Category Archives: Staples HS

Remembering Selma Engel: Holocaust Survivor Told The World

On Sunday, the New York Times published a remarkable obituary.

It began:

Selma Wynberg Engel, who escaped a Nazi extermination camp after a prisoner uprising and was among the first to tell the world about the camp’s existence, died on Tuesday in East Haven, Conn. She was 96.

The story told how — as a young Dutch Jew — Selma was among 58 prisoners who braved machine gun fire to escape from Sobibor. Only one other is believed to still be alive.

She and a young man named Chaim were on the run for 2 weeks before a Polish peasant family hid them in a hayloft.

Selma Engel (Photo courtesy of New York Times, via Alexander Perchersky Foundation)

Back in the Netherlands, Selma told Russian reporters about the Sobibor extermination camp. A September 1944 story was the first public description of the place where up to 350,000 were murdered.

Selma and Chaim married in 1945. They faced prejudice in the Netherlands because he was a Polish Jew; more than 100,000 Dutch citizens had been deported to camps there.

The couple moved to Israel in 1951. Six years later they came to the US.

And though the Times does not mention it, their new home was on Wilton Road in Westport. They were sponsored by the  owners of Gilbertie’s Nursery.

Chaim got a job at Gristede’s on Main Street, and drove an Arnold bread truck. Selma ironed clothes.

“You can imagine how difficult that was for them,” recalls Selma’s daughter Alida. “They were depressed — especially my mother.”

It was the first time Alida — known then as “Lidy” — and her brother Fred learned about the war. In Israel, their parents never talked about it.

Selma and Chaim Engel with their baby daughter Alida, in the Netherlands in 1946. (Photo courtesy of New York Times)

But, Alida notes, “there were many kind folks — especially those my mother ironed for. They tried to help.”

Still, Alida and her brother were different. “Westport was not used to foreigners,” she says. “They didn’t know what to do with me in the public schools. So they taught me diagraphing and speed reading.”

The Engels went through Bedford Elementary and Junior High in Westport, then Staples. She graduated in 1964; he followed 2 years later.

Yet Alida ended up feeling extremely happy in school, and still has many friends from those days. She made plenty of friends, in part through sports. She played field hockey and ran track for Jinny Parker at Staples High School. Fred played soccer.

Alida Engel (2nd from left, red hair) with dolls at Klein’s Department Store in Westport.

Chaim and Selma eventually bought a card shop in Stamford. They ran it until they purchased a jewelry store with Alida’s ex-husband in Old Saybrook. In 1973 the couple moved to Branford. She lived there almost until her death.

But the story comes full circle. Alida’s niece, Emily Engel Riley, now lives in Westport, with her husband and children.

And speaking of stories: The Times says that although Selma and Chaim told theirs many times,

it was largely unknown in the postwar Netherlands until the last decade, when a team of Dutch historians, including Mr. Van Liempt, visited Mrs. Engel in Connecticut to research a book about her. It was published in 2010 as “Selma, the Woman Who Survived Sobibor” and led to a documentary film of the same name.

Now Selma’s story is known all over the world.

Including her first American hometown: Westport.

(Click here for the full New York Times obituary.)

A Love-ly Compo Serenade

Compo Beach is a magical place all year long. In any season or weather, it attracts Westporters — past and present.

So naturally, when Jonathan Alter hosted his college a cappella group this weekend, he showed them the shore.

Jonathan — a 2017 graduate of Staples High School — now sings with the Dartmouth College Brovertones. They’re on an East Coast tour: Hartford Friday, Yale last night (go figure), the National Christmas Tree lighting in Washington, DC this coming Tuesday.

Staying at the Alters’ Compo-area home was fun. Yesterday afternoon, they wandered over to the beach.

It was a great place to rehearse. Jerri Graham — a talented local photographer — saw them having fun. She loved their energy, and spontaneously snapped some fun-filled shots.

The Brovertones at Compo Beach. Jonathan Alter is 3rd from left. (Photo/Jerri Graham)

She was not there randomly. Her secret mission: to photograph an engagement taking place momentarily at the water’s edge.

Matthew Cook had orchestrated a romantic beach stroll with his girlfriend Carlie Kleinman, and their dog April. The 2004 Staples grads live now in New York City. But both still love Compo.

Carlie had no clue that Matt was about to pop “the question” on their beautiful beach.

When Matt got down on bended knee — chivalry is not dead! — the Brovertones (watching from a distance) erupted in enthusiastic cheers.

As the couple headed to the jetty for capture-the-moment selfies, the singers came over.

And offered a congratulatory serenade.

Matt Cook, Carrie Kleinman, April and the Brovertones

(Hat tip: Lisa Marie Alter)

Protesters Face PURA At Water Tower Site Visit

You’ve seen the yard signs up and down North Avenue.

On Thursday, members of the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority did too.

They came to Westport last week, on a site visit to the proposed location of 2 concrete water towers. Aquarion hopes to build them — as replacements and improvements on the one current, much smaller facility — directly opposite Staples High School.

Jennifer Johnson joined several other opponents at the regulators’ site visit.

She was not impressed.

PURA members and protesters at the Aquarion North Avenue water tower site visit on Thursday.

“Aquarion didn’t mark out the rough location of the proposed tanks, or mark the trees that are coming down, and/or float a balloon so people could visualize the tanks’ height (squished into a small site),” she says. “Isn’t that the point of a site inspection?

Johnson reports that a few non-Aquarion attendees tried to mark the location of one of the new tanks by standing in the woods at the proposed center, then walking 50 feet in each direction. “It was only partly successful,” she says.

Johnson and her group hoped to convey some of their opposite to the PURA members. They printed out their main objections, part of a fact sheet originally compiled by Save Westport Now:

●  As currently planned, the new tank will not solve the water pressure problems in Westport. Even if the new tanks are built, the majority of fire hydrants in town will still be deficient.

●  The new tanks will allow Aquarion to “push” more water to other parts of Fairfield County, begging the question: Can’t they find another site for the second tank, in a less residential area?

An aerial view shows the North Avenue Aquarion tank site, opposite Staples High School.

●  During the proposed 2-plus-year construction period, trucks and industrial excavators will clog North Avenue and streets around Staples. Combined with traffic from Bedford Middle School and the loss of the sidewalk, it’s a disaster waiting to happen. Yet Aquarion remains delinquent in providing a basic construction plan.

●  The real problem is not just the size of the tanks, but the obsolete and undersized water mains that run beneath our roads.

●  To make matters worse, the new tanks are likely to create bigger problems. The large increase in water capacity can lead to stale water.

●  Aquarion has finally acknowledged the problem with the water mains, and agreed to minor upgrades. It’s a step in the right direction, but it’s not enough. (Aquarion is a for-profit monopoly. Its interest in rewarding shareholders does not necessarily align with residents’ or customers’ interests.)

●  Westport could wind up with 2 extremely ugly tanks, more expensive water—and still have a water pressure problem.

A photo shows the height of the proposed new water tanks.

Opponents ask PURA to require a “full independent review and comprehensive plan for upgrading Westport’s water infrastructure.”

They also want Westport’s Planning & Zoning Commission to have the authority to revoke the permit for this project. That way, they say, “Westport and Aquarion can move forward with a workable plan for rebuilding our water infrastructure for the next century.”

Several town officials, including the fire chief, have testified that the towers are necessary for safety.

PURA will hold a public hearing on Thursday, December 20 (9:30 a.m., 10 Franklin Square, New Britain), to consider Aquarion’s proposed towers.

What? No Famous Weavers School?!

A recent issue of the New Yorker offers looks backward.

There’s a tribute to founder Harold  Ross, followed by many old stories and cartoons.

Karl Decker — the longtime, legendary and now retired Staples High School English instructor — is a devoted New Yorker fan. The magazine sent him scurrying to his cellar, where he keeps his back copies.

All the way back to the 1930s.

Karl Decker, with his 1934 New Yorker.

He picked one — June 23, 1934 — and settled down to read.

There was a long article about Franklin Roosevelt; a cartoon by Peter Arno — and 500 words of “precious whimsy” by Parke Cummings.

In the summer of 1960, Karl and Parke — a famous author and humorist — worked together at Famous Writers School.

Al Dorne — one of the founders of the Famous Writers, Artists and Photographer Schools — was always looking for ideas to add to those 3 “schools” (all correspondence-based, and headquartered on Wilton Road).

An advertisement from the 1950s.

Parke and Karl had already submitted proposals for a Famous Sculptors School (which required a railroad spur, to ship in granite) and Famous Dancers School (huge pads on which students would ink their bare feet, then step out the moves on big rolls of paper).

Their latest idea: Famous Weavers School. The preface read: “The School will provide each student with 4 English Shropshire sheep, a shepherdess, and …”

Dorne told them he’d have to consult with Ed Mitchell before they went any further.

“Inexplicably, our workloads increased markedly after that,” Karl reports.

Maria Maisonet’s Beach Bathroom Story

During The Great Compo Beach Bathroom Debate, we’ve heard from taxpayers, pickleball players, politicians, and just about everyone else in town.

Now a very articulate Staples High School senior weighs in. Maria Maisonet grew up in Westport. She works on the “Good Morning Staples” TV show, and for Cablevision’s public access division. Next fall she heads to the University of New Haven, to study communications and film. 

Maria also happens also to use a wheelchair.

She is a paid contributor to The Odyssey and The Patriot, 2 thriving online communities. Westport’s contentious brouhaha impelled her to write a piece, which has already been read by thousands.

Maria Maisonet

Maria wrote about how hard it is just to find a handicap-accessible bathroom.  So she created a video, which she believes helped sway some RTM members.

But not everyone was convinced. Her Odyssey piece mentions the back-and-forth comments, including a particularly hurtful one: that building this is “flushing  money down the toilet.”

“The sheer unbridled joy that filled me when I received word the proposal was approved during the wee hours of the morning at a 26-8 vote is the sad reality for people who live in a world built to exclude them,” Maria concludes.

Co-Workers Swarm To Westport’s Hive

Co-working sounds like a high-tech concept. Folks sit hunched around their laptops, earbuds in, collaborating remotely with people they may never actually meet.

Nope, says Luke Scott. That’s not it at all. Co-working is all about being together, with other intriguing folks, in a space that is not an actual office.

Luke should know. The 1991 Staples High School graduate — whose real gig is owner of MadisonMott, a funky, kick-ass branding, advertising, digital and social media agency– also created, developed and runs B:Hive. That’s the cleverly named 5-year-old co-working space that’s helped bring great energy and creativity to downtown Bridgeport.

Luke just opened his 2nd co-working Hive. This one is in an even more cool, fun space: the old Sasco Mill, straddling the Westport/Southport line.

B:Hive — the rear view, from Sasco Creek and Bulkley Pond.

Over the decades the historic structure morphed from a cider mill to a yarn shop. Now it’s ready for its 21st century turn.

Owner Gerard Bernacchia had been looking to convert part of his building into a co-working space. David Cusa of Peoples Bank connected Gerard with his Staples classmate and longtime friend Luke.

Things moved quickly. Designers Madeline Rhodes loved the interior space. She worked with tech director Jordan Rabidou and creative director Marcella Kovac (Luke’s wife). Their design brilliantly blends features of the mill with the demands of technology.

There are 2 levels — both bright and airy, all equipped with high-speed WiFi.

The Hive boasts original beams — and the latest video conferencing technology.

When Luke gives a tour, he starts on the street level. He shows off the big individual desks, conference rooms, private phone booths (for cell calls), printer, storage space and kitchen.

It’s an inviting space — perfect for folks who work on their own but find a home office too limited and/or distracting, and crave just-enough contact with other human beings. (The business connections made with other co-workers is worth the monthly fee itself.)

But when Luke takes visitors downstairs, the Hive really hums.

There’s a long communal work table. Just beyond, large windows look out on a spectacular Sasco Creek waterfall.

The communal table looks out on a gorgeous waterfall.

If that doesn’t inspire you, you deserve your miserable fluorescent-lit cubicle.

The Hive opened just before Thanksgiving. The first co-workers, Luke jokes, were a great blue heron and white egret.

Humans quickly followed. They include writers, advertising and PR pros, an event planner, an apparel businessperson, a media consultant and a non-profit executive.

There’s an intriguing mix of ages and backgrounds. Right now, women outnumber men.

Among the features and amenities they enjoy: 24/7 access; free coffee and snacks; guest visits; access to the Bridgeport B:Hive; onsite printing; networking and social events, and mail service.

Oh, yeah: Kayaks and bike sharing.

And an Airbnb upstairs (for guests).

Luke Scott. Don’t be offended — this sign is in the bathroom.

Luke is a huge Bridgeport booster. That’s where he opened his first co-working space — just around the corner from his MadisonMott agency.

But he also loves his home town.

He’s excited to bring his 2nd Hive to the beautiful mill and waterfall on the Southport border.

And proud to offer a co-working space that is Westport’s latest buzz.

(For more information, click here; email swarm@bhivecoworking.com, or call 203-873-2008.)

Serena Tirado Needs Our Help

Serena Tirado is a beloved Staples High School science teacher.

Students and parents praise her for nurturing a love for biology — and for her caring, mentoring and inspiration.

A student from 2011 says, “As much as she loves bio — and she really does — she loves every student even more. Her kindness and passion spread to us like molecules going down a concentration gradient. I still look back on that class with a smile. When she was no longer my teacher, and I struggled with personal problems, she was the only teacher I felt comfortable confiding in.”

Another student — never in accelerated classes — says that Ms. Tirado was the first teacher who told her she was smart enough to do whatever she wanted. In 6 months, she will earn her veterinary degree.

Serena Tirado

Those sentiments — and many more — are expressed on a GoFundMe page. For over a year, Serena Tirado has undergone treatment for breast cancer.

She’s battling the disease — but it’s taken a toll on her and her family. Even with insurance, she needs help.

“Every day she taught, Serena gave all she had to her students and our community,” the page says.

Now, “it is our turn to give back to her. Please do what you can for this special teacher, who is beautiful both inside and out.”

Click here to see all the tributes — and to contribute yourself.

Pics Of The Day #591

Tonight’s Christmas Tree lighting at Town Hall included …

Staples’ Orphenians (with Rudolph, of course) …

… little kids and grown-ups …

… a somewhat slender Santa …

… and the feature attraction. (Photos/Dan Woog)

Westporter Safe In Woolsey Fire

The Woolsey fire in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties burned more than 83,000 acres. 

Celebrities were not spared. Miley Cyrus, Neil Young, Robin Thicke and Eric Wynalda were among the hundreds of residents who lost their homes.

Kerri Kenney was lucky. 

The 1988 Staples High School graduate — known for her roles in “Reno 911,” “Counter Culture,” and “All About Steve” — posted this report on social media:

My husband and our dear friends took a boat to our neighborhood to see what was left. This is our neighbor’s home directly across the street.

Miraculously, our home is still standing. So many close friends and neighbors have lost everything. I cannot wrap my brain around what has happened and my heart breaks for our community.

The outpouring of love and support has been enormous. Thank you for all of your messages and prayers. Hug your family tight. #malibustrong

(Photos/Kerri Kenney)

We hope other Westporters with California connections are safe too. Please click “Comments” below to check in — and let us know what you need.

JJ Skutnik: A “Rising” Star

You may have seen the short film. People dance together behind a screen; their X-ray silhouettes are projected on it. When they emerge from behind, the audience sees who they really are.

The skeletons turn into human beings. Each group is unique. There are 2 women; 2 men with a baby; 2 little girls, one with Down syndrome; a Muslim and a Jew.

The video — first posted in 2015 — went viral. It’s been seen nearly 170 million times.

You may know that the film is part of a broader “Love Has No Labels” campaign. Another project includes “We Are America.” Professional wrestler/rapper/actor John Cena offers fascinating statistics about our country. Describing our numbers — by gender, race, religion, physical ability, age and sexual orientation — he notes, “Labels don’t devalue us. They help define us.”

That video has been viewed nearly 100 million times.

You may have seen last year’s video. Filmed at football’s Pro Bowl in Orlando, it turns the usual stadium Kiss Cam — focusing mostly on young, straight, white couples — on its head.

This Kiss Cam zeroes in on older couples of all ages. On same-sex couples. On a young kid with a developmental disability kissing his friend.

You may even know that all these videos are sponsored — pro bono — by the Ad Council. The goal is to fight “implicit bias” — the attitudes and stereotypes that affect our thoughts, actions and decisions, often subconsciously.

But what you probably don’t know is that a Staples graduate has been working with the Ad Council on these projects.

And that he played a huge role in the newest launch: a very impressive long-form video that asks, why does it take disaster to bring us all together?

JJ Skutnik

The Westport native is JJ Skutnik. A state champion volleyball player, he graduated in 2005. At James Madison University he majored in corporate communications (and played volleyball). He focused on the design aspect of marketing and film, and turned an internship at Story Worldwide in South Norwalk into a full-time job.

He moved on to R/GA, the international ad agency that produces the Ad Council’s “Love Has No Labels” campaign.

Skutnik is particularly excited about “Rising.” Far longer than the other videos — nearly 10 minutes — and directed by David Nutter (“Game of Thrones”), it dramatically and emotionally shows that in times of great stress, labels don’t matter.

Skutnik’s role was lead producer. He worked with the high-end crew — all of whom donated their time — on the Warner Brothers’ Burbank, California set. He also helped with post-production, music scoring (with the Los Angeles Philharmonic), the website and launch.

The video launched earlier this month. Showtime features it on demand, and throughout the day. Clear Channel is promoting it with billboards; Google and Facebook have donated ad space. It too has gone viral.

“Rising” shows how people pull together during a flood. But, Skutnik notes, the same thing happens during other crises — like the current wildfires.

“We don’t need to drop our biases only during disasters,” he says. “We should do it all the time.”

Thanks to JJ Skutnik, R/GA and the Ad Council’s efforts, maybe we will.