Category Archives: Looking back

Westport History Museum Removes Historic Name

Ann Sheffer is a native Westporter. The Staples High School Class of 1966 graduate’s family arrived here nearly a century ago.

Her father Ralph served on the RTM for 16 years, 10 as moderator. He chaired the Nike Site Committee, which managed the difficult task of bringing two military facilities to town, on North Avenue and Bayberry Lane. As chief fundraiser for the Westport Library, he helped spearhead the move from the Post Road to its present location.

Ann’s mother Betty was an active town volunteer. After her death at a young age, the Betty R. Sheffer Foundation provided major funding for arts, education, health care and history projects.

Ann Sheffer

Ann has carried on the family tradition. She is involved in literally dozens of town committees and events, including arts, education, history and culture.

For many years, the main exhibition space at the Westport Historical Society was called the Sheffer Gallery.

The institution’s name change — it is now the Westport Museum for History & Culture — as well as new leadership has brought many changes. Among them: The Sheffer Gallery will now be called the Daniel E. Offutt III Exhibition Hall.

A number of Westporters who were long associated with the WHS have expressed dismay at the changes — including the renaming of the Sheffer Gallery. Ann Sheffer is among them. She sent this open letter to the Westport History Museum:

Last week I drove by Wheeler House. I was pleased to see that the bricks that I bought to commemorate my family’s tenure in Westport are still there (and my husband Bill’s name is now spelled correctly), as are Miss Liberty and Uncle Sam, who have graced the porch or lawn of the house since we donated them in 2000 as part of the Millennium celebration.

Bricks bought by Ann Sheffer and her husband Bill Scheffler, honoring the extended Sheffer family.

As the bricks note, my family has been part of Westport since 1930, and also very involved with the Westport Historical Society. I don’t want to recite all of the volunteer positions we’ve held, contributions to the archives we’ve made, and most significantly, the major contribution to the expansion of the building, which resulted in the naming of the Exhibition Hall in honor of my parents.

So I was dismayed to receive a letter from your board president, Sara Krasne, with the following vague, disingenuous “notice” that the Westport History Museum had received “a significant donation for the purpose of upgrading the exhibition hall to a modern, state-of-the-art standard in return for naming the hall after the donor.”

First, it’s very unprofessional of you to send me a letter rather than speaking to me in person — and trying to understate the fact that you are taking my parents’ names off of the Exhibition Hall. I’m disappointed that you don’t value our history of support for the organization enough to be honest about what you are doing.

Second, it is a fairly serious breach of faith and fiduciary responsibility to remove a donor’s name from a building without having the courtesy to ask their permission.

“Uncle Sam” and “Miss Liberty” — donated to the Westport Historical Society in 2000 by Ann Sheffer and Bill Scheffler — were almost sold last year. They still remain at what is now the Westport Museum for History & Culture. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

I would note that my family’s contributions are recognized by a number of other cultural organizations in town, most notably the Westport Library — whose director, Bill Harmer, called me as soon as the plans for the recent renovation were announced, to discuss how we would like our family’s name to be displayed in the new design.  Not only were we delighted to be consulted, but his approach resulted in our making additional contributions.

I’m very disappointed that an organization that is ostensibly dedicated to preserving and celebrating the history of Westport would be so insensitive and dismissive of the historical contributions that have insured their existence.

I have no interest in any further discussion with you. But I sincerely hope that you will not treat other donors in such a dismissive fashion, and that you will make an effort to honor the founding principles of the Westport Historical Society despite your name change.

Westport is, as we often say, a special place, with a long history worth celebrating — and the Westport History Museum has a responsibility to preserve that history in an ethical and professional manner.

 I asked executive director Ramin Ganeshram to respond. She emailed back: “Please find the official press release regarding the exciting opportunity to upgrade the Exhibition Hall in order to continue the Museum’s transformative path toward excellence in providing world class exhibits in the tradition of our award-winning ‘Remembered: The History of African Americans in Westport.'”

Here is that press release, dated Friday, January 10 but suddenly sent yesterday morning:

Westport Museum (formerly Westport Historical Society) is honored to announce that it will be naming its main exhibit hall after local philanthropist Daniel E. Offutt, III following a significant donation from the Daniel E. Offutt, III Charitable Trust. Mr. Offutt, who lived in Weston, was a generous donor to many local nonprofits both during his lifetime and via his estate.

The gift is the largest single donation ever received by the Museum. The main exhibit hall was formerly named after Ralph & Betty Sheffer, longtime supporters of the Museum who provided the major funding to complete the space in 2002.

“We are thrilled to be able to name this significant cultural resource after Mr. Offutt who was a generous and active member in the local community. His interest and support has helped many cultural organizations here and around the nation,” says Ramin Ganeshram, Executive Director of Westport Museum. “I only wish Mr. Offutt were with us to see the value his good work will bring to this and surrounding communities.”

Daniel Offutt had a lifetime interest in history and in art as both a collector and an artist. A self-described “farmer,” he was more aptly described as a “Renaissance Man”: a tennis player, traveler, sailor, metal sculptor, wood worker, fixer of anything, collector of everything, lover of projects, stock market investor, and a good friend. Mr. Offutt lived for more than 30 years in Weston, Connecticut in a house that he built himself.

The gift from Mr. Offutt’s Trust will enable Westport Museum to make much needed upgrades to its main exhibit hall, in keeping with national museum standards to provide quality experiences with universal access to the widest audience. The goal of upgrading exhibit spaces at the Museum is part of a multi-year strategic initiative to create a world class regional Museum in Westport.

“As Trustee, I am pleased to support the growth and improvement envisioned for the Museum,” said Richard H. Orenstein. “Working with Ramin has been an easy and creative endeavor.”

“Thanks to this significant gift we will be able to create our next ground-breaking exhibit with the highest standards in mind,” said Ganeshram. The first exhibit to open in the newly remodeled space will be in late 2020 about Westport’s indigenous people who inhabited the town and surrounds for 7500 years before European colonization.

While the name change is effective immediately, a plaque will be formally installed to rename the gallery “The Daniel E. Offutt III Exhibition Hall at Westport Museum” at a ceremony to take place at the opening of the 2020 indigenous people’s exhibit in November.

Photo Challenge #262

Seems like there are a lot of wrought iron fences in town.

One surrounds Christ & Holy Trinity Episcopal Church. Another sits outside “Fort Apache” — the medical center on Kings Highway North,near Wilton Road.

Neither of those fences was last week’s Photo Challenge, though. Amy Schneider captured the one at Winslow Park. It was built for a previous use of the rolling land bordered by North Compo and the Post Road: originally handsome estate for Henry Richard and his wife Mary Fitch Winslow (click here for that amazing back story), then part of the mysterious and spooky Westport Sanitarium (click here).

The first person to correctly recognize that fence was Fred Cantor — though he qualified “Winslow Park?” with a question mark.

We see that fence all the time, stuck at that Post Road/Compo traffic light. Next time, look a bit more closely.

It’s beautiful.

Today’s Photo Challenge is a cornerstone. No one is alive today who remembers it being laid — but it was an important one. Click “Comments” below if you know where it is.

(Photo/Dan Woog)

Have A Holly Jolly Johnny Marks Christmas

The list of famous Westporters is vast and well-known. Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Rodney Dangerfield, Bette Davis, Michael Douglas, Rod Serling, Martha Stewart, Harvey Weinstein, Michael Bolton, Marilyn Monroe, Liz Taylor, Robert Ludlum, Jim Nantz, Harry Reasoner, Meat Loaf, Nile Rodgers, Neil Sedaka, Frank Deford, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Charles Lindbergh, Fiorello La Guardia, James Comey — and those are only a few.

So why do we never mention Johnny Marks?

This Christmas, it’s appropriate to remember the man who for many years had a home on Green Acre Lane, off South Compo.

He died in 1985 from complications of diabetes. His son still lives here.

Johnny Marks

Marks wrote “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” — the classic tune that, since its first release by Gene Autry in 1949, has sold nearly 200 million records.

That was just the start. Marks formed his own publishing company — St. Nicholas Music — and churned out a slew of other Christmas classics: “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” “Run, Rudolph, Run” and “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” among them.

Not bad for a Jewish kid from Mount Vernon, New York.

I’ve tried to find some information on Marks’ life in Westport. It’s hard to come by.

If you remember him, click “Comments” below.

If you’ve got stories of how his songs impacted your life, you can add those too.

Let’s not forget Johnny Marks. He’ll go down in history!

Looking Back At An Unsung Hero: Snow Day Edition

Alert “06880” reader and native Westporter Seth Van Beever writes:

The unsung hero of every child in Westport on a snow day was John La Barca at WMMM. We listened closely to the alphabetical school closings announcements.

A snow day was all about going to Birchwood Country Club to go sledding.

Oh yeah. I remember. Every 10 minutes or so, John would start: Ansonia, Amity Regional, Bethel…

It was an agonizing wait. Who cared about Our Lady of Fatima? Did it even exist?

But then — right after “Weston…” we would hear “Westport.”

And all would be right with the world.

In addition to Birchwood, Winslow Park (pictured this past March) and Greens Farms Elementary School are great sledding spots. (Photo/Patricia McMahon)

Kid Gloves And Nash’s Barn: The Sequel

This morning’s post about Kid Gloves — the boxing gym where heavyweight boxer Floyd Patterson once trained — offered a fascinating look back at a brief, forgotten piece of Westport history.

It also contained one error. The Nash’s Barn building on Kings Highway North — behind what was once the Small Car Company, and most recently was Dragone Classic Motorcars — was not torn down.

The Revolutionary War-era structure still stands. It’s now home to Nice Threads, a custom logo-wear and promotional products company.

Nash’s Barn today … (Photo/Kris Nash)

The owner is Tim Nash — a descendant of the original property owner (for whom the nearby pond is also named). The family has owned the barn since 1784.

The barn has undergone many incarnations. Thanks to the stewardship of the Nash family, it will likely see many more.

… and in 1952.

(Hat tips: John Terpening and Kris Nash)

Floyd Patterson And Westport’s Kid’s Gloves

If you live in this town long enough, you hear everything.

But it’s taken me my entire life to learn about Westport’s boxing club, Kid Gloves. And one of the men who trained there: Floyd Patterson, heavyweight champion of the world.

The story comes thanks to alert “06880” reader Franklin Mason. A 1960 Staples High School graduate who earned a Ph.D. in chemistry, taught college for 10 years and then became a technical writer in Silicon Valley, he emailed me recently with this fascinating tale.

Franklin Mason: 1960 and 2010.

Mason sent news clippings and photos too. There is no hook or angle to this; no upcoming title fight, demolition of the boxing club building or anything else. It’s simply a fascinating tale, about a long-buried part of Westport’s past.

In 1958, a few prominent Westporters started an after-school gym. The focus was on boxing and body-building. (There were also “figure control classes” for ladies.)

Seven years earlier, the group had helped start Westport Little League. Now they were doing something else for boys in town.

Kid Gloves was located in Nash’s Barn, at the head of Nash’s Pond on Kings Highway North. Built before the Revolutionary War, in the early 1940s it had been converted into a theater. Then it was a dance studio, with a hardwood floor.

Nash’s Barn, 1952.

The building no longer exists. It’s been replaced by a handsome private home — the one owned by singer Michael Bolton.

But in 1958 it hummed with activity. Jim Freeman — a boxer in the 1928 Olympics, World War II pilot and boxing referee, manager and promoter — served as Kid Gloves’ director and “heart,” Mason says.

He should know. Though just 16, scrawny and out of shape, his neighbor Virginia Mercier — Kid Gloves’ office manager — hired him as an instructor.

Freeman taught Mason how to teach the boys how to work out — including 14-year-old Westporter Michael Douglas. One day, his father — Kirk — came to visit. He strapped on gloves, and sparred with his son.

The actor knew what he was doing: In 1949 he’d starred in “Champion,” a boxing movie (based on a short story by Weston’s Ring Lardner).

Other young boxers at Kid Gloves included Daniel, Max and Peter Shulman. Their father, Max Shulman, wrote “Rally Round the Flag, Boys!” about the Westport Nike missile site. In 1958 it was made into a film starring Paul Newman. Soon he and his wife, Joanne Woodward, moved here.

Westport Town Crier ad, October 16, 1958.

In 1959, Floyd Patterson needed a spot to train for his rematch against Ingemar Johansson — the man who had recently taken the world heavyweight title from him.

He wanted a place with “peace and quiet.” A special, regulation-sized ring was ordered. Patterson’s smaller-than-usual speed bag was sent too.

Patterson arrived with his manager Cus D’Amato, and sparring partner Tommy “Hurricane” Jackson. Jackson spent several nights at Mason’s home.

Floyd Patterson, on the speed bag.

Ed Mitchell’s oldest son, Jack, was a football player at Wesleyan University. That summer, to get in shape for the upcoming season, he ran around the track at the old Staples High School on Riverside Avenue (now Saugatuck Elementary School). His younger brother Bill was with him.

D’Amato saw Jack, and asked if he wanted to work out at the gym. He brought the Mitchells across the Post Road. There was Floyd Patterson. They did some pullups and other exercises together.

Patterson asked Mitchell if he’d run on the track with him. “I was never a runner. He wasn’t either,” Mitchell recalls. “But we ran together.”

The brothers were told not to tell anyone that Patterson was there. They kept quiet.

But word got out. When it did, the Westport Town Crier ran this headline: “Boxing Gangsters Invade Westport.”

That was a reference to D’Amato’s alleged association with organized crime. When Patterson saw the headline, he left for another training facility, in Newtown.

Lou Dorsey and Franklin Mason, 1954

Freeman soon left also. But Kid Gloves added staff members. Lou Dorsey — a popular Saugatuck Elementary School phys. ed. instructor — took over as boxing coach. Derek Shelton taught dance to all ages; Edwardo Enrich was a judo instructor for boys and adults.

One of the dance students was Amy Vanderbilt — the famous etiquette expert. One day, waiting for a friend outside the building, Mason honked his horn. She rushed out, and reprimanded him. Sixty years later, he says, he still remembers — and has never done that again.

But Freeman’s departure was crucial. In January of 1960, Kid Gloves was sold. New owner Anthony Iannone of Stratford renamed it “Anthony’s Health Center & Gym.”

By that time Freeman could easily do sit-ups and chin-ups. He was adept on the free rings and trapeze.

Bridgeport Post ad, January 3, 1960.

In June of that year, Floyd Patterson knocked out Ingemar Johansson. For the first time ever, a boxer had regained the world heavyweight title.

Four months later, Anthony’s went out of business.

November 22, 1963

Today is Friday, November 22, 2019.

If you were alive on Friday, November 22, 1963 — and over, say, 5 years old — you understand how dramatically, and traumatically, America shifted that day.

If you weren’t, there is no way you can comprehend it.

The murder of President Kennedy was a horrific, galvanizing moment in time. It happened 56 years ago today, but I remember it like it was yesterday.

JFKI was in 5th grade. Since September my friends and I had walked to and from school. We gathered on High Point Road, cut through the Staples High School athletic fields and parking lot, sauntered down North Avenue, walked across open farmland, and arrived at Burr Farms Elementary.

We were like the “Stand By Me” boys: talking about kid stuff, reveling in our independence, figuring out each other and the world, in a world that would soon mightily change.

Minutes before school ended that beautiful Friday, the teacher from next door burst into our room. “Kennedy got killed!” she yelled. A girl broke into spontaneous applause. Her father was a leading Republican in town.

Our teacher slapped her face.

Usually, our teacher wished us a happy weekend. That day the bell rang, and we just left. No one knew how to interpret her reaction. We’d never seen a teacher hit a student before.

Then again, we’d never heard of our president being murdered.

JFK NYT

As my friends and I gathered for our ritual walk home, we suddenly had Something Big to talk about. For the first time in our lives, we discussed news. We had no details, but already we sensed that the world we knew would never be the same.

That vague feeling was confirmed the moment we walked down the exit road, into the Staples parking lot. School had been out for an hour, but clots of students huddled around cars, listening to radios. Girls sobbed — boys, too. Their arms were wrapped around each other, literally clinging together for support. I’d never seen one teenager cry. Now there were dozens.

At home, I turned on the television. Black-and-white images mirrored the scene at Staples a few minutes earlier. Newscasters struggled to contain their emotions; men and women interviewed in the street could not.

The president was dead. Now it was true. I saw it on TV.

Walter Cronkite on CBS, announcing the death of President Kennedy.

My best friend, Glenn, slept over that night. The television was on constantly. The longer I watched, the more devastated I became.

John F. Kennedy was the first president I knew. My father had taken me to a campaign rally in Bridgeport 3 years earlier. I could not articulate it then, but I admired JFK’s energy, was inspired by his youthfulness, and vowed to grow up and (like him) make a difference.

Now he was dead.

Bill Mauldin captured the grief of a nation.

Bill Mauldin captured the grief of a nation.

Saturday was rainy and blustery. I watched more TV. Like most Americans, I was obsessed by this unfolding tragedy. Like them too I had no idea that the impact of that weekend would remain, seared in my brain and heart, more than 5 decades later.

Sunday was the first day I cried. The raw emotions of all the adults around — in the streets of Westport, and on the television screen — finally overwhelmed me. I cried for the dead president, my fallen hero; for his widow and children; for everyone else who looked so sad and vulnerable.

Then — right after noon — Jack Ruby killed Lee Harvey Oswald. Once again I sat transfixed by the TV. I was stunned, and scared.

Monday was a brilliant fall day. President Kennedy was laid to rest under a crisp, cloudless sky. The unforgettably moving ceremony was watched by virtually everyone in the world with access to a television.

To my everlasting regret, I did not see it live. Glenn said we could not sit inside on a day off from school. Rather than risk being called a nerd (or whatever word we used in 1963), I chose playing touch football at Staples over watching history. I was in 5th grade. What did I know?

The coffin, at Arlington National Cemetery.

The coffin, at Arlington National Cemetery.

The next day we went back to school. The Staples parking lot looked exactly as it had before that fateful Friday. Our teacher never said a word about slapping the girl who cheered President Kennedy’s assassination.

Thanksgiving arrived on schedule 2 days later. At our dinner — like every other table in America — the adults tried to steer the conversation away from the awful events that had consumed us for nearly a week.

Life Magazine coverIn the days and months to come — as the country slowly, painfully, pulled itself out of its collective, overwhelming grief — I devoured everything about President Kennedy I could find. I saved Life, Look, Saturday Evening Post. I ordered the Warren Commission report. Like so many others I still have it all, somewhere.

In the years that followed my admiration for the young, slain president grew, then ebbed. But it never died. He remained my political hero: the first president I ever knew, cared about, was mesmerized by, and mourned.

When President Kennedy was killed, journalist Mary McGrory said, “We’ll never laugh again.” Daniel Patrick Moynihan — who worked for JFK — replied, “Mary, we will laugh again. But we will never be young again.”

Fifty-six years ago this morning, I was a young 5th grader without a care in the world.

Walking home that afternoon, I could never not care again.

One Less Bank In Westport

Normally, the opening or (more rarely) closing of a bank branch in Westport is not big news.

But when People’s United shuts its location on the corner of the Post Road and North Compo — part of 18 closings in the state, between December and April —  we’ll lose more than one of our town’s squintillion banks.

A bit of history is going too.

That branch has been there for decades. It’s seen the addition of “United” to “People’s Bank,” and the reorientation of its entrance from the front to the back.

Most importantly, it’s a link to one of Westport’s longest-lived, best-known and well-respected businesses.

In 1958, Ed and Norma Mitchell took over what had been a heating and plumbing company office. With a few suits, a coffee pot, and tons of grit and hope, they founded a store that — 61 years later — thrives.

The original Ed Mitchell’s.

Mitchells moved twice — once to Colonial Green, then to its present location next to Sakura. From their Westport headquarters, the 3rd generation of Mitchell family members now oversee stores in Greenwich, Long Island and on the West Coast.

That’s a storied past for the unassuming building near Planet Pizza and Compo Barber Shop.

Let’s hope the new tenant stays as long as People’s Bank, and is as successful as Mitchells became.

But I bet it will just be a nail salon.

(Hat tips: Dick Lowenstein and Dan Vener)

Pics Of The Day #902

Ginger Baker — the legendary drummer for Cream, Blind Faith and other famed bands — died today. He was 80 years old.

In 1968, the band — which included Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce — played at Staples High School. David Jones was there.* He posted this souvenir on Facebook, as a tribute.

Jeremy Ross was there too. Here’s his photo of Ginger Baker, on the Staples stage.

Ginger Baker, on the drums at Staples High School. (Photo copyright Jeremy Ross)

* I was too.

Staples Class Of ’69 Rocks On

No reunions!

That’s my usual response when organizers ask me to publicize their upcoming or recent event. If I do one, I say, I’ll have to do them all. And — sorry, guys! — your reunion just isn’t that interesting to 99.99% of “06880”‘s daily readers.

But rules are made to be broken. And if any class has experience breaking rules, it’s the rockin’, rollin’ Staples High School class of 1969.

So here goes:

Last weekend, 131 no-longer-teenage-but-still-young-at-heart former Wreckers gathered for their 50th (!) reunion.

There were no cell phones — or selfies — back in 1969. In 2019, these reunion-goers make the most of theirs.

They were rebels, back in the day. But in 2019, they got a ton of help from all corners of the town they grew up in. Former — and still — class president Peter Krieg reports:

Assistant principal Rich Franzis was a tremendous help. He helped prep Krieg for his tour of the “new” school, worked with Geno Heiter to post 1969 visuals on the lobby TV screen, and enlisted head custodian Horace Lewis and one of Lewis’ staff to guide the group around.

Not far from a banner welcoming the Class of 2023 to the “new” Staples, the Class of 1969 gathered for a group photo.

The tour culminated in the library, where librarian Jen Cirino helped screen the “High School That Rocked” movie. The film depicts the amazing (Doors, Yardbirds, Cream, Sly & the Family Stone, Rascals, Animals, Beau Brummels) concerts that so many of those former Stapleites attended.

Producer Fred Cantor — the young (Class of ’71) producer — was there.

So was former social studies teacher and administrator Gordon Hall. Now in his 90s — and living in the same Westport home as then — he spoke to the returning alums.

“He was inspiring, knowledgeable and very funny,” Krieg reports. “His comments about retirement were not just appropriate; they were a teaching moment for us.”

Krieg is giving gifts to everyone who helped. Hall, for example, will receive a framed photo of his talk.

New Staples principal Stafford Thomas gets one too. (“He was keenly interested in ‘The High School That Rocked,'” Krieg says — even though he had not yet been born when those bands were hot.)

The way we were … or at least, the way we think we were, today.

Krieg gives a shout-out to Westport’s Parks & Recreation Department as well. They provided great help for the Saturday night Compo Beach party: tent permits, use of the Ned Dimes Marina, and passes for vehicles.

The marina building was decorated with professionally produced ’69 posters and memorabilia. Organizers raffled off 3 unique pieces of art. They’ll donate (appropriately) $1,969 of the proceeds to Staples Tuition Grants.

Of course, no reunion is complete with a party at the Black Duck. Pete Aitkin hosted a boisterous crew on Friday night.

“The support we got from the school, from one of our teachers, and the town was really special,” says Krieg.

“This was Westport at its best. It felt like the Westport of old. In some ways, Westport hasn’t changed at all.”

Neither have the members of Staples High School’s Class of 1969.

Even if they did graduate half a century ago.

It’s been 50 years. But some friendships never fade.