Category Archives: History

Westport Historical Society May Soon Be History

Last month, the Westport Arts Center unveiled its new name.

It moved from Riverside Avenue to the Norwalk border — and rebranded itself as MoCA Westport. (As in “Museum of Contemporary Art.”)

It’s not the only longtime Westport institution to shed its well-known name.

Sometime soon, the Westport Historical Society will be known as the “Westport Museum for History and Culture.”

Extremely alert “06880” reader Fred Cantor spotted the change in an intriguing way. The official state website’s Film, TV & Digital Media page has a section devoted to “Producing in Connecticut.”

The listing for “Westport Historical Society & Museum” — interestingly, the “& Museum” appears nowhere on the WHS’ own website or logo — says simply, “Soon to be renamed Westport Museum for History & Culture.”

Someone at the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development knows something the rest of Westport does not.

I emailed WHS — er, WMHC — executive director Ramin Ganeshram for comment. When is it happening? I asked. What are the reasons?

She was at a conference in Philadelphia, but got right back to me.

“We will be issuing a formal press release prior to our September 28 benefit
when it will be announced, and would be happy to fully comment at that time,” she said. “May I ask how you came to know the same?”

I sent her the CT.gov link.

“Thanks!” she replied. “Happy to discuss in detail with formal announcement. ”

I guess that’s all we’ll know until then. Stay tuned for that historic moment.

Westport Historical Society, on Avery Place.

Motorcycle Cops On A Mission

How are you spending your weekend?

While you (and I) enjoy the beach, barbecues and other perks of a rapidly ending summer, 3 Westport police officers have taken a road trip.

Officers Rachel Baron, Mark Grasso and Scott Thompson used personal time to join volunteers from police departments nationwide, as escorts in a charity motorcycle ride.

America’s 911 Foundation — an all-volunteer group — organizes the annual event. Honoring victims of, and first responders to, the September 11 terrorist attacks, the ride visits all 3 sites at which people lost their lives that day in 2001.

It started Thursday in Shanksville, Pennsylvania; headed to the Pentagon, and ends today at the World Trade Center.

The 9/11 Memorial in Shanksville, Pennsylvania …

As escorts, the Westport officers helped clear the road ahead, stopped traffic at on-ramps and intersections, and made sure the many motorcyclists felt safe and supported.

… and the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC.

Money raised goes to great causes. Last year, the foundation presented $32,000 in college scholarships to 16 first responder children; provided over $7,000 to California first responders working on wildfires, and donated funds to fire companies in Tennessee and Pennsylvania for better equipment.

“Dr. King, The Rabbi And Me”

A recent “06880” story on the 70th anniversary of Temple Israel sent many longtime and former congregants — here and across the country — on trips down memory lane.

It stirred Carol-Anne Hughes Hossler too.

Now retired after a long career as an elementary school teacher, principal, Indiana University faculty member and coordinator of multicultural education for teachers, she is not a former Westporter. She’s not even Jewish.

Carol-Anne spent 5 years in Weston, before her family moved to California. They attended St. Michael’s Episcopal church in Wilton.

But it was the 1960s — the height of the civil rights movement — and at 13 years old, she was starting to pay attention to the world around her.

In October of 1963, the 5th and 6th grade wing of Weston’s elementary school burned down. Rabbi Byron T. Rubenstein offered the use of Temple Israel. Carol-Anne and her sister were among the students who went to school there.

When she learned that Martin Luther King would speak at Temple Israel’s 5th anniversary celebration, she told her parents she wanted to go. They said no; it was wrong to take the seat of a member of that congregation.

“That was the first time I went against my parents,” Carol-Anne recalls. She wrote a script for what she wanted to say, called the temple, and talked to the secretary.

Rabbi Rubenstein called right back. He asked why this was important to her. She told him how the leader of her church youth group had gone to the August March on Washington, and that they’d recently asked some girls from New York City to a youth group party.

He invited her to King’s speech. And — in the parking lot before the service — he met her, and introduced her to King himself.

This newspaper clipping from 1964 shows Rev. Martin Luther King at Temple Israel. He’s flanked by Rabbi Byron T. Rubenstein (left) and congregation president Dan Rodgers.

Carol-Anne still remembers exactly where she and her mother sat in the sanctuary.

For 20 years she considered writing a children’s book about that night, and the events that led up to it.

She thought she remembered what King had said. But she wanted her book to be true. As she researched his speeches, she realized that her recollection of King’s talk was accurate.

She began writing the book a decade ago. Her book is about how a black man and a Christian girl sat in a Jewish synagogue together, as brother and sister. “Why can’t it be like that everywhere?” she wonders.

There’s a subplot about white privilege. In September 1963, a bomb at a Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama killed 4 little girls.

“I looked at my white arm,” Carol-Anne says. “I was aware of my privilege as a white person even then.”

In 1964, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King spoke at the 5th anniversary of the dedication of Temple Israel. He autographed this program.

“Dr. King, The Rabbi and Me” has not yet been published. But — with a renewed focus on white privilege and black-white relations, and a target audience of upper elementary school students — Carol-Anne says the timing is right.

She hopes for a January launch. That’s the month in which Dr. Martin Luther King — who was just 35 years old when he visited Westport — was born.

This coming Martin Luther King Day, he would have been 91.

BONUS FACT: Dr. King was not the only prominent black American to speak at Temple Israel in that era. Andrew Lopez discovered a talk by author James Baldwin in April, 1961. His topic — “The Negro Mood” — was also the subject of a piece he’d written recently for the New York Times Magazine. 

Pic Of The Day #848

Gray’s Creek Revolutionary War cemetery at Longshore (Photo/Kathie Motes Bennewitz

Will Hamer’s Bean N’ Batter

Will Hamer is still in his early 20s.

But already he has:

  • Played rugby at Staples High School
  • Left Staples after 2 years to row for the Dublin School in New Hampshire, then rowed 2 more years at Iona College
  • Worked as a floor whip at the 2016 Republican convention
  • Joined the National Guard
  • Sold ads for a radio station and Hearst Media
  • Worked for candidates in Michigan
  • Gathered voting data throughout the Midwest (and lived out of his car while doing so).

Will Hamer, in a rare moment of relaxation.

Will loves Westport; it’s “artsy, accepting, nice and friendly.” His parents are still here. But having seen so much of the rest of the country — and meeting so many different people in Walmarts, campgrounds and other places — he knows this town is a bubble.

So when he heard about a crepe shop next to a comedy club in New Jersey that was making a killing, he had an idea for his next venture.

Ta da!  Will is now the owner of Bean n’ Batter. The waffles/granola/coffee bar opened earlier this month.

In downtown Bridgeport.

At 855 Main Street — directly across from People’s Bank headquarters — it’s already drawing raves. It’s one more piece in what Bridgeport boosters hope is the long-talked-about, hopefully-here-at-last renaissance of the once-thriving city.

Will has hopped on the Bridgeport bandwagon. One corner of the restaurant is filled with photos of the historic past, including colorful mayor P.T. Barnum, and John F. Kennedy’s raucous rally 2 days before the 1960 presidential election.

Bridgeport, in an earlier heyday.

Nearby residents and office workers alike are making Bean n’ Batter their place. They like the food, and the homey vibe.

“People are so receptive to what we’re doing,” Will says. “They like our prices — and that we’re not Starbucks.

The Crunchy: strawberries, blueberries, bananas, granola and honey drizzle.

“This is a great city,” he adds. “There’s so much going on — like the amphitheater next to Webster Bank Arena.” That’s just a few blocks away — under the I-95 overpass — from the new hot breakfast spot.

Before opening Bean n’ Batter, Will admits, he did not know much about Connecticut’s largest city — just a few miles from his hometown.

Now he urges Westporters to discover Bridgeport — and not just attractions like the Barnum and Discovery Museums, Beardsley Zoo and Seaside Park. Will has discovered fantastic restaurants like Pantanal, a Brazilian BBQ and buffet place on Frank Street.

Mayor Joe Ganim and several City Council members came to Bean n’ Batter’s grand opening. So did State Senator Will Haskell. His district does not include Bridgeport — but he was there to support a new business in a nearby city (and one opened by a fellow Staples grad).

Will Hamer (far left), Mayor Joe Ganim (2nd from right) and others celebrate the opening of Bean n’ Batter.

Which leads to one final thought: If Bean n’ Batter really takes off, it may expand.

Perhaps to Westport.

You know: the other town — besides Bridgeport — that has Will Hamer’s heart.

Sam Goodman: A Bronx Tale

Sam Goodman spent the first 15 years of his life in the Bronx.

But in 1966 his parents read a New York Times story. “Grand Concourse: Hub of Bronx is Undergoing Ethnic Changes” described white flight from the borough, as African Americans moved in.

Sam’s mother Blossom took the article to her congressman, James H. Scheuer. His advice: move.

Three months later, the Goodmans bought a house in Westport.

The Bronx was certainly changing. When Sam became a bar mitzvah in 1965, his temple had 3,000 families. Three years later it was sold to Bronx-Lebanon Hospital, for less money than it cost to build — in 1924.

His father Arthur called himself a “Bronx refugee.” Not only were people urged to leave, Sam says. “Police were telling people how not to be victims of crime. Garbage was picked up less often. The city abandoned the parks.”

Bronx borough seal

It was, in New York Housing Commissioner Roger Starr’s famous phrase, “planned shrinkage”: the deliberate withdrawal of city services to blighted neighborhoods, as a means of coping with dwindling tax revenues.

Between 1970 and ’80, Sam says, 303,000 people “disappeared from” the Bronx.

Most people know about the fires, he continues. But most do not realize that landlords paid money to have them set. The insurance they collected was far more than the buildings were worth.

Sam found Westport to be “absolutely amazing — great. People were friendly and outgoing. They enjoyed life. There was a lot of space.”

Coming from an apartment, he thought he lived in a huge house. In retrospect, he realizes, it was small for Westport.

Sam made friends fast. He thrived at Long Lots Junior High School, then Staples.

High school was where he learned to think, and develop a philosophy of life. Principal Jim Calkins encouraged students to stand up for what they believed in.

His parents, and Temple Israel’s Rabbi Byron Rubenstein, were enormous influences too.

The Temple Israel confirmation class of 1969. Sam is 4th from left in the top row, next to Rabbi Byron T. Rubenstein.

Sam’s involvement in Project Concern (bringing Bridgeport youngsters to Westport schools) and the Staples Governing Board (a unique, powerful collaboration between administrators, teachers and students) taught Sam about the importance of being a citizen. Done right, he says, “government works.”

At Kenyon College, Sam majored in political science. After graduation he returned to Westport to take care of his mother, who was sick. He drove school buses, Minnybuses and MaxiTaxis.

Sam earned a master’s in urban management and municipal planning from the University of Bridgeport, then spent 10 years as executive director of the Westport Transit District.

As Westport Transit District executive director, Sam Goodman was in charge of the Minnybus system. The hub and transfer point was Jesup Green.

But Sam could never forget the Bronx — or the political policies that had obliterated it.

In 1995 he got a job as an urban planner for the Bronx borough president. He’s been in that position ever since.

But it’s his side gig — Bronx tour guide — where Sam really shines.

He leads tours for the Municipal Art Society, Art Deco Society of New York, New York Adventure Club and Einstein Medical Center (for new pre-med students).

The tours cover history, architecture, urban planning, the politics and finances of rent control, and more.

Beautiful architecture remains in the Bronx.

As Sam talks, fields questions and shepherds groups in and out of buildings, they’re amazed. “People know pieces of the story,” he says. “But they’ve never heard it all connected. It gives them a new perspective. They can really appreciate what happened.”

Of course — the Bronx being less than an hour from here — Sam has Westporters on his tours.

One woman grew up there, but had not been back in many years. “She wanted to learn,” Sam says. “People told her she was crazy to go the Bronx.”

That’s a common stereotype. But, he notes, folks on his tours “see how pretty it is, and how friendly people are.” One man regularly invites Sam’s groups into his apartment — and gives them chocolates.

The Bronx today.

The “stigma hangover” lingers, though. “People still imagine it as it was in the 1970s and ’80s,” Sam says.

“The median income is low. There are many challenges,” he admits. “But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad place. It’s cleaner. There’s less crime than ever. People here are striving for something beautiful.”

His own co-op — of which Sam is treasurer — just spent $1 million to restore the lobby. Many other apartment buildings are being renovated.

His 1-bedroom is 900 square feet. He has parking, a doorman, and can get to midtown in 20 minutes. You could buy it for $300,000.

Sam Goodman in his Bronx apartment. A poster from Westport’s bicentennial celebration hangs on the wall behind Sam.

Prices like that attract young professionals from Manhattan and Brooklyn. Their mortgage and maintenance is half of what they pay for a small studio there.

Yet if you can’t take the Bronx out of Sam, you can’t remove Westport either.

He still owns the home he inherited from his parents. (He rents it out. A few years ago, he says proudly, his tenants’ twin sons were Staples’ valedictorian and salutatorian.)

Occasionally he takes the train here, rents a car and drives around. Westport, Sam says, “gets more beautiful each year.”

The Bronx tour guide — and one of its biggest boosters — concludes, “Westport still lives inside of me. It gave me the chance to grow into the person I am today.”

That person is a proud Bronx booster. There’s a lot more to the borough than just the Yankees.

Sam Goodman can tell you all about it. Just ask.

Or take his tour.

(Hat tip: Susan Thomsen)

Image

Happy 243rd, America!

Pic Of The Day #796

In 1964 — at the height of the civil rights movement — Westporter Tracy Sugarman traveled to Mississippi. He was part of the brutal Freedom Summer.

Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney were in his training class. On his 2nd day there, they disappeared. They were never seen alive again.

An artist and writer, Sugarman wove that experience — and many more in the South — into his works. Fannie Lou Hamer, and many other civil rights leaders, visit him often, at his Owenoke home.

Dennis Jackson attended Staples High School during that era. He now lives in Wilton. The other day, on a tour of he new Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson, he spotted this tribute to Tracy Sugarman.

(Photos/Dennis Jackson)

Bedford Middle School Students, Staples Freshman Make History

I’ve covered the accomplishments of Westport’s National History Day  competitors before.

I’ve used the headline “Do Know Much About History” too, so I can’t do that again.

However, earlier this month 5 Bedford Middle School students and 1 from Staples proved Sam Cooke wrong. They do know a lot about history.

The 8th graders — already state champions — placed 5th in the national event in College Park, Maryland. Freshman Ishan Prasad — a Bedford National History Day alum — placed 2nd in the High School Individual Paper category, for his work: “Shah Bano and India’s Post-Colonial Predicament: Gender vs. Religion.”

Bedford Middle School National History Day competitors, with club advisor Caroline Davis (rear) and their project.

The Westport program is only 5 years old. But what a history it has!

When Caroline Davis moved here from New Jersey, she brought a dozen years’ experience as a middle school National History Day Club faculty adviser. She asked if she could start one here.

Principal Adam Rosen welcomed the idea. A year later, Bedford qualified for the national competition. They repeated in 2017, ’18 and ’19 — all 3 times as state champs. Last year, they finished 4th in the country.

Davis calls her students “incredibly motivated. They want to explore outside of Goggle and readily available sources.”

She’s not kidding. Last year — delving into the 1967 Loving vs. Virginia Supreme Court interracial marriage case — one group tracked down and interviewed the Lovings’ attorney.

Chris Fields, in the famous photo by Charles Porter IV.

Another group made a website about the Oklahoma City bombing. They found — and interviewed — Chris Fields, the firefighter in a Pulitzer Prize-winning photo from that 1995 day.

(I know — to many “06880” readers, that’s a “current event.” But it happened a couple of decades before the current BMS kids were born. So history it is.)

The club meets twice a week. Students bring their lunch to Davis’ classroom, eating and working together. She helps them stay on course. But finding sources, organizing information, laying it out, offering peer reviews — that’s all on the students.

The national competition in Washington, DC was a fantastic educational and fun experience. In addition to teams from all over the US, the BMS students (and Ishan) met others from South Korea, China and Guam.

They also met Senator Richard Blumenthal, who spoke with them about the importance of history.

Senator Richard Blumenthal, at the US Capitol with some of Bedford’s National History Day team.

This year’s theme was “Triumph and Tragedy.” The BMS team — Rhea Choudhury, Sharmila Green, Emma Losonczy, Malika Subramanian and Lucia Wang — researched and presented the career of Lise Meitner.

Never heard of her? Neither had I.

She’s a Jewish Austrian physicist who helped discover nuclear fission in the late 1930s. She never received credit, though — and was even excluded from receiving the Nobel Prize.

Fortunately, the Bedford students (and Ishan) got their prize. Congrats to them, to Caroline Davis and Westport 6-12 social studies supervisor Lauren Francese.

Take that, Sam Cooke!

Larry Aasen: “North Dakotans Never Give Up”

Larry Aasen has just written his 4th book about North Dakota.

That may be a world record.

“Very few people write books about North Dakota,” the Peace Garden State native and longtime Westporter says modestly.

“Then again, very few people live in North Dakota, period.”

At 96 years old, Aasen still has all his wits — and his wit.

So I should note here: Very few 96-year-olds write books, period.

Aasen’s oeuvre includes “North Dakota 100 Years Ago,” “Images of North Dakota” and “North Dakota Postcards 1900-1930.” The postcards are fascinating — some are from his parents’ collection (they corresponded that way when they were courting, and lived 30 miles apart) — and so are the photos his mother took using a new-fangled camera (they were sent to Minneapolis to be developed, and arrived back 3 weeks later).

Larry Aasen has written 4 books. All focus on North Dakota.

His latest book — “North Dakotans Never Give Up” — goes beyond images, postcards and history. It’s a personal memoir, weaving together Aasen’s youth in the still-pioneer state with the inspiring story of residents who overcame great adversity, and achieved big things.

(Eric Sevareid, Lawrence Welk and Peggy Lee, to name 3.)

“The Depression was a terrible time,” Aasen says of his youth. “Many young people in North Dakota today have no idea. There were grasshoppers, drought — you name it.”

Those North Dakotans who never gave up survived by raising cows, turkeys, chickens and pigs. They made their own food. They built chairs and benches out of wood they chopped. They were self-sufficient. They had to be.

“Winters were tough,” he says. “Kids really did walk to school in the snow.”

He was one of those kids. And he’d go to school after milking cows. “We smelled. The town kids teased us,” he recalls.

Larry Aasen’s garage is filled with North Dakota — and political — memorabilia.

Aasen’s grandparents were certainly tough. All 4 lived into their 80s. Their stories form an important part of the new book.

“Weak people died,” Aasen says. His grandparents never went to the hospital. They didn’t even have medical care.

“It cost $1 for the doctor to come to the farm. That was too expensive.” He doesn’t remember ever seeing medicine in the house — “except maybe cough syrup.”

His mother kept a diary, which he still has. “She would talk about whatever happened that day,” Aasen says. “‘Today an airplane flew over the farm.’ ‘We butchered a pig.’ ‘Hoover was elected president.’ There were a lot of bank robberies too.”

Larry Aasen’s mother’s 1929 diary (left), and 2 pages from 1937.

Aasen is an assiduous researcher. He spent 9 months writing the most recent volume — and did all the layout too. (His son-in-law got it copy-ready.)

“I’m 96, but I’m too busy to be a senior citizen,” Aasen — whose Mississippi-born wife Martha, 89, is equally active — says.

Aasen’s books sell well — and all over the country. They’re bought by libraries, universities, people who live in North Dakota, and those who have left.

They’re reviewed regularly in publications like the Bismarck Tribune, Grand Forks Herald and Forum of Fargo.

Aasen promotes his books himself, partly through direct mail. After 4 volumes, he’s built up a robust mailing list. (Robust by North Dakota standards, anyway.)

He used to go back every year. His trips now are less frequent.

“I had 31 cousins there. Now there’s 1,” Aasen says. “My classmates, my Army mates — they’re all gone.”

Memorial Day 2018 grand marshal Larry Aasen and his wife Martha. (Photo/Ted Horowitz)

Larry and Martha Aasen moved to Westport in 1963. They’ve been involved in town life — too many activities to count — ever since.

But nearly 6 decades later — after nearly a century on the planet — Larry Aasen still loves his home state. And he’s proud to honor the people he grew up with there.

“A lot of people today, if they can’t get a job they sit around feeling sorry for themselves,” he says.

“In North Dakota, you couldn’t do that. You’d starve.

“You had to be tough, and figure things out.”

Like his book title says: North Dakotans Never Give Up.

(To buy a copy of Aasen’s book, email aasenm@aol.com, or call 203-227-6126.)