Category Archives: History

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.



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.


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.

Oh My 06880 — Photo Challenge #93

Last week’s photo challenge was aimed at Connecticut history buffs.

Seth Schachter’s shot showed the topmost part of the historical interest marker at the Compo Road South/Post Road intersection. If — rather, when — you’re stuck at that light, you can see it amidst all the other signs and stuff.

The portion I posted showed only the state motto (“Qui Transtulit Sustinet”). Both Nancy Hunter and Jill Turner Odice knew that it means “He who transplanted still sustains.”

Jill also joined Elizabeth Thibault and Brandon Malin in identifying the sign. It points to the site “one mile south” where on April 25, 1777, 2000  British troops landed en route to their raid on a Danbury arsenal.

Compo Beach is a bit further away than one mile. But because so few people recognize the historic marker, who cares? (Click here for the photo and comments.)

This week’s photo challenge comes courtesy of Lee Scharfstein. If you know where in Westport you’d find this, click “Comments” below.

(Photo/Lee Scharfstein)

(Photo/Lee Scharfstein)

Judith Hamer Helps Tell America’s Horrible, Inspiring History

Judith Hamer’s great-great-grandparents were slaves.

She earned a Ph.D., then served as director of education for the Rockefeller Foundation and was a professor at Columbia and NYU. She’s lived in Westport for 37 years, and raised 3 daughters here.

Those 2 worlds — slavery and professional achievement — intersected recently. Judith was a special guest at a preview before the official opening of the National Museum of African American History and  Culture in Washington, DC.

Judith Hamer (left), her sister Carolyn Thompson Brown, and brother-in-law Tim Eastman take photos at the National Museum of African American History and Culture preview. (Photo/Marvin Joseph for the Washington Post)

Judith Hamer (left), her sister Carolyn Thompson Brown, and brother-in-law Tim Eastman at the National Museum of African American History and Culture preview. (Photo/Marvin Joseph for the Washington Post)

Judith and her sister, Carolyn Thompson Brown, donated several artifacts to the 5-story museum, a proud and important new addition to the Smithsonian just 3 blocks from the White House.

One of the items was a photograph of their great-great-grandparents, Philip and Maria Johnson. Born in Virginia, he spent 50 years a a slave. But after the Civil War — and freedom — the couple bought a small farm in Virginia.

Around 1880, they posed for a photo. The Washington Post described them as “wearing heavy clothes, faint smiles and the mantle of freedom.”

Smithsonian curators turned that image into a wall-sized poster. It hangs as an introduction to the museum’s section on Reconstruction and Jim Crow.

Judith Hamer and her sister donated this photographer of their great-great-grandparents, Philip and Maria Johnson. The white spot in the center is the glare from Judith's camera.

Judith Hamer and her sister donated this photographer of their great-great-grandparents, Philip and Maria Johnson. The white spot in the center is the glare from Judith’s camera.

Judith’s sister — who also earned a Ph.D. — knows the museum’s founding director, Lonnie Bunch III. When he asked for artifacts, she thought of films their father had taken in the 1940s. What was much more compelling, though, were the sisters’ older photos — and their father’s Cornell University banner.

Another image they donated shows their grandmother Laura Johnson Thompson holding their father Frank on her knee. He was born in 1903.

Laura Johnson Thompson -- Judith's grandmother -- holds Judith's father Frank. Judith says it was probably traditional for young boys to wear dresses for formal photographs.

Laura Johnson Thompson — Judith’s grandmother — holds Judith’s father Frank. Judith says it was probably traditional for young boys to wear dresses for formal photographs.

Laura married a Pullman porter, and moved to New York City. They owned a house, and some rental property. Their son Frank — Judith’s father — graduated from Cornell in 1924. His slightly tattered banner introduces the museum’s section on education.

Judith says that her and her sister’s donations — along with the entire museum — show “what black people could achieve when they were freed.” They demonstrate too what their descendants achieved, as they moved up into America’s middle class.

Judith Hamer and her sister also donated their father's Cornell banner to the museum.

Judith Hamer and her sister also donated their father’s Cornell banner to the museum.

The museum’s exterior is as impressive as what’s inside, Judith says. It stands adjacent — and in contrast to — the tall, white marble Washington Monument.

The Museum of African American History and Culture features lacy grillwork — an art form mastered by New Orleans slaves. It evokes, Judith says, “the dark shadow of slavery that haunted George Washington, the Founding Fathers. It still haunts us today.”

The haunting facade of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. (Photo/Judith Hamer)

The haunting facade of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. (Photo/Judith Hamer)

Judith says the museum “is the first representation of the singular contributions of black folks in America.” Her contributions are “important pieces of the whole story.”

But the new museum does not contain all of Judith’s artifacts.

Her great-grandparents David and Arnetta were born into slavery. They were freed in 1863. Three years later, they got married in Wake County, North Carolina. The certificate calls them “lately slaves, but now free.”

But the certificate lists David’s last name as Mordechai.

That had been his slave name. As soon as he was emancipated, he changed it to Thompson.

For the nearly 4 decades she’s lived in Westport, that framed marriage certificate has hung on her wall.

“It’s a nice counterbalance to my degrees, in case I ever forget where I came from,” Judith Thompson Hamer says.

I doubt she ever will.

And now — thanks to the contributions of her, her sister and many others — millions of Americans will never forget too.

(Hat tip: Harold Bailey)

9/11 “Taps”

An alert “06880” reader who has never emailed before — and who requests anonymity — shares a special moment:

A friend and I were walking today. We took a seat at Old Mill Beach, on the bench next to the old Positano restaurant. We’ve walked there many times, but never sat down.

About 10 minutes into our conversation, a man appeared on the sidewalk. He started to play “Taps.”

Everyone nearby stood. A young boy put his hand over his heart.

When the man finished, we applauded and yelled “thank you!” He gave a quick wave, then disappeared.

My friend and I — who on September 11, 2001 were both newly married, and living in New York — cried our hearts out, right there on the bench.

We felt badly we had not taken a picture of the man playing “Taps.” Then we realized no photo could have captured that experience.

I don’t know the man’s name. But I hope he knows what a special moment he provided to the handful of people fortunate enough to have seen and heard him today.