Category Archives: Organizations

Shakespeare’s Stratford And Westport: A Twice-Told Tale

Early Sunday morning, fire destroyed the American Shakespeare Festival Theater in Stratford.

News reports noted that the 1,500-seat venue — modeled after London’s Globe Theater — hosted performances by Katharine Hepburn, Helen Hayes and Christopher Walken.

When the theater thrived, its garden on the banks of the Housatonic River featured a garden with 81 species of plants mentioned in the Bard’s plays.

The American Shakespeare Festival Theater in Stratford, in its heyday.

Papers reported too that the idea for the theater came from Lawrence Langner. It was not his first rodeo. In 1930 — 25 years before developing the Stratford venue — the Weston resident turned an apple orchard and old tannery into the Westport Country Playhouse.

But Westport’s connection to the American Shakespeare Festival Theater runs far deeper than that.

In fact, our town was almost its home.

In 2014 I posted a story that began with a note from Ann Sheffer. The Westport civic volunteer and philanthropist — who had a particular fondness for the Playhouse, where she interned as a Staples High School student — had sent me an old clipping that told the fascinating back story of Stony Point. That’s the winding riverfront peninsula with an entrance directly off the train station parking lot, where Ann and her husband Bill Scheffler then lived.

Stony Point today (left of the river). The train station and tracks are at top.

Stony Point today (left of the river). The train station and tracks are at top.

Written in 1977, the Westport News piece by longtime resident Shirley Land described a New York banker, his wife and 2 daughters. They lived in a handsome Victorian mansion with “turrets and filigree curlicues.” The grounds included an enormous carriage house, gardener’s cottage, barn and hothouse.

It was the Cockeroft family’s country home, built around 1890. They traveled there by steam launch from New York City, tying up at a Stony Point boathouse.

After the daughters inherited the home, the New York, New Haven & Hartford railroad purchased some of the land for a new train station. (The original one was on the other side of the river.)

The 2nd daughter bequeathed the estate to the Hospital for the  Crippled and Ruptured (whose name was later changed, mercifully, to the New York Hospital for Special Surgery).

But the property fell into disuse. Eventually the hospital sold Stony Point to real estate developers.

Which brings us to Shakespeare.

Around 1950 Langner, Lincoln Kirstein of Lincoln Center and arts patron Joseph Verner Reed had audacious plans. They wanted to build an American Shakespeare Theatre and Academy.

And they wanted it on Stony Point. Proximity to the train station was a major piece of the plan.

The price for all 21 acres: $200,000.

But, Land wrote, “the hand of fate and the town fathers combined to defeat the efforts of the theatre people.” Many residents objected. There were also concerns that it would draw audiences away from the Westport Country Playhouse. (Others argued that a Shakespeare Theatre would enhance the town’s reputation as an arts community.)

The theater was never built in Westport. It opened a few miles away –in the aptly named town of Stratford — in 1955.

It achieved moderate success there. But in 1982 the theater ran out of money (and backers). The state of Connecticut took ownership. It closed in 1985.

The garden turned into weeds. The theater grew moldy. The stage where renowned actors once performed the world’s greatest plays was taken over by raccoons.

The entrance to Stony Point.

The entrance to Stony Point.

Meanwhile, in 1956 Westporters Leo Nevas and Nat Greenberg, along with Hartford’s Louis Fox, bought the Stony Point property for residential development.

It’s now considered one of the town’s choicest addresses. A recent listing for one home there was $14 million.

That’s quite a story. We can only imagine what might have happened had Westporters decided to support — rather than oppose — the American Shakespeare Festival Theater in Westport.

Then again, as a famous playwright once said: “It is not in the stars to hold our destiny, but in ourselves.”

Susie Basler’s “Return” To Westport

Early in her working career, Susie Basler served as an Illinois parole and probation officer.

That served her well in what became her life’s work: volunteering for, then running Project Return, Westport’s well-respected group home for teenage girls and young women.

Basler — who has a master’s degree and is a licensed clinical social worker — enjoyed working with that population. They had issues that prevented them from living with their families — but Susie and her staff offered counseling, love (tough and soft), a chance for an education and, ultimately, a fresh start in life.

But about 3 years ago, the state stopped funding Project Return. Homes With Hope took it over. It’s now focused on supportive housing for homeless young women, 18-24 years old, providing individualized case management, and employment and educational resources.

Project Return, on North Compo Road.

Basler retired as executive director. But she was not ready to stop working. She spent a year as president of Westport Rotary. It was fulfilling and important.

Yet she missed helping young women grow.

“I’d gained knowledge and wisdom, and seen just about every behavior an adolescent could do,” she says.

Borrowing a friend’s office on Black Rock Turnpike, she worked with a woman whose daughter was troubled. Basler helped the mother appreciate her child’s strengths. Together they strengthened the relationship.

When her friend and fellow Rotarian Rick Benson bought 29 East Main Street — the former Temenos building — Basler saw an opportunity. She rented one of the offices, and is now seeing clients.

Susie Basler

Most are parents of teenage girls and young women.

“I love working with adolescents,” Basler says. “But I realize they may want someone younger and cooler than me. There are a gazillion therapists in Westport. But not a lot of them are working the parents. And parents are the ones who can have a huge impact on girls.”

She adds, “No one teaches us how to be a parent. We learn — good and bad — from the way we were parented.” One of her strengths, she says, is that she’s a non-judgmental listener.

“Knowing we are accepted and loved for who we are — that’s what heals and leads to growth,” Susie adds.

Her role with parents is to provide empathy; help them understand the needs of teenagers, while setting healthy boundaries; provide guidance in raising children in an affluent community, and reduce anxiety, while navigating blind spots and roadblocks.

“My passion has always been helping kids — especially those who are hurting,” Basler says.

“The best way I can do that today is by helping their parents understand and love them better, be better able to tolerate their feelings, and be less reactive to their behavior.

“I’m a good believer in people. I’m their best advocate. I partner with them in their efforts to become whole and succeed. This was what I was at Project Return, at my best.”

Susie Basler knows teenage girls. Now she’s helping parents get to know their own daughters a little bit better too.

Photo Challenge #211

Our 1st-ever “4-fer” Photo Challenge showed a quartet of ads. All were shot in the 1950s and ’60s by photographer Bill Bell — longtime Westporter Bobbi Liepolt’s father — for the Dunbar furniture campaign. (Click here to see.)

The photos showed, in order:

  • Kathleen Laycock School on Beachside Avenue (now Greens Farms Academy)
  • Fairfield County Hunt Club
  • Nyala Farm, off Greens Farms Road
  • The Stony Point home of Leopold Godowsky (a concert violinist who helped develop Kodacolor and Ektachrome) and his wife, Frankie Gershwin (George and Ira’s younger sister, and a noted painter).

The first 3 sites are all still in Westport, in more or less the same condition (despite, in Nyala Farms’ case, the construction of a massive office building for Stauffer Chemicals’ world headquarters).

The Godowsky home was torn down in 2009, to make way for a larger, more modern home.

No one got all 4 right. The school was the easiest; Andrew Colabella, Dana Brownell, Barbara Sherburne, Rick Leonard and Bob Grant all quickly identified the iconic, Ivy League-looking main building.

The Hunt Club seemed to be the second easiest. Fred Cantor and Rick Leonard got that one.

It took a while to identify Nyala Farm and Stony Point — but Evan Stein got ’em both. Congrats to all!

This week, we “welcome” old and new readers with this Photo Challenge:

(Photo/Seth Schachter)

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

Invasive Vines: If You See Something, Do Something

Darcy Sledge has lived in Westport for 30 years. She is active in several organizations — most importantly for this story, the Westport Garden Club and University of Connecticut invasive plant working group. Darcy writes:

This is the perfect time of year to check the health of your trees and shrubs.

Many trees are being smothered by invasive vines — often right under our noses.

I took a few photos in Greens Farms right before New Year’s, to show a few examples.

This is the entrance of a beautiful estate, with stone wall gates. In the foreground you see gorgeous pines. In the background, you see the same type of trees completely smothered in vines.

Vines weaken trees and shrubs. When weakened, they are the first to fall in a storm. The result is power outages, property damage and injuries.

When leaves are out, vines are hard to see. It’s easier to see them now.

I’ve gotten rid of my vines by cutting them at ground level, then cutting them again at head level. The dead ones hang in the branches, but eventually fall off.

Here’s what they look like:

(Photos/Darcy Sledge)

You  have to watch for new growth, and cut it every time. Eventually though, you get rid of the vines.

Even thick ones (called Asiatic bittersweet) can be cut with a lopper. I did it often in Winslow Park, and earned the nickname Cyndi Lopper.

Invasive vines are a rampant problem throughout the US — especially in Connecticut.

We will lose our beautiful trees and shrubs if we don’t work on getting rid of invasives. The town and state can do only so much. People need to walk their own properties on nice winter days. You may get an unhappy surprise. Landscapers may not even notice or identify owners about vines.

We talk about Westport’s changing streetscape, properties being torn down, and lovely trees being cut for new construction.

Yet our own trees may be slowly dying.

(For more information on invasive vines, click here. For more on the UConn invasive plant working group, click here.)

The Immigrant Experience Comes Home

As Americans debate a slew of important items, immigration stands at the top of any list.

Here in Westport, we’re far removed from our southern border. The Wall is an abstraction — not a reality — to most of us.

But — for one reason or another — the immigrant experience resonates with nearly every Westporter.

This month, several events shine historical, artistic, literary and nuanced lights on a variety of immigration stories.

On Friday, January 18 (6 to 8 p.m.), Saugatuck Congregational Church opens an intriguing exhibit.

“Art Across Borders” features the work of 18 area artists, from Guatemala, Uruguay, Colombia, Venezuela and Peru. All migrated to the US. Each will share his or her own story, through art. The bold, emotional exhibit is curated by Rene Soto, owner of a gallery with the same name in South Norwalk.

One of the pieces on display at the Saugatuck Church — by Jose Munoz, from Guatelama.

“Lots of people come to the US — and to this area — for better lives,” says Saugatuck Church Arts Committee member Priscilla Long. “And many of those people express themselves through art.”

Saugatuck Church has long been concerned with social justice. This show is a natural outgrowth of that commitment. The exhibit will remain up for a month. Click here or call 203-227-1261 for more information.

The following week, a different house of worship offers a different program, on a different immigrant experience.

In June 0f 1939, over 900 Jewish refugees escaping Nazi terror on the SS St. Louis were within sight of Florida. Heartbreakingly, they were denied safe haven by Secretary of State Cordell Hull. Canada also refused entry.

Jewish refugees aboard the SS St. Louis.

The captain returned the ship to Europe, where countries including Belgium, the Netherlands, the UK and France accepted some refugees. Many, however, were later caught in Nazi roundups of Jews in occupied countries. Historians estimate that a quarter died in death camps during World War II

Three passengers who survived — Judith Steel, Sonja Geismar and Eva Wiener — will be in Westport on Thursday, January 24. At 7 p.m., Chabad on Newtown Turnpike will screen “Complicit” — a film about the SS St. Louis’ ill-fated journey. The trio will participate in a post-film Q-and-A, led by its creator/producer Robert Krakow.

Click here for more information. Tickets are $25 for adults, $18 for students.

Meanwhile, all month long — and into February — the Westport Library sponsors WestportREADS. This year’s book is Exit West. Novelist Mohsin Hamid follows 2 refugees who — against all odds — find life and love while fleeing civil war.

WestportREADS activities include book discussions, a conversation with migration experts, art exploration, world dance instruction, storytelling, music, genealogy research, and a presentation by a Syrian refugee family sponsored by members of the Westport community.

Click here for a complete calendar, and full details.

Ann Neary: Staples Teacher Earns Profession’s Top Honor

For more than 2 decades, Ann Neary traveled the world. She was a top fashion marketer, working with the biggest names in the industry.

Then came 9/11.

For 9 months, Neary volunteered at St. Paul’s Chapel. During those long 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. shifts, she had plenty of time to think.

“If I sold a beautiful shirt and it made someone look great, that made no difference in the world,” she recalls thinking.

“But kids make a difference.”

Every day, letters arrived at the makeshift rescue site. Many were from children. Strangers around the globe, they thanked the people working in the pit where the World Trade Center once stood.

Neary wanted to give back to her native city — and work with kids. She earned a master’s degree in education from Manhattanville College. For the next 11 years, she taught English and journalism at DeWitt Clinton High School.

She was fully invested in the Bronx school — with 5,000 students, the largest in New York. She organized playwriting workshops, and brought in big names to work with students.

But the school downsized. Though she’d been there nearly a dozen years, Neary was out of a job.

She went through the rigorous hiring process in Westport. For the past 3 years, she’s taught Advanced Placement Literature and sophomore English at Staples High School. This year, she spends mornings at the school’s innovative Pathways Academy, handling all English instruction.

Ann Neary works with student Hannah Strauss. (Photo/Camryn Zukowski)

Neary’s story is like many Westport educators’: intriguing, involved and important.

But there’s one more unique feature: In December, Neary earned certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Awarded only after a rigorous, performance-based peer-review process, it’s considered the gold standard — and the highest mark of achievement, in the teaching profession.

In fact, Neary was the only teacher in the entire state of Connecticut to earn National Board Certification this year.

But she joins 2 others in the Westport Public Schools who have also achieved that distinction: Kristina Rodriguez (Bedford Middle School) and Paul Zajac (Staples). District grade 6-12 English coordinator Julie Heller is a former National Board Certified teacher.

Neary began thinking about the National Board process 5 years ago, after meeting an impressive group of teachers at a US Department of Education summit in Boston.

When she learned that Mt. Holyoke College offered a certification component, she applied.

It normally takes 3 years to complete the program. Neary did it in just 1. She graduated last spring with her 2nd master’s. She was officially certified in December.

The certification process is very challenging. “You have to reflect on every move you make as a teacher,” Neary says. “Teachers are naturally busy — there’s not a lot of time for reflection. This forces you to do that.”

She spent much of her time figuring out ways to truly know her students as individuals, then turn that knowledge into curriculum work. That’s been especially important at Pathways, Staples’ flexible, multidisciplinary academy for students who need a different approach to education.

Neary’s certification is a major accomplishment. Fifty percent of educators do not pass on their first try.

And despite Connecticut’s reputation as an education leader, it does not offer much support for National Certification. Many states provide financial incentives, and/or mentors. Connecticut does not.

Still, Neary persevered — and succeeded. The self-reflective process was important, she says.

And it all began in those dark days after 9/11, when Ann Neary first reflected on what was truly important in the world, and answered her own question: kids.

Remembering Mimi Levitt

Annemarie “Mimi” Gratzinger Levitt — patron of the arts and historic preservation, longtime Westporter, and the namesake (with her husband) of the pavilion and organization that has provided free summer entertainment here for over 40 years — died of natural causes earlier today, in New York. She was 97.

Mimi Levitt

The Levitt Foundation sends this obituary:

Known for her intelligence, grace and hands-on approach to philanthropy and activism, Mimi believed in the arts as a source for positive social change and left a lasting legacy of generosity and service to the causes she supported.

Born in Vienna, Austria, Mimi’s childhood was filled with opera and other musical experiences. She emigrated to the United States with her mother at the outbreak of World War II, and soon after attended Pomona College in California. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a degree in French iterature.

Fluent in 5 languages, she was a translator at the Nuremberg trials. I

n 1947, she became senior assistant to Alfred Barr, Jr., the first director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She met rags-to-riches clothier and The Custom Shop founder Mortimer Levitt (1907-2005) at a Manhattan art gallery opening, where they had a spirited debate over a painting (Mimi favored abstraction; Mortimer preferred realism).

Following a brief courtship, they married on June 18, 1948, and together became philanthropists supporting youth music programs, performing arts organizations and educational institutions. Mimi and Mortimer were known for nurturing the careers of aspiring young musicians by hosting salons at their Manhattan brownstone.

An imaginative and meticulous hostess, Mimi threw memorable charity events and family celebrations. She often opened her home to artists and musicians.

In 1963, Mimi and her husband established the Mortimer Levitt Foundation (renamed the Mortimer & Mimi Levitt Foundation in 2012 in honor of her contributions). The main focus is to empower communities nationwide to transform underused public spaces into welcoming destinations through the power of free, live music. It now supports free outdoor concerts in 26 towns and cities.

The first Levitt Pavilion for the Performing Arts opened in Westport in 1974, the result of a community-driven effort to create an outdoor music venue as a community gathering place in the heart of town. As summer residents of Westport, the Levitts gave seminal support to the project and became the campaign’s largest private contributors.

Mimi served on the Levitt Pavilion board for decades, helping the nonprofit flourish and become a community treasure. Following her husband’s passing in 2005, Mimi became president of the Levitt Foundation and supported the growth of the Levitt program nationwide. In 2011, she was honored at the Westport Arts Awards as a “Champion of the Arts.”

Well into her 90s, she attended many Levitt Pavilion events.

The Levitt Pavilion is a Westport treasure. (Drone photo/Dave Curtis, HDFA Photography.com)

An active and loyal benefactor of the Bard Music Festival, Mimi served on the board of directors for 15 years (1998-2013), and for many years underwrote the Festival’s annual opening night dinner. An avid lover of opera, she supported opera workshops in the Conservatory’s Vocal Arts Program directed by Dawn Upshaw and helped commission one act operas. She also funded scholarships for Conservatory students and started the first endowment for the Bard

Music Festival in 2005.

Mimi was also passionately committed to historic preservation. In the 1970s she spearheaded the Neighborhood Association to Preserve Fifth Avenue Houses that successfully championed the creation of the Metropolitan Museum Historic District in New York City, designated in 1977. Her involvement grew from concern about protecting the distinctive character of her Upper East Side neighborhood, which in the 1970s was undergoing significant change.

She was one of the earliest supporters of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, and served on its board from 1978-2014. Mimi was honored by the Conservancy in 2011 for her 30 years of service.

Mimi Levitt

In 1995, Mimi and her husband donated 564 acres of wildlife habitat near Half Moon Bay to the Peninsula Open Space Trust in Marin County, California. The second largest gift in the county’s history, it provides an invaluable boost to ecological conservation efforts.

Together with Mortimer, Mimi also supported the Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Mercy College, Museum of Television and Radio, New York City Opera, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Central Park Conservancy, The Joyce Theater, New Victory Theater, Lincoln Center’s Film Society, Hunter College, Music Center of Los Angeles, School of American Ballet, American Red Cross, and Young Concert Artists. She was a member of the Mayor’s Commission on Drug Addiction under Mayor Koch, a former trustee of the Town School in Manhattan and the Branch Libraries of the New York Public Library, and a children’s literacy volunteer in Harlem.

A beloved mother, aunt, step-grandmother and step-great-grandmother, Mimi cherished her family and their time together. She is survived by her daughter, Elizabeth “Liz” Levitt Hirsch of Los Angeles,who now serves as board president of the Mortimer & Mimi Levitt Foundation, and her son, Peter Levitt of New York, who also serves on the Levitt Foundation board.

A private funeral will be followed by a public memorial service, to take place at a later date. For details regarding the public memorial, please email memorial@levitt.org. In lieu of flowers, donations in honor of Mimi may be made to the Mortimer & Mimi Levitt Foundation.

Levitt Pavilion, before the crowds (Photo/Katherine Bruan)

Alan Hershey’s Legacy: Be An Exchange Student In Japan

In 1974 Alan Hershey traveled to Japan, as a Youth for Understanding exchange student. He was 16 years old.

The experience had a profound effect. Alan became fluent in Japanese, and remained close to his host family for decades.

The exchange program inspired Alan’s career in international banking. He returned to Asia dozens of times.

Alan passed his passion for world travel on to his children. As Staples High School students, both Caroline and Brian Hershey became YFU Japanese exchange students too.

Alan’s goal was to visit all 192 countries in the world. In 2017 — while exploring an ancient city in Uzbekistan, his 136th country — he died suddenly.

Alan Hershey in 1974, as an exchange student in Japan.

Alan’s children and his wife Jennifer knew the best way to honor him was through YFU.

Several scholarships are available now to high school students, for this summer’s program. The Hershey family hopes area teenagers will apply, so they can meet in person.

The program is very close to the Hersheys’ hearts. Last year, one of the exchange students had roots in Uzbekistan — a remarkable and poignant connection.

For more information, and a link to the application form, click here. The deadline is January 21.

(NOTE: The Hersheys will cover application fees, in the case of severe financial hardship. To contact the family directly, email jenniferphershey@gmail.com)

Senior Center: An “Old” Home Is Now Very New

Martha Aasen remembers when Westport’s Senior Center was part of Staples High School.

Two small rooms were hidden between the fieldhouse and wood shop. It was open just a few hours a day. Lunch came from the school cafeteria.

In 2003, a new Senior Center opened on Imperial Avenue. It was a spectacular improvement.

Bright and airy, it was filled with rooms for meetings, lectures, fitness and films. There was a library and dining room too. Seniors flocked there for events, classes and camaraderie.

That was 15 years ago. When First Selectman Jim Marpe cuts a ribbon tomorrow (Friday, January 4, 11 a.m.), Westporters of all ages will marvel at the first major enhancement of the Senior Center since it opened.

The 9-month project comes in on schedule — and on budget. The town appropriated $3.975 million. Friends of the Senior Center raised $300,000 for equipment and amenities.

(Clockwise from lower left): Martha Aasen, Leslie Wolf, Stan Nayer and Sue Pfister in the lobby of the newly modernized Senior Center.

Last week, Senior Center director Sue Pfister, Friends president Leslie Wolf, and Aasen — now in her 90s, and as passionate about the Center as ever — offered a tour of the new facility. It blends seamlessly with the original.

The 5,000-square foot new wing includes:

  • A new fitness center, with modern treadmills and machines
  • A strength classroom, also used for tap dancing and Zumba
  • A new library, with a computer and magnifiers
  • A drop-in game room
  • All new furniture and carpeting
  • New display cases for artwork
  • Outdoor access to the adjacent Baron’s South meadow, for tai chi and meditation
  • Offices for program manager Holly Betts, and interns
  • New restrooms with showers (for when the Senior Center is used as an emergency shelter).

Martha Aasen on the new treadmill. Doors open onto the Baron’s South park.

Other parts of the Senior Center have been modernized too. There are new floors, chairs and tabletops in the “Sue’s Cafe” dining room (where “grab-and-go” food will soon be available); a new wood floor next door, for dance classes; a second art room, and a handsome new custom desk in the entry foyer.

“It’s even better than we envisioned,” says Aasen — who was closely involved in the project — proudly.

“We’ve had so many meetings, and we saw all the plans. But when you actually see it finished, it’s unbelievable.”

“Stunning!” adds Pfister.

New windows provide the same airy look as the original wing of the Senior Center.

The Senior Center director credits the project’s smooth completion to “tremendous cooperation” from local officials. The Building Department’s Steve Smith, the Department of Public Works, and Parks & Recreation director Jen Fava were all all-in.

Architect Brian Scheuzger designed the original building too. A.P. Construction — which is also handling the Westport Library’s Transformation Project — did all the work.

The Senior Center attracts a wide range of people, Pfister notes: Those who are very active; those looking for quiet activities; those who want to meet old friends, and those seeking companionship.

It’s a welcoming facility for some, a second home for others.

Now — for all of them — Westport’s Senior Center is better than ever.

Workers were still finishing up — and unloading furniture — last week.

Giant Typewriter Eraser: The Sequel

This morning, “06880” reported that the 19-foot, 10,000-pound typewriter eraser sculpture that’s entertained Beachside Avenue drivers and joggers for more than 20 years has relocated to Florida.

The story quickly made its way south. This afternoon, a spokesman for Norton Museum of Art — its new West Palm Beach home — emailed a photo of the installation.

(Photo/Rachel Richardson)

And hey! I learned something else:

It’s sitting in Heyman Plaza.

Artists’ rendering by foster + partners.

The area outside the museum honors Sam and Ronnie Heyman. She’s a Norton trustee.

And — this is no coincidence — they’re the Beachside Avenue couple who donated the massive, quirky Claes Oldenburg/Coosje van Bruggen sculpture to the museum.

I guess like many Westporters, “Typewriter Eraser, Scale X” is a snowbird at heart.