Category Archives: Unsung Heroes

Unsung Hero #11

Lois Schine has done many things in her long life.

A mechanical engineer at a time when nearly all her peers were men, she helped found the Society of Women Engineers.

She served 18 years on Westport’s Representative Town Meeting (RTM). She chaired our Human Services Commission, and was a member of 1st Selectman Diane Farrell’s Land Use Committee.

Today she’s an active member of the Westport Downtown Master Plan Committee, and a Friend of the Senior Center.

But of all she’s done, Schine says her “crowning accomplishment” is helping the town keep Winslow Park as open space.

Lois Schine

Following its days as the Westport Sanitarium — and after B. Altman abandoned its plans to build a department store there — the 32-acre site of woods and meadows just north of downtown was owned by perfume executive Walter Langer von Langendorff (aka “the baron”).

First selectman Jacqueline Heneage asked the baron if the town could buy the land. Schine’s husband Leonard — a noted attorney and judge — negotiated with the owner.

The baron backed away, offended by the town’s “low” offer of $2.38 million. Schine planned to return to the issue in a while. But he died — and so did the baron.

The baron left several wills. It appeared his land would be tied up in court — then sold, to satisfy his various estate obligations.

In 1987 the RTM voted 26-8 to condemn the land. Citizens opposed to the deal brought a referendum. Lois Schine, Joanne Leaman and Ellie Solovay helped spur a “yes” vote. By 54-46%, Westporters chose to move ahead with eminent domain.

The purchase price was $9.42 million. But no one in town knew what to do with the property.

Schine worried it would be used for buildings, or some other intense activity. She asked town attorney Ken Bernhard how to designate the land as “open space.”

Winslow Park draws visitors with dogs …

He said there was no such zoning regulation in town. He suggested she run for the RTM, so the body could pass a resolution asking the Planning & Zoning Commission to create that designation.

She did. She won. And — with Ellie Lowenstein at the P&Z helm — officials created an “open space” zone for passive recreation.

“Longshore, Compo, all the pocket parks — none of them had open space designations,” Schine recalls.

Today they do. So does the baron’s other property — the 22 acres across the Post Road, between Compo Road South and Imperial Avenue.

… and sleds.

“Some people say Winslow is ‘only a dog park,'” Schine notes.

“But it’s a park in the middle of town.”

And — had it not been for Lois Schine, and many others — that middle of town might look very different today.

 

Unsung Hero #10

Some of our Unsung Heroes are obscure. Some are little known.

Everyone knows this week’s hero. But he seldom gets the chops he deserves.

For 28 years, Joey Romeo has run the Compo Beach concession stand. He’s the longtime Longshore concessionaire too.

That’s a lot of years, and a lot of customers.

Make that, a lot of very happy customers.

Joey Romeo, in a typical pose.

From food to beach umbrellas to Westport t-shirts, Joey’s by the Shore has it all.

The grill/ice cream stand/souvenir shop is a friendly, happy place. It’s often packed, but it never feels unwelcome. Parents who normally hold their kids’ hands when they walk in their own back yard feel comfortable sending them alone to Joey’s.

They don’t even have to handle money. At Joey’s, you can run a tab.

Joey comes by his burger chops naturally. His father ran the food concessions at Cummings Beach and Cole Island in Stamford; his uncle spent many years as the concessionaire at Greenwich’s Tod’s Point.

Growing up, Joey worked at the beaches — and loved it.

He became the 1st tenant after the town of Westport renovated the old bathhouses, and moved the concession stand to its present location. So far, he’s the only one.

 

Joey Romeo, by the shore.

He loves the water. He loves what he does. And he loves his customers.

He listens to them, too.

Lobster rolls, fish and chips, Boar’s Head cold cuts — those and many more selections resulted directly from requests.

To serve those customers, Joey’s now opens early and closes late (9 p.m.) each summer. He fires up the grill in March, and is there on weekends through November — sometimes beyond.

Thanks, Joey, for being there for all of us. The beach — and Longshore — would not be the same without you!

(To nominate an unsung hero, email dwoog@optonline.net)

Unsung Hero #9

In 2004, Brendan and Jenna Baker moved to Westport from London.

They’ve got 4 children. The youngest son – 8-year-old Henry — is battling leukemia.

Brendan and Jenna Baker with (from left) Henry, Riley, Mary and Shea.

First diagnosed at 2, he endured 40 months of chemotherapy — and beat it.

But last October, Henry suffered a relapse. He’s in the midst of 24 more months of chemo.

He spent most of last year at Smilow Cancer Hospital in New Haven. But he was home schooled, and looks forward to moving on to 4th grade at Saugatuck Elementary School this fall.

Yet Henry’s dad is not nominating him as our “Unsung Hero” of the week — though he is certainly heroic in our eyes.

Instead, Brendan writes about a “Team Henry” party the family hosted recently, at Compo Beach. It was the Bakers’ way of thanking everyone in the community who supported them through a very difficult time: family, friends, neighbors, and so many people at Saugatuck El.

As part of the celebration, the Bakers hired Phil and Tom Ice Cream — “the Good Humor Men” — to treat all the kids.

“Joanne and Peter Topalian were absolutely fantastic,” Brendan says. “They happily served almost 150 ice cream treats to a lot of happy kids.”

Peter and Joanne Topalian, with one of the many “Team Henry” guests.

A couple of weeks ago — at 8 p.m. — the Bakers’ doorbell rang.

In the driveway were Joanne, Peter, and their gleaming white Good Humor truck.

“They stopped by simply because they wanted to do something nice for Henry,” Brendan says.

“They were touched by his story. They said they constantly think of him, and had stopped by a few times since the party. Unfortunately we weren’t home.”

Henry and his sisters were beyond excited to go outside, and pick out a treat from the truck.

Peter and Joanne Topalian and the Baker family

Peter and Joanne, and the Baker family.

“They did not have to do this,” Brendan notes. “It is a wonderful local business, run by genuinely good people who simply want to make a difference in the life of a young Westport boy fighting cancer.”

The timing was perfect.

The next day, Henry headed to New Haven for an afternoon of tests and chemotherapy.

A few nights later, the Topalians were back again.

Thanks, Joanne and Peter — aka “Phil and Tom, the Good Humor Men” — for a tiny gesture that meant a ton.

(Know of an unsung hero we should celebrate? Email details to dwoog@optonline.net)

Unsung Hero #8

On Friday, Gail Kelly finishes her 15-year stint as Westport’s assistant town attorney. (She doesn’t say “retiring” — just moving on to new things in life.)

Everyone working at Town Hall is sorry to see her go.

But none more than Ira Bloom.

“It’s a tremendous loss for the town government — and me,” says the longtime town attorney. “Gail has done an excellent job.”

Gail Kelly

Working out of a Town Hall office — though, like Bloom, she is employed by the private Berchem, Moses & Devlin law firm — Kelly handles Westport’s day-to-day legal affairs.

That means reviewing contracts and RFPs; handling Freedom of Information inquiries; coordinating with the Representative Town Meeting on ordinances, and attending board of selectmen meetings.

Kelly is available to all Town Hall personnel, in offices ranging from the town clerk to public works to conservation.

“A lot of lawyers know the charter and ordinances,” Bloom says. “But what distinguishes Gail is her uncommon common sense, her excellent judgment and her terrific sense of humor.”

She is adept at “defusing difficult situations. She’ll tell you the law, and then she’ll have a sensible answer people accept,” Bloom adds.

For 15 years, Kelly has served the town with efficiency, poise and professionalism — and not many kudos.

Congratulations, Gail Kelly — and good luck as you retire move on!

(Know of an unsung hero we should celebrate? Email details to dwoog@optonline.net)

Unsung Hero #7

Tom Lowrie is Westport’s Mr. Pickleball.

The 89-year-old retired architect is the man who pushed the Parks and Recreation Department to create a court for the quickly growing sport at Compo Beach in 2015.

A member of the Parks & Rec Racquets Advisory Committee, he’s now advocating for courts at the Doubleday complex behind Saugatuck Elementary School too. He is proud to be Westport’s ambassador to the USA Pickleball Association.

Tom Lowrie posed for the Westport Library’s “I geek…” campaign with — of course — pickleball gear. (Photo/Pam Einarsen)

But pickleball is not Lowrie’s only passion.

A longtime volunteer since moving to Westport in 1966, he was a charter member of the Sunrise Rotary Club. He received Rotary’s Service Award, and serves as the group’s unofficial historian. Though nearly a nonagenarian, he can be seen at every Sunrise Rotary event, doing the thankless work that helps them raise and distribute tens of thousands of dollars for good causes.

Tom Lowrie and a duck — a promotion for the Westport Sunrise Rotary’s Great Duck Race.

Lowrie’s contributions to Westport buildings include converting the downtown firehouse to the former Westport YMCA fitness center, and modifications to the Masonic Temple at the corner of the Post Road and Imperial Avenue.

Lowrie is also a longtime Westport Weston Family YMCA member. He’s also active with the Y’s Men. His pickleball and other activities — like golf at Longshore — help him say in great shape.

A Pittsburgh native, he graduated from Princeton University in 1950. He served in the Navy, earned his graduate degree from the Columbia University School of Architecture, and began working for Philip Johnson.

Lowrie married Jean Sammons. They raised 2 children here: Dave and Anne.

Most “06880” readers who know him will not believe Tom Lowrie is 89 years old. But all will agree he is a worthy honoree as this week’s “06880” Unsung Hero.

(Know of an unsung hero we should celebrate? Email details to dwoog@optonline.net)

In 2012, Tom Lowrie was runner-up in the Longshore Men’s Golf Association President’s Cup.

Unsung Hero #6

This Saturday at 4 p.m., when the Westport Cinema Initiative screens “The High School That Rocked!” Fred Cantor will sit contentedly in the Town Hall auditorium.

Few in the audience will know that the ever-smiling Westporter came up with the idea for a film about 6 major bands — you may have heard of the Doors? — that played at Staples High School in the mid-1960s.

Cantor then produced the intriguing film. He tracked down archival photos, arranged interviews and found funding.

Fred Cantor, at the opening of the Westport Historical Society’s “The High School That Rocked!” exhibit. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

After the talkback that follows the showing, Cantor will head across the street to the Westport Historical Society for a cocktail hour. Guests will enjoy the “High School That Rocked!” exhibit — inspired, and curated in part, by Cantor.

At 8 p.m. Saturday, Cantor will sit on the Levitt Pavilion grass. He’ll watch with satisfaction as an all-star cast of Staples High School 1971 classmates — Charlie Karp, Brian Keane and Michael Mugrage, all of whom played and recorded with the biggest names in entertainment — join several other very talented ’71 classmates for one of the best shows of summer.

Cantor masterminded that event too.

He won’t get much credit for any of this. But he won’t mind. It’s just his way of contributing to the life, joy and history of the town he’s called home since he was 10 years old.

Cantor moved to Easton Road with his family from Fresh Meadows, Queens. (He loves that place too — and wrote a book about the middle class families that thrived there after World War II.)

While serving as a public interest lawyer in New York City, he and his wife Debbie Silberstein bought a 2nd home on Drumlin Road. They now live there full-time. True to his volunteer — and community-minded — form, Cantor is active in his road association, and a great neighbor to all in need.

Fred Cantor, in the Staples High School 1971 yearbook.

His selfless ways are legion. Several years ago, a Staples freshman soccer player with a single mother had no transportation after practice and games. Every day, Cantor — a former soccer star at Staples and Yale — drove him home.

Twenty years ago Cantor combined his passions for soccer, writing and history with a book, “The Autumn of Our Lives.” He followed the Staples team for an entire season, and told a compelling story of the changes — and similarities — between 2 teams, 25 years apart.

Cantor has done more than perhaps anyone in the world to keep the Remains’ memory alive. The Westport band that opened the Beatles’ 1966 tour — and that was, Jon Landau said, “how you told a stranger about rock ‘n’ roll” — has been memorialized in an off-Broadway play (“All Good Things“) and documentary film (“America’s Lost Band“).

Cantor came up with the idea for both. And made sure that both got made.

Always, he stayed out of the limelight.

These days you can often find Cantor at the Westport Library. He’s researching some element of Westport history.

Often, that research — or simple inspiration — leads to an “06880” story idea.

You may not have known the enormous impact Fred Cantor has had on this blog. Or this town.

Now that he’s this week’s Unsung Hero, you do.

(Know of an unsung hero we should celebrate? Email details to dwoog@optonline.net)

Unsung Hero #5

Dana Johnson moved to Saugatuck over 30 years ago. He married Ginny, and is an avid tennis player.

He’s our unsung hero because of all his work with the Senior Center. He serves meals, calls Bingo every Thursday to a devoted crowd, and organizes events like the Staples Senior Golf Tournament — an inter-generational event involving the high school boys and girls teams that benefits the center’s fitness program.

Dana Johnson (2nd from right, with clipboard), at the Staples Senior Golf Tournament.

Dana also volunteers 2 days a week at the center’s congregate lunch program, as a “waiter.”

Loretta Hallock calls him “one of the most unselfish people I know.”

Senior center director Sue Pfister adds, “Dana’s warm smile and gregarious personality are welcome any day of the week here. The only problem I have with him is, he’s a Red Sox fan!”

Congratulations, Dana. Thanks for all you do, for so many!

Unsung Hero #4

Most of us don’t know our trash collectors.

They arrive before we’re awake, or when we’re not home. If we do see them, we seldom interact.

But Bill Malone is special. According to Jo Ann Davidson — one of his 82 customers at Harvest Commons — he takes care of everyone, in all kinds of weather.

“He is always cheerful and helpful,” she says. “He lets us know if the holidays change the schedule. A real pro.”

Also on the Harvest Commons route is Bill’s now retired 1st grade teacher, Jane Fraser. She is proud of all her former students — especially her recycler, Bill Malone.

In fact, we all are!

Bill Malone

Unsung Hero #3

If you’re a Westporter, you probably know Mike Calise.

The 1958 Staples High School graduate and Marine Corps veteran runs the longtime and very successful Settlers & Traders real estate firm. He’s a frequent attendee at town meetings, making sure nothing slips through our boards and commissions’ cracks.

Mike Calise with his sweetheart, Sally.

You can find him almost any day — in any weather — at Compo Beach. That’s where he hangs out, by himself or with his extended family. He keeps a loving eye on it too.

Mike and his grandkids. Cookouts on the beach are a family tradition. The food often comes from Calise’s deli — the market his family established in the 1930s,.

Mike has a great back story. While still at Staples, he boxed in the New York Golden Gloves tournament.

While stationed at Camp Lejeune, he bought a 9-passenger Pontiac Safari station wagon. Each weekend he ran a North Carolina to New York transport service ($15 each way; 658 miles in 11 hours).

His mother Louise — of Calise’s market fame — packed a large bag of delicious meatball and eggplant sandwiches for every trip back.

Mike Calise, Staples Class of 1958.

As a Marine from 1958 to ’63, he was assigned to Force Recon — an elite group that was always first on shore. They trained with daily long distance runs and swims.

Mike started an Arnold bread truck route in 1963. He founded Settlers & Traders in 1967. In 2008, he received a Historic Preservation Award for the restoration of  his office building at 215 Post Road West. This year, his real estate firm celebrates 50 years.

For all his life — going back to his family’s stores on Post Road West and East — he’s been an important part of life here. He’s a longtime member of the Republican Town Committee; a former delegate to the state Republican convention, and served on the RTM and Architectural Review Board.

Mike loves nature, gardening and canoeing. No morning at the beach is complete without his “Compo Gumbo.”

He loves Compo so much, he’s got it on his license plate:

Mike cherishes his family: his longtime sweetheart Sally; his 5 children (Catherine, Sandra, Maria, Bettina and Frank), and 7 grandkids (Francesca, Trent, CJ, Reed, Charlotte, Cameron and Caleigh).

They love him right back.

As does the rest of Westport — the town he’s loved for over 70 years.

Mike Calise, in a familiar pose.

Unsung Hero #2

Pat (Vaast) Workman was born and raised in Westport. She graduated from Staples High School, then Bay Path College.

For over 30 years, she has taught at Greens Farms Nursery School. It’s not easy working with 4-year-olds — but her patience, love and wonderful ways with young children has prepared hundreds to head off to kindergarten.

It is easy to forget your nursery school teacher. But wherever Pat goes in Westport, kids run up to say hi.

And their parents. She’s taught a surprising number of moms and dads of children she now has.

Pat and her husband Jim have been married for 47 years. He happily shares her with her students. She spends countless hours at home, working on projects to help inspire them.

Congratulations, Pat — you’re “06880”‘s Unsung Hero of the week!