Category Archives: People

Bill Vornkahl’s Memorial Day: The Sequel

This might have been a lonely Memorial Day for Bill Vornkahl.

As “06880” reported this morning, the 90-year-old Korean War veteran recently lost his wife of 65 years.

And this year — for the first time in the 50 years he has organized Westport’s annual parade and tribute to fallen service members — the entire event was canceled, due to COVID.

But his family arranged a socially distanced cookout in the driveway of his Cross Highway home.

And in mid-morning — just like every year at Town Hall — Vornkahl heard “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Taps.”

Nick Rossi sings the national anthem.

The national anthem was sung stirringly by Nick Rossi. The 2019 Staples High School graduate — now a student at Boston College — is a veteran of Veteran’s Green. He played and sang at last year’s ceremony.

The mournful brass notes were sounded by Sam Atlas. The 2018 Staples grad is a trumpet major at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, where she plays in the orchestra, wind ensemble and chamber groups.

Sam Atlas plays “Taps.”

It was a fitting tribute for the man who is Westport’s “Mr. Memorial Day.” And he responded as any soldier would:

(Photos/Janine Scotti)

There’s No Parade. But We Still Have Bill Vornkahl’s Poem.

For decades, Memorial Day in Westport has meant one thing: Bill Vornkahl.

For half a century, he’s run one of our town’s most beloved traditions. Now 90 years old, he spent 14 months in Japan during the Korean War as a high-speed radio operator.

He joined Westport’s American Legion Post 63 in 1953, and the Westport Veterans Council a few years later. He first organized the parade in 1970. In 2013 he was inducted into the Connecticut Veterans Hall of Fame.

From 1996 to ’99 he was treasurer of Westport’s War Monument Committee, helping place memorials to various wars on Veterans Green.

Bill Vornkahl, at last year’s Memorial Day
parade. (Photo/Carmine Picarello)

Today has always been the most important day of the year for Bill Vornkahl. This year, it’s especially tough. Instead of a community-wide parade, Westporters are forced to remain apart.

His wife died a short while ago too, just before what would have been their 66th anniversary.

So as we think of all our veterans, let’s give special thanks to Bill Vornkahl. And what better way to honor him — and all service members — than with the poem he always recites at the Veteran’s Green ceremony after the parade.

It is the soldier, not the minister
Who has given us freedom of religion.

It is the soldier, not the reporter
Who has given us freedom of press.

It is the soldier, not the poet
Who has given us freedom of speech.

It is the soldier, not the campus organizer
Who has given us freedom to protest.

It is the soldier, not the lawyer
Who has given us the right to a fair trial.

It is the soldier, not the politician
Who has given us the right to vote.

It is the soldier who salutes the flag,
Who serves beneath the flag,
And whose coffin is draped by the flag,
Who allows the protester to burn the flag.

(Poem by Charles H. Province. Hat tip: Janine Scotti)

 

Staples High School bugler plays “Taps.”

Memorial Day: A Service Member Speaks

Justin Polayes is a 2004 Staples High School graduate. Unlike many of his classmates, he entered the military. This Memorial Day, he reflects on that life — and this day.

As a kid in Westport, Memorial Day was a great time. I walked in the parade as a Little Leaguer, Boy Scout, Bedford Middle School band member, what have you.

The holiday was the start of when dinners moved to the back yard, and life happened at Compo Beach. It was a safe, happy, relaxing day, without much thought of its origins.

A classic Westport Mmeorial Day photo. (Photo/Doris Ghitelman)

In college the holiday was much of the same. It was about summer starting, and usually a road trip home for cookouts and to see family and friends. As a young adult I became a bit more aware of what Memorial Day means. I saw wreaths being laid, tributes on TV, and more on social media.

But it wasn’t until 2 years into my military career that Memorial Day really meant something for me.

My first holiday came in the middle of grueling training and selection. I used that extra day to sleep and rest some injuries.

However, by that second Memorial Day as an active duty member I had already lost friends in combat. It was like a light switch flipped. The entire meaning of the holiday changed. Cookouts and beach lounging were replaced with visiting graves and “memorial workouts” to honor my fallen brothers and sisters.

Justin Polayes (left) spent one Memorial Day on duty in East Africa.

While living in the United Kingdom, the difference between our Memorial Day and their Remembrance Day was noticeable. I lived in a great little town surrounded by families with little children. All the kids wore red poppy pins on their shirts. On Remembrance Day, most families without any military affiliation went to a national military cemetery or war memorial. At the very least almost everyone watched the queen lay a wreath at the Cenotaph (war memorial in London). Once their respects were paid, cookouts and garden parties could begin.

For the last 5 years I’ve been based in Washington D.C. I live only a few miles from Arlington National Cemetery. My Memorial Day tradition now isn’t parades or beach cookouts; it is paying respects to friends.

In lots 62 and 65 alone, my wife (who also served) and I have 19 friends and fellow service members laid to rest. Walking those hallowed grounds on Memorial Day is a true pleasure, something everyone should experience in their lifetime. Politics go out the window. Petty gripes and complaints about daily life mean nothing. You feel small in the face of so many white marble headstones.

Arlington National Cemetery (Photo/Justin Polayes)

There is nothing wrong with how Westport celebrates Memorial Day. However, as a former resident looking inward from afar it does seem the celebrations are more about what we have and not about what we lost.

Westporters have given their lives in service for this country since the founding of our country. A handful are still in harm’s way today. Please take a moment to remember those heroes this Memorial Day.

And please teach the younger generation why.

Youngsters play at Veteran’s Green, after Westport’s 2018 Memorial Day ceremony. (Photo/Ted Horowitz)

COVID Roundup: Rizzuto’s; Coffee An’; Plant Sale; More


It’s nice to hear that Westport restaurants are reopening.

It’s also nice to hear that town and civic officials are doing all they can to help.

Rizzuto’s and The Lobster Shack were back in business Friday. Owner Bill Rizzuto says, “our Planning and Zoning people and fire marshal were fantastic. And a big hats-off to Westport Weston Chamber of Commerce director Matthew Mandell, who worked tirelessly to support us all.”

Rizzuto’s offers outdoor dining Monday through Thursday 4 to 9  p.m., Friday and Saturday 12 to 9:30 p.m., and Sunday 12 to 8 p.m. They’re continuing curbside service and delivery too. Click here to order.

The Lobster Shack is open for curbside pickup and delivery Monday through Thursday, 4 to 8 p.m., and Friday through Sunday, 12 to 8 p.m.


Also reopening tomorrow at 7:30 a.m.: Coffee An’!

(Photo/Katherine Bruan)


Aspetuck Land Trust — whose 40+ preserves have provided area residents with healthy, mood-lifting walking trails throughout the pandemic — is sponsoring its first-ever native plant sale.

It’s simple: Order online, and reserve a curbside pickup time. Plants can be picked up at Gilbertie’s Organics in Easton in 2 weeks.

Up to half of the purchase price is a tax-deductible contribution to Aspetuck Land Trust!

Choose from pollinator herb variety packs; pollinator garden kits; mailbox garden kits; shrubs and trees, and eco-type plants (plugs) for containers and gardens.

Prices range from $9 to $80.

Click here to order. To join a webinar this Wednesday (May 27, 10:30 a.m.) about the importance of planting natives, click here, then scroll down.


What’s a Sunday without former FDA commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb on “Face the Nation”? At least this week his live-remote hometown got a shout-out on the chyron. (Hat tip: Alan Shinbaum)


And finally … sing it, Dionne!

Tomorrow’s Virtual Memorial Day Parade: The Back Story

Yesterday, the town announced a special virtual Memorial Day celebration for tomorrow (Monday, May 25).

At 9 a.m., a 17-minute video will be broadcast on Cablevision channel 79 and Frontier channel 6020. It will be posted later on the town’s Facebook page.

But hey: Want a sneak peak? It’s already on the Town of Westport’s YouTube channel!

It sounds like our middle and high school bands were captured live. But the story is far more complex — and difficult — than that. 

One screenshot from Westport’s virtual Memorial Day parade …

Bedford Middle School band teacher Lou Kitchner takes us behind the scenes:

Due to the COVID-19 school closure, Westport students have been unable to participate in traditional school experiences that were a significant part of their daily activities — like music classes.

To address this problem, and also honor Westport’s fallen heroes and veterans, grade 6-12 band directors James Forgey, Gregg Winters and Phil Giampietro and I designed a way for students to share their musical talents via a digital performance.

Clockwise from upper left: Gregg Winters, Lou Kitchner, Phil Giampietro, James Forgey.

We created and posted a play-along audio track, with an embedded metronome click, on their class websites. Students practiced their individual parts by playing along with the audio accompaniment.

After a week or two of practice, 165 students recorded their individual performances, just as professional studio musicians do. They used whatever technology they had available: a desktop computer, laptop, tablet or smartphone.

All 165 submissions were then imported into multi-track music software by the teachers. Next the band directors aligned and edited them in time with the song’s tempo, and mixed them down into a single ensemble performance track.

The individual mixes — 6th, 7th and 8th grades, and the combined Staples High School bands — were then combined into one complete grade 6-12 performance. I am so proud of these kids! It sounds like they were all together, in one room.

To complement the audio, we asked students to submit photos of themselves holding or performing their instrument — in school or town- related attire if possible (school closure prevented them from accessing uniforms or school-specific parade t-shirts).

… and another.

Staples media teacher Geno Heiter then spent hours merging all the photos with the final ensemble mix to create the final product: a virtual Memorial Day parade!

Westport has won 7 straight “Best Community for Music Education” awards, from a national foundation. After this effort, they should just name it after us and retire it forever. 

Jonathan Greenfield: On The Front Lines Of ALS Fight

The coronavirus is grabbing all the headlines. But May is ALS Awareness Month. The other day, Jonathan Greenfield — a Westporter who is battling the disease — traveled to Washington, DC. His wife Iris and children went too. 

They participated in a protest. The goal was for the FDA to fast-track a treatment for ALS as quickly as they are gearing up for COVID-19. Jonathan reports:

There are treatments for ALS that we need now. One is Nurown, involving stem cells. Nurown has been in the pipeline for 10 years, and is currently in phase 3 of a trial.

If I can go to my neurologist, have stem cells extracted from my blood and injected into my muscles and private parts for $600 a shot, why can’t I have Nurown — which is basically stem cells harvested from bone marrow — put through a process and then injected into my spinal column?

Jonathan Greenfield at the Washington, DC protest.

It’s absurd that the FDA refuses to open pathways for us. Many other countries already have programs similar to Nurown. ALS patients spend lots of money to be treated there.

The idea that we’re the greatest country in the world concerning health is laughable on many levels. But on the development of drugs we’re especially behind. That is because of the FDA.

My life, or any life with ALS, can’t wait. If the past 6 months are any indication, I will be similar to a quadriplegic in another 6. I recently accepted use of a power wheelchair, and my hands can barely type this email on my phone. My speech is seriously diminished. Last week a feeding tube was inserted into my stomach.

I’d much prefer to write about the free weekly Breathe Thru Zoom sessions my foundation Breathe 4 ALS. But I believe people need to be aware of this FDA situation.

The speed at which the FDA is moving towards a COVID vaccine is amazing. Why not for ALS, when proven and safe treatments already exist?

At the protest, I joined individuals who participated in the Nurown trial. Some  walked out of wheelchairs. Some got their voices back. Will this work for everyone? Probably not. But it appears to be a good weapon for the arsenal. It’s a treatment, not a cure.

A scene from this month’s ALS FDA proest in Washington.

If given to me today I might be able to preserve function, and last longer. Long enough for BIIB078 from Biogen, which targets the reason I have ALS: the familial gene C9orf72. My father passed from ALS in 2015. Currently my brother and I have it. My aunt is one of the oldest living asymptomatic carriers of the gene. Her son is also a carrier and currently asymptomatic.

BIIB078 is currently in cohort 4 of phase 2, a double blind study. I was unfortunately passed over for cohort 4. I believe they’re gunning to make the jump to phase 3, like they did with the sister drug for the ALS gene SOD1. So in short, I have to last longer.

There are other drugs in the pipeline. ALS will soon be treated like HIV. We’ll be on a cocktail of drugs. If ALS were contagious, we’d be there today. And with recent success reversing sickle cell through repairing genes, there is very good reason to believe a cure for my family is coming.

But will I see the day? If the FDA keeps ignoring ALS I will not. Sadly I won’t see my kids off to middle school, high school or college. Even now our usual surf trips to Rockaway have stopped. I’ve gone from the adventurous dad, to the dad who can barely engage.

But my kids have been amazing! I love their help, and hate it at the same time. It was chilly at the protest, and they voiced not one complaint. Not one despite the blocks we walked to get in front of the White House.

They still don’t really understand the rights our democracy affords them concerning protest and freedom of speech. Yet I believe this experience was imprinted in their DNA. They’ll be able to call back to it in years to come.

Meanwhile, if you’d like to help: Please call your senators and representatives!

Jonathan and Iris Greenfield with their children, in front of the White House.

Remembering Sona Current

Longtime Westport volunteer Sona Current died yesterday. She was 91, and had battled dementia for 11 years.

She met her future husband Bob in 9th grade, in their home town of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Sona received a Bachelor of Science degree from the School of Oral Hygiene at Temple University, and also attended Penn State College.

Sona and Bob moved to Westport in 1961. They raised their 3 children on Canterbury Close off Park Lane, and spent 35 years with their closest friends in that neighborhood. Those friends followed the Currents to Naples, Florida, where they enjoyed many more years of fun and happiness.

Sona Current

Sona was very active in the Westport Young Woman’s League, which she served as president; the Fairfield County American Cancer Society, for which she co-edited the very successful “Connecticut Cooks” cookbook, and the Westport Garden Club. She was a longtime member of the Green’s Farms Church.

She was also a member of the Patterson Club in Fairfield, and the Royal Poinciana Golf Club in Naples. She was an avid gardener, water colorist and bridge player, and enjoyed playing golf with family and friends.

Sona is survived by her devoted children, Deborah C. Burns and husband James of Fairfield, and grandchildren, Shea, Cory and Kiara Burns; her son Darrell S. Current and wife Jodine of Louisville, Kentucky and grandchildren,Ashley (Eschenbach) Current and Tyler Current and great- grandchildren, Addison and Avery Eschenbach and Camden Current; and her son Dana Current and wife Jane of Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, and grandchildren Emily Current and Robert Charles (Charlie) Current.

Sona was preceded in death by her parents, Kevork and Virginia Aznavorian, one brother, George S. Aznavorian and her cherished husband, Robert Charles Current, Jr.

A memorial service will be held at a later date. In lieu of flowers, a gift in her memory may be sent to the Women’s Alzheimers Movement, 11440 San Vicente Boulevard., Suite 301, Los Angeles, CA 90049.

I’ll Take “Art For $200.”

Artists sustain us in tough times. But these days, artists (and arts organizations) are in dire straits themselves.

Of course, artists are creative. (Duh.) So leave it to several of them to create a way to help themselves, arts groups — and all the rest of us.

At a time when some folks are not making money, and others have nothing to spend money on, #ArtsAliveWestport draws us all in.

Artists Amy Kaplan, Liz Leggett and Darcy Hicks, along with 3rd Selectwoman Melissa Kane, have a simple plan. Artists offer their work (priced no higher than $200).

When they reach $1,000 in sales, they invest 20% back to the arts by buying a work from another artist, or donating to a local arts non-profit (for example, The Artists Collective of Westport, MoCA Westport, Westport Country Playhouse, Beechwood Arts, Westport Community Theater, Levitt Pavilion, Connecticut Alliance for Music, Fairfield County Alliance for the Arts, or others).

Artists post an image of their work on Instagram or Facebook, with details like price, materials and dimensions, plus the hashtag #ArtsAlivewestport.

Buyers search for art using that same hashtag — #ArtsAliveWestport — on Instagram and Facebook. Available works show up in their feed. They can contact the artist directly (direct message or in the “Comments” section) to arrange purchase, payment, and pickup or shipment.

Art of all kinds is available through the #ArtsAliveWestport hashtag.

During last year’s exhibit, Kaplan says, artists and community members came together to experience art and exchange ideas. Now, during the pandemic, they’ve found solace in their studios — but miss the “sharing, the conversations and the connections that we search for by making that art.”

This project excites her because it “wraps back again, strengthening bonds as artists re-invest back into the community.”

The hashtag “conveys the vitality of our arts scene, and the continuity of that thread in the fabric of our town.”

Hicks adds, “When art and money are traded this way, the whole local economy benefits. And our spirits are lifted when we buy art. It is an intimate way of sharing and supporting each other.”

Leggett says #ArtsAliveWestport resembles the “6 degrees of separation” idea that always comforts her. “We have more in common than not,” she notes. “Connections that may seem small can emanate throughout this world. In this time of isolation and uncertainty, that idea is crucial for well-being — individually, and as a community.”

Questions? Email artsalivewestport@gmail.com, or call 646-299-6167.

Westporter Sues Lamont; Demands Freedom Of Assembly

The CDC says that to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Americans should avoid gathering in groups.

Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont signed an executive order, restricting public gatherings to no more than 5 people.

Westport resident Bruce Miller believes that violates his constitutional rights. So — while others with the same belief march in protest, or storm state capitols — he sued.

The lawsuit — filed in US District Court in New Haven earlier this month — says that Lamont exceeded federal guidelines, and exaggerated the pandemic’s risks.

While some state residents protested in Hartford, Westporter Bruce Miller took a different route. He sued the governor.

Miller — who is representing himself — said:

The rule is a violation of the Constitutional rights to freedom of assembly, association, privacy and the right to be secure in one’s home. CT state law gives the governor no power to issue such (an) order,

Now, when the curve has been bent, hospitalizations are down, and the virus has been shown to be far less deadly than believed when the executive orders were issued, there is now no further reason to suspend the Bill of Rights.

Attorney General William Tong replied:

Our state constitution and state laws grant the Governor broad authority to protect Connecticut residents and families in a public health emergency, and his executive orders have been very clearly constitutional and fully legally justified.

Historic Church Offers COVID Reflections

In the 309 years since its founding, Green’s Farms Church has seen a lot.

In 1779 the British burned its meetinghouse and parsonage. The current, handsome building on Hillandale Road — the 4th in the church’s history — has been there since 1853.

Green’s Farms Congregational Church

Over those 3 centuries, clergy and worshipers have weathered wars, snowstorms and hurricanes. The steeple blew down; the lights have gone out. Disease has ravaged the congregation — including the infamous influenza pandemic of 1918-20.

The latest calamity is one shared by the world: the coronavirus. To meet the moment, the church that began 78 years before the United States was born — and 124 before Westport became a town — has turned to a 21st century tool: an online journal.

An opening shot from the Green’s Farms Church’s online journal.

Two dozen people contributed insights, including church officials and congregants. They range from young families to members in their 80s. Some have been members for 50 years; others, just a few months.

All responded to the question: “What have you learned from the lockdown?”

This is not a seat-of-the-pants, let’s-fill-some-pages project. After a description of GFC’s early response to the crisis — a drive-thru food drive, YouTube Easter service, Zoom confirmation classes — the graphically gorgeous journal gets into some very impressive reflections.

Some of the musings delve into God and religion. Others do not. Some answer the prompt through a cosmic lens. Others speak of loved ones. All are wise, honest and personal.

None are quick sound bites. Each is several paragraphs long. Clearly, everyone crafted responses with care, and respect for the reader. (Big props to the copy editor, too!)

Rev. Jeff Rider notes that “being present doesn’t require being in person.” Others wrote of new principles, hope, and feeling like Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day.”

Rev. Jeff Rider’s reflections.

Taken together, says church operations director Claire England, the journal reflects “a diversity in life experience, and in how we all experience this period differently.”

However, “all are aware of how fortunate we are if we have shelter and family to call upon, and how important it is for the church to support not only each other, but the many who are suffering around us.” The church, she notes, has stepped up its outreach sharply.

What’s online now is the first version. “That’s the way most of us are getting information and staying in community at the moment,” England says. But she’s turning it into a book, which can live much longer than pixels.

And will be available 309 years from now, for the Green’s Farms Church of 2329.

(Click here for the Green’s Farms Church Coronavirus Journal.)