Category Archives: Staples HS

Joe Gelini’s Grammy Roots

Sure, Kendrick Lamar got 8 Grammy nominations this year. And Drake got 7.

But here’s the “06880” news: Joe Gelini got a Grammy nomination too!

The 1995 Staples High School graduate will be in Los Angeles this February, for the the 61st annual ceremonies. “Spyboy” — the latest release from Cha Wa, the New Orleans-based Mardi Gras street culture Indian funk/brass band Gelini founded — has been nominated for Best Regional Roots Music Album.

Gelini might not be the first person you’d expect to lead a Mardi Gras Indian band. He might not even be in your top 200 million.

Joe Gelini, having a good time.

So how does a white drummer from Westport — who after Staples went to Berklee College of Music in Boston — end up forming a Louisiana band that marches in Mardi Gras, and earns a Grammy regional roots nomination?

In January 1996, he traveled with his father to New Orleans for a convention. While his dad did business, Gelini headed to music venues like Le Bon Temps Roule, Tipitina’s and the Mermaid Lounge.

“The audience was just as much a part of the party as the band was,” he told the New Orleans Advocate. 

“The entire audience was involved, actively listening, dancing and partying. A seamless line went from the audience to the band. Playing in Connecticut, Boston and New York, I had never seen that before. I had never seen people in a city love the music and the culture that they were a part of so much. I was enthralled.”

Gelini skipped his Berklee finals, to return for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. The Wild Magnolias’ music was “on another level,” he recalls. “It felt like a spiritual thing to me, and it still does.”

Back at Berklee, he studied New Orleans legends like Dr. John and the Neville Brothers. After graduation, he moved south.

At Handa Wanda’s — the Wild Magnolias’ home base — Gelini befriended Mardi Gras Indian musicians.

Mardi Gras Indian culture is a world away from Westport. Joe Gelini embraced it enthusiastically — and was welcomed in return.

According to the Advocate, Gelini wondered if his drumming tempo was correct.

The response: “Ain’t no mistakes in Mardi Gras Indian drumming.” In other words, “as long as it feels good, it’s cool.”

The Westporter slowly won over his New Orleans audiences — and musicians.

“It’s about respecting the culture and the music,” he told the Advocate. “If you’re doing it for those reasons, they’re totally accepting — I would say extraordinarily accepting. There’s no color barrier at all. If you’re there to be part of it for the right reasons, it’s all good.”

Joe Gelini has paid his dues. Soon, perhaps, the Grammy producers will give him his due.

(To stream the “Spyboy” album, click here. For Cha Wa’s website, click here. For the full New Orleans Advocate story, click here. Cha Wa’s upcoming dates include New York City’s Globalfest on January 6, and the Ridgefield Playhouse on February 27. Hat tip: Karen Romano)

 

Senior Citizens And Staples Teens Share Stories. And Lunch.

Besides their grandparents, most Staples High School students have little contact with older Westporters.

Some grandparents live far away. And others are no longer living.

But senior citizens and Staples seniors (and  juniors) share more than this town. They all eat.

So food in its many forms — cooking, meals, restaurants — was on the menu last week. The Senior Center hosted its 2nd annual Intergenerational Writing Workshop.

Teenagers and men and women 4 and 5 times their age sat down together. They read what they’d written. They commented on each other’s memoirs and fiction. Then they dug into lunch — and kept talking.

One view of collaboration during the “Shared Voices” event …

The project is a collaboration between the Senior Center’s Writing Workshop and Staples’ English elective, “Reading and Writing Fiction.” Both are immensely popular — and both are well known for turning people who think they can’t write into agile, insightful writers.

David Stockwell teaches 2 sections of the class. To prepare for the day at the Senior Center, the high schoolers wrote about food. Writing Workshop instructor Jan Bassin’s students did the same.

“It’s universal,” Stockwell explains. “There are so many topics: food at the holidays. Families and food. Cooking. Restaurants.”

Whatever trepidation the teenagers and senior citizens may have had melted away as soon as they sat together, at small tables. They read, commented, laughed, told stories, then rotated to another group.

For more than 2 hours — without a cellphone in sight — the writers read.

One man wrote about tinned pineapple rations during the Korean War. They did not look appetizing. But an Army buddy told him to eat; pineapple is good for you. He did — and remembers that day more than half a century later.

Another Senior Center writer described a traditional English breakfast: pudding, bangers, ham, and 2 cups of tea. “Even the terminology made it come alive,” Stockwell says.

… and another. (Photos/David Stockwell)

An English breakfast was the same topic chosen by a Staples senior. His perspective was different — but equally intriguing.

And so it went: stories about eating watermelon. Descriptions of chocolate. Thanksgiving dinner. Anyone can write about food — and everyone did.

But food was just a starting point. As they chatted, a student asked an older woman if she had known what she wanted to do with her life when she was in high school.

No, the woman said. But she described how her life unfolded, and advised the teenager to pay attention to what she loved most from an early age on.

Another Workshop participant realized that she had worked for the father of one of the students for nearly 10 years.

All that reading and talking made them hungry, of course. Lunch — pizza, veggies, hummus, chips and dips — was welcome. It was also a chance to get to know each other even better.

Pizza also helps bring the generations together. (Photo/Alison Wachstein)

“In today’s world, there is little opportunity for seniors to share fascinating and valuable life experiences with these emerging adults, or for the younger generation to ask questions and seek perspective and guidance from those who have lived long and varied lives,” Bassin explains.

At the same time, she says, the topic she and Stockwell picked “de-emphasizes the age gap. We can all relate to food.”

The Senior Center Workshop writers were impressed with the Staples students’ writing and demeanor. The teens were awed by the seniors’ sometimes humorous, sometimes tearful stories of war, loss, hardships and lessons learned.

And the pizza was just topping for the day.

“If These Walls Could Talk…” For Drew Coyne, They Do.

The best teachers model their passions.

English teachers read and write. Culinary teachers cook. Phys. ed. instructors work out.

Drew Coyne

Drew Coyne teaches US History Honors at Staples High School. He’s been nominated for Westport Teacher of the Year. His students adore him.

He’s tough, but fair. He makes learning interesting.

And he walks the talk — inside the classroom, and out.

Drew grew up in an 1850s house in upstate New York. His partner Matt O’Connell was raised in a Boston suburb. In September 2017, they started searching for a house to buy. They wanted something historic.

They came close to purchasing in Greens Farms. Then they found an even better property on the Old Post Road in Fairfield — part of that town’s Historic District.

The owners were Paul and Barb Winsor. Paul was George Harrison’s gardener. But that wasn’t what made it amazing.

It was built in 1837 by the Turney family. They owned land by Fairfield beach, and grew peaches.

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church took it over. For nearly 100 years, it served as a parsonage.

In 1936, the church sold the property to the Hermenze family. Four years later, they sold it to Donald and Ann Robbins. The price was $8,000. The Robbinses raised 5 children there.

175 Old Post Road — back in the day.

Drew loved his new home. Walking the halls, he felt compelled to know who walked them before him. And he wondered what stories the walls could tell.

Like any great history teacher, he researched the past. The Fairfield Museum had little information. The church did not have much either.

But searching online, Drew found an obituary for Ann Robbins. It included the names of her surviving children. One — Ann’s daughter Nan Hotchkiss– lived in Fairfield.

Drew called. She’s in her mid-80s now, but was delighted to hear from him. She asked many questions about the house. It obviously meant a lot to her.

So Drew invited her to come see for herself.

Thrilled, she asked if she could bring 2 brothers, and her younger sister. Oh, and also her son’s daughter, who is in her 40s.

The visit — a couple of weekends ago — was wonderful. The former residents walked all around the house, touching things and remembering tiny details like the smell of gingerbread cookies, tricycle races and Nan’s basement “jewelry shop.”

3 generations of owners. Standing at left: Matt O’Connell and Drew Coyne. From the top of the stairs down: Barb Winsor, Carol Robbins, Pat Robbins, Bruce Robbins, Henry Robbins, Anne (Nan) Jackson. Larry Robbins Skyped in with his wife Deirdre.

They pointed to nicks in the wood, and told Drew and Matt how they got there.

“Those are the subtle things we’d never notice,” Drew says. “But they meant so much to the family. They give warmth and beauty, and enhanced my view of our house.”

One of Nan’s brothers lives out of state, and could not make it to Fairfield. So his siblings walked around with an iPad, showing him the 19th century house via 21st century Skype. He added his own memories.

The Robbins children, with their parents, Donald and Ann.

Barb Winsor — who Drew and Matt bought the house from — also came that weekend.

So the couple heard stories about the house, all the way from 1940 to today.

Drew says, “We saw layer upon layer of history. We heard about victory gardens in World War II, and the noise from the Post Road when that was the only highway around.”

As she was leaving, Nan said, “It’s so nice to come home.”

That’s a feeling Drew Coyne has every day, when he walks through the door of the house that is now his. And that he now understands, better than ever.

“This was a great Christmas gift that Matt and I could give them,” he says.

“And a great gift that they gave us, too.”

175 Old Post Road, last winter.

Sing We Noel: Staples’ Spectacular Candlelight Concert

From an achingly beautiful “Stille Nacht” to a stirring Nigerian carol “Betelehemu” — bookended of course by the haunting traditional “Sing We Noel” processional, a hilarious production number and the rousing “Hallelujah Chorus” — last night’s 78th Candlelight Concert was one of the best ever.

Staples High School’s hundreds of singers, orchestra and band members and instructors put their remarkable talents on display, in a packed auditorium. It is the music department’s gift to the town — and no amount of money could provide a finer present.

The Candlelight Concert continues this afternoon and this evening. All tickets for both performances were claimed weeks ago.

(Photo/Paul Einarsen)

Handsome decorations in the Staples High School auditorium lobby.

Chamber musicians play as concert-goers arrived.

Antonio Antonelli carries on the “Sing We Noel” tradition.

The Choralaires’ joyful rendition of “Betelehemu.” Dr. Robert Kwan is the accompanist.

Carrie Mascaro debuts as Staples’ Symphonic Orchestra conductor.

Don Rickenback’s hilarious production number includes a “Fiddler on the Roof”-style introduction about “Tradition” …

… and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’s much lesser-known daughter.

Choral director Luke Rosenberg, orchestra conductor Carrie Mascaro and band leader Nick Mariconda take well-deserved bows. (All photos/Dan Woog unless otherwise noted)

Tip O’ The Top Hat For Music

Westport schools do a great job of introducing young students to music.

Some jump all in, eager to become the next Joshua Bell, Yo-Yo Ma or Eric Clapton.

Others are somewhat interested, and want to learn more. But they — or, more accurately, their parents — are not yet ready to shell out the going rate for private lessons.

Now that niche is filled.

Top Hat Tutors is a service owned, operated and run by Staples High School students, for youngsters ages 5 to 18. The 1-to-1, peer-to-peer model has proven successful and popular.

It’s also less expensive than the professional, adult, we-have-to-make-a-living tutoring that’s so prevalent throughout town.

Nick Denton Cheng is a senior cellist at Staples. He’s also Top Hat’s music director. That’s their newest offering — their first foray into a non-science/math/ English/social studies/world languages subject.

Nick Denton Cheng

“It’s an untapped market,” Nick says. “Lessons are very expensive. This is a great great alternative.”

It’s an untapped market for tutors as well as tutees. Nick had more applicants than he could use. He’s selected 18 Staples musicians so far. Many already taught informally. Some are section leaders in orchestra or band; helping younger musicians is part of that gig.

“We all love music,” he notes.

Top Hat’s new program is aimed at youngsters ages 5 to 12 or so, who are just starting to develop their skills.

The most popular instruments so far are violin, guitar and piano. But Top Hat is already tutoring a couple of budding bass players and oboists. They’ll accommodate any instrument.

The cost is $40 an hour. Click here — then toot with your tutor away.

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.