Category Archives: History

Photo Challenge #203

Last Sunday marked the 100th anniversary of the armistice ending World War I. It was also Veterans Day.

In honor of all the Westport service members who gave their lives throughout American history, I posted a photo of a plaque. It lists the names of 14 Westporters who died in World War II.

It’s an important piece of who we are. But where is it?

Those names provided a clue. Many more than 14 from this town were killed in action, in Europe, North Africa and the Pacific.

Those 14 soldiers, sailors and airmen were members of Christ & Holy Trinity Episcopal Church. The plaque hangs on the church’s back wall, just inside the rear entrance.

It must be unnoticed by many. Sadly, no one knew the correct answer. Linda Amos was thinking “a church,” but she did not know which one. She came closest, until hours later Mary Cookman Schmerker nailed it.

Hopefully though, the plaque won’t be overlooked much longer. Christ & Holy Trinity congregants should seek it out. And because the church is used by so many community groups, others should find it too. (Click here to view the plaque.)

This week’s photo challenge, by contrast, is passed by every day by many Westporters. Still, how many of us actually see it?

(Photo/Mark Jacobs)

If you know where in Westport you’d find this, click “Comments” below.

Friday Flashback #116

The other day, alert “06880” reader Alan Hamilton was checking out Westport’s Wikipedia page.

He noticed we have 3″sister cities”: Marigny-le-Lozon, France; St Petersburg, Russia, and Yangzhou, China.

I guess we’re one of those families where siblings don’t really communicate. It’s been ages since we’ve chatted with our French, Russian and Chinese sisters!

But Alan wanted a closer relationship. He took a virtual drive — aka Google Street View — through Marigny.

And there — smack in the center of town — he saw this:

“Pharmacie Westport”!

He wondered if there is a story to this.

Bien sûr!

Right after D-Day in 1944, Westporter Bob Loomis — a gun sergeant — ended up in Marigny. It’s just 25 miles from Utah Beach.

A couple of weeks later another Westporter — heavy machine gunner Clay Chalfant — moved through Marigny with his company on their way to Belgium.

Woody Klein’s history of Westport notes that after the war Charlotte MacLear — head of the French department at Staples High School — sparked a campaign to “officially adopt Marigny” and help its recovery.

Our town sent clothes, money and Christmas gifts, thanks to fundraising that included selling toys and buckets with designs painted by Westport artists.

In return, Marigny created the “Westport School Canteen,” and named the town’s largest square “Place Westport.”

In June 1994 — as part of the 50th anniversary of the invasion of Normandy — Marigny invited 3 Westport middle school students and 2 Westport veterans to stay in the homes of residents. They visited “Westport Gift Shop” and — of course — “Pharmacie Westport.”

The 2 veterans were, of course,  Loomis and Chalfant

Zut alors!

Marigny – c’est magnifique!

Janet Beasley Memorial Service Set For Sunday

The life of Janet Beasley — Holocaust survivor and educator, wildlife advocate, and beloved wife of Dr. Albert Beasley — will be celebrated this Sunday (November 18).

A memorial service is set for Earthplace — an organization she served well for decades — beginning at 10:30 a.m.

Janet Beasley

Pics Of The Day #573

Westport photographer Ted Horowitz captured these moving scenes this afternoon, at the Veterans Day ceremony at Town Hall:

 

(All photos/copyright Ted Horowtiz)

 

 

Honoring Our Vets: Y’s Men Who Were There

In 2002, Bruce Allen and Jack Schwartz contacted Jim Honeycutt.

Members of the very active, wide-ranging Y’s Men retirees’ group, they asked the Staples High School media instructor for help with a project.

Both had served in the military during World War II. They wanted to produce a video, filled with memories and reflections of 18 WWII combat veterans. Already, the ranks of service members from that war were thinnning.

His father was in the navy. Honeycutt was happy to help.

Plaques, memorials and a statue fill Westport’s Veterans Green, across from Town Hall.

As he interviewed the nearly 2 dozen veterans, Honeycutt was stunned. One man had waved at a low-flying airplane. The pilot waved back. Then he torpedoed a battleship in Pearl Harbor.

Schwartz himself bombed Japan, at the same time an atomic bomb was dropped to the north. He saw the sky filled with colors.

“The stories are so important to remember,” Honeycutt says.

So earlier this year — now retired from teaching — he took the DVD, re-edited it, and uploaded the finished product to his personal YouTube channel.

There’s almost 3 hours of content. As Veterans Day approaches, Honeycutt invites “06880” readers to honor all who served America by hearing their stories. Just click below.

 

Remembering Janet Beasley

Janet Beasley — the wife of Dr. Albert Beasley, and a longtime Westport resident and volunteer — died Saturday, after a long battle with cancer. She was 82 years old.

Janet was a staunch protector of wildlife, through Earthplace and other organizations. She was an avid member of the Westport Weston Family Y, where she loved swimming.

Janet and Dr. Albert Beasley

She was also a Holocaust survivor, who spoke out about the horrors she endured.  She participated in Stephen Spielberg’s project to collect testimony from survivors.

In 2013, the Connecticut Jewish Ledger profiled her. The story said:

Nearly 200 years ago, in 1826, the Jewish community of Berlin, Germany opened a school for boys, moving to a newly constructed building at 27 Grosse Hamburger Strasse in 1862. The school would thrive for 80 years, until the Nazis transformed the site into a deportation center for the city’s Jews from 1942 to 1945. After the war, under East German authority, the building was used as a vocational school.

By 1993, the city’s Jewish population had grown enough to re-establish a Jewish high school. After extensive renovation, the building opened again, this time as the Jewish High School. From 27 students in its inaugural year, the school now boasts nearly 300 students of all faiths, ranging from middle school (grades 5-7) and high school (grades 8-13). The curriculum comprises both Judaic and secular studies, with Jewish holiday observances and kosher lunch regular parts of student life.

This year, on the occasion of its 20th anniversary, the Jewish High School published a book tracing its history. Included among the articles is a story about a special visit to Westport in 2009.

In 2006, Westport resident and German-Jewish Holocaust survivor Janet Beasley donated wartime artifacts, documents, and photos to Jewish Museum Berlin. She was invited by the museum to lead workshops for two groups of German high school students on her experiences as a Jew surviving in Hitler’s Berlin. The first group comprised 13th-grade art students from the Jewish High School, led by teacher Sabine Thomasius.

Janet Beasley

In November of 2006, a workshop took place in the Archives of the Jewish Museum Berlin, where students in my art course met with Janet Beasley. Janet grew up in Berlin, the child of a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father, and as an 8-year-old was deported to Theresienstadt with her mother. The personal memories which Janet Beasley shared with great candor and intimacy led to the creation of paintings and collages during the lessons in the classroom. These were exhibited in the Jewish Community Center Berlin during the summer of 2007.

Janet Beasley was so touched by the students’ pictures that she arranged for an exhibit in her hometown, Westport, Connecticut.

Through this exhibit and reports in the newspapers, many people in her area learned for the first time about the details of this chapter of her life story.

We were invited to the opening of the exhibit in Westport and along with the exhibit opening, we had a tight schedule of meetings arranged and supported by Aubrey Pomerance [chief archivist, Jewish Museum Berlin], Janet Beasley, [Westport artist and German-Jewish Holocaust survivor] Steffi Friedman, and the host families. We had the opportunity to meet with and have lively conversations with students from totally different social spheres as well as with youth groups from a Jewish congregation [Kulanu Stamford]. In particular, the youths in Connecticut wanted to know how Jewish life in Germany is shaped now. The program included conversations with witnesses to history as well as visits to artists in their studios and a trip to New York.

The students’ paintings, depicting incidents from Beasley’s childhood in Berlin and in Theresienstadt, were combined with artists’ statements and copies of the archival materials Beasley donated to the museum, into “Memories of a Childhood Lost,” an exhibit shown at Earthplace in Westport in April 2008.

Janet Beasley gave interviews about her experiences during the Holocaust. This is a still image taken from one.

Janet Beasley’s story is a unique one. She was born Jutta Grybski in Berlin in 1935, the child of Käthe, a Jew, and Hans, a Catholic. Jutta’s parents divorced when she was three, when Hans wanted to serve in the German army. He remarried three years later and had a son.

As long as Hans stayed alive, Jutta, Käthe and Käthe’s parents were safe, though they were rounded up every month or so and taken to Nazi collection centers, only to be released a few hours later or the next day.

In 1941, Jutta’s maternal grandfather, a decorated World War I veteran, was taken to Sachsenhausen concentration camp and shot to death. Two years later, her grandmother died in Auschwitz or on the way there.

In 1944, Hans was killed in action and Jutta and Käthe were taken to Thereisenstadt, where they spent nine months before the camp was liberated. They returned to Berlin and lived with Hans’s father, then emigrated to the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1946. Jutta changed her name to Janet, partly because Americans didn’t know how to pronounce Jutta, partly because children had taunted her with the nickname “Jutta-Jüde,” “Jutta-Jew.” She moved to Norwalk in 1964 and to Westport in 1973, the same year she returned to Berlin for the first time since emigrating. Her mother died at the Jewish Home for the Elderly in Fairfield in 1992. Janet is married to Dr. Albert Beasley, a longtime Westport pediatrician.

“What is really weird for me is that, when the Nazis closed the school, it became a collection center for Jews before their deportation and my mother and I were sent to the concentration camp from there,” Beasley says. “I had an idea that that was the place but wasn’t sure until I read in the book’s index that it was indeed used for that purpose. It stirred some very vivid memories.”

(Click here for the Connecticut Jewish Ledger story. Hat tip: Bob Knoebel)

Special Veterans Day Ceremony Set

Many American holidays that should be celebrated on the same day every year — Martin Luther King Day, Columbus Day, Presidents Day (formerly George Washington’s birthday) — have been shifted to Mondays. Who can resist a 3-day weekend?

But Veterans Day is sacrosanct. The brutal World War I ended at 11 a.m. on the 11th day of the 11th month. That’s why, every November 11, we honor all our veterans.

This year is extra special. The armistice was signed in 1918 — exactly 100 years ago.

Because Veterans Day often falls on a weekday — and it’s business as usual for most businesses — Westport’s annual Town Hall ceremony seldom draws a crowd.

The dougbhoy statue in Veterans Green honors World War I service members. It’s directly opposite Town Hall, where Veterans Day services take place. (Photo/Ted Horowitz)

But 2018 is different. November 11 is next Sunday. Between that and the centennial of The Great War’s end, there’s no reason the auditorium can’t be filled.

The Westport Community Band starts things off at 1:30 p.m., playing World War I songs. Brief remarks begin at 2 p.m. Jon Nealon — a Staples High School senior who enters an ROTC program next year — will deliver the always-insightful student address.

The American Legion — which is revitalizing its Westport post — will be there, enlisting members.

Veterans Day is an often overlooked American holiday. Sunday, November 11 is a chance to give it — and our veterans — the honor they deserve.

 

Diane Lowman Masters Shakespeare

Diane Lowman always had a crush on Shakespeare.

For as long as she remembers, the Westporter loved the long-dead English author.

But when her sons Dustin and Devin graduated from Staples High School, Diane — who kept busy in her 20-plus years here by volunteering in school libraries, tutoring and substitute teaching Spanish, and doing nutrition consulting with groups like Homes with Hope and Project Return — found herself with empty-nesting time.

For “brain stimulation,” she read all 38 of her crush’s plays. She blogged about the experience in “The Shakespeare Diaries.”

When that was done, Diane says she had “post-partum depression.”

Then a friend mentioned a cousin was earning a master’s degree in English. A light bulb flashed.

“I’d been out of school hundreds of years. It was crazy,” Diane recalls. “But I applied to the Shakespeare Institute.”

The research group is part of the University of Birmingham (England, not Alabama). Based in Stratford-upon-Avon, it offers a 13-month master’s program in Shakespeare studies.

So a year ago, Diane says, “I ran away from home.”

Diane Lowman with her crush, at Stratford-upon-Avon.

The experience exceeded even her lofty expectations.

“I pinched myself every day,” she reports. She lived in the beautiful West Midlands, surrounded by farms, sheep and swans. The Cotswolds were close.

It was not Disneyland. It was “Shakespeareland.”

The Institute’s professors were “Shakespeare’s brain trust,” Diane notes. Yet they were exceptionally accessible, caring and helpful.

Her flat was 2 blocks from the Church of the Holy Trinity, where the writer is buried. Diane visited often. “I would just sit and chat with him,” she says.

The Royal Shakespeare Company was half a mile away. She saw every play they produced.

Diane also volunteered at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. She had access to the full archives — including rare, barely seen materials.

She flipped through a 1623 folio of the playwright’s works — the first time they were compiled together. “I actually cried,” she says of that experience.

Diane Lowman held this rare Shakespeare folio.

Now — 13 months later — Diane has her master’s degree in Shakespeare. What does that mean for her life?

“That’s my big quandary: What do I want to do when I grow up?” Diane admits.

She has met with the creative director of Shakespeare on the Sound, and contacted Norwalk Community College about teaching a lifetime learners’ course. She’d also like to do a “Kids’ Introduction to Shakespeare” through the Westport Library.

The renowned author’s works “are really not daunting,” she claims. “I read Shakespeare to both boys starting around 2. They knew ‘Hamlet’ better than ‘Goodnight Moon.'”

As Diane Lowman starts to figure out her next steps, there’s one literary certainty. Her memoir, “Nothing But Blue,” has just been published.

It’s a trip back to the summer of 1979. Diane — a 19-year-old Middlebury College student — spent 10 weeks working on a German container ship, with a nearly all male crew.

She traveled from New York to Australia and New Zealand and back, through the Panama Canal.

The voyage changed her perspective on the world, and her place in it. She left as  a “subservient, malleable girl,” and returned as a confident, independent, resilient young woman.

That long-ago journey was not much different from her recent one.

“I went far from home, on what seemed like a crazy idea,” Diane says of both. “But ultimately my time was so enriching.”

Her time in England was “wonderful.” Her shipboard experience was “scary, lonely and weird.”

Ultimately though, Diane learned and grew from both.

All’s well that ends well.

 

Great Gatsby: Great Neck Fires Back

Westport has laid out a strong case as the setting for “The Great Gastsby.”

Great Neck is firing back.

Westporters know the story: historian Deej Webb and filmmaker Robert Steven Williams say that F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgeralds’ 1920 sojourn here informed not only the author’s physical description of Jay Gatsby’s mansion, but also much of the novel’s emotional power.

They also believe that Westport influenced nearly all of Fitzgerald’s ouevre.

Not so fast, Long Island counters.

“Everyone knows that Great Neck was the setting for ‘The Great Gatsby,’ don’t they?” a flyer from that town’s historical society asks.

And then answers: “Apparently, not everyone!”

“There are those who believe that Fitzgerald was really talking about — of all places — Westport, Connecticut,” the Great Neck Historical Society explains.

After mentioning Webb and Williams’ PBS film and companion book — plus stories in the New York Times, Newsday and more — the GNHS announces that the duo will discuss their findings and answer audience questions at a “special presentation.”

It’s this Sunday (October 21), 1:30 p.m. at the Great Neck Public Library main branch. GNHS president Alice Kasten will “defend” — their word — Great Neck’s “historical and literary honor” (ditto).

She recently took Webb and Williams on a Great Neck tour, “pointing out details to substantiate the long-held belief that Fitzgerald was writing about Great Neck and Port Washington.”

“They even interviewed me for their film,” she says. “I showed them how Fitzgerald had to be writing about our hometown.”

The GNHS calls this a “bound-to-be-controversial program.” It’s free, and open to the public.

Which means Westporters — defending our own honor — can pack the house. Click here for directions!

(Hat tip: Marcia Falk)

The Life And Loves of Horace Staples

Jeanne Stevens is an amateur genealogist. Before retiring this year, she was also an AP US History teacher at Staples High School.

So it was natural that when she learned about the condition of school founder Horace Staples’ grave — it, and those of his wife Charrey Crouch, son Capt. William Cowper Staples and daughter Mary were cracked, broken, knocked over, and overgrown with weeds and brush in Greens Farms Congregational Church’s cemetery — she vowed to help.

The grave of the founder of Staples High School, before restoration.

The cost for restoration was $10,000. (By comparison, Wilbur Cross — Horace Staples’ 2nd principal — was paid $700 for the year. Of course, that year was 1885.)

With the help of graduating classes and fellow teachers, she raised some of the funds. In August, Horace and Charrey’s stones were reinstalled.

Horace and Charrey Staples’ graves today. (Photo/Jeanne Stevens)

Meanwhile, in retirement, Stevens headed to the Connecticut State Library in Hartford. She had found a reference to the diary of Eliza Ann Hull Staples — Horace’s first wife — and wanted to see it.

Eliza began writing when she was 14. The last entry was on May 5, 1832, 2 days before William was born and a few weeks before her own death.

Horace Staples’ entry in his wife Eliza’s diary, after she died.

Stevens calls Horace’s entry underneath Eliza’s final one “heartbreaking.” He wrote: “Thus ends the diary of her whose worth was counted more than all this world by her unworthy partner. [She lived] 28 years, 3 months & 3 days.”

On the next page he added:

3 ½ OClock [sic] A.M. 10 June 1832 an hour never to be forgotten by me being an hour which brought upon me an irretrievable loss in the death of my beloved and affectionate wife. Although she was resigned to her fate & felt sure of entering the gates of Heaven until her last breath yet it seems more than I can bear to say Oh, Father thy will be done. Her disease was of that nature that brot [sic] death gradually upon her in the space of 5 weeks – she has left me 2 small children the eldest 3 years & 7 days old youngest 5 weeks whom I consider as dear pledges of pure and life lasting affection and may God bless them.

A few years later, Horace Staples married Charrey. They enjoyed another half century together.

Horace Staples

He became Westport’s wealthiest citizen, running a lumber and hardware business, and general store. He bought sailing vessels, a silk factory, and part of an axe factory. He owned a farm, a thriving pier on the Saugatuck River and helped found a bank.

In 1884 — well into his 80s — he established Staples High School. He lived another 13 years. He died in 1897 in his Riverside Avenue home — age 96 — of pneumonia.

His house still stands. Now — restored once again — so does his grave.