Category Archives: Looking back

Mary Allen’s Historic Mill Pond Bench

Alert “06880” reader — and amateur historian — Wendy Crowther writes:

Mary Riordan Allen grew up on Hillspoint Road, a few houses away from the iconic Allen’s Clam House.

In the early 1900s, Walter “Cap” Allen opened his clam and oyster shack on the banks of Sherwood Mill Pond. The oysters came from beds in the pond and nearby cove. Cap often hand-shucked them himself. Over time he grew Allen’s into a rustic family eatery.

Recently, Mary returned to the property — now the site of the Sherwood Mill Pond Preserve. It was a special occasion: to meet her bench.

A year ago, she asked Sherry Jagerson — chair of the preserve committee – how she and her family could contribute to the spot that meant so much to them. (A photo on the plaque — and below — shows Cap Allen holding a baby: Mary’s husband, Walter Allen.)

Captain Walter Allen (far right) with his wife Lida, daughter Beulah, holding his son Walter Ethan Allen (Mary’s future husband). The photo was taken at Allen's Clam House around 1911.

Captain Walter Allen (far right) with his wife Lida, daughter Beulah, holding his son Walter Ethan Allen (Mary’s future husband). The photo was taken at Allen’s Clam House around 1911.

Several months later, Mary came to Westport from her home in Maine. Sherry, I and other committee members walked the site with her, to pick out the best spot for the Allen family bench.

Mary Allen, at Sherwood Mill Pond.

Mary Allen, at Sherwood Mill Pond.

After returning home, Mary sent me old photos. One showed her son Chris sitting on what may have been the same boulder from decades earlier.

Mary said that Chris loved feeding the swans close to shore. In early spring, they came to the marsh, rebuilt their nest, laid their eggs and raised their cygnets.

Mary Allen's son Chris, with Sherwood Mill Pond swans.

Mary Allen’s son Chris, with Sherwood Mill Pond swans.

In high school, Mary clammed at low tide on the mud flats, and sold them to Cap. She also sold horseshoe crabs. He put them in floats where he kept his fresh clams; they kept the water clean.

Cap Allen and his wife Lida, in front of the clam house.

Cap Allen and his wife Lida, in front of the clam house.

The Clam House and Mill Pond were Mary’s summer playground. She and her friends rented Cap’s handmade rowboats, to catch blue claw crabs and have adventures. They swam at the gates at high tide — a “challenging and dangerous activity” that today she would not allow.

In winter, the pond froze over. The ice skating was wonderful.

Years later — after she married — Mary’s own children enjoyed similar activities. They also ate quite well at Allen’s. After all, she was family.

Cap’s son, Walter Ethan Allen, had a 35-foot ketch-rigged oyster boat. With a shallow draft and long, shallow centerboard and rudders, it was perfect for oystering. For better ballast, Walt asked neighborhood kids to sail with him.

When Walt returned from World War II, he asked Mary — a Staples High School student — to help. Eventually, ballast turned to romance. They married when she was 18. He was 30.

Walt and Mary Allen had 5 children. This photo shows Abigail, their oldest (Cap’s grandchild), in front of the barn that once stood tight against Hillspoint Road on the edge of the Clam House property. The barn -- which still stands -- was rustic inside, but furnished with a full kitchen and a 2nd-floor loft. Cap used it as a popular summer rental property.

Walt and Mary Allen had 5 children. This photo shows Abigail, their oldest (Cap’s grandchild), in front of the barn that once stood tight against Hillspoint Road on the edge of the Clam House property. The barn was rustic inside, but furnished with a full kitchen and a 2nd-floor loft. Cap used it as a popular summer rental property.

Cap owned a 1934 Ford Phaeton convertible. He drove it to the bank every Monday morning, to deposit the week’s proceeds.

Mary enjoyed hanging out at the clam house. Cap was “quiet but friendly and affable, and had a nice sense of humor.” A cigar smoker, he recovered from throat cancer. In 1954, age 75, he died of arterial sclerosis.

His sons — David and Mary’s husband Walt — tried to keep the business going, hiring help while they held their own jobs. Finally, they decided to run the restaurant only. The Uccellinis — 2 generations of their own family — did a magnificent job too.

Allen’s Clam House was a hugely popular summer place. Over time though, the building wore down. Environmental restrictions made it financially impossible to continue.

The restaurant closed in the mid-1990s. The land was ripe for sale. Developers — hoping to build 3 houses — made lucrative offers. Westporters mourned the loss of what had always been a favorite view. They urged the town to buy the land.

Mary worked closely with First Selectman Diane Farrell, and negotiated a special deal. Though it took many years, the site was eventually rehabilitated by volunteers. It officially opened as a preserve in 2010.

The Sherwood Mill Pond Preserve is one of the most tranquil spots in Westport. (Photo/Katherine Hooper)

The Sherwood Mill Pond Preserve is one of the most tranquil spots in Westport. (Photo/Katherine Hooper)

For the dedication, Mary’s daughter Bonnie Allen wrote:

A special acknowledgment is due to my mother, Mary Riordan Allen, the last remaining owner of the Allen’s Clam House property. 11 years ago, in the spirit of Captain Allen’s concern for the Mill Pond and its meadows, she turned down high purchase offers from developers in favor of selling the property to the town at a price it could afford.

With generous matching contributions from like-minded Westporters (Paul Newman, Harvey Weinstein and Martha Stewart among them) the town of Westport bought the property, and honored my mother’s wishes that it be preserved in its natural state, dedicated to my grandfather, Captain Walter Dewitt Allen.

Last week, Mary and Bonnie returned to Westport to meet their bench — a gift from Mary and her children. The plaque honors Mary’s husband Walt, who died in 1982, and Bonnie’s son, Sebastian Katz, who died in 2000 at age 20.

Mary and Bonnie Allen, on the family's bench.

Mary and Bonnie Allen, on the family’s bench.

The plaque on the Allen family bench.

The plaque on the Allen family bench.

Mary’s bench is the one that Sherwood Mill Pond visitors gravitate to most. I suspect that’s because it provides the same views and sense of peace that first drew Cap to this special piece of the Mill Pond, and inspired him to raise a family and a business on its shores.

Thanks to Mary and her family, this site is a wonderful place, where both nature and history are preserved.


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It Really Is The “Class” Of ’66

Staples High School’s Class of 1966 has always been special.

Growing up in postwar Westport, then coming of age in high school as a turbulent decade picked up steam, they were an active, accomplished bunch.

The Class of ’66 included 14 National Merit semifinalists, 29 All-State musicians and 5 All-State actors. The Orphenians traveled to the Virgin Islands; student government brought the Beau Brummels and Animals to Staples, and as a gift to the school — a tradition that unfortunately has disappeared — the class donated a handsome sign for the entrance on North Avenue.

John Lupton (left), Class of 1966 president, shakes hands with '67 president Dick Sandhaus at the sign's dedication ceremony. Principal Jim Calkins looks on.

John Lupton (left), Class of 1966 president, shakes hands with ’67 president Dick Sandhaus at the sign’s dedication ceremony. Principal Jim Calkins looks on.

But in the 50 years since graduation, the Class of ’66 has really stepped up its game. A few years ago they paid to refurbish the exterior of the Lou Nistico Fieldhouse at Staples, and added lighting to the current North Avenue entry sign. They’ve also organized their own special scholarship fund through Staples Tuition Grants.

Over the years I’ve become friends with many of the members, who I knew only by name and legend as a kid growing up in town. They’ve accomplished amazing things — in music, the arts, journalism, religion, education, even modeling and wine importing — but for half a century they have remained tight and loving. (Very, very fun-loving too).

A number of them remain — or became — reconnected to their hometown through “06880.” I’ve been honored to be a guest at their 2 most recent reunions.

This year’s 50th was fantastic. It began Friday night at the VFW (with kick-ass music from, among others, Rob Carlson, Jon Gailmor and Roger Kaufman). It continued with a lobster dinner last night at the Westport Woman’s Club (and a moving memorial to the 65 classmates who have died). It ended this afternoon at the beach.

Jon Gailmor, Steve Emmett and Rob Carlson reprised the famed Triumvirate group at the VFW. Gailmor replaced the late Chris Avery.

Jon Gailmor, Steve Emmett and Rob Carlson reprised the famed Triumvirate group at the VFW. Gailmor replaced the late Chris Avery.

There were many highlights for me, as I mingled with so many heroes and heroines from my youth. But the coolest came as I was leaving.

Each class member received a goody bag. In every one was a stone — collected, over a long time, from Compo Beach. They were stamped “Staples High 50th reunion, Class of 1966.”

Class of 66

And wrapped around them were these words:

Each stone carries memories created by the gentle and loving spirit of Compo Beach — our playground, our retreat, the safe haven of our youth. Compo loves us unconditionally. It is the beautiful link that will — like each stone and echoes of friendships — last forever.

While they were growing up, the members of the Class of 1966 — like most teenagers — probably did not realize the gifts they were gaining from their school, and town. I did not realize it several years later, and kids today don’t either.

The passage of time does something powerful and good. But it takes a special group of people to actually stop, think about and honor that time.

Well done, Class of ’66. Very, very classy indeed.

Oh My 06880 — Photo Challenge #81

Everyone knows the Black Duck. A lot of people know Pete Aitkin, who owns it.

Some people know he grew up in Westport: In the very cool house that straddles the raceway between Old Mill Beach and the Sherwood Mill Pond.

Fewer people know there are 2 plaques near the house, honoring Pete’s parents, King and Kathleen Aitkin.

Only Chris Swan, Rick Benson and Leigh Gage answered last week’s photo challenge correctly. But several readers — including Pete’s sister, Melissa Aitkin Beers — added interesting info on the couple, and their house. Click here to see Jaime Bairaktaris’ photo, and all the comments.

The subject of this week’s challenge did not grow up anywhere. But if you know where in Westport he is — and have any back stories about him — click “Comments” below.

Oh My 06880 - July 17, 2016

Basketball Blues End Soon

It’s been a while since there was a hoops game at Compo.

But the reconstruction of the 2 basketball courts is nearly complete. This was the scene yesterday:

Basketball court - Compo

The courts have a long history. The first one — built in the late 1950s — was the brainchild of Albie Loeffler and Paul Lane. The Staples High School basketball head and assistant coach, respectively, saw the court as a way to keep their players active in the off-season — and a way to run a Fairfield County league for the Wreckers and their foes.

The court became a community effort. Gault and Kowalsky donated materials and labor.

The 2nd court was built later. It’s been a year-round favorite for generations of basketball players, of all ages.

And even more generations of Canada geese.

That’s Life! (In 1949, Anyway…)

The other day, alert “06880” reader Amy Leonard discovered an August 8, 1949 Life magazine. The cover promised an inside look into “Fairfield County: Country Home of Smart New Yorkers.”

Amy asked if I’d be interested. She knows me well.

Life 1949Just a couple of years before Westport roared into a post-war baby boom ‘burb, Life portrayed our town — and the rest of the county — as a place most readers could only aspire to.

The country’s most popular magazine located us “between the sailboat-dotted waters of Long Island Sound and the woodsy border of New York State.” Our “scalloped shore line” offered “hundreds of miles of valuable waterfront property.”

The “electrified New Haven Railroad and high-speed Merritt Parkway” provided swift access to New York City. Our “rolling hills and leisurely life” attracted well-to-do, already successful commuters.

“Their existence is not utopian,” Life warned. Commuters’ days revolved around the 7:43 a.m. train to New York, and the 5:16 p.m. back. Taxes were high, “and servants expensive.”

But, the story continued, “for the New Yorkers who can, or think they can, afford a country home, Fairfield County is probably the best — and the newly fashionable — place to have it.”

They could, for example, pay $140 a year beyond the regular train fare. That got them a seat in the railroad club car: “an exclusive, air-conditioned arrangement for wealthy commuters who prefer not to ride in coaches.”

Enjoying a card game, in the elite railroad club car.

Enjoying card games, in the elite railroad club car.

Not everyone took the 7:43, of course. “Idea people” — artists and authors whose commuting schedule was not as rigorous as businessmen — had long lived here.

In fact, Life said, “there are probably more professional artists within a 25-mile radius of Westport than in any comparable spot in the U.S.” Just 4 years old, the Westport Artists Club already boasted 148 members.

This shows Westport artist Stevan Dohanos -- a famed illustrator for Life's competitor, the Saturday Evening Post -- drawing a church in Easton. The model is George Weisling.

This shows Westport artist Stevan Dohanos — a famed illustrator for Life’s competitor, the Saturday Evening Post — drawing a classic New England church in Easton.

The Life story ended with a few aspirational photos: a painted split rail fence, station wagon, old window pane and beagle, among them.

Described as “some of the items which commuters consider essential to a happy life in Fairfield County,” they distinguished “the transplanted New Yorker who has fled from the sameness of apartment life, and is now making his country place as similar to the one next door as he can.”

Life ceased weekly publication in 1972. What would a current story on Westport say and show?

Click “Comments,” to add your 2016 view.

The caption reads: "New arrival in Westport is James Donovan, a wealthy young (34) executive who bought his home two years ago. He is one of many such newcomers." No mention of his wife or kids, who are also in the picture.

The caption reads: “New arrival in Westport is James Donovan, a wealthy young (34) executive who bought his home two years ago. He is one of many such newcomers.” (No mention of his wife or kids, also in the picture.)

According to the caption, "The Westport Country Playhouse gives better than average plays, including tryouts of Broadway-bound shows." This was a rehearsal of "The Time of Your Life."

According to the caption, “The Westport Country Playhouse gives better than average plays, including tryouts of Broadway-bound shows.” This was an outdoor rehearsal of “The Time of Your Life.”

Life says commuters considered these "essential to a happy life in Fairfield County."

Life says commuters considered these “essential to a happy life in Fairfield County.”

Ed Baer: Westport’s Record-Setting Good Guy

Ed Baer is a good guy.

Back in the day though, he was really a Good Guy.

A young Mick Jagger sports a WMCA Good Guy sweatshirt.

A young Mick Jagger sports a WMCA Good Guy sweatshirt.

If you grew up in the tri-state area in the 1960s, you remember the name. Ed Baer was a WMCA disc jockey. He and his colleagues — Joe O’Brien, Harry Harrison, Dan Daniel*, B. Mitchel Reid, Gary Stevens and the rest — were the Good Guys.

They battled WABC (the All-Americans: Dan Ingram, Cousin Brucie…) for radio supremacy. It was a legendary time in music history, and Ed Baer was part of some of its most exciting moments.

WMCA was a New York station, but he grew up in Westport — and lived there when he was a Good Guy.

Ed lived here after WMCA went all-talk too. He then worked at WHN, WHUD, WYNY, WCBS-FM. He broadcast 2 shows — 7 days a week — from his home studio, for Sirius.

He’s still here. Still as sharp and smooth-talking as ever. And still active.

Ed’s latest project takes shape in that home studio. With his 3 teenage grandsons — Kyle, Ryan and Trevor Baer — he’s selling his entire record collection. There are astonishing LPs, 45s and 78s, with amazing stories.

Trevor, Kyle and Ryan Baer with their grandparents, Ed and Pearl Baer.

Trevor, Ryan and Kyle Baer with their grandparents, Ed and Pearl Baer. A photo of Ed — from his WMCA days — hangs on the wall.

But before you hear them, here’s the back story.

Ed’s parents moved here in 1945, when he was 9. His dad opened a candy store and soda fountain at Desi’s Corner, across from the train station. Ed worked there before graduating from Staples High School in 1954. CBS newsman Douglas Edwards — a Weston resident — was a regular customer.

Ed wandered into radio broadcasting at the University of Connecticut. When his father had a heart attack, Ed transferred to the University of Bridgeport. Westporter Win Elliot — the New York Rangers announcer — helped him grow.

When he served at Ft. Dix, his radio background helped. A sergeant who liked music allowed Ed to travel home Thursdays through Sundays. He brought the latest records back to base, thanks to a friend who worked at Columbia Records’ pressing plant in Bridgeport.

After discharge, Ed worked at 50,000-watt KRAK in Sacramento. He returned home after his father died. Dan Ingram — his former WICC colleague now at WABC — helped “Running Bear” land a job at rival WMCA.

The rest is history. Ed was there as the station moved from Paul Anka and Bobby Darin to the Beatles, Stones, Supremes and Doors.

They were wonderful years. When the Beatles played Shea Stadium, Ed sat in the broadcast booth and played the same records the Fab Four were singing. It sounded better than the concert. He’s got the only existing reel-to-reel (now CD) copy of that night.

Ed Baer still has this 78 from 1952. It's the Staples Band -- directed by John Ohanian -- playing "American Folk Rhapsody."

Ed Baer still has this 78 from 1952. It’s the Staples Band — directed by John Ohanian — playing “American Folk Rhapsody.”

One day, he saw John Ohanian at Oscar’s. Westport’s legendary music director had taught Ed clarinet in 4th grade (he later switched to tenor sax).

“I hear you’re playing all that rock ‘n’ roll,” Ohanian said. “I thought I taught you better than that.”

He paused. “But I hear the money’s great.”

There’s so much more to Ed’s career: The concerts he hosted. Calling OTB races, and picking horses (very well) for the New York Post. Those Sirius shows (5 days of ’50s and ’60s music; weekends were country).

Which brings us back to Ed Baer’s vinyl collection.

He has no idea how many records he’s amassed, in his long career. His grandson Kyle — a civil engineering major at Duke University — estimates 10,000.

They line the walls of the studio. There are never-opened LPs by Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra. Bing Crosby singing Stephen Foster. Show tunes. Comedy. Many are rare DJ promotional editions, or have never been opened.

And so many come from the WMCA days.

Ryan — who graduated the other day from Staples, and heads to the University of Southern California this fall — casually picks up a Beatles record.

Ed Baer's unpeeled copy of "Yesterday and Today." The letters "PROM" -- for "promotional copy" -- can be seen in the upper right corner.

Ed Baer’s unpeeled copy of “Yesterday and Today.” The letters “PROM” — for “promotional copy” — can be seen in the upper right corner.

It’s “Yesterday and Today.” The original cover showed the band dressed in butcher smocks, surrounded by decapitated baby dolls and pieces of meat. After protests, it was quickly recalled. A simpler photo — the Beatles in steamer trunks — was pasted over it.

Most owners peeled off the top, ruining both covers. Ed has not 1, but 2, of the very rare, unpeeled versions.

Kyle, Ryan and Trevor (a rising junior at Hamden Hall) are hearing stories like this as they help their grandfather sell his collection. They’re learning music history (who was Harry Belafonte? the Four Seasons? What was Motown?) and radio history too (what was the deal with transistor radios?).

The teenagers always knew their grandfather was a good guy.

Now they understand exactly how much of a Good Guy he really was.

(Kyle, Ryan and Trevor have set up a website: www.westportrecords.com. They add new records daily, and handle all shipping too. For questions or offers, email westportrecords@gmail.com)

Ed Baer, relaxing in his home studio. A WMCA poster hangs on the wall. A few of his many records line the shelves.

Ed Baer, relaxing in his home studio. A WMCA poster hangs on the wall. A few of his many records line the shelves.

* Dan Daniel died last week. Click here for his obituary.

Fashionable Summer Wear

As Westporters try to figure out hot trends for this summer, we should look back too.

Longshore - Anne Peacock 1936

Eighty years ago — on June 1, 1936 — Westport’s “Miss Anne Peacock” strutted this look.

The photo caption describes her “suit with red and white halter neck, water proof woven beach bag, red and white practical and comfortable sock-beach shoes, and a natural straw coolie hat.”

The shot was taken at “the fashionable Longshore Club in Westport, Conn.”

(Hat tip: Seth Schachter)

 

A Fair Look Backward

This weekend — as it has since 1907 — the Yankee Doodle Fair entertains thousands of kids of all ages. (Mostly kids.) (And their parents.)

Pam Ehrenburg — Pam Blackburn, as she was known in her Yankee Doodle-going days — has unearthed some fascinating old photos. All were taken by her father, famed magazine photographer George Barkentin.

They show the fair on what appears to be Jesup Green — or perhaps the topography of the sponsoring Westport Woman’s Club was different 60-plus yeas ago. (Pam believes the images were taken in 1952.)

Some of the fashions are different. But in many ways, the Yankee Doodle Fair is timeless too.

This looks like Jesup Green -- with National Hall (then Fairfield Furniture) in the background, across the river.

This looks like Jesup Green — with National Hall (then Fairfield Furniture) in the background, across the river.

A classic Ferris wheel.

A classic merry-go-round.

This is noted writer Parke Cummings. He may have walked over from his home on the corner of South Compo and Bridge Street. He owned a tennis court -- still there -- that was open to anyone who wanted to play or learn.

This is noted writer Parke Cummings. He may have walked over from his home on the corner of South Compo and Bridge Street. He owned a tennis court — still there — that was open to anyone who wanted to play or learn.

Marjorie Teuscher and her son Phil. Her husband -- a doctor -- owned real estate downtown, including the building that is now Tavern on Main. Phil -- now all grown up -- still lives in Westport.

Marjorie Teuscher and her son Phil. Her husband — a doctor — owned real estate downtown, including the building that is now Tavern on Main. Phil — all grown up — still lives in Westport.

Pam Blackburn -- who sent these photos from her father, George -- is shown here with her sister Perii and their mom, Jessica Patton Barkentin.

Pam Blackburn — who sent these photos from her father, George — is shown here with her sister Perii and their mom, Jessica Patton Barkentin.

Staples’ 129th Graduation Is Nothing Like Its 50th. Or 1st.

Tomorrow afternoon, 483 Staples seniors graduate. For them, the high school’s 129th commencement ceremony is a time to look ahead.

The other day, Mary Schmerker looked back. She thought about her own graduation, in 1958. That was the first one held in the auditorium of the brand new North Avenue campus.

But Mary was thinking much further back. She found a graduation program from 1937. Her mother, Ramona Otis, was in that class — and her grandmother, Mrs. Arthur Otis, was the musical accompanist.

That long-ago event — when President Roosevelt was just beginning his 2nd term, the Golden Gate Bridge opened and the Hindenburg crashed — took place at Bedford Junior High School (now Kings Highway Elementary). Staples (the current Saugatuck El) had no auditorium of its own.

SHS 50th grad - cover

The graduating class of 88 students was divided into 3 groups: college course, general course and commercial course.

There were just 14 teachers. Among them: Staples legends Eli Berton, Gladys Mansir,  Rhoda Merritt (later Rhoda Harvey), Walter Stevenson and Roland Wachob.

The graduation ceremony included several awards. The PTA gave one for highest 4-year average in English. The honoree (not listed) received $5.

The printed program was highlighted by a letter from Connecticut governor Wilbur Cross. It was more than a formality.

Governor Cross wrote:

I shall never forget the pleasant year I spent in Westport as the second principal of Staples High School. It was the academic year 1885-86. During that time I was very closely associated with Mr. Horace Staples who was then 85 years old.

Cross was not just the 22-year-old principal. He also taught Latin, Greek, English literature and geometry. One student memorized the entire first book of “Paradise Lost.”

“I still have a warm heart for the Staples High School,” Governor Cross concluded.

Governor Wilbur Cross' letter in the commencement program -- with a photo of Staples High School.

Governor Wilbur Cross’ letter in the commencement program — with a photo of Staples High School.

Cross did not preside over a graduation ceremony. That was still a year away. The school had opened a year earlier, so the 1st 4-year graduates did not receive diplomas until 1887.

There were only 6.

So — as Staples prepares for its 129th commencement ceremony — let’s give a shout-out to its 1st-ever class of graduates: Nellie Elwood, Florence Fyfe, Hope Lewis, Bessie Marvin, Lena Morehouse and Josephine West.

Yes, that 1st graduating class was all girls. The boys had left school, to work on Westport’s farms.

A mere 33 years later, those 6 graduates won the right to vote.

Ten years after that, they might have voted for their former principal, in his race for governor of Connecticut.

The Greatest Valedictorian Speech Ever

In 2000, Staples High School senior Evan Tschirhart gave the traditional valedictorian address at graduation. It was perhaps the cleverest, most memorable in Staples history – or any other high school, for that matter.

The Harvard-bound student tossed aside every traditional cliché. The standing ovation after his thought-provoking oration was well deserved.

As graduation approaches, it’s worth remembering Evan’s words. There’s another reason for posting it now though: He referenced the year 2030 throughout that 2000 speech. Hard to believe, but we’re already more than halfway there.

Wearing a wig of gray hair and glasses, Evan said:

Thank you. Ladies and gentlemen of the Staples Class of 2000, it is an honor to speak to you at this reunion marking the 30th anniversary of our high school graduation. But let’s be honest: As much as it’s an honor, it’s also a reminder of the fact that the year is now 2030, and 3 decades have gone by since we were teenagers. I’m sort of having trouble figuring out why, after enduring my ramblings 30 years ago, you’ve decided to bring me back to the podium.  Gluttons for punishment, I guess.

The Staples High School 2000 yearbook.

The Staples High School 2000 yearbook.

Gosh, what changes we’ve seen in 30 years! Just think of all the things that exist today that we never would have dreamed of all those years ago: the airtubes that have replaced the escalators and elevators of our youth, the intelligent robotic maids we have at home, even the hovering pod that takes me to and from work each day.

Locally, I know a lot of things have changed as well. Gosh, I remember when Westport wasn’t the ugly, commercial town it is today. Coming here today I couldn’t help but notice that Westport’s entire downtown stretch is but one long, endless Megalomart. What happened to the days when you could bring the whole family to good, small-town stores like Starbucks, the Gap, and Banana Republic? But wow! I guess I’m beginning to sound like a real old-timer!…

In preparation for this reunion, I couldn’t help but think about that graduation day 30 years ago. I’ve been trying to recall what was going through my mind at the time.  One always remembers the most important things: the heat in that fieldhouse, the seemingly endless lineup of speeches, even the girl who was hit in the head by a flying graduation cap. I remember, I think, having a genuine sense of sentimentality for the end of what had been a really great high school experience.

Evan Tschirhart and Pam McDade. (Photo/Staples High School 2000 yearbook)

Evan Tschirhart and Pam McDade. (Photo/Staples High School 2000 yearbook)

More importantly, though, I know there was an element of zeal, as trite as it may have been, for what the future was to bring. After all, I was 18, heading off to college in the fall, and yes, I was a romantic. Years of meeting people and going places and learning new things stood before me.

It’s funny to think back on some of my aspirations. I know I wanted desperately to become a proficient guitar player — probably so I could serenade girlfriends at beaches. I know I yearned to travel. I’d done New England and some of Europe, but the rest of the world – from Asia to Africa to the Western United States – beckoned me.

One of the books Evan Tschirhart hoped he'd read.

One of the books Evan Tschirhart hoped he’d read.

I dreamed of joining the Peace Corps after graduating from college. Already in my senior year of high school I’d studied their “How to Become a Competitive Peace Corps Candidate” checklist. And then there was so much I planned on reading, just for the hell of it — from Shakespeare’s lesser-knowns to the 4th and 5th books of the “Dune” series, from the Dialogues of Plato to the Bible, cover to cover. And I remember being convinced that somewhere along the line I’d find myself a junked car and learn everything there was to know about its insides.

Well, now I’m 48 and all the literature I was to have read, all the places to which I envisioned myself traveling, all the languages I was to have learned, and all the hobbies and community work I imagined myself taking up, well…a lot of that just didn’t happen.

And I guess it’s at a reunion like this that I question with even greater conviction: “What happened along the way?” Hey, look, I smile about it — so don’t think I mean this with a sense of tragedy or even a sense of real sorrow.  And I came out all right in the end – as we all did. I just think it’s noteworthy that as time went on, I seemed to lose aspirations a lot more quickly than I gained them.

Phantom TollboothYou know, when I was a child — probably about 5 years old — I used to fall asleep to the same audiocassette every night: The Phantom Tollbooth, narrated by Pat Carroll. I loved listening to that thing — night after night after night. If you are unfamiliar with the story, it’s about a young boy named Milo who never knows what to do with himself. He’s bored with the world around him; he regards “the process of seeking knowledge” as “the greatest waste of time.”

One day Milo finds a strange package has been left in his room. Inside are the materials and directions for assembling a tollbooth. He builds the structure, and in the small electric car he hasn’t played with in years, Milo drives past the tollbooth into a world of fantasy. Milo’s travels — from the Doldrums, a land inhabited by small Lethargarians who make a point of wasting time, to Dictionopolis, a city in which words are bought and sold at an open marketplace — convince Milo that the world isn’t the dull place he thought it was.

In fact, when he finally makes it back to his room, Milo is ecstatic about the possibilities. He thinks, “Why, there is so much to see, and hear and touch…there are books that can take you anywhere, and things to invent and make and build and break, and all the puzzle and excitement of everything one didn’t know — music to play, songs to sing, and worlds to imagine and then someday make real. Everything looked…worth trying.”

Well, a few years ago I found that tape, and because I knew my brother had held on to a cassette player (God only knows why) I gave it to my nephew, who was 5 at the time. We listened to the tape together, and I couldn’t help thinking that Milo’s story is cut off a little too soon.

Phantom Tollbooth 2It’s missing that lost chapter in which the young Milo grows up, and discovers that all these things he’s dreamed of doing — well, there just doesn’t seem to be enough time in which to do them. In this last chapter Milo goes off to college. The books he planned to read — well, with all the literature to be read for classroom assignments, they’re quickly put on the back burner.

Milo gets his first job, as a marketing executive, and suddenly realizes he just doesn’t have enough energy at the end of the day to keep up the saxophone; he might as well sell the instrument and take the money. Milo spends more time at the office. Suddenly a year goes by, and he realizes he’s been to but one of his daughter’s dance recitals. Milo isn’t prepared for the fact that the world he finds so very enticing is also so very demanding.

You see, I wasn’t prepared for it either. Or maybe none of us were – if I’m to assume that what’s happened in my life may have happened in yours. Our generation grew up and went to school and got jobs during one of history’s most unique chapters. It was — and continues to be –a fabulously exciting time. The “human progress” of the past 30 years has no historical parallel.

This is the cell phone Evan Tschirhart talked about in 2000.

This is the cell phone Evan Tschirhart talked about (and on) in 2000.

But I think it was tough for us. With the world of excitement came a world of such great pressure. To make it in society we needed to specialize — to serve as that one component along the assembly line that keeps running 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We’ve needed to compromise to maintain demanding lifestyles. We’ve lived in a culture dominated by cell phones and computers and ubiquitous coffee shops that wait, like little gas stations, to fuel our incessant activities.

Looking back sometimes, I get the sense that the breadth of person I once aspired to be may have ended up as an actual “narrowing” of character. Society put me in a funnel I just couldn’t get out of. I had only so much time, and the majority of it was pre-budgeted by the demands of the things around me. So out the window went many of those “non-vital” things that once so earnestly occupied my mind. It seemed time wasn’t mine to control. In fact, it probably controlled me.

But look, I don’t mean for this to be morose. I look back 30 years with the greatest sense of fondness. I feel I’ve had some accomplishments — and I know from what I’ve read and heard that all of you have achieved beyond wildest dreams. And we all have a lot we will still accomplish, for we’re young — getting old, but still young. I just find it interesting — and it’s probably true for all of us — that with the passage of time we may not have ended up where we anticipated.

What if you could go back, though? I think about it sometimes. What if, somehow, we were all sitting back there in that fieldhouse?

[Evan takes off his gray wig and glasses, and is once again youthful.] It’s June 21st, 2000, and those 30 years we’ve gone through have yet to be lived. Would we be a little more wary of letting dreams escape our grasp? Would we look a little more skeptically at the demands of a “successful” life, and turn more to the basics of a truly satisfying one — one that develops our God-given gifts and shares them with others?

Well, it’s crazy to live the past, isn’t it? But if for some wild reason you go back home and see that the calendar has stuck on the year 2000, just don’t ask questions.  Just go out there and seize that breadth of person that you aspire for. Know there’s so much ahead, if you want it to be. Because those 30 years are yours…and they’re yours to be used in the most fantastic of ways.

So what about Evan? Where has his journey taken him, these past 16 years?

After graduating from Harvard University in 2004, he worked as a consultant with Bain & Company, then Dalberg Global Development Advisors.

In 2011 Evan made a career change. Last year, he graduated from Mt. Sinai School of Medicine. This year he interned at Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston. He specializes in internal medicine.

If you didn’t see that coming — well, he probably didn’t either.

And isn’t that the whole point?

Dr. Evan Tschirhart today.

Dr. Evan Tschirhart today.