiers, and thus veterans, have a different set of values from others. Typically, individuals are motivated to help themselves. Soldiers cannot have this mentality.

As a United States Military Academy commit, I have already begun applying this to my own life. I began to understand the true meaning of MMM after speaking with Sean Gallagher, a graduate of the United States Naval Academy, who also happens to be a former Staples soccer player. He guided me through everything he experienced that led him to follow the Mission, Men, Me structure. He did this in order to help me lead our soccer team in the best way possible.

He helped me understand that the mission, which is winning the state championship, matters most. Everything that our team does must help us achieve our mission.

The next most important thing on the priorities list is my teammates. Unhappy, lethargic and disappointed teammates would hurt us, so my second priority was to ensure that all players were happy, respected, and valued.

Finally, if there is room, I can worry and focus on myself. However, mission and men always come before me.

 

berman-broccolo-spencer-d-martenson-vs-south-kent-2016-frances

Spencer Daniels (3rd from right) gives everything he has on the soccer field in a pre-season scrimmage. The back of Staples’ t-shirts say “MMM.” (Photo/Frances Rowland)

After learning more about MMM, we decided to order Staples soccer preseason jerseys that had no numbers, but merely just MMM. This allowed us to focus more on our mission. Instead of everyone with their own numbers, we decided to represent our team as unified. With these preseason shirts, we showed that we were not a bunch of individuals playing together, but rather a team.

Now, enough about myself. The main message of my speech to you is that the patriotism, as well as the commitment to service, that was alive in all of your generations, is still much alive today. Although it may not always seem like it, commitment to service and country, as well as patriotism, are qualities present in my generation.

We have these qualities embedded in our roots due to the brave men who served before us. Our generation still feels the immense patriotism that many of your generations have passed onto us, and that will never fade for Americans.

We still feel, although it is not tangible, the struggle and pain you went through in order to ensure our freedom, protection, and the American way of life.

Spencer Daniels with Bill Vornkahl, longtime organizer of Westport's Veterans and Memorial Day celebrations.

Spencer Daniels with Bill Vornkahl, longtime organizer of Westport’s Veterans and Memorial Day celebrations.

So many teenagers still feel the obligation to serve, and I am proud to call myself one of these people. I, just like every other individual who chooses to serve, have service and patriotism embedded in my bones.

When I was 5 years old, I decided to have a military birthday party. I found doing PT and fighting invisible enemies far more interesting than a magician. I believe that my decision to serve our country began when I was just a little boy. One great influence on me was my great-grandfather, an Air Force veteran, who ran my birthday party.

On top of just myself, many of my classmates, even in a school with incredible wealth like Staples, choose to serve. Instead of following the “normal” path of going to college, becoming a banker, and making a ton of money, there are many individuals who want to join the military. Currently we have 5 applicants to service academies, and 7 individuals who are committed to enlisting immediately after high school graduation.

Memorial Day - Town Hall flag - 2016Service and patriotism run through all servicemembers’ blood, and is passed down from generation to generation. Those of you who have served have passed down, through your service, undeniable traits of patriotism and commitment to service.

While many of my classmates decide to compare cars, wealth, and other material possessions, we 12 have committed to serving our country. Without previous generations and their commitment to protecting our country, that number would be zero, and we would see those traits fade with every generation.

So for those who served, I would like to personally thank each and every one of you. Without you, I would not have to opportunity to serve. I am truly blessed, and proud to call all of you veterans of the United States Armed Forces.

Veterans such as my great-grandfather have had a significant impact on my choosing to serve. Without veterans, I would not have made the decisions that I have made.

I look forward to following in your footsteps as a leader in the armed forces. I appreciate the time you have given me, and I hope I will make all of you proud. Thank you.

Newtown: What Remains After All Is Lost?

Four years after the deadliest mass shooting of schoolchildren in American history, the pain is still raw. Westporters recall that horrific day, and our hearts ache for our friends and relatives in Newtown.

Tomorrow (Wednesday, November 2), theaters all over the country are showing a riveting documentary. “Newtown: What Remains After All is Lost?” will be followed by a national, livestreamed discussion about where we go now.

The poster — a melancholy, misty image of the town’s iconic church — suits the mood.

newtown-poster-tom-kretsch

Photographer Tom Kretsch is a Newtown native.

But Tom has lived for many years in Westport. A former educator in the Norwalk school system, his work has been featured here and throughout Fairfield County for many years.

A few days after the Sandy Hook shooting, “06880” posted a story and image of Sandy Hook Elementary School, taken a few months earlier by Tom. (Click here for that story.)

Tom’s photo of the church hung in Newtown’s Town Hall. Film director Kim Snyder saw it there, and asked to use it for the documentary’s publicity.

Tom Kretsch took this photo of Sandy Hook Elementary School just a few months before the tragedy.

Tom Kretsch took this photo of Sandy Hook Elementary School just a few months before the tragedy.

Snyder spent 3 years in Newtown after the tragedy, gaining confidence and support of many of the victims’ families. The film was shown at last year’s  Sundance Festival.

“Newtown” documents a traumatized community which — though fractured by grief — joins together in a story of resilience.

Mark Barden — whose young son Daniel was one of the 26 children and educators murdered that day — says that the film and conversation that follow are crucial.

“Even though we are spread across the country and won’t be in the same theater, we can all be there watching Newtown and the live-streamed town hall together, starting important conversations about preventable gun violence.

“Losing my sweet little Daniel is something I will never move on from. But what we can do is move forward together, step by step, toward a safer future for our children.”

(The film will be shown locally at the AMC Loews Danbury 16. Click here to buy tickets online, and to find other locations.)

ADL Honors Anita Schorr, Brett Aronow, Keith Stein

Anita Schorr was one of Westport’s most remarkable citizens. The Holocaust survivor who survived slave labor, 2 concentration camps and the loss of her entire family, then educated countless area residents (especially students) about the dangers of hate and the power of positive thinking died last April at 85.

Anita Schorr lived through some of history's most horrific times.

Anita Schorr lived through some of history’s most horrific times.

Her memory lives on. And on Sunday, November 6 (5:30 p.m., the Warehouse in Fairfield), the Anti-Defamation League honors that memory with a “Step in and Be a Hero” award.

Funds raised will support the organization’s education programs for teachers and students, and help ADL respond quickly to incidents of hatred.

She won’t be the only Westporter feted. Brett Aronow and Keith Stein will be honored too, with the Distinguished Community Leadership Award. It recognizes outstanding citizens who contribute to building strong communities open to people without regard to race, religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation.

Keith Stein and Brett Aronow.

Keith Stein and Brett Aronow.

Brett served on the Board of Education, where she championed social, civic and ethical education; been an active member of TEAM Westport, the town’s multicultural committee; and is a former member of Positive Youth Development, the Youth Commission, SpEd Parents and the Fairfield County Alliance for the Prevention of Substance Abuse.

Brett’s husband Keith served the Westport Democratic Town Committee in many roles, including chair; been a board member of the Friends of Parks and Recreation and the Westport Weston Health District, and was commissioner of Westport Little League.

Brett and Keith were both heavily involved in PTAs. They moved to Westport in 1993. With 3 children in college, they’ll spend the next months traveling throughout Southeast Asia and Northern California.

Very quietly, the ADL is one of our area’s true forces for good. How great that next Sunday, they recognize a few of Westport’s real good folks.

(For more information or tickets, click here.)

Happy Columbus Day!

Columbus Day is a holiday that’s fallen out of favor.

Christopher Columbus didn’t “discover” America. It was here all along, as every Native American knows.

He wasn’t even the first outsider to find the continent — not by a few centuries.

Today, Westport schools were not even closed.

Back in 1957 though, Columbus Day was a Big Deal.

In Mark Groth’s Saugatuck Elementary School 2nd grade classroom, Pat Bonardi — a 1st year teacher — had her students create a replica of the Santa Maria. They used packing crates, drawing paper and flower pots.

The Westport Town Crier immortalized their work:

Mark Groth stands proudly on the far left of the Santa Maria. Next to him are Ann Denues, Doug Golden, Paula Cairo, Sarah Waldo and Richard Fell.

Mark Groth stands proudly on the far left of the Santa Maria. Next to him are Ann Denues, Doug Golden, Paula Cairo, Sarah Waldo and Richard Fell.

Mark thanks his mother for saving that clipping, 59 years ago. He also thanks — and remembers — Miss Bonardi.

“When the time came around to pick 2 students for the Audio-Visual crew (rolling 16mm or filmstrip projectors around to classrooms), I had my hand up first,” he says.

Now he’s just retired — after 40 years as media producer at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

He worked with all kinds of fancy equipment there. And 2nd graders today — at the “new” Saugatuck El, on Riverside Avenue — probably use desktop animation software and tablet apps to create a 2016 version of the Santa Maria.

If they still teach about Christopher Columbus in school.

Westporters Renovate 2 Historic Structures. Now Neighbors Want Them Torn Down.

Most Westport preservation battles follow the same pattern.

A historic house is sold. The new owner wants to tear it down. Outraged residents object. Others point out that preservationists could have bought the home, but did not — and the people who did, can now do whatever they want.

In rare cases — like 93 Cross Highway108 Cross Highway, or the one across the street at #113 — the home is saved. It’s a handsome stretch on an important main road.

Further down Cross Highway though, something bizarre is happening.

Near the Fairfield border sits 188 Cross Highway. The gorgeous 2.9-acre property includes a saltbox built in 1728,  a barn circa 1790-1810, and 2 legal pre-1959 cottage apartments.

When the British marched past in 1777 en route to Danbury — taking brothers Benjamin and Daniel Meeker prisoner, and sacking the house — it was already half a century old.

The "Meeker house" in the 1930s, as photographed for a WPA project. After the Revolutionary War, Benjamin Meeker built the barn in back. It -- and the house -- still stand today.

The “Meeker house” in the 1930s, as photographed for a WPA project. After the Revolutionary War, Benjamin Meeker built the barn in back. They still stand.

The Schilthuis-Meeker house — Sally Schilthuis was influential in preventing construction of Merritt Parkway Exit 43 in the area, resulting in the current “No Man’s Land” between Exits 42 and 44 — is one of 5 remaining nationwide of original medieval structure Colonial revival construction.

In 2003, Mark Yurkiw and Wendy Van Wie purchased the property. It was in foreclosure. The houses were in distress, ready to be plowed under. But the couple saved the historic homes.

For 2 decades, they have poured time and energy into their renovation project. The result is gorgeous.

The exterior of 188 Cross Highway.

The exterior of 188 Cross Highway.

But it’s been costly.

And one couple can’t live in 2 houses. They live in the barn, and rented out the saltbox. The tenants wanted to buy. Mark and  Wendy would love to sell to them — as a practical matter, and to make sure the historic structure is loved, cared for and maintained as it deserves.

They’re even willing to add covenants to keep — in perpetuity — the historic house as a single-family dwelling; forever maintain the facade, and do whatever else is necessary to maintain the house where it is. In other words, no future owner could move — or demolish — the structure.

Right now though, they can’t sell. Planning and Zoning regulations don’t permit 2 homes to exist on 1 piece of property.

Sounds like a win-win: for Mark and Wendy, and the neighborhood.

But a small cadre of Cross Highway neighbors object.

At a Planning and Zoning Commission hearing on Thursday, they (and their lawyer) cited traffic, safety, density, the fact that the house is currently unoccupied, and the sight of dandelions on the lawn as reasons to reject the application.

A recent, sun-dappled fall day.

A recent, sun-dappled fall day.

After 2 hours of heated testimony — during which Wendy and her supporters countered most of the objections, then offered even more covenants and encumbrances to save the historic building and properties — the real issue came through.

Robert Yules and a few other neighbors opposed the subdivision because it would save the historic houses.

He said essentially that the state of the property did not reflect his McMansion, and others nearby. The grounds — period gardens and stone walls, with cobblestone walkways — did not match his extremely well-kept lawn.

One more view of 188 Cross Highway.

One more view of 188 Cross Highway.

“Trash” and “eyesore” are usually not associated with painstaking historic rehab projects. But they were Thursday night.

It’s astonishing. Yet in this through-the-looking-glass tale, there’s something even more eye-popping.

In 2006, Robert and Susan Yules wrote to the P&Z supporting the efforts of their “friends and neighbors,” Wendy and Mark, on the “renovating and improving of the main house and free standing cottage/barn.”

The Yuleses added, “Their efforts have transformed the buildings significantly. Please permit them to continue to remodel the buildings as they will enhance the beauty of the neighborhood.”

An interior view of the bright, high-ceilinged renovated barn.

An interior view of the bright, high-ceilinged renovated barn.

They were not the only neighbors to appreciate Mark and Wendy’s work.

Others described how Mark and Wendy had “lovingly restore(d) these irreplaceable architectural treasures” to their “deserved place” in Westport and American history.

Now the Yuleses and a few neighbors have changed their tune. They believe a new, large construction better fits the neighborhood than a plan that would save 2 structures — lovingly restored, and paying homage to the days when history quite literally marched past the front door.

“Houses are only kept alive by their owners,” Mark says.

“This is very discouraging. We’re not trying to ‘win.’ We’re trying to give the town something.

This could be one of the most topsy-turvy tales I’ve ever told.

But don’t take my word for it. Drive by 188 Cross Highway. (That’s the official number. The mailboxes have always said 178 and 180). See for yourself. Then — if you want to contact the Planning & Zoning Commission — click here.