Category Archives: Unsung Heroes

Unsung Hero #53

Last week, Staples Tuition Grants handed out over $300,000 in scholarships to more than 100 graduating seniors, and high school alums already in college.

It was a warm, wonderful evening — a celebration of very hard work by the recipients, as well as all who make the grants possible.

But the highlight may have been the keynote speech, by Dr. Albert Beasley.

Speaking without notes — and without missing a beat — the 90-plus-year-old retired pediatrician talked about the importance of STG, and what it means to him personally. One of the oldest named awards — initiated 45 years ago — honors his late wife and fellow pediatrician, Dr. Jean Beasley.

After the Staples Tuition Grants ceremony, pediatrician Dr. Albert Beasley and his wife Janet (3rd and 4th from left) posed with 4 former patients (from left): Nicole Greenberg Donovan, Dan Woog, Dan Donovan and Lynn Untermeyer Miller. (Photo/Paddy Donovan)

In his 65 years in Westport, Al Beasley has watched the town grow from a small artists’ colony, through the baby boom, into a suburb filled with businessmen and Wall Street executives.

But he has seen it all through a unique perspective, and with a background different from most people who live here. He shared some of that last week too, in his low-key but inspiring way.

Al’s grandfather, a Harvard-educated Boston attorney, helped found the NAACP.  Al’s father also went to Harvard – and became a doctor.  His mother graduated from Radcliffe. Those were proud accomplishments, in an era when educational opportunities for black men and women were limited.

Al’s parents wanted him to have a well-rounded education. He got one, at the Walden School and Columbia  College. He married a high school friend, Jean.  Both earned medical degrees – Al from New York University. Both became pediatricians.

As a captain in the Air Force during the Korean War – based in Houston — Al first experienced overt prejudice. But he persevered, and in 1953 the Beasleys moved to Westport. He wanted his children to experience the same freedom he’d found at the Walden School. The Beasleys rented a home on 11 acres, for $90 a month. They were one of only 5 or so black families in town.

They bought land from a fellow physician, Mal Beinfield. The Beasleys had trouble getting a mortgage – the banks’ excuse was “they did not like contemporary dwellings.” But Westport Bank & Trust Company president Einar Anderson said to the Beasleys’ request for $20,000: “There’s no problem.  Let us know when you want it.”

Four years ago at the Staples Tuition Grants ceremony, Dr. Al Beasley posed with Megumi Asada, a graduating senior who received the Dr. Jean Beasley Memorial Award. Megumi was considering a career in medicine.

In addition to his professional accomplishments – private practice as a pediatrician; co-founder of Willows Pediatrics; associate clinical professor of pediatrics at Yale School of Medicine, and an emeritus staff member at Norwalk Hospital – Al immersed himself in community work.

He was a pediatrician for the Intercommunity Camp; a member of the Selectman’s Committee for Youth and Human Services; a board of directors member for the United Way; member of the scholar selection committee of A Better Chance of Westport; trustee of Earthplace, where he organized the Green Earth series on  health and the environment.

Al’s wife Jean died in 1973.  Six years later he married Janet, a native of Berlin and a survivor of a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia.

Al says:  “When Jean and I moved to Westport in 1953, it was a magical town. It opened its arms to us, welcomed us, and made us feel special.”

Al adds:  “My birth certificate said ‘colored.’  Then the preferred term changed to ‘Negro.’  Later it was ‘black,’ then ‘African American.’  I am a man of color, but I like to be accepted for what I have to offer.  The town has done exactly that.”

Looking back on his career, Al says,“I’m an activist.  I tried to give my utmost to the community, and I think the community appreciates that.  This is a wonderful town.  I thank everyone who entrusted their most precious commodities – their infants, their children and their young people – to me.”

And we thank Dr. Al Beasley, this week’s Unsung — but Very Deserving — Longtime Hero.

Unsung Heroes #52

In 2012, Sam and Sharon Carpenter helped supervise a Builders Beyond Borders trip to Nagarote, Nicaragua.

The longtime Westporters fell in love with the community of Sonrisa de Dios (“Smile of God”), and vowed to continue serving it.

They’ve returned every year since. Each year, they bring at least 20 family members and friends to share the experience.

Sam and Sharon Carpenter

Working with NicaPhoto — a support agency whose board Sam joined in 2013, and now serves as chair — and with special help from Westport Rotary, the Carpenters have helped build 4 classrooms, 3 latrines, a playground, sidewalks and garden at an elementary school; rebuild homes after an earthquake; and construct walls, classrooms and more at another site.

Beyond building, Sam and Sharon join others on the trip as they play and dance with the children.

Sharon Carpenter and her friends.

It’s one thing to spend a week on a service trip. It’s another to return to the same community, year after year. That shows special care and commitment. It also builds lifelong solidarity and friendship.

A longtime fellow volunteer cites the Carpenters’ “incredibly big hearts, generosity, love for their fellow man, enthusiasm in the face of challenge, and always their love.”

In 2013, Ronnie Maher — another volunteer — had dinner with Sam, Sharon and the mayor of Nagarote. The mayor asked Sam why he was there.

“I’ve been very fortunate in my life,” he replied simply. “I can give back, so I do.”

Sam Carpenter, hard at work.

Nagarote knows and loves Sam and Sharon Carpenter. Many Westporters know and love them too — but may be unaware of their long and strong commitment to this Nicaraguan community.

That’s why they’re this week’s Unsung, but very worthy, Heroes.

(To nominate an Unsung Hero, email dwoog@optonline.net)

Unsung Hero #51

Last month, scores of admirers from 2 churches joined to honor Sister Maureen Fleming.

Sister Maureen Fleming

The occasion was 60 years of religious service. And what service the energetic 79-year-old nun has provided!

First at Assumption, then at St. Luke, Sister Maureen has run many ministries, and all of the funerals.

Her official title is coordinator of pastoral outreach. But she does much, much more.

Nanette Buziak toasted her by saying:

Thank you for enriching our lives in so many ways. You are a good friend and confidante to us all, as we face various points along our spiritual journeys.

From hosting Seder dinners before first communion, to running our Harvest Fair and annual raffle; from leading Mosaics and New Horizons, as well as our parish outreach ministry, you truly live your faith. You exemplify 60 years of religious life better than anyone we know.

She is an advocate for women’s and children’s rights, education and the fight against poverty. As an NGO registered with the United Nations she participates in lectures and conferences dealing with  women’s and children’s justice issues, especially human trafficking.

From 1995 to 2005 Sister Maureen was director of Caroline House, the literacy center for immigrant women in Bridgeport that was started by her order.

Two years ago, Fairfield University honored Sister Maureen with an honorary doctorate.

Oh, yeah: She met Pope Francis in Washington, DC. She knows all the good people.

And now Westport knows all about this week’s Unsung Hero.

Unsung Hero #50

Alert “06880” reader Cary Peterson writes:

It was late afternoon last Friday. As I do almost every day, I walked our little dog to Grace Salmon Park.

Chloe

The tide was as low as it can get. It looked like you could walk to Riverside Avenue. I let Chloe off her leash on the path around the river. She doesn’t like the water, and usually stays right with me.

She nosed around the center where it is fenced off, and flushed out a duck. It flew toward the river, with our dog right on her tail.

She plunged into the mud and followed the duck out to open water, a long way from shore. I screamed at her to come, but she seemed stuck.

At that moment a police car pulled in the park. I ran over. Officer John Lauria tried to calm me down, as he assessed the situation.

Neither of us could see any sign of Chloe. I was sure she was drowned in mud.

Officer Lauria called animal control. We walked around looking for any sign of her.

I was hysterical, as the officer explained he couldn’t walk out in the quicksand. I certainly didn’t want him risking his life either. He commiserated with me on how difficult it is to lose a dog.

Officer John Lauria, on land.

After 10 futile minutes he spotted Chloe, way at the edge of the muck. He jumped in and walked across the Saugatuck River to rescue her.

The relief I felt when he safely trudged ashore carrying her is indescribable.

By that time animal control officer Joseph Saponare had arrived. He was barefoot, and ready to help. He was also well supplied with towels, which made only a small dent in wiping off the black muck.

I am struck by how easy it is to misjudge even a very obedient dog. We have been taking her to this park without incident since she finished her obedience training 6 years ago. Dogs have very strong instincts. We have to keep Chloe always on a leash.

As for officer John Lauria: He took a big risk for a little dog. To me he will always walk on water!

Unsung Hero #49

On Monday, Westport celebrates Memorial Day.

We do it with one of the town’s most popular and beloved events of the year: a fun, wonderful and wide-ranging parade, followed by a solemn yet uplifting ceremony across from Town Hall.

It’s a huge undertaking. Hundreds of town employees and volunteers pitch in to make it all work. It seems effortless, but it’s anything but.

None of it would happen, though, without the leadership of Bill Vornkahl.

This will be the Westporter’s 49th year at the helm. When he started in 1970, the parade may have included Spanish-American War veterans. Today there are only a few who served in World War II.

Vornhkahl — now 88 years old — is a Korean War vet. He spent 14 months on the island of Hokkaido, Japan, working as a high-speed radio operator in the 1st Cavalry Division.

In 2013, he was inducted into the Connecticut Veterans Hall of Fame.

Bill Vornkahl

Vornkahl has been a member of the Westport Veterans Council even longer than he’s run the parade: 57 years.

From 1996 to ’99 he was treasurer of Westport’s War Monument Committee, helping place memorials to various wars on Veterans Green.

He joined the Greens Farms Volunteer Fire Company in 1950. He’s served as secretary/treasurer of both that company and Saugatuck Hose Company #4, and as president of the Westport Volunteer Fire Company from 1973 to ’93.

He coached Little League for more than 20 years, and for over a decade was part of the Staples High School football sideline crew.

Vornkahl has dedicated his life to Westport. Of all he’s done, the Memorial Day parade is his special passion. He makes sure it all happens flawlessly.

In 2015, Bill Vornkahl and 3 Girl Scout Daisies recited the Pledge of Allegiance.

Of course, the one thing he can’t control is the weather. The last 2 years, predictions of rain have canceled the parade, and moved the ceremonies indoors.

You may have seen him inside Town Hall, introducing the color guard, bands and speakers.

This Monday, we all hope he’ll be outdoors on Veterans Green, doing the same.

He’ll be busy — as he has been every Memorial Day since 1970. So now is the best time to thank him for all he does.

Veterans usually don’t like honors. But Bill Vornkahl is a true Unsung Hero.

Unsung Hero #48

Earlier this year, WestportNow celebrated its 15th anniversary.

Since 2003 the site has provided readers with political news, police reports, coverage of community events like library talks and fundraisers, obituaries, photos of sunrises and sunsets, and the immensely popular “Teardown of the Day.”

The founder, editor and publisher is Gordon Joseloff. He gave up his editor’s post between 2005 and 2013 — that’s when he served 2 terms as the town’s 1st selectman — but he’s been back at the helm ever since.

Gordon Joseloff (Photo/Lynn Untermeyer Miller)

Joseloff’s journalistic chops are real. He worked for UPI. Then, during 16 years at CBS News, he rose from a writer for Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather to correspondent, senior producer and bureau chief in New York, Moscow and Tokyo.

Joseloff covered the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the downing of Korean Air Lines flight 007, the assassination of India Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (for which he won an Emmy Award in 1984), the Bhopal gas leak, and the overthrow of Philippines President Fernando Marcos.

And he’s a Westport native. His family’s roots run deep: They owned downtown property including the Fine Arts Theater, a very popular spot for over 8 decades. (Today it’s Restoration Hardware.)

Joseloff was a teenage reporter for the Westport Town Crier, and helped create the predecessor of Staples’ WWPT radio station, broadcasting at Compo Beach.

Prior to running for first selectman, Joseloff served 14 years on the Representative Town Meeting (RTM) — 10 of them as moderator.

A member of Westport Rotary and an honorary member of the Westport Historical Society advisory council, Joseloff is also a volunteer firefighter, and a former Emergency Medical Technician.

Congratulations on 15 years to WestportNow — and thanks to Gordon Joseloff, its founder, guiding light, and this week’s Unsung Hero.

 

Unsung Hero #47

Everyone in Westport should be “aware” of Nicole Gerber.

A resident since 2009 and mother of 2, Nicole got involved with AWARE CT at its inception 5 years ago. In 2015, she became director of operations.

AWARE stands for Assisting Women with Action, Resources and Education. Every year, they partner with a local women’s-oriented non-profit by organizing an educational event and hosting a fundraiser.

Nicole brings creativity and passion to her volunteer efforts. Last year, she single-handedly developed a video project, to raise awareness of AWARE. She runs AWARE’s day-to-day operations, while providing vision and drive.

Nicole Gerber

She’s taking this year’s partnership with Caroline House — the  Bridgeport organization that provides English lessons and life skills to immigrant women — to a new level.

Nicole is making a cookbook, featuring family recipes contributed by Caroline House students from around the world, and AWARE members from across Fairfield County.

She’s gotten many Westporters involved. International best-selling author Jane Green is writing the foreward. Noted photographer Jerri Graham is taking pictures. The Westport Library’s MakerSpace team is doing the layout.

Nicole also plays a huge role on the board of advisors of Unite the World with Africa. She traveled to Tanzania last year, and will return next year. She hosts events in her home to raise awareness about the issues facing families in that nation.

Nicole Gerber, at a Tanzanian orphanage.

Nicole is passionate about everything she does. She is tremendously organized. And extremely thorough.

How thorough?

She’s personally testing every recipe in the cookbook she’s assembling, to make sure they are 100% accurate.

Well-run organizations and great fundraisers don’t just happen.

They need the help of people who are very aware.

People like this week’s Unsung Hero, Nicole Gerber.

(AWARE’s fundraiser on behalf of Caroline House is Saturday, June 9 in Westport. For tickets and more information, click here. To nominate an Unsung Hero, email dwoog@optonline.net. Hat tip: Amy Saperstein)

Unsung Heroes #46

Last Saturday was Green Day. All across town, dozens of Westport volunteers picked up trash.

For Bob Braczyk and Scott Williams, every day is Green Day.

Nearly every weekend for 40 years, Bob and his wife Monica Bernier come to Westport from their Manhattan apartment.

Every morning they’re here — rain or shine — Bob joins Mark Yurkiw and his wife Wendy Van Wie on their daily 3 1/2-mile dog walk. The route includes Cross Highway, Sturges Highway, Meeker Road and Bayberry Lane.

Bob is here to relax. But when he joins Mark and Wendy, Bob brings a plastic claw, and the biggest recycled plastic bag he can find. He wants to clean the streets of his weekend hometown.

No matter how big the bag — and some are huge — he always fills it up. By the end, he’s stuffing in more trash than it can hold.

Bob Braczyk, with one day's haul.

Bob Braczyk, with one day’s haul. Keeping pace is Wendy Van Wie.

Mostly, Mark says, the garbage is coffee cups, beer cans, liquor bottles, cigarette packs, fast food wrappers, and “really gross things.”

Just imagine what Westport would look like if — every weekend, on every walk — Bob just passed it all by.

Scott lives just down Sturges from Bob and Mark. You know his place: the iconic horse farm on the corner of Cross Highway.

Scott is a 1-man army. He cleans up all around the Merritt Parkway underpass — both sides of the bridge.

People use it as a dumping ground. For some reason, truckers park there and unload their trash.

On the other side of the bridge he cleans up dead trees, manicures and mows.

Scott Williams’ iconic farm. He cleans up all around, all the time. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

Mark says that Scott keeps the farm, and environs, looking exactly like it did on a Saturday Evening Post cover (and the opening shot of the “Stepford Wives” movie).

Scott’s farm actually falls on the Fairfield side of the town border. But he — and Bob — are true “06880” heroes.

And any other zip code.

(To nominate an Unsung Hero, email dwoog@optonline.net)

Unsung Heroes #45

Last week, I stopped at Town Hall. I needed a copy of something on file at the Town Clerk’s office.

The clerk’s clerk could not have been friendlier or more efficient. She quickly found the document — it dated back to 1986. As she Xeroxed it, we chatted.

It was the sort of thing she does, I’m sure, countless times every day. Yet she made me feel like I was the most important person to visit all year.

Bureaucracies can be impersonal. (Hey, DMV and IRS, how you doin’?!)

It may be because this is — ultimately — just a small town. It may be because we’ve hired wonderful, and wonderfully nice, people. It may be because we’re very lucky.

But whatever the reason, Town Hall is filled with folks who make it a joy — not a chore — to go to.

You may need a property deed, a building permit or some other form. Perhaps you have a question, a problem or a complaint.

Whatever it is, the men and women who staff the many departments — assessor’s office, conservation, planning and zoning, human services, tax collector, registrar of voters — are there for us, all day and in all ways.

I don’t have any fantastic above-and-beyond stories. But I’m sure that many readers do. If you’ve got one, click “Comments” below.

(To nominate an Unsung Hero, email dwoog@optonline.net)

Unsung Hero #44

When the 7th annual Maker Faire takes over Westport this Saturday (April 21), there will be something for everyone.

A record 12,000+ attendees — tech lovers, crafters, educators, tinkerers, hobbyists, engineers, science geeks, artists, authors, students and exhibitors — will share what they’ve made, see what others have created, teach, learn, be inspired, and inspire others.

And have tons of fun.

It’s a massive undertaking. Planning began the moment last year’s Maker Faire — which drew “only” 10,500 people — ended.

Hundreds of volunteers make it happen. But none of it would be possible without Mark Mathias.

Mark Mathias

Westport’s event– part of a worldwide movement (and of all 772 Maker Faires in 44 countries, among the top 5% in attendance) — was his brainchild.

In September 2011, his kids were fascinated by the New York Maker Faire.

Seven months later — thanks to Mathias’ work with the Westport Library, Sunrise Rotary and Downtown Merchants Association — we had our own “Mini Maker Faire.”

The “mini” is long gone. Now — with activities spread across the Library, Jesup Green, Taylor parking lot, Bedford Square, Town Hall and Veterans Green — it’s as maxi as it gets.

But the Maker Faire is not Mathias’ only local contribution. He’s in his 15th year on the Board of Education; is an active member of Saugatuck Congregational Church (with a particular interest in their mission trips), and when his daughter Nicole was at Staples High School, he was an avid supporter of the music department.

Mathias — whose professional background is in IT — is president of Remarkable Steam. The non-profit promotes innovation and creativity in the areas of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math).

This is Mark Mathias’ busiest time of year. Hopefully, he’ll take a few moments out of his hectic day to accept our thanks, as this week’s Unsung Hero.

Robots galore at last year’s Maker Faire.

(For more information on Westport’s Maker Faire, click here. To nominate an Unsung Hero, email dwoog@optonline.net)