Category Archives: Staples HS

Former Westporter Killed By Lightning

Peter Hawkes — a member of Staples High School’s Class of 2011 — was struck and killed by lightning Tuesday evening in Colorado.

Peter Hawkes, in Staples' 2008 yearbook.

Peter Hawkes, in Staples’ 2008 yearbook.

Hawkes — who appears in the Staples yearbook only during freshman year, in 2008 — was on the Indian Tree golf course in Arvada. Witnesses saw 4 bolts of lightning and 2 men huddling under a tree during the fast-moving storm, which caught golfers by surprise.

A woman with lifeguard training applied CPR, but to no avail.

According to CBS Channel 4 in Denver, this was the 15th death in the US from lightning this year, but the 1st in Colorado.

(For the full CBS story, click here.)


North Miami Police Shooter Is A Staples Grad

Jonathon Aledda — the North Miami police officer who shot at an autistic man playing with a toy truck, wounding instead his black caregiver — is a Staples alumnus.

Jonathon Aledda, in the Staples High School Class of 2004 yearbook.

Jonathon Aledda, in the Staples High School Class of 2004 yearbook.

Aledda played Staples football, and was a hurdler on the high school track team. He graduated in 2004.

A 4-year veteran of the department, SWAT member and Officer of the Month in October 2014, he has been placed on administrative leave without pay.

The Miami Herald described the difficult challenges officers face:

As happens often with people who suffer from severe autism, the 27-year-old wandered away from his caregivers, in this case leaving a group home. Someone in the neighborhood misinterpreted his behavior, calling 911 while apparently mistaking his toy truck for a gun.

When North Miami police confronted the man sitting cross-legged in the middle of an intersection, he refused commands to lay down. That’s not unusual, experts say, for profoundly autistic people who cannot process verbal commands from police officers trained to think the worst.

“It looks like they’re being defiant, when in fact they have a disability,” said National Autism Association spokeswoman Wendy Fournier. “A lot of times they’re not verbal either, so they can’t even talk to police to explain why they are not responding.”

“This case is so crazy. I’m so glad that the man didn’t get shot and so grateful that his caregiver is going to be OK.”

Jonathon Aledda in 2016.

Jonathon Aledda in 2016.

The shooting of caretaker Charles Kinsey sparked widespread outrage Thursday after bystander video emerged showing him with his arms raised as police officers confronted the unnamed autistic man, who began hollering loudly. The president of North Miami’s police union said Thursday that the officer was aiming for the autistic man — fearing Kinsey was in danger — but hit the caretaker by mistake.

Pasek And Paul In “La La Land”

Broadway loves Pasek and Paul.

Songwriters Benj Pasek and 2003 Staples High School graduate Justin Paul have earned raves, for productions like “A Christmas Story,” “Dogfight” and — moving to Broadway this fall — “Dear Evan Hansen.”

Soon, Hollywood audiences will love Pasek and Paul too.

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone sing their lyrics in “La La Land.” The musical — about a love story between a jazz pianist and a would-be actress — opens in movie theaters this December.

In the trailer below, Gosling sings “City of Stars.” The music is by Justin Hurwitz.

(Hat tip: Lynn Flaster)

James D’Amico: The Time Is Now For New Staples Principal

Timing is everything.

For James D’Amico, fortuitous timing has been part of every career step. Last week — just a few days into his new job — he reflected on the turns of fate that brought him to the post he’s most excited about: Staples High School principal.

D’Amico grew up in New Fairfield. His mother was a nurse; his father commuted every day by car and train to Brooklyn, where he worked for the New York Transit Authority.

After graduating as an all-state chorus member (tenor) and avid musician (clarinet, sax, a little piano), D’Amico headed to the University of Connecticut. He loved his time there — and met his wife in the marching band. But if he had anything to do over, he says, he’d have taken a gap year to explore himself, and the world.

James D'Amico

James D’Amico

He earned a BA in communications science, but also fell in love with history. He’d always admired school and his teachers, so with the encouragement of his wife — a teacher – he added a graduate degree in education.

Westport had an opening in 2001. D’Amico parked in front, tried to figure out where the main entrance was, entered the moldy, low-ceilinged building, and interviewed with principal Gloria Rakovic and social studies department chair Elliot Kraut. “I couldn’t believe this was Westport,” he says of the soon-to-be-demolished school.

“They took a chance on a green kid,” D’Amico recalls. It was a wise choice.

His new colleagues were “so creative,” D’Amico says. “And creativity was encouraged.” Friends teaching in other districts were handed curriculum binders; he was encouraged to teach to his strengths.

“From Day 1, my colleagues trusted me. They were very kind — and real characters. I knew I’d found a home.”

Led by challenging, student-oriented mentors like Stephanie Muson, Jackie Boland and Rich Mott, he thrived in the classroom.

When Kraut retired in 2004 and a replacement could not be found, D’Amico became temporary “department liaison.” He enjoyed learning how the entire school ran, and helping staff set goals. The next year, he was appointed social studies chair. He taught 2 to 3 classes, led the Junior State of America club, and also got involved in the rest of the building.

When that position was expanded to include the middle schools, D’Amico gained even more experience. He hated leaving the classroom — but kept his beloved JSA club.

James D'Amico and director of elementary education Julie Droller, in Westport school district headquarters at Town Hall.

James D’Amico and director of elementary education Julie Droller, in Westport school district headquarters at Town Hall.

After 9 years as department head though, he felt he was growing stale. He looked for jobs beyond Westport.

But when the director of secondary education position became open, he threw his hat in the ring. Older, more experienced administrators applied. A different Elliott –superintendent of schools Landon — again took a chance on D’Amico.

He liked the curriculum and assessment aspects of the job. He helped teachers grow professionally. But, D’Amico admits, “It was an office job. I really did not like being in Town Hall. I learned a lot there — but I realized I need to be in a school.”

He was on the 2015 search committee to find a replacement for retiring Staples principal John Dodig. No one could be found. An interim was hired.

Several months ago, D’Amico’s wife said, “You’re going to apply for that job, right?”

“She knows me so well!” he says. “She knew I’d be happier around kids.” Though they have 4 young boys, involved in a variety of activities in Bethel, she encouraged him to go for it.

In March, Landon announced D’Amico as Staples’ next principal.

“Every morning when I walk through the doors, I say, ‘I’m home!'” D’Amico says.

James D'Amico stands proudly in the foyer of Staples High School.

James D’Amico stands proudly in the foyer of Staples High School.

He believes that his district-wide experience gives him a sense of how the elementary and middle schools fit in to Staples.

He also knows many Staples staff members.

“Any job is about relationships,” D’Amico notes. “I have a feeling for how this place works. I know the secretaries, the custodians, the people who make it go.”

As a former social studies teacher, he also knows its history. “I was here with the jackhammers outside my room.”

But he knows he has a lot to learn. He’s spending time with the assistant principals, maintenance supervisors Horace Lewis and Tom Cataudo, and many others to really understand how the many high school pieces fit together.

He gives props to secretary Karen Romano, who has served — and guided — several principals. “On Day 1, she had a folder for me outlining the entire summer,” D’Amico laughs.

Starting at the same time as new superintendent of schools Colleen Palmer is “fun,” says D’Amico. “There’s a clean slate. We’re figuring out where we want to take the high school.”

However, having been a teacher, he’s well aware that ideas need to be shared — not imposed.

“We’ve got a great school,” D’Amico says. “Our job is: How can we make it greater?”

He plans to listen to ideas. They’ll come from teachers, parents and students.

James D'Amico (left) and former Staples High School principal John Dodig chat during the 2016 graduation ceremony.

James D’Amico (left) and former Staples High School principal John Dodig chat during the 2016 graduation ceremony.

“It’s clear Staples is a competitive, high-powered place. We have courses and opportunities other places only dream of. Most kids come here wanting to learn and participate. But what about those who don’t fit into the prevailing goals, or feel too much pressure?”

He’s spoken with Dodig about ways to offer “emotional support.” As a strong supporter of the district’s “Guiding Principles” initiative, D’Amico is eager to carve out time to help implement them.

“How you spend time shows what you value,” he explains. “Right now we value moving kids through 6 or 7 periods a day. I think about systems and policies a lot. There’s a lot of different ways we can do things.”

His 1st staff meeting next month will provide a good introduction to the new principal, and his philosophy. His plan that day is to bring the large, often departmentalized faculty together — in a fun, kind, sincere way.

There’s a lot ahead. But D’Amico understands he needs his own life too. “If I’m not good with my family, I won’t be good with the school.”

His 4 boys are 11, 9, 8 and 6. He’s been involved with their Cub Scouts, baseball, soccer and church activities. He’ll cut down to 1 or 2 of those — but he plans to stay active.

James D’Amico’s career has been all about timing: being in the right place at the right time.

The right place now is Staples. As for timing: School starts September 1.

It Really Is The “Class” Of ’66

Staples High School’s Class of 1966 has always been special.

Growing up in postwar Westport, then coming of age in high school as a turbulent decade picked up steam, they were an active, accomplished bunch.

The Class of ’66 included 14 National Merit semifinalists, 29 All-State musicians and 5 All-State actors. The Orphenians traveled to the Virgin Islands; student government brought the Beau Brummels and Animals to Staples, and as a gift to the school — a tradition that unfortunately has disappeared — the class donated a handsome sign for the entrance on North Avenue.

John Lupton (left), Class of 1966 president, shakes hands with '67 president Dick Sandhaus at the sign's dedication ceremony. Principal Jim Calkins looks on.

John Lupton (left), Class of 1966 president, shakes hands with ’67 president Dick Sandhaus at the sign’s dedication ceremony. Principal Jim Calkins looks on.

But in the 50 years since graduation, the Class of ’66 has really stepped up its game. A few years ago they paid to refurbish the exterior of the Lou Nistico Fieldhouse at Staples, and added lighting to the current North Avenue entry sign. They’ve also organized their own special scholarship fund through Staples Tuition Grants.

Over the years I’ve become friends with many of the members, who I knew only by name and legend as a kid growing up in town. They’ve accomplished amazing things — in music, the arts, journalism, religion, education, even modeling and wine importing — but for half a century they have remained tight and loving. (Very, very fun-loving too).

A number of them remain — or became — reconnected to their hometown through “06880.” I’ve been honored to be a guest at their 2 most recent reunions.

This year’s 50th was fantastic. It began Friday night at the VFW (with kick-ass music from, among others, Rob Carlson, Jon Gailmor and Roger Kaufman). It continued with a lobster dinner last night at the Westport Woman’s Club (and a moving memorial to the 65 classmates who have died). It ended this afternoon at the beach.

Jon Gailmor, Steve Emmett and Rob Carlson reprised the famed Triumvirate group at the VFW. Gailmor replaced the late Chris Avery.

Jon Gailmor, Steve Emmett and Rob Carlson reprised the famed Triumvirate group at the VFW. Gailmor replaced the late Chris Avery.

There were many highlights for me, as I mingled with so many heroes and heroines from my youth. But the coolest came as I was leaving.

Each class member received a goody bag. In every one was a stone — collected, over a long time, from Compo Beach. They were stamped “Staples High 50th reunion, Class of 1966.”

Class of 66

And wrapped around them were these words:

Each stone carries memories created by the gentle and loving spirit of Compo Beach — our playground, our retreat, the safe haven of our youth. Compo loves us unconditionally. It is the beautiful link that will — like each stone and echoes of friendships — last forever.

While they were growing up, the members of the Class of 1966 — like most teenagers — probably did not realize the gifts they were gaining from their school, and town. I did not realize it several years later, and kids today don’t either.

The passage of time does something powerful and good. But it takes a special group of people to actually stop, think about and honor that time.

Well done, Class of ’66. Very, very classy indeed.

Basketball Blues End Soon

It’s been a while since there was a hoops game at Compo.

But the reconstruction of the 2 basketball courts is nearly complete. This was the scene yesterday:

Basketball court - Compo

The courts have a long history. The first one — built in the late 1950s — was the brainchild of Albie Loeffler and Paul Lane. The Staples High School basketball head and assistant coach, respectively, saw the court as a way to keep their players active in the off-season — and a way to run a Fairfield County league for the Wreckers and their foes.

The court became a community effort. Gault and Kowalsky donated materials and labor.

The 2nd court was built later. It’s been a year-round favorite for generations of basketball players, of all ages.

And even more generations of Canada geese.

Abby Merlis Dances With The Stars

Abby Merlis’ high school years were grueling.

Every afternoon at 2:15, she rushed from Staples to the train station. She did homework on the way to New York; hurried to ballet for intensive classes; raced back to the train and did more homework, arriving home at 10 p.m.

Abby loved it.

She’d been dancing since she was 3. At Westport’s Academy of Dance she did it all: modern, jazz, tap. But at age 10 Abby began watching classical ballet performances, and found ballet videos on YouTube. She was hooked.

Her Academy of Dance teachers saw her potential. They encouraged her to study in the city.

Abby commuted to New York after school from freshman through junior years.

Abby Merlis (Photo/Rosalie O'Connor)

Abby Merlis (Photo/Rosalie O’Connor)

It was tough. She learned focus and diligence (and how to run to catch trains). But she gave up plenty: tennis, friends, writing. She did not feel like part of the school community, though she loved her teachers and classes.

Those were sacrifices she made willingly. And, in retrospect, she thinks they were worth it.

She had nearly enough credits to graduate early, and finished online. She walked at commencement last June, with her Class of 2015. But she’d already spent a year away, training with the Boston Ballet.

There were 15 dancers in her class. Only one was offered a contract for the coming year. Abby was that one.

She’ll be in the 2nd company, performing in nearly every production that needs a sizable corps. Boston Ballet II also does its own shows, and offers outreach programs to schools.

Boston Ballet is a very versatile company, Abby says. She is immersed in traditional classical, neo-classical and contemporary dance.

Abby Merlis in action. (Photo/Rosalie O'Connor)

Abby Merlis in action. (Photo/Rosalie O’Connor)

This is all a dream come true, Abby says. She loves the physicality of dance — the jumps and turns. Artistically it is fulfilling too. “Dancing to beautiful music is a gift,” she explains. “It’s a unique art form, and you can explore it endlessly.”

As for the discipline ballet demands, Abby says, “you have to keep improving. You can never be complacent.”

She calls Boston Ballet “a community. It’s competitive, but I’ve never had closer relationships with people. We bond over so much.” Dancing on stage with friends, knowing all their hard work has paid off, is a wonderful feeling, she says.

So will dance be her ultimate career? Abby is still not sure.

Last year, she was accepted by Princeton University. She deferred admission for a year, and can do so one more time.

“I’ll see how this year as a professional dancer goes,” she says. “I’ve worked for this my entire life, and Boston Ballet was my first choice company.”

Yet she knows though that anything can happen. Dance is “a young person’s career — and it’s short.”

During all those high school trains rides, Abby studied subjects she loved, like sustainable development and public policy. They loom as possible post-dance careers.

For now however, she looks forward to her first year with the Boston Ballet.

It will be at least as hectic as all her high school days.

And — hopefully — even more rewarding.

Levitt And Dodie Pettit Honor Kevin Gray

In theater, the show must go on.

Staples Class of 1976 grad Kevin Gray went on more than 8,500 times, on Broadway and national tour performances. He was the youngest “Phantom” of the Opera ever. He starred in “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “The King and I” and “The Lion King.” He performed at Carnegie Hall, Alice Tully Hall, and on “Law and Order” and “Miami Vice.”

Despite severe thunderstorms this afternoon, tonight’s tribute to Kevin — who died in 2013 — went on as scheduled, at the Levitt Pavilion.

Dodie Pettit, on the Levitt Pavilion stage.

Dodie Pettit, on the Levitt Pavilion stage.

His wife, Dodie Pettit — who met Kevin when she joined “Phantom” in 1989 — opened the show in stirring fashion. She sang a duet, with his recorded voice.

Class of 2016 grad Adam Riegler — Young Shrek and Pugsley on Broadway — sang, backed by Kevin’s Hartt School of Music students. He was accompanied by his mother Lynn on piano. She too is a Staples ’76 grad.

Members of that class — celebrating their 40th reunion this weekend — were out in force. They — and the large audience, enjoying clearing skies — were entertained by many of Kevin’s Broadway friends and colleagues.

Also on stage: Kevin’s former Orphenian member Tery Eldh, who played Carlotta and ensemble roles nearly 3,000 times on Broadway with “Phantom.”

The show indeed went on. And it was great.

Part of the large Levitt Pavilion crowd.

Part of the large Levitt Pavilion crowd.

The weather WAS fit for man and dog.

The weather WAS fit for man and dog.

Another view of a great night.

Another view of a great night.

You Can Have Abe Lincoln On Your Lawn

For as long as he can remember, Kelly Spearen loved working with his hands.

During his years at Bedford Junior High and Staples High School, he spent time with carpenters. He was accepted to helicopter and airborne Ranger school. In 1975 he joined Westport Center Service, and as general manager built its automotive department from scratch.

In the 1980s he got into metalworking. His wrought-iron hardware pieces were bought by L.L. Bean and Stew Leonard’s.

Spearen then created bigger sculptures. A private customer bought his 22-foot Eiffel Tower. Another purchased a giant question mark. With the advent of Facebook, he was able to find customers as far away as California and Germany.

Kelly Spearen's "Eiffel Tower" now sits on a private residence, along the Saugatuck River.

Kelly Spearen’s “Eiffel Tower” now sits on a private residence, along the Saugatuck River.

But the hands that have brought him so far now betray him. Rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia have made it tough to work on large pieces — hard, sometimes, even to get to his well-equipped studio here in Westport. He’s in a ton of pain, and it can take 4 hours to get going in the morning. But he does not complain.

Kelly Spearen, in his home studio.

Kelly Spearen, in his home studio.

So, as Spearen concentrates on smaller sculptures, he’s selling off his biggest ones. Search for “Dr Funky Metal” on Facebook to see what’s available, or call 203-429-4230.

Then just figure out where and how to get your new sculpture on your lawn.

"Abe," by Kelly Spearen.

“Abe,” by Kelly Spearen.

Kelly Spearen calls this "Asian style."

Kelly Spearen calls this sculpture “Asian style.”



Dodie Does The Levitt

Each summer, the Levitt Pavilion presents at least 50 nights of free entertainment. I can’t imagine how hard it is to schedule all those comedians, kids’ performers, rock and country and reggae and military bands, and the occasional Willie Nelson, Buckwheat Zydeco and Orleans.

It’s like Ed Sullivan 6 days a week. All that’s missing is Topo Gigio.

But at least Ed was in New York. Snagging every act on their way to or from Westport must be a monumental task.

Occasionally though, the Levitt features homegrown talent.  That’s the case next Thursday (July 7, 8 p.m.). And what a talent she is.

Kevin Gray and Dodie Pettit, near the Levitt.

Kevin Gray and Dodie Pettit, near the Levitt.

Westport’s own Dodie Pettit — a veteran of 3 Tony Award-winning Broadway shows — hosts an evening of Broadway songs. They’re dedicated to her husband, Staples graduate Kevin Gray. One of Broadway’s brightest stars, he died 3 years ago. He was just 55.

Joining Dodie are several former “Phantom of the Opera” castmates (including Phantoms Cris Groenendaal and Craig Schulman); recent Staples graduate Adam Riegler, who played Pugsley in “The Addams Family,” and Kevin and Dodie’s students from the Hartt School and Rollins College.

Kevin performed over 8,200 times on Broadway, starring in “Phantom,”  “The King and I,” “The Lion King” and “Miss Saigon.”

The free concert coincides with the 40th reunion of Staples’ Class of 1976. Kevin graduated that year.

Every night at the Levitt is special. This will just be a little more special than most.