Category Archives: History

Fran Southworth: Why I Stood On The Bridge

Fran Southworth has lived in Westport for 29 years. She is part of Indivisible Connecticut 4, and the Facebook Love in Action group.

Last night — saddened and horrified by the events in Charlottesville — she felt compelled to act. Fran writes:

Seeing the images of the University of Virginia students made me think about my own kids when they were in college, and the horror if they had been confronted with such hatred, intolerance and racism. Because of the hateful slogans chanted by the white supremacists, and the physical actions that caused at least 1 death and many injuries, I felt the need to unify as a community. We needed to come together to voice our opposition to hate, and teach our children and grandchildren that what they are witnessing now is not what America is all about.

So I decided to do a pop-up peaceful gathering on our bridge in Westport. I thought I might  be standing there alone with my sign: “Normalize Love Not Hate! Honk if You Agree.”

Getting Darcy Hicks involved was a sure way to gather people.

This morning Melissa Kane contacted me. We chatted about our similar family history. She spread the word as well.

Then a new activist friend, Juliana Hess, told her group. We were off and running.

Juliana wrote beautifully that people in Europe would never have sat back and done nothing if they knew what was coming. My Jewish grandparents ran for their lives from Russia. They and others told me stories of friends and relatives who ran. Many were killed in the Holocaust. Others survived. All taught me: “Never Again.”

Never again — yet Charlottesville just happened. I feel very deeply the pain, destruction and horror it has caused. I also say: “Never Again.”

Fran Southworth (center), flanked by Myra Garvett and Darcy Hicks, on the Ruth Steinkraus Cohen Bridge earlier today.

I also want to speak out for my close friend and singing partner, an African American woman. Because of the history of slavery and racism in America, blacks have always struggled here. But things are worsening, with white supremacists set loose by the tacit acceptance of our administration toward violence and intolerance.

My friend explained to me that they don’t want to have a separate “Black Lives Matter” presence. Unfortunately they have to.

We have to stop these white supremacists in their tracks. We must make it very clear that they — and their hate and intolerance — have no place in our communities. White supremacists, neo-Nazis and anti-Semites are the antitheses of our American values.

The president said there are many sides to this. There are no other sides to hatred and bigotry. I watched David Duke, a former KKK leader, say that President Trump told them they will take back our country.

No! We will take back our country. We will continue to live up to the American ideals of tolerance and inclusion of all people.

We need to let our politicians know that this is a very important issue for all of us. It’s not about anyone’s political party or agenda. It’s about human decency, compassion and respect.

Bob Powers: The View From Charlottesville

Bob Powers grew up in Westport. After graduating from Staples High School in 1971, then Amherst College in ’75, he headed to med school at the University of Virginia.

He loved life in the college town. His children were born there. He moved twice — to Minnesota, and back to Connecticut. But as Powers — a physician and professor at UVa’s med school — notes, he’s now spent 30 years in Charlottesville. That’s longer than he’s lived anywhere else.

Like any Southern town, Powers says, there’s a history of racial discord dating back to slavery. Though the university has provided an intellectual base, schools there closed in the 1960s rather than succumb to desegregation.

“I have African American friends here who helped integrate the schools,” Power says. “And I have white friends who were pulled out of them.”

One of his patients — an older black woman — was involuntarily sterilized.

“This is not ancient history,” he explains.

Dr. Robert Powers

As a youngster in Westport, he says, “I was blissfully ignorant of all that. It’s part of Southern history. There’s nothing like that in the north.”

When he moved to Charlottesville he noticed rebel flags, and statues of Confederate heroes. He saw “thinly painted over signs” for colored restrooms.

Since then, he says, the town of 45,000 has gentrified. UVa has drawn “carpetbagging Yankees like me” for years.

Much of Charlottesville remains “voluntarily segregated.” There are black and white churches, funeral homes and neighborhoods. “People feel a level of comfort” in separate cultures and identities.

There is little “overt animosity” between blacks and whites, Powers says. The university in particular has made great strides toward inclusion. The dean of the medical school, hospital director and Powers’ own boss are all African American.

What happened this weekend, he says, began with outsiders who seized on the fact that Charlottesville’s officials “dithered” about removing statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson from prominent places. Issues like cost, and what to do with them once they were gone, made the city a “fat target and convenient flash point” for alt-right and racist groups.

However, he adds, 2 of the main organizers have ties to the area. White supremacist Richard Spencer graduated from UVa in 2001 (with high distinction in English literature and music), while self-described “white rights activist” Jason Kessler lives in Charlottesville.

A rally last month drew Ku Klux Klan members from North Carolina. It was “nasty,” Powers says, “but not terribly violent.”

A striking image from the Ku Klux Klan’s July 8 rally in Charlottesville.

That led to a national call to action, by a variety of alt-right, Nazi and KKK groups. It also galvanized opposition from around the country.

“It was very clear that people came this weekend expecting to fight,” Powers says. Protesters wore fatigues, and carried helmets, batons and shields. Virginia is an “open carry” state; some brandished civilian versions of AK-47s.

Storeowners boarded their windows. The UVa hospital discharged patients, keeping beds open for mass casualties.

The weekend turned into “much more than the First Amendment right of assembly and peaceful speech,” says Powers.

Mostly, he says, “this was not local people behaving badly. It was people coming in to our city to behave badly.”

A scene from yesterday in Charlottesville.

On Friday night — hoping to “demonstrate opposition” to the march, by “showing our faces and being counted without confrontation or violence” — Powers and his wife Sally attended a large community prayer service. Harvard professor Cornel West gave a powerful speech. Other clergy — including Muslims — spoke too.

Powers was gratified to see that the majority of attendees were white. “This is not about race,” he says. “It’s an outrage of principle.”

A torchlight alt-right procession came close to the church. As a precaution, police kept service-goers inside.

On Saturday morning, Powers and his wife went to a clergy-led march. It ended around 9:30. The couple went home.

Soon, authorities revoked the alt-right marchers’ permit. They dispersed — unhappily — into smaller groups around Charlottesville. Police could not control them. Confrontations ended when a car roared into counter-demonstrators, killing 1 woman and injuring 19.

“I’d be horrified to watch this from a distance,” Powers says. “It’s even worse when it happens in your own back yard, in a city not prone to this.”

Now, he predicts, there will be finger-pointing. Why were demonstrators and counter-protesters allowed to be so near each other? On the other hand, how could a small city be expected to handle so many inflamed people?

Powers is sure of one thing.

“The vast majority of the city — rich and poor, white and black, university-affiliated and not — were unified against this.”

And, he notes, the woman who was killed was from Charlottesville. The driver was from Ohio.

“Someone in our town was murdered by someone from elsewhere,” he says.

Bob Powers grew up in Westport. But Charlottesville is now his home town.

Like many Americans, he grieves for it.

And like many of us — in Westport and elsewhere — he wonders what comes next.

Jean Donovan Honored With Assumption Church Plaque

Jean Donovan is one of Staples High School’s most famous alums.

And one of its least recognized.

Just 9 years after graduating with the Class of 1971, Donovan — a lay missionary helping poor people in El Salvador — was one of 4 American churchwomen killed by Salvadoran national guardsmen.

Jean Donovan

Jean Donovan

She and 3 nuns were beaten, raped, shot in the head, then dumped by the roadside.

The Catholic church is considering her for sainthood.

Her story was told in“Salvador.” Written by Oliver Stone — who directed it too, as his 1st major film — the character based on her life was played by Cynthia Gibb. Amazingly, she’s a 1981 Staples grad — and lives here still.

Other films, and several books, portray her life and death.

A Jean Donovan Summer Fellowship at Santa Clara University supports students interested in social justice, while in Los Angeles the Casa Jean Donovan Community Residence houses members of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps.

But until recently, the only memorial to Donovan was a framed photograph in Assumption Church. That’s where her memorial mass had been held, and where she attended elementary school.

The existing memorial to Jean Donovan — a story from the Assumption Church bulletin.

John Suggs — a longtime Westporter, and Assumption parishioner — has worked tirelessly to keep her memory alive here. He enlisted the help of Donovan’s ’71 classmates.

Father Tom Thorne was proud of the chance to house a plaque in the vestibule. A blessing and unveiling ceremony will be held soon.

 

110 Years Of Yankee Doodle Women

For 110 years, the Westport Woman’s Club has sponsored the Yankee Doodle Fair.

Attractions and entertainment have changed. But for 100 years, fair-goers have wondered “Who puts this on?”

When someone tells them, their next question is, “What’s the Westport Woman’s Club?”

To answer a century-plus of inquiring minds — and to honor their 110-year history — the WWC has hung a pop-up exhibit inside Bedford Hall. (That’s the wonderfully refurbished auditorium in their Imperial Avenue clubhouse, on the hill overlooking the Yankee Doodle Fair.)

Nearly 120 placards recount all those years of Westport Woman’s Club fundraising, and service to the town.

A placard honoring the organization that became the Westport Woman’s Club …

The story begins long before women could vote, and provides a fascinating window on women’s history, locally and nationally.

It also provides insight into public health and social services delivery here, before and after town government got involved.

… and one tying together 1920 and 1958…

It’s all for a great cause. Funds raised at the Fair go right back into the community, as grants and scholarships.

Just as they have for the past 110 years.

… and a very intriguing third.

(The Yankee Doodle Fair — and accompanying exhibit — are open tonight and tomorrow [Thursday and Friday, June 15-16], 6 to 10 p.m. Saturday hours are 1 to 10 p.m.; Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m.)

A classic merry-go-round, at the Yankee Doodle Fair. (Photo courtesy Pam Barkentin)

So Proudly They Served

For the 2nd year in a row, it rained on Westport’s parade.

But a standing-room-only crowd gathered at Town Hall, for a moving ceremony honoring all who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country.

Gathered quietly among them were many some of the many Westporters who served — and still serve — our nation.

We thank them all. We would not be here today without them.

Grand marshal Ed Vebell recounted stories as an illustrator behind World War II enemy lines.

Bill Vornkahl has organized Westport’s Memorial Day celebrations for the past 47 years.

Larry Aasen

Ted Diamond

Leonard Everett Fisher

Bob Satter

Bob Custer

Malcolm Watson

Rick Benson

Buyile Rani

Bill Delgado and Geoff Gillespie (active)

Memorial Day: We Remember

The World War II memorial on Veteran’s Green, across from Westport Town Hall, where a ceremony takes place after today’s parade (approximately 10:30 a.m.). Other monuments there honor veterans of other wars.

Long May It Wave

This Memorial Day weekend, an alert “06880” reader — who asks to be called “a local military vet” — is concerned that too many of us fly the American flag improperly. He writes:

I often see the flag hanging outside of houses in the dark and rain. The flag should traditionally be displayed only from sunrise to sunset. It may be displayed at all times if it is illuminated during darkness.

The flag should not be subject to weather damage, so it should not be displayed during rain, snow and wind storms, unless it is an all-weather flag.

When displayed on a float in a parade, it should be hung from a staff or suspended so it falls free. It should not be draped over a vehicle.

Hang a flag vertically against a wall, with the union at the top and facing the observer’s left. Over a sidewalk, ensure the union is at the top at the side farthest away from the nearest building.

The flag should never touch anything beneath it (ground, floor, water, merchandise). It should not be carried horizontally — always aloft.

It should never be used on a costume or athletic uniform. However, a flag patch may be attached to the uniform of patriotic organizations, military personnel, police officers and firefighters.

The flag should not be used for advertising or promotion purposes, or printed on napkins, boxes, or anything else intended for temporary use and then discarded.

When the flag passes in parade, Americans should stand at attention facing the flag, and place their right hand over their heart.

On Memorial Day, the flag should be displayed at half-staff until noon.

The Westport veteran adds:

It may seem pedantic to spend time on properly displaying the flag.

But it is not. It is important.

In the time of Trump, with so much of the population in open resistance to our elected leadership, proper respect for the flag is a way to show our commitment to the country, not the president.

Commitment can be given meaning by the individual. It does not require any notions of national defense.

For what it’s worth, everyone who enters the military takes an oath to defend the Constitution — not the president.

(For the US Department of Veterans Affairs’ “Guidelines for Display of the Flag,” click here.)

Ed Vebell: Monday’s Grand Marshal Has Stories To Tell

Everyone loves Westport’s Memorial Day parade.

It’s the one day each year that our sophisticated, hedge fund-filled suburb turns into an All-American village. The parade is filled with countless cops, youth soccer players, Y’s Men, Suzuki violinists, firefighters, library and Westport Country Playhouse representatives, and (of course) military vets and school band glockenspielers.

Everyone else who is not marching is on the sidewalk, enjoying the show.

But when the parade ends, not everyone makes it over to Veterans Green across from Town Hall.

That’s a shame. That’s where the real meaning of Memorial Day takes place. It’s a quick half hour of patriotic music, a few greetings from dignitaries.

And a speech from the grand marshal.

Ed Vebell, in his Compo Beach studio.

This year’s marshal is Ed Vebell. He’s that increasingly rare — but particularly important — American: a World War II veteran.

Ed turned 96 yesterday. He still lives alone, a few steps from the beach.

It takes him a while to get ready in the morning. He’ll get up extra early on Monday. He won’t speak long — his eyesight is going, and he can’t read speeches that well — but, he says, “I’ve got some war stories to tell.”

Does he ever.

Ed joined the Army Air Force in 1942. A talented artist-reporter, he was dropped behind enemy lines in Algiers, Italy and France. He’d sketch enemy equipment and positions, then be picked up 3 days later.

“I was a good target for snipers,” Ed says. “The photographers just took their pictures and ducked down. I had to stand up and draw.”

Of course, he adds, “when you’re 20 you think you’re invincible.”

He had good reason to think that. He tumbled from the Swiss Alps in a Jeep (he landed in snow-covered trees). He was lost at sea for 11 days. A sword pierced his chest. He was hit by a locomotive.

But he survived. And, Ed says, “it was all really something. I was a young kid from Chicago who had never even seen the ocean.”

An Ed Vebell illustration made in Italy, in 1944.

When the war ended, Ed stayed in France for nearly 3 years. He worked for a French newspaper, enjoyed the Folies Bergère, met Charles de Gaulle and Edith Piaf — and covered the Nuremberg trials.

Returning to America, he worked for Readers Digest, Time and Life. He illustrated books and advertisements.

He also represented the US as a fencer, at Helskinki in 1952. (He made the semifinals.)

Oh yeah: A book he wrote about his experiences — “An Artist at War” — comes out soon.

Ed Vebell definitely has stories to tell.

No one should miss them on Monday.

Ed Vebell’s book will be published next month.

 

 

Westport’s Amazing World War II Families

It may be an American record.

During World War II, 8 of the 12 Cuseo sons left Westport, to enlist in the armed forces.

Fortunately, only one — James — was killed.

The Cuseo family in 1935 or ’36. Daughter Mildred is missing.  Father James and mother Lucy are in the middle.. (Photo courtesy of Woody Klein’s book “Westport, Connecticut.”)

But when the Cuseos’ mother, Lucy, died in 1943, her daughter said it was due to her “broken heart.”

Lucy was buried here with military honors. American Legion members served as pallbearers.

The Cuseos’ contributions to World War II were astonishing. But in terms of sacrifice, none made more than the Wassell family.

Four sons enlisted. All were pilots. Three were killed in action — all within 15 months of each other.

Charles P. “Pete” Wassell

Before the war, Harry — the oldest — helped design fighter planes in Stratford. He, his brother Bud and other Westport men started the Westport Defense Unit, to teach marksmanship.

He enlisted in the Army Air Force after Pearl Harbor. A 2nd lieutenant, he died in Iceland in 1943 while ferrying aircraft to the European Theater.

Frank L. “Bud” Wassell Jr.

Like Harry, Bud left college because of the Depression. The 2 sons worked with their father, Lloyd, in starting the Wassell Organization on Sylvan Road. A very successful businessman, he had worked as personal assistant to George Westinghouse, founder of Westinghouse Electric.

The company invented and sold production control equipment, becoming instrumental in expediting the efficiency of defense contractors. A 1st lieutenant flight commander, Bud was killed in 1943 in a midair collision, while a flight instructor in Florida.

Harry B. Wassell

Pete — a 1940 Staples High School graduate — left Middlebury College to train as a pilot in the Civil Air Patrol. He transferred to the Army Air Force, and was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant navigator.

He served in the China/ Burma/India Theater, and died in 1944 after his B-24 aircraft was hit by antiaircraft fire while attacking a Japanese cruiser.

The 4th son — George — was a member of Staples’ Class of 1943. But he left high school in 1942, to enlist as an aviation cadet. Appointed a B-17 aircraft commander at the age of 18, he was recalled from overseas duty when his 3rd brother Pete was killed. He served as a B-17 pilot instructor through the war’s end.

George Wassell with his parents, Lloyd and Georgene, by the Westport train station on Railroad Place in 1943 or ’44.

George turned down a full engineering scholarship to Cornell in order to join his father in the Wassell Organization.

Pete left behind a child, born 2 months after his death. Harry had a daughter, Patty, who still lives in Westport. George married Betsy Schuyler in 1945. They raised 6 children in Westport.

George and Betsy Wassell at Longshore, not long after the war.

When Lloyd moved his family to Westport before the war, he and his wife Georgene bought several acres of land on Mayflower Parkway. He built a large house (by 1930s standards), and planned to give building lots to his 6 kids: the 4 boys, and daughters Pat and Betty.

World War II sabotaged all that. But George and Pat did build homes there after the war. George added a pool, 3-hole golf course and tree house. The property became a great attraction for lots of cousins, and tons of neighborhood kids.

Longtime Westporter Jono Walker — George’s nephew — remembers those times fondly.

“The Wassells never dwelled on their tragic history,” he says. “At least none of us kids ever felt it. The house was constantly filled with great joy and life.”

As for George and Betsy: They moved to New Hampshire in 1974. He died in 2010, age 85. She is now 89, and lives in Maine.

The Wassell brothers’ 2 sisters are still alive. Betty is 98, in Florida, and Pat is 89, in Colorado.

The brothers and their parents are all buried at Willowbrook Cemetery.

(Hat tips: Eric Buchroeder, Jono Walker and Bud Wassell)

Friday Flashback #40

As Westport celebrates the 50th anniversary of the purchase of Cockenoe Island — click here if you missed that recent post, with all that fascinating saved-from-a-nuclear-power-plant history — Bill Whitbeck sends along this fascinating Kodachrome.

Click on or hover over to enlarge.

It was taken in 1971, looking north from Cockenoe Bay toward Saugatuck Shores (in the distance).

Bill says:

The photo shows a typical day on a summer weekend, with many boats enjoying this beautiful island. You can see a group of large tents on the sandbar off to the left, where families would camp for long periods of time.

Unfortunately, most of this sandbar has eroded into just a tiny strip of land, currently only exposed at low tide. You can clearly see how wide the sandbar was 46 years ago.

Sure, the sandbar is gone. But can you imagine what the scene would be like today if — 4 years earlier — many Westport political leaders and citizen activists had not said, clearly and loudly and repeatedly: “Save Cockenoe Now!”