Category Archives: People

Remembering Ernie Gazdik

Alert “06880” reader John Karrel writes:

“Ernie G”‘s eldest daughter, Michele Convertito, says, “He could always make you laugh.”

Until October 3, when he died at age 65. The Fairfield native was a truck driver for over 30 years.

I serve a monthly lunch at the Gillespie Center. No person there could brighten my day like Ernie G. After his family — notably his daughters Michele, Melissa and Maria — no passion was more important for him than his Yankees.

Ernest Gazdik

Ernest Gazdik

For years, he and I traded barbs about his Yanks and my Red Sox. Neither of us would win. There was always a twinkle in his eye.

Last time I saw him, some weeks ago, we had both mellowed. We complimented each other on our teams: my Sox headed for the post-seasons, his Yankees seeing a bright future with a host of young players.

Some day, when the 2 teams meet in the playoffs and Gary Sanchez’s walk-off home run propels the Yanks into the World Series, I will be sad. Then I’ll think of Ernie G’s beaming face, and I’ll smile.

And if his beloved Yanks do lose, Ernie G will still have been “one of the greatest men I have ever known,” in daughter Michele’s words.

That’s not bad.

(For Ernie Gazdik’s full obituary, click here. Donations in his name may be made to the Gillespie Center, 45 Jesup Road, Westport, CT 06880.)

Ryan Lester: Arts Honoree’s Career Began Here

These days, Westport is a town of hedge funds (and their managers), ginormous new houses (even as the housing market for them slows) and a TV show featuring our 2nd fattest housewife.

You may think we’ve strayed from our artists’ colony roots.

But you would be wrong.

Tomorrow (Sunday, October 23, 2 p.m., Town Hall), the Westport Arts Advisory Committee presents its 4th TEA Talk.

tea-talkThe acronym stands for Thinkers Educators Artists. The program features remarks on our town’s arts heritage, and a panel including author/lyricist Tom Greenwald, writer/radio commentator Jessica Bram, multimedia artist Sooo-Z Mastropietro, artist/photographer Miggs Burroughs, musician Frederic Chiu, and composer Ryan Lester.

Ryan epitomizes Westport’s arts past, present and future. A 2007 Staples High School grad, he receives the Horizon Award at tomorrow’s event. It’s given annually to a Westport artist under the age of 32, who shows “extraordinary accomplishment and potential.”

It’s a great honor, and Ryan is flying in from Los Angeles to receive it. That’s his home now, where he composes music for film, TV, video games and the concert stage.


Ryan Lester

For the past 6 years, Ryan has composed for “The Daily Show.” NBC Universal recently asked him to score their animated sitcom “Mystery Island.” He’s worked as an orchestrator and synth on the NBC thriller “Crossbones,” the feature film “Barely Lethal” and Discovery Channel’s “Harley and the Davidsons.” Ryan is currently scoring “Confessions of a Boxman,” for early 2017 release.

He studied at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, the Royal College of Music in London, and the Juilliard School.

But Ryan’s path to a musical career began in 4th grade, when Long Lots Elementary School teacher Betsy Tucker introduced him to the recorder and steel drums. At age 10, he began writing music.

The next year, Frank Coppola encouraged him to play trombone. Then came middle school jazz bands with James Forgey and Gregg Winters. Both teachers stoked his enthusiasm for that unique art form.

Important Staples influences also included Candi Innaco, Nick Mariconda, Adele Valovich and Alice Lipson. “Westport was a ridiculously great place to grow up, musically,” Ryan says.


Staples Players’ pit orchestra exposed him to a whole different side of music. A decade later, he says he draws on that experience for much of his work. In fact, he notes, “Westport schools were a lot more influential on what I do now than college.”

“I always knew I wanted to compose,” Ryan adds. “I just didn’t know if I could make it a career.”

He certainly has. And tomorrow — back home — Ryan Lester will be honored at what is still the start of his musical career.

His horizon is limitless.

(Tomorrow’s TEA Talk is free. A reception follows at the Westport Historical Society. For more information, click here.)

Click here for “06880+”: The easy way to publicize upcoming events, sell items, find or advertise your service, ask questions, etc. It’s the “06880” community bulletin board!

Friday Flashback #12

A recent “06880” story about Leopold and Frankie Godowsky’s Easton Road home — he helped develop Kodachrome; she was George and Ira Gershwin’s younger sister — moved commenters to note that in later years, that same house was owned by Arnie Kaye.

A larger-than-life figure — and he was pretty large to begin with — Arnie was known for many things. He killed an intruder on his property. He paid his taxes in pennies. He owned a delicatessen and ice cream parlor.

He was best known, however, for his Arnie’s Place video arcade. Located where Balducci’s Anthropologie is now, and one of the first of its kind in an American suburb like Westport, it became a home-away-from-home for countless kids in the late 1970s and early ’80s.

Despite plenty of opposition at the start — lots of adults thought a video arcade heralded The End of the World — he ran an operation that parents soon happily dumped their kids at. Arnie looked out for them, providing a safe place to play (and spend mom and dad’s money).

Pretty soon, every child in Westport had his birthday party at Arnie’s.

Las Vegas? Foxwoods? Nope -- Arnie's Place.

Las Vegas? Foxwoods? Nope — Arnie’s Place.

Most of our Friday Flashbacks flash back many decades. This one will be remembered fondly by folks who wish their own children today — the same age they were then — could have their own video arcade to go to, with other kids.

Instead of playing those damn games all alone, on a stupid cellphone.

Jeff Pegues: “Black And Blue” In America Today

As justice/homeland security correspondent for CBS News, Jeff Pegues has special insight into the police/community relations crisis that’s dominated American headlines for the past couple of years.

As an African American man, he’s got a different — but very important — perspective too.

Which is why the 1988 Staples High School graduate’s new book — Black and Blue: Inside the Divide Between the Police and Black America — is such a crucial addition to this national debate.

Earlier this week — in the midst of tracking down sources for the still-developing Russian-presidential-campaign-hacking story — Pegues talked about his project. We had not spoken for 3 decades — I was his youth soccer coach, before he became a Staples football star, earned a scholarship to Miami University in Ohio and rose through the broadcast ranks to WABC-TV news, then 3 years ago CBS national news — but he was eager to chat.

Jerff Pegues, reporting for CBS News.

Jerff Pegues, reporting for CBS News.

His parents grew up in the Deep South — Montgomery and Birmingham — during the heart of the civil rights movement. He’s related on his mother’s side to Rosa Parks.

During his 25 years in the news business, Pegues worked on many law enforcement stories. He’s developed strong relationships with police officers, commanders and federal investigators.

As he covered a string of police shootings – from Ferguson through Tulsa, Charlotte and more — he realized he was in a unique position.

“It’s important to dispel myths, and get all sides of the story in one place,” Pegues says.

“With Twitter, Facebook and other social media, people get information from sources they agree with. They reinforce their opinion. They don’t question it.”

He admits, “I’m not Shakespeare. But I know how to interview people, and get honest answers. That way everyone can see the issues, study them and start to solve problems.”

jeff-pegues-bookSpeaking with hundreds of subjects — officers, police chiefs and union leaders, community activists, even FBI director (and fellow former Westporter) James Comey — Pegues offers an unbiased view from both sides of the cop-community divide.

Police speak about the pressure to enforce laws, involve themselves in social issues and work in neighborhoods that have been neglected for years. Black citizens talk about confrontations that have happened for decades; finally, they say, there is proof that they are being singled out, harassed, even killed.

A police chief remarks that officers feel there are targets on their backs. “I thought, ‘a lot of African Americans feel the same way,'” Pegues says. “But they can’t take that ‘uniform’ off.

“I want the truth out there,” he adds. “Folks in the black community need to understand stop-and-frisk. Cops need to talk about the disrespect they feel in some communities, as they try to help. There are good people on both sides.”

However, he adds, despite similar concerns about issues, “in this politically charged atmosphere, there’s not a lot of listening.”

Pegues plays it right down the middle. “I have friends and family on both sides,” he says.

Jeff Pegues

Jeff Pegues

Writing about a subject with new headlines nearly every week — though  the book will not be published until spring — is not easy. For example, Pegues says, earlier this week the president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police apologized for historic mistreatment of minorities by police. That came too late to include in Black and Blue.

But stories like those will bring readers to his book. Once there, Pegues’ clear, coherent and constructive approach to cop/community relations will draw them in.

And — whether they are police officers, black activists or any other American — Jeff Pegues’ book will get us all thinking.

Click here for “06880+”: The easy way to publicize upcoming events, sell items, find or advertise your service, ask questions, etc. It’s the “06880” community bulletin board!


Tutors Bridge Westport/Bridgeport Gap

Chris Winkler played baseball and soccer at Staples High School. After graduating in 2003 he went on to Yale (where he majored in English), and England (where he earned a master’s degree). As soon as he finishes his dissertation, he’ll have a Ph.D. from Temple.

Winkler — who now goes by the first name Yearsley — knows his way around academia. But he hasn’t forgotten his Fairfield County roots.

Yearsley Winkler

Yearsley Winkler

From growing up here, he realizes the outsize role played by tutoring and college prep services. He also knows that — just a few miles from Westport — there are students who, by the unfortunate luck of where they live, have no access to those advantages.

Even at Bridgeport’s Fairchild Wheeler Magnet Schools, Winkler says, there’s only a once-a-week SAT Club, run by teachers with no special training in test-taking.

Winkler also knows testing. He worked for 8 years with Andover College Prep. A year ago he went out on his own.

Now he’s formed his own company. Meliora — that’s Latin for “ever better” — offers 1-on-1 SAT, ACT and AP tutoring, along with college advising (picking schools, writing essays, etc.). All his tutors are affiliated with Yale.

But here’s the business model twist: For every hour of tutoring or college prep purchased, Winkler’s company will provide an hour to students from Fairchild Wheeler.

He did not choose Fairchild randomly. Westport resident Jay Lipp is principal of one of the 3 smaller schools housed within Fairchild Wheeler. And former Westport superintendent of schools Claire Gold is a longtime consultant for Bridgeport’s education system.

“Growing up here, with all the advantages, it’s hard to even realize the systemic differences between good high school experiences and kids who don’t have the same fortune,” Winkler says.

meloria-logoOther tutoring and college prep companies offer pro bono services to less advantaged students. Winkler says Meliora is different, because its 1-to-1 model — an hour-free-for-every-hour-paid plan — is “fully devoted to this collaborative project.”

Winkler adds, “I’m realistic. I know Westport parents are not paying directly to help Bridgeport kids. But I hope they realize they’re doing some good.”

There’s an enormous gap between schools and services in our affluent suburb, and those less than 10 miles away.

Yearsley Winkler hopes to make the gap smaller, and the effort to bridge it “ever better.”

(Meliora launches in January. For more information, click here.)

76 Trombones, 5 Musicians, 2 Posters, 1 Painting

Exactly 70 years ago today — on October 19, 1946 — the Saturday Evening Post cover showed 5 high school band musicians.

As many “06880” readers know, Westport artist Stevan Dohanos used 5 Staples High School students as models. Seven decades later the painting hangs in Town Hall, right outside the first selectman’s office.

Westport illustrator Stevan Dohanos' 1946 Saturday Evening Post cover.

Westport illustrator Stevan Dohanos’ 1946 Saturday Evening Post cover.

In 2001, David Roth was in his 2nd year as director of Staples Players. To promote their production of “The Music Man,” Roth asked graphic arts teacher Alan Dodd to recreate the iconic artwork — this time using 5 actors from the upcoming show.

There’s one girl in the painting. Roth chose Samantha Marpe to pose. In “The Music Man,” Samantha played Zaneeta — River City’s mayor’s daughter. In an amazing coincidence, Samantha’s father — Jim Marpe — is now Westport’s first selectman (mayor).

The 2001 poster is also on the wall, next to Marpe’s office. Every day at work, he sees his daughter’s image.

Staples Players' 2001 poster.

Staples Players’ 2001 poster…

Fifteen years later, Players is once again staging “The Music Man.” Once again, Roth is using Dohanos’ painting as inspiration for the publicity poster.

There are some differences between the 2001 and 2016 versions, of course. Dodd has retired; this year’s photo was taken by co-director Kerry Long, and created by graphic arts instructor Carla Eichler.

A decade and a half after the first poster, she’s able to do much more with special effects. For example, in Dohanos’ original painting the football team was reflected in the sousaphone. That was tough to recreate in 2001, so the reflection showed only the 5 musicians.

This time, Eichler reflected Jacob Leaf — who plays Harold Hill, the “music man” — in the sousaphone.

...and the 2016 version.

…and the 2016 version.

Speaking of which: simply finding a brass sousaphone for Long to photograph was a herculean task. These days, they’re all fiberglass.

Roth put out a townwide call. Finally, he found one. It’s owned by Shari Levy. In another great coincidence, her son Jon was part of the quartet in the 2001 production. She lent it to Roth for the photo shoot — and the show.

Across America, people know “The Music Man” for its 76 trombones.

In Westport, it’s all about Stevan Dohanos — and David Roth’s — 5 musicians.

That’s no shipoopi.

(Staples Players present “The Music Man” on Friday and Saturday, November 11, 12, 18 and 19 at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, November 13 and Saturday, November 19 at 3 p.m. Tickets go on sale this weekend at


Click here for “06880+”: The easy way to publicize upcoming events, sell items, find or advertise your service, ask questions, etc. It’s the “06880” community bulletin board!

Great News From World’s Greatest Scavenger Hunt

In August, “06880” reported on Tia Pogue’s summer. The Staples High School senior was competing in The Greatest Scavenger Hunt The World Has Ever Seen. Suffice it to say, she was not searching for restaurant menus.

Earlier this month, we added details about one of her quests. She and her team had to get a child to write a letter to the universe. Then launch the letter into space. And provide video proof too.

Yesterday, Tia and her diverse, around-the-world group — they call themselves Team Raised From Perdition — got the news they’d been waiting for:

They won!

Perdition beat out more than 2,000 teams — that’s over 30,000 people — to take 1st prize.

Which is: an all-expenses-paid trip to Iceland.

That makes sense. Tia’s already taken care of outer space.

Tia and David Pogue, in their Yahoo video of their outer space adventure.

Tia and David Pogue, in their Yahoo video of their outer space adventure.

Below: Tia Pogue plays a human piano:

(To see Tia’s complete team page, click here. For their spreadsheet, click here. For more information on the Greatest International Scavenger Hunt the World Has Ever Seen, click here.)

Click here for “06880+”: The easy way to publicize upcoming events, sell items, find or advertise your service, ask questions, etc. It’s the “06880” community bulletin board!

Nobel Laureate’s Former Manager Looks Back

Michael Friedman has done a lot in his 72 years.

The 1961 Staples graduate managed Todd Rundgren. He did publicity for the Dave Clark 5 and Herman’s Hermits. He dated Linda Eastman.

And — for a few years in the late 1960s and early ’70s — he helped manage Bob Dylan.

You know: the newest Nobel Prize in Literature laureate.

Michael Friedman in his Weston home.

Michael Friedman in his Weston home.

Friedman — a longtime music lover and current Weston resident whose recollections of the early rock ‘n’ roll days in Westport I chronicled last April (he was Bo Diddley’s drummer at the YMCA, for example) — was just 24 years old when he joined Albert Grossman’s New York office.

It had been a 1-man operation, managing — besides Dylan, and the Band — Janis Joplin, Peter Paul & Mary, Richie Havens, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and Odessa.

Friedman was hired on as Grossman’s assistant — and partner.

With Dylan back in the news last week, I asked Friedman for some insights into the singer/songwriter/poet/Nobel Prize honoree.

“What do you add to the conversation about Bob Dylan that hasn’t already been examined under a microscope?” Friedman wondered.

Bob Dylan and Albert Grossman.

Bob Dylan and Albert Grossman.

He thinks, though, that it’s hard to imagine Dylan achieving all that he did without Grossman. They were “alter egos,” Friedman says.

Friedman’s work with Dylan came mainly in the office, and Dylan’s home/studio in Woodstock, New York — not on the road. But the manager saw many facets of his client.

Decades later, he remains a huge fan.

“If anything, I’m surprised that people are surprised” at the Nobel news, Friedman says.

“His lyrics and music go far beyond anything any American has achieved,” he notes.

“He’s so influential. He gave everyone — the Beatles, Paul Simon, you name it — permission to write in a way that had never been done before. The body of work he’s responsible for laid the groundwork in a fearless, extraordinary way.”

That “Nashville Skyline” album remains one of Friedman’s favorites. It was light, simple — and very country-influenced. That, Friedman says, epitomizes Dylan.


Dylan’s “Nashville Skyline” cover.

“He did not care what anyone thought, or about celebrity or fame. He was booed off the stage at Newport for going electric, when he was the spokesman for folk music. He was the anti-war spokesman, and he went country. He did what he wanted..”

But Dylan was certainly no dilettante. When Friedman asked him about his writing “process,” Dylan said: “I get up in the morning. I go to my ‘office.’ I write songs. Then I go home.”

After nearly 60 years in the business — and countless honors — Bob Dylan has received an enormous honor, for his great body of work.

“I really admire him,” his former manager said. “And I’m really proud of him.”

[UPDATE] Mourning Noah Witke

Earlier today, the New York Daily News added details to its story on the death of Noah Witke. The Staples High School Class of 2009 graduate was a talented actor, and a beloved friend to many.

The paper said:

The 25-year-old actor who died after falling from the roof of his Harlem building had forgotten his keys at work and was trying to climb onto the fire escape to get in when he lost his balance and fell, police said on Monday.

Noah Witke had gone out to a party for the closing of the New York Film Festival with fellow actors and co-workers Saturday night, but forgot his keys and bag at Lincoln Center, where he was working for the cinematic celebration, police and friends said.

Noah Witke (Photo/Kerry Long)

Noah Witke (Photo/Kerry Long)

Witnesses told investigators Witke left a bar after having a few drinks around 4 a.m., police said.

Unable to get into his W. 134th St. apartment near Amsterdam Ave., Witke went up to his roof and apparently tried to gain access to his home via the fire escape, police said. Tragically, he lost his footing while lowering himself down from the roof and fell from the five-story building around 5:10 a.m., police said.

The Daily News story includes quotes from colleagues and directors — including Staples Players mentor David Roth. Click here for the full article.

Noah Witke and Brittany Uomoleale,, the lead roles in Staples Players' "Romeo and Juliet." (Photo/Kerry Long)

Noah Witke and Brittany Uomoleale,, the lead roles in Staples Players’ “Romeo and Juliet.” (Photo/Kerry Long)

(Hat tip: Dee Chapman)

Remembering Noah Witke

Noah Witke — the very talented Staples Players actor who thrilled audiences as Romeo in “Romeo and Juliet,” and starred in other productions including “The Laramie Project,” “The Diary of Anne Frank”  and “Twelve Angry Men” — died yesterday.

Noah Witke and Brittany Uomoleale, star-crossed lovers in "Romeo and Juliet." (Photo/Kerry Long)

Noah Witke and Brittany Uomoleale, star-crossed lovers in “Romeo and Juliet.” (Photo/Kerry Long)

A member of Staples High School’s Class of 2009, the Juilliard graduate was 25 years old. He was working with a theater company at the time of his death.

According to the New York Daily News, Noah was intoxicated when he fell off the roof of his 5-story Harlem apartment building at 5:10 a.m.

Noah Witke (Photo/Kerry Long)

Noah Witke (Photo/Kerry Long)

Staples Players director David Roth said, “(Co-director) Kerry Long and I were very close to him. Noah was not only a really good actor — he was also a kind, gentle spirit.

“He was so thoughtful of other people. He was a teaching assistant in Theatre I for 2 years, and was so great with one of our special needs kids. He partnered with him in a scene, one-on-one.

“Noah would have been a really good acting teacher. We are devastated by his loss.”

Funeral arrangements are incomplete.

Noah Witke in one of several ensemble roles in "The Laramie Project." (Photo/Kerry Long)

Noah Witke in one of several ensemble roles in “The Laramie Project.” (Photo/Kerry Long)