Category Archives: Teenagers

100 Teens, 370 Pounds Of Trash

Longshore is a beautiful park.

It’s well-cared-for, lovingly maintained — almost spotless.

Yet you’d be surprised what you’d find there.

Or rather, what the Assumption Church youth group and Staples High School AP Environmental Sciences classes found yesterday.

Over 100 teenagers gathered nearly 370 pounds of trash and debris. Their haul included plastic, golf balls (a huge maritime hazard), part of a car windshield (!), and what appeared to be a rusted piece of a large boat engine.

That last piece of junk was too heavy to carry. So 2 boys borrowed a cart from the E.R. Strait Marina, and added it to the items they disposed of.

The event was part of Save the Sound‘s Coastal Clean-Up Day.

Marine life, golfers, and everyone else in and around Longshore thanks all who helped!

A large tire was one small part of yesterday’s Longshore trash haul.

(Hat tip: Michele Harding)

Remembering George Weigle

In March, longtime and much beloved Staples High School choral teacher George Weigle turned 90 years old. Yesterday, he died peacefully.

In his long career, Mr. Weigle influenced thousands of students. Barbara Sherburne was one. On his 90th birthday, she offered this tribute. It’s reprinted here, in honor of one of Westport’s most beloved educators.

George grew up in Parkersburg, West Virginia. At West Virginia Wesleyan College he spotted a woman from Norwalk, Connecticut named Eleanor, singing in a talent show. He told a friend, “That’s the girl I’m going to marry.” It was love at first sight.

George graduated in 1950, 2 years before Eleanor. They married on August 21, 1954. After 63 years, their marriage is still going strong.

George studied for a year at Boston University after college. He taught school in West Virginia, then returned and earned his master’s in 1954 from BU. In 1980, West Virginia Wesleyan presented him with an honorary doctorate.

In 1954, George heard about an opening at Bedford Junior High. He got the job, and after 5 years moved on to Staples High School. He taught there until 1988. Eleanor taught at Bedford Elementary School from 1954 until 1961. Some years later, she began private tutoring.

George Weigle in a classic pose. (Photo courtesy of Ken Lahn)

George started the Orphenians in 1960. He named the group after his Orphenian quartet, led by his college music professor. Of course, Orpheus was a legendary Greek musician.

George continued the Candlelight Concert tradition, begun in 1940 by John Ohanian.

George and Eleanor bought a house on Robin Hill Road. They’ve lived there ever since. George told a fellow Westport music teacher — John Hanulik — about a vacant plot next door. The Hanuliks moved there in 1960, and John lived there until he died. Marie, his wife, still lives there. Having 2 incredible music teachers live next door to each other for so long is amazing.

I was a student at Long Lots Junior High, in a music class taught by Mr. Hanulik. One day, Mr. Weigle came to speak to us about Staples. He seemed very stern, and scared me. Mr. Hanulik had an incredible sense of humor. I thought, “Uh oh.” I needn’t have worried.

George Weigle took the Orphenians around the world — to Austria, Romania, Poland, Spain and many other countries. His first trip was to the Virgin Islands (above) in 1966. (Photo courtesy of Jon Gailmor)

When I was applying to colleges, Mr. Weigle suggested West Virginia Wesleyan. That’s where I went. He wrote me freshman year, “Don’t burn the candle at both ends.” I wound up getting mononucleosis. I guess he saw something coming that I didn’t.

George was also choral director at the United Methodist Church, for 43 years (1954 to 1997). I sang at the Saugatuck Congregational Church, just up the hill from the Methodist Church. George invited me to join his adult choir, when I was still in high school. I’d do both, running down the hill to get to the Methodist Church in time. I sang whenever I could under George’s direction. When my mom passed away in 1978, he was part of the quartet that sang at her service.

I’ve known George for a very long time. We communicated regularly all these years. He frequently sent me cassette tapes of Sunday services at the Methodist Church. He always sent a Christmas card, as did John Hanulik. They often arrived on the same day — and occasionally they chose the same card.

George was like a father figure to me. I have a hard time believing he is 90. You can send cards to him at 10 Robin Hill Road. I’m sure he would appreciate hearing from you. He touched so many lives in so many ways.

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In 2004, I interviewed the retired choral director for my book Staples High School: 120 Years of A+ Education. Here are some excerpts:

In 1954 John Ohanian brought me in for an interview. He took me to meet [principal] Norm Flint about an opening at Bedford Junior High. No one told me the kids had driven 3 choral teachers away the previous year, so I took the job.

It was tough. Every morning Eleanor had to push me out the door. Every student had to take general music. My first 9th grade chorus had 50 girls. Gradually it got better. By my 3rd year we had boys singing in the chorus too.

I went to Staples the second year it was open. The only electives the kids were offered were art, music and home ec – not the zillions of courses they have today. John had established the choral program, and I was in the right place at the right time. It was a popular group, and I had the junior highs feeding me. Looking back, I didn’t realize how fortunate I was.

The Candlelight Concert is timeless. George Weigle directed these choir members in 1981 — as he did for 39 years.

We gave 4 Candlelight Concerts each year. I’d get called in between performances, and reamed out – maybe I didn’t interpret a piece of music as I should have. Looking back, I realize John was right.

He put me on a path, and guided me. I in turn demanded excellence from my students. I realize now that students understood what excellence was.

The program grew, and so did its reputation. The harder the music, the better they performed – and the more they wanted. I gave them stuff I didn’t think high school kids could do, like John Corigliano’s “L’Invitation au Voyage.” It’s an extended piece, very contemporary, a cappella with duos and solos. Paul McKibbins’ “Psalm 67,” which he wrote and dedicated to me and the Orphenians, was the second most difficult piece.

At the time I did not realize what we were doing, level-wise. Now I wonder how I taught it, and how they memorized it – extended stuff like Handel’s “Coronation Anthems.”

In 1960-61 I started a small group: Orphenians. We had auditions, and selected 24 to 28 singers. We met once a week after school at first, then twice a week. We did lose some of the guys to sports.

From its small beginning, George Weigle’s Orphenians grew enormously. In 2010, the elite group celebrated its 50th anniversary.

In 1966 we went to St. Croix, in the Virgin Islands, and in 1972 to France, Austria and Italy. We came in second in a choral festival in Italy. If I knew then what I know now, we would have been first. I didn’t recognize shadings of dynamics. From then on, I paid attention to it. We lost to a group from Oklahoma that met five days a week.

In 1975 we went to Romania. That was an adventure! A very poor country, with very friendly people. We had to be careful what we sang.

In 1978 we went to Poland. That was our first outdoor program. We sang the Polish national anthem. Afterward they told us that might have been too nationalistic.

In 1981 we went to Belgium, France, Germany, Holland and Switzerland. On July 4th we sang at Notre Dame – it was filled with Americans. They asked us to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which we’d never prepared. It went off okay.

In 1983 we went to Spain. We sang concerts to packed halls at 10 p.m. – it was still light. And in 1985 we went to England, Wales and Scotland.

In 2010 — the 50th anniversary of Orphenians — George Weigle guest conducted the current elite group in the finale, “The Lord Bless You and Keep You.” (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

Westport was growing, building schools, becoming more affluent. Parents wanted their kids to be in touch with the arts — not just academics. The quality of teachers was so high, because of who John hired – and fired. He made sure the right teachers were at the right levels. As a result kids attracted other kids, and it all just blossomed. Quality led to more quality. It was all because of John’s dream and perseverance.

I think students – particularly at the high school – need the arts, in order to be enhanced and broadened. Here in Westport we’ve got doctors and lawyers who have been exposed to the arts. Westport people perform, and they’re concertgoers, and they see plays. The arts are so important to a rounded personality. Singing and playing with other people is so important. You don’t always realize when you’re in high school how meaningful it is. Sometimes it takes decades to sink in. But it does. It does.

A lot of high schools have music. But not many have music at the level of Westport.

Everyone who ever sang for George Weigle remembers the experience. Jon Gailmor, who still writes, performs and teaches, offered these thoughts.

I was in the Class of 1966 at Staples. I was immersed in the performing arts, and they shaped my every waking moment in high school.

Jon Gailmor (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

With the Orphenians, I got my first taste of the power of music. I’ll never forget watching the faces of school kids in the Virgin Islands as we wailed away. And I remember watching senior citizens in Norwalk and Bridgeport being moved both to tears and guffaws by our songs. In the Staples a cappella choir and boys’ glee club, I experienced the indescribable joy of making a large, harmonious sound and filling auditoriums with its beauty.

I loved a lot of things about Staples, but it was music where I really found out who I was and where my passion lay.

I know quite a few fellow high school performers whose lives have been similarly sparked by our unforgettable musical experiences at Staples.

Today I make and perform my own music, while helping other folks discover their creativity through songwriting residencies. I can honestly thank those three amazing years with George Weigle and my Staples brothers and sisters for the enormous role they played in helping me find my passionate life’s work.

Orphenians Bring Down The (Opera) House

Last month, the Staples High School Orphenians traveled to Australia. The elite singing group performed at the Sydney Opera House.

The teenagers are home now, but they’re still talking about it in Westport. I imagine they are in Sydney too.

But you didn’t have to be Down Under to hear their remarkable voices. Here, thanks to the wonders of YouTube, is a video of the entire concert.

The Orphenians’ individual performance — directed by Luke Rosenberg — begins at 23:49.

The combined choirs’ performance, including several other schools — directed by Craig Hella Johnson, one of the most popular conductors in any hemisphere — starts around 55:00. Staples’ rising senior Georgia Wright is featured at 1:45:30.

The Orphenian girls are in the second 2 rows, on both ends. The boys are behind them, in black ties.

(Hat tip: Kerry Foley)

New GFA Head Stresses Balance, Purpose, Community

Greens Farms Academy has had just 3 headmasters in the past 45 years.

As the successor to Jim Coyle, Peter Esty and Janet Hartwell, Bob Whelan has big shoes to fill.

Fortunately, he’s well on his way. He’s 6-5, and a former basketball player and coach.

Even more fortunately, he’s got a strong, eclectic background. Whelan graduated from Brown University in 1991 with a double major in American civilization and philosophy. He spent several years as a founder, singer, songwriter and director of a rock band that recorded with Atlantic Records and toured extensively.

Bob Whelan

He returned to school, earning a graduate degree in education, policy and management at Harvard, then embarked on a career in development, teaching and administration at 2 leading day schools.

Coupled with his profound understanding of the challenges facing today’s students, Whelan is the perfect educator to lead the Beachside Avenue private school into the future.

Brown challenged him to think about his passions, he says. His band, Angry Salad (“despite its name, we were not mad and had no agenda”), was a joyful time. He was surrounded by “talented, artistic, creative people.”

After 6 years in Brown’s development office he taught ethics and writing, coached boys and girls basketball, and rose to associate head of school at Rippowam Cisqua in Bedford, New York.

Whelan’s most recent position was headmaster at 130-year-old Lake Forest Country Day, with over 400 pre-K to 8th grade students just north of Chicago.

There he developed innovative spaces, did cutting-edge work with social and emotional thinking, created a more diverse and inclusive community, and reinvigorated faculty and staff morale.

Bob Whelan, working with young students.

When a search firm approached him about GFA, he was intrigued.

“I’d always associated Westport with creativity and the arts,” Whelan says. “It’s a beautiful community, engaged in local life and the world.”

As he learned more about the school, he realized its students, faculty and mission aligned with his own sensibilities.

He accepted the position last fall. Since then, Whelan has worked with parents and alumni — and been mentored by Hartwell, the departing head.

Whelan is spending this summer meeting individually with staff members, alumni and alumni parents. He feels like an anthropologist, discovering how Greens Farms Academy got where it is, and how it heads into the future.

Before Greens Farms Academy students return in the fall, the new head of school is learning all he can about them. (Photo/Yoon S. Byun)

“I’ve always enjoyed the relationship between teachers, kids, parents and ideas,” Whelan says.

“There are surprises at every turn: learning that the school is coming off its most successful spring in its athletic history, and seeing how the performing arts help students raise their voices. I’m having a lot of fun in this process.”

Whelan is also digging deep into Westport. He’s finding “great energy everywhere” — during an early weekend here, he was amazed at the Fine Arts Festival —  and is thinking about ways to open GFA’s doors to the town.

“There are opportunities for everyone to come in and learn. A school like this has a responsibility to leverage access to a community like this, that’s dedicated to education. It’s important to bring folks behind the stone wall.”

Greens Farms Academy

Being head of Greens Farms Academy — with its beautiful facilities, excellent faculty, strong endowment and high-achieving students and parents — is a great opportunity.

But Whelan is well aware of the challenges.

“The world is evolving,” he says. “As we think about the tools we want our children to have, we also want them to be people of character, who can express themselves articulately. How do we help develop not only those skills, but also help them lead a fulfilling life of purpose, as they contribute to their community? How do we model that here?”

He knows that social media and technology are “incredibly compelling. How do we make the real world relevant to them?”

But, he adds, “kids are kids. Whether it’s the 1960s, ’80s or 2010s, it’s important to preserve childhood. We can’t lose sight that developing skills is not mutually exclusive with developing a sense of balance in life.”

Whelan takes over a school that traces its founding back 93 years. Greens Farms Academy, its new head says, is “more dedicated than ever to deepening its roots in the community. As the school reveals itself to me, I look forward to seeing it reveal itself to those who don’t know it.”

Bob Whelan will be an active leader. Those big shoes will soon be everywhere.

Unsung Hero #60

Andrew Colabella is a big fan of Lizzy Feeley.

No — make that a HUGE fan.

He writes:

Lizzy demonstrates the qualities of a true leader, and an ability to make others smile while positively affecting their lives.

She started her tireless efforts on holidays and weekends with St. Luke’s Youth Group and Grace Community Church in 8th grade.

She volunteered to clean up the yard of a family who recently lost their father. She felt fulfilled, and vowed to continue.

When Lizzy entered Staples she spent weekends, holidays and nights through St. Luke’s and Grace Community Church working on many different projects.

Lizzy Feeley

But Lizzy wanted to do more — to break the bubble, go beyond Westport into the  real world and help those not as fortunate. She lights up those in a dark and low place, stuck and in need of help.

Lizzy started at the Bridgeport Rescue Mission, serving hot meals to the homeless and helping put together a plan to serve people in its rehabilitation program. She also volunteered with “Kid Power,” tutoring 1st graders.

Lizzy has made a strong impact on over 100 youths and adults — those in need of help, who felt lonely and not special. Lizzy paid it forward, and then some.

Lizzy also joined the Tim Tebow Foundation, focused mostly on people with special needs. For the past 2 years Lizzy volunteered at the “Night To Shine” prom, doing teenagers’ hair and makeup, allowing them to enjoy a special event.

Lizzy graduated early, to get a head start on her degree in comprehensive special education at Norwalk Community College. She is ahead of schedule to enter the University of Connecticut, where she will earn her bachelors degree before turning 21.

As an RTM member, I had the pleasure of meeting Lizzy at a Board of Education meeting on a cold Monday night. She had midterms the the next day, but spoke on behalf of 5 girls. She was protecting the vulnerable, and advocating for those who could not defend themselves after being ostracized by peers.

I have never met a young teenager like Lizzy, who turned into a young adult with such dedication, perseverance, passion, creativity and integrity,

Lizzy has given back since 8th grade. Now let’s give her the push to do more — and give recognition of her many hundred hours of community service to her town and the entire county.

Done! Congratulations, Lizzy Feeley — you’re this week’s Unsung Hero!

Orphenians: The Wonder Down Under

The Orphenians are back.

Staples High School’s elite a cappella group returned — excited, joyful and (of course) singing — from a magical trip to Australia. 

They spent the past few days telling stories, sharing photos and trying to describe Vegemite. 

Rising senior Sam Gusick was one of the very lucky (and talented) Orphs. He says:

The Australian trip was one of the most amazing experiences I could imagine.

Singing in the Sydney Opera House was easily the best part. We worked with fantastic singers, under esteemed conductor Craig Hella Johnson and one of the most popular American choral composers of our time, Jake Runestad. Working with them on a world premiere felt like we were in the presence of celebrities.

The Orphenians, outside the Sydney Opera House…

The performance at the end included a diverse group of talented singers who created fantastic music, in a space that was beautifully designed to give ensembles the best sound possible.

Throughout rehearsals we did sightseeing, shopping and eating all over Sydney. We learned about its history and culture, and got a great grasp of the thriving city.

… and performing inside.

We then went to the more tropical Cairns. We saw the Great Barrier Reef, and visited a zoo with kangaroos, koalas and many other animals.

But this trip wasn’t just about the places we went. It was a huge bonding experience. We’re all closer and more connected as friends than ever before.

Getting ready to explore the Great Barrier Reef, in Cairns.

It never would have happened without Staples choral director Luke Rosenberg. He is one of the most talented and dedicated individuals I have ever met.

He found this incredible opportunity for us, helped us put together an awesome fundraiser, and made the trip extra-special in a ton of ways for all of us. The Orphs are so lucky to have an incredible leader like “Ro.”

Backpacks For A Cause

Back-to-school shopping is seldom the grinning, hand-holding experience portrayed in TV and print ads.

backpacksKids worry they’ll have the “wrong” notebooks or pens.  Parents fear they’ll forget something important, and their kid’s teacher will think they’re idiots.

Other Westporters have a deeper, more realistic fear:  They can’t pay for everything their kids need.

Fortunately, Westport’s Human Services Department is on the case.

Its annual Back to School program, offering supplies to eligible families, is underway.

The program provides new backpacks and gift cards (Staples Office Supply, Walmart, Target) to income-eligible families with children in the Westport schools. Cash donations to the program are welcome too.

Last year, scores of youngsters received assistance. Director of Human Services Elaine Daignault estimated the number as equivalent to 10 classrooms of kids.

“A growing number of Westport families face the burden of financial hardship,” she notes.

“Back-to-school time can be particularly stressful on a family budget. Thanks to generous Westporters, our department provides discreet assistance to families who want to give their children the best possible start to the school year.

“Parents can share in the excitement of back-to-school shopping with their children. And donors can be confident that 100% of their donations benefit their Westport neighbors.”

The program depends entirely on the generosity of individuals and organizations.  Tax-deductible monetary donations of any amount made payable to “Families in Need Fund” (memo: “Backpacks”), as well as gift cards, can be sent to: Human Services, 110 Myrtle Ave. (Town Hall), Westport CT 06880.

New backpacks can be dropped off at the department offices, Room 200 in Town Hall, Monday through Friday between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m., now through August 20.

To find out if you qualify for assistance, contact Margaret Piheiro at 341-1050, or email emilton@westportct.gov.

Rising Talent Records At Studio 8

You won’t find Brody Braunstein in Westport this week. He’s in Australia, singing and touring with Staples High School’s elite Orphenians.

Music is the rising junior’s passion. He is also a member of the Fairfield County Children’s Choir, has sung at Carnegie Hall, and is lead singer for the popular band Kill the Chill.

In addition to singing, Brody plays piano, keyboard and guitar. He’s taken college classes in music production software. He’s a published songwriter. And he built a sound studio in his house.

Yet Brody understands that he can’t work creatively alone.

“Technology is great. It’s pretty much given everyone access to the tools they need to make music,” he says.

Brody Braunstein

“But just like in real life, technology in music can be isolating. You’ve got all these amazingly talented aspiring artists sitting in their bedrooms creating music on Garage Band. There’s access, but no connection to other people. No give and take.”

A few months ago, Brody heard Edge say that much of U2’s early creative process took place in the recording studio. The band went in with a vague idea and rudimentary tracks — and emerged with something they loved.

Unfortunately, Edge noted, that does not happen much today. Studio time is too expensive.

Brody — who realizes how lucky he is to have so many resources — had a flash of inspiration.

The result: Studio 8.

It’s a not-for-profit collaborative recording studio for teens. And run by teens.

No, it’s not a full, professionally equipped studio. But it has everything a young artist needs to record, mix and master their music.

It also has Brody to help.

And it’s free.

Brody Braunstein, at work in his home studio.

It’s also just one part of what Brody does. This fall, he’ll begin working with youngsters at KEYS. The Bridgeport organization provides music education to underserved communities.

It’s an amazing group, as Brody knows from previous experience. He’ll work with the choir this year — and hopes he can get them to record in Studio 8.

Meanwhile, Brody invites young people in the area to lay down tracks, test out a new piece, flesh out a cover or record something for a college portfolio.

He’s also looking for videographers, social media experts and sound editors (especially those into rap or EDM) to join Studio 8.

Brody is Down Under until July 21. Once he’s back, you can reach him by email: Studio8Collaborative@gmail.com.

(Studio 8 is free — but donations to the KEYS program are gratefully accepted. Use Brody’s email above for more information.)

Young Artists Featured At Bruce Museum

The future of art is alive and well in Westport.

And Greenwich.

The Bruce Museum is showcasing student works from Connecticut and New York. Its 8th annual “iCreate” exhibit drew more than 600 submissions, from 33 high schools.

Three Westport students made the cut. Their work is among 45 pieces on display, now through August 12.

Henry Koskoff created “Still Life” as part of his junior year Advanced Drawing class at Staples High School. It portrays a pile of shoes, seemingly toppling over each other and illuminated from above. Movement and spatial relationships enrich the piece with life.

“Still Life,” charcoal on paper by Henry Koskoff.

Recent Staples graduate Branton Zhang found inspiration on a trip to Paris. He found himself in a small, dark room disconnected from the rest of the Louvre. The only light appeared angelic, illuminating a desolate chair while revealing an “odd beauty.” He was inspired to create what he calls “my first important piece of art.”

“Empty Chair,” oil on canvas by Branton Zhang.

Recent Greens Farms Academy graduate Sophie Lewis has spent years sketching human faces. Her piece uses beeswax and ink to transform simple sketches into tactile, intricate and interesting works of art.

Untitled, watercolor transfer on encaustics by Sophie Lewis.

A People’s Choice Award will be announced August 5. Votes can be cast at the Bruce Museum. For more information on the iCreate exhibit, click here.

Do Know Much About History

Sure, STEAM – Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math — gets lots of education headlines.

But history is alive and well in Westport schools too.

Two Staples High students recently finished 8th in the nation.

Meanwhile, 4 Bedford Middle Schoolers landed in the national top 4.

Stapleites Shea Curran and Kate Enquist were students this past year in Drew Coyne’s sophomore US History Honors course. He asked his students to find a National History Day topic on the theme of conflict and compromise.

Initially, Shea admits, “Kate and I were not really looking forward to NHD. We imagined it was filled with history nerds and crazy parents.”

But as they searched for ideas, they found an article on Westport’s Nike missile sites on (ta da!) “06880.” They got hooked — and realized history can be interesting, exciting (and cool).

Nike missiles on display.

They spent months researching the topic, using old newspapers and other material — some of it previously classified. They also interviewed people who were there.

The process was not easy, Kate says. But it was rewarding.

Shea and Kate were amazed to learn that missiles were once stored on the current site of Bedford Middle School. They were stunned to discover how close the US came to nuclear war.

The project “opened our eyes to today’s society,” Shea says. “We realize the importance of civilians being able to voice their concerns, suggestions or opinions.”

During the Cold War, she notes, “if civilians did not speak up, the results of the Nike missile sites would be much different.”

Shea Curran and Kate Enquist

The entire National History Day experience has sparked Kate’s interest in government and history. She’ll volunteer in those areas this summer, and will take AP Government in the fall.

(To view Shea and Kate’s project online, click here.)

At the junior level, Bedford’s Jason Chiu-Skow, Jordan Chiu-Skow, Johann Kobelitsch and Lyah Muktavaram worked since October — during their lunches — with teacher Caroline Davis. They also spent hours together after school, and on weekend.

Their topic was “How the Treaty of Versailles Ended the Great War.” They chose it because they realized that compromise is not always fair.

The Bedford Middle School National History Day team, at the national competition.

As part of their project, the Bedford students learned how to do research, present a convincing argument, answer judges’ questions, and work as a team.

They finished 3rd in Fairfield County, then first in Connecticut, before earning 4th place at the national competition (which also included Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, Singapore, South Korea and South Asia).

The National History Day winners will be honored — and their exhibits shown — at a reception on July 14 in Connecticut’s Old Sate House.

There certainly is a lot of history there.