Category Archives: Unsung Heroes

Unsung Hero #140

Last week, Ken Gilbertie retired from the Westport Fire Department.

He spent 32 years as a dispatcher. He also served as a firefighter with the Westport Volunteer Fire Department since 1982, retiring with the rank of deputy chief.

Alert — and inspired — “06880” reader Dan Paliotta writes: “As a volunteer firefighter myself, I have had the incredible opportunity to serve alongside Ken for 7 years. As a dispatcher, he was the first line of communication for the public. He was the calm voice behind the scenes in chaotic and often life-threatening situations. If you’ve ever needed our town’s fire services, chances are your call was answered and dispatched by Ken.

Ken Gilbertie (Photo/David Friedman for MSNBC.com)

“As deputy chief of the Volunteer Department, Ken has also worked on the front lines, responding to countless incidents across town and assisting hands on.

“Whether behind the scenes as a dispatcher or on the front lines fighting fires as a volunteer, Ken has saved countless lives throughout his 30+ years of service to our community.”

Thanks, Ken, for your service. You are a true Unsung Hero.

(In 2011, MSNBC interviewed Ken Gilbertie. Click here for that story. To nominate an Unsung Hero, email dwoog@optonline.net)

Unsung Heroes #139

As the coronavirus pandemic rages, we are surrounded by heroes.

Neighbors look out for the elderly, the infirm, the lonely. A doctor collects face masks for her colleagues. Teenagers run errands for strangers.

There’s a different vibe today than 2 weeks ago. And while much of it is dark and foreboding, another part is as bright as the spring that is right around the corner.

I could cite hundreds of folks as Unsung Heroes. In the weeks ahead, I will.

Please email me with individual nominations (dwoog@optonline.net). Countless people are doing wonderful things, every COVID day. Some impact thousands; others, just one.

All are important. I want to hear — and celebrate — them.

But today, if you’ve done something nice and good and kind in the days since the coronavirus came to town, give yourself a pat on the back.

You are our Unsung Hero!

The Greens Farms Congregational Church food collection for organizations in Bridgeport and Stamford — at a safe social distance, of course — is one of countless acts of kindness we’ve seen over the past two weeks.

 

 

Unsung Heroes #138

This one’s a no-brainer.

If you are anyone who, over the past couple of weeks, has been on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, you are an Unsung Hero.

Perhaps you:

  • Man and woman the Westport Health District — performing coronavirus tests, administering aid, answering questions, soothing nerves
  • Serve in emergency operations with the police, fire, EMS departments — or anyone else in government called on to plan, execute, render assistance or in any other way help the town
  • Work in a medical practice, helping some patients who may have been infected and many more with their usual ailments, knowing all the while you had more contact with, and less protection from, sick people than anyone else

  • Are teaching students online, while at the same time soothing nerves, offering non-school advice, and ensuring continuity of education despite having never done so before
  • Are a school custodian or maintenance worker elsewhere who put on a mask and gloves, and spent days deep cleaning every square inch you could find, and did it well, despite your very real fears and anxieties
  • Own a business, and decided (or had to) to shut down, for the good of the community, and despite all your fears, still worry more about your employees and customers
  • Work in a store or market overrun by panicked customers; despite your low pay and own fears you stocked shelves, worked registers, answered questions, and did it all with grace and courtesy
  • Ditto all those restaurant workers who are adapting to a rapidly changing environment, preparing and serving food while observing new rules and regulations, and doing it with enormous care and concern
  • Reach out through your religious institution or civic organizaiton– even though its doors are closed and meetings canceled — to someone in need

Temple Israel is one of the many religious institutions now conducting services, classes and programs virtually.

  • Are suddenly thrust into the role of teacher, in addition to the disruption of having to work your own job remotely, or worry about what was going on at the office because you had to be home
  • Calm a child’s nerves, bring food to an elderly neighbor, or help a stranger figure out what to do now that the library, Senior Center, YMCA, Town Hall — and every other gathering place — is closed
  • Or are doing anything else to help someone else during these unprecedented days.

Thank you for helping make this town a “community.”

We’ll need you — and everyone else — to keep doing it for a while.

No one knows what’s ahead. But with all these Heroes in our midst, we’ll get through all this.

There’s no other choice.

(Do you know an Unsung Hero? Email dwoog@optonline.net to let us know!)

 

Unsung Heroes #137

Alert “06880” reader Amy Herrera writes:

My family and I moved to the area a little over a year ago. We came to town after Coleytown had merged into Bedford.

The town was in a bit of an uproar. Some of our first interactions with neighbors were invitations to sign petitions or accompany them to meetings to speak out against the combined schools.

We respectfully declined the invitations. We were grateful the town had a facility that could absorb the Coleytown students, and honestly, our 7th grader was having an amazingly seamless transition despite the crowded hallways.

Although we were sensitive to other people’s concerns, in the grand scheme of things we really didn’t feel like we had anything to complain about.

Since then, our children’s experiences in the Westport schools have continued to be positive, but the angst swirling around education has certainly not subsided. Between redistricting/split feeder scenarios. budget cuts and the uncertainty surrounding the reopening of Coleytown, residents have not been at a loss for things to complain about.

In the midst of all of it I have witnessed something kind of remarkable.

Rehearsing for “Matilda the Musical.”

My middle son, now in 8th grade, has become very involved in the theater program at Bedford. This year, rather than keeping the 2 school populations separate, they combined all of the resources and created a single student body.

This has been a tremendous benefit to the arts, in my opinion. I think of the combined theater program at Bedford as the “something beautiful” that grew out of the chaos of the past year and a half.

The program that resulted from the collaborative efforts of the Coleytown and Bedford educators is worth talking about. Instead of being overwhelmed by the combined population, they took it as an opportunity to further develop their programs and provide an even more enriching theater arts experience.

They created a tech program that is thriving and enabling students to become skilled in all aspects of production, while supporting an ambitious year of performances across the 3 grades. They even created student directing experiences for 8th graders in support of the 6th grade spring production.

Learning the tools of the theater trade.

The Bedford Theater Company, which is co-led this year by Karen McCormick and Ben Frimmer, with help from Alicia D’Anna, is currently rehearsing for Roald Dahl’s “Matilda the Musical.” There will be 4 performances the weekend of March 27.

Mr. Frimmer assembled an all-star production team of working professionals to help him bring this quirky piece of literature to life. Matilda is the only offering this year that included all 3 grades. If Coleytown reopens on schedule it will be the only time this ever happens.

“Matilda” creates an opportunity to highlight what is possible when a community comes together and makes the most of a situation. The students. educators and professionals have taken this tumultuous moment in Westport’s time and turned it into something to celebrate.

“Matilda the Musical” will be performed at Bedford Middle School the weekend of March 27. (Photos/January Stewart)

“Matilda” is a great example of how the Coleytown crisis actually served to enrich the middle school student experience in Westport. It is fitting that one of the overarching themes of “Matilda” is the idea of standing up in the face of adversity.

Thanks, Amy. You nailed it. This week’s Unsung Heroes are everyone who makes this production of “Matilda the Musical” possible. Click here for tickets and more information. To nominate an Unsung Hero, email dwoog@optonline.net. 

Unsung Hero #136

Westport’s roads are filled with joggers.

They’re all different types: men and women, old and young, in shape and trying to get there.

With their jogging gear, headphones and determined looks, though, they all tend to look the same.

Except for Julie Van Norden.

Julie Van Norden

You might have seen her running, from her home near the Merritt Parkway through town and back. Or a longer run, toward the train station or Staples.

She’s the one holding a couple of empty beer cans.

Or (to be fair) other garbage.

No, she doesn’t have a problem. Just the opposite: She’s doing her bit to fix the problem others have.

You know, the ones who throw trash out the car window, wherever they want.

“I love where I live. I want to keep it clean,” she says.

So she “plogs.” That’s her word for “picking up litter while jogging.”

Julie Van Norden, at work.

Right now, Julie may be the only Westport runner who does this.

She focuses on items that can be recycled. She scopes out what needs to be picked up on her her way out. On her way back, she picks up whatever she can carry.

Back home, she sorts it all out into her recycling bins.

Wouldn’t it be great if we saw other folks running with beer cans too?

Then maybe one day, none of them would have to.

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

Unsung Hero #135

For 40 years, Ruth Kuhn and her husband made sure that before tossing garbage bags into the transfer station pit, their keys were safely stashed in their pockets.

For 40 years, the precaution worked.

Last week though, Ruth was distracted. The instant it happened, she watched helplessly as her key chain — holding 4 car keys, house keys, garage key and mini-garage door opener — sailed all the way down, with her trash, into the dump far below.

She heard it all land. And then there was silence.

She feared all her keys were gone, forever.

The dump.

Other people came by. Unaware of her plight, they tossed their garbage onto hers.

Then a wonderful thing happened. Workers Mark Meyer and Buddy Valiante, and John Davis of Malone’s Refuse, noticed her distress.

Without hesitation, they offered to help. While easing her anxiety with good-natured reassurance and support, they used long-hooked poles — from “seemingly out of nowhere” — to locate her keys. They extracted them, then returned them to Ruth.

“For Bud’s steady assistance, and to Mark and John who made it happen, I extend my very deepest appreciations,” Ruth says.

“And not only for what each of you did, but as well for who you are. It would have been so easy to walk away. I owe you each a very considerable debt of gratitude.”

Bud, Mark and John would probably say “it’s all part of a day’s work.”

It wasn’t. It’s part of what makes our town a community.

Thanks, guys. You are Ruth’s — and our — Unsung Heroes of the week.

Buddy Valiante in 2018, helping at the transfer station. (Photo/Cindy Mindell)

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

Unsung Heroes #134

Alert — and grateful — “06880” reader Susan Ross writes:

My unsung heros are the guys at J & J Auto. They are simply the nicest people in Westport.

They have given us years of honest kindness and helpful assistance.

They say with a smile, “don’t worry about coming in all the time so we can add air to your tires. Lots of people do!“

Once I phoned them from a college tour road trip. Our car was making noise. The local garage insisted we needed a new transmission pronto before getting on the road, or our family wouldn’t be safe.

J & J told us it sounded okay to drive home. When we got back they checked it out. Only a minor tweak was needed.

J & J Car Care on Post Road East. It’s between ASF and Pane e Bene.

Another time my son slammed the garage door, crushing my license plate. They hammered it out, reattached it in the pouring rain. They charged nothing, because “things happen.”

Now they are keeping bees behind the garage, and jars of delicious warm honey under the desk. That’s a story in itself.

(J & J Car Care Center is at 1590 Post Road East, across from the Westport Inn. To nominate an Unsung Hero, email dwoog@optonline.net)

Unsung Heroes #133

Alert “06880” reader Bob Weingarten writes:

Each morning while on a coffee run I drive by Greens Farms Elementary School. I see the same person holding a stop sign to control traffic, and ensure the safety of children crossing the street.

This has been going on for years. It is a tribute to our school system, and the Westport Police Department that controls the program.

The other day I stopped and talk to the crossing guard. Jerry Meehan told me he had been doing this for nearly 8 years.

Jerry Meehan at work …

He had just helped Case and Jasper get to school. Jerry normally chats with moms and dads after assisting children. Today he also gave a dog a little treat.

The old adage for mail carriers applies to them, though modified slightly: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers (school guards) from the swift completion of their appointed rounds (tasks).”

Every day the guards protect our children for 2 hours before the opening of school, and 2 hours after it ends. Jerry works from 7:05 to 9 a.m., and 2 to 4 p.m.

The program is run by Lieutenant Jill Cabana of the Westport Police. There are 6 crossing guards, and 1 alternate. All have been working for at least 3 years, except Brienna Meier who started this fall.

… which also includes chatting with parents, and giving a dog a treat. (Photo/Bob Weingarten)

“They all do wonderful jobs,” Cabana says. “They are at school crossings on sunny days and inclement weather. The guards are another set of eyes and ears for us, making sure that everyone get to their destination in one piece.

“They are polite. They chitchat with moms, dads and kids, and are really unsung heroes.  They deserve recognition.”

Let’s recognize them by name:

  • Jerry Meehan (Greens Farms Elementary School, at Morningside Drive South)
  • Richard Space (Kings Highway Elementary School at Post Road West and Burr Road)
  • William Wanat (Long Lots Elementary School at Maple Avenue North and Hyde Lane)
  • Joan Lasprogato (Long Lots Elementary School at Hyde Lane and Long Lots Road)
  • Mary DelFlorio (Coleytown Elementary School at North Avenue and Easton Road)
  • Brienna Meier (Kings Highway Elementary School at Post Road West and Lincoln Street)
  • Kathryn O’Reardon (alternate).

Westport’s children, parents, teachers — and drivers: Thank you all!

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

Unsung Hero #132

It might sound strange to call Bill Mitchell an Unsung Hero.

The public face of Mitchells of Westport — son of founders Ed and Norma, brother of Jack, father and uncle of the 3rd generation to lead 8 upscale men’s and women’s stores, on the East and West Coasts — his generosity is boundless.

He and the entire Mitchell family open their stores, their checkbooks and their hearts to a breathtaking variety of organizations and causes. Very quietly too, they help countless individuals, in any kind of need.

They’ve been honored often (though not enough) for all they do. But this Saturday (January 25, 6:30 p.m.), a special event will be particularly meaningful.

The Conservative Synagogue of Westport holds a “funraiser” — and Bill Mitchell is the guest of honor.

Bill Mitchell

The reason dates back 25 years. Founders were trying to get permission to build a synagogue on Hillspoint Road. Though near the Post Road, the zoning was residential. Some neighbors opposed the plan.

Unsolicited, Bill stood up at several meetings. He’s not Jewish — his family has long been associated with the Saugatuck Congregational Church, and he’s a longtime supporter of various Catholic charities — but he talked about the importance of the synagogue.

After he spoke, the Planning & Zoning Commission passed the proposal. Unanimously.

Bill’s support of The Conservative Synagogue did not stop there. On the High Holidays, he opens Mitchells’ parking lot to congregants.

He and Rabbi Jeremy Wiederhorn have become great friends. It’s a good bet that when the rabbi offers “mazel tov” on Saturday, Bill will not be at a loss for words.

In Hebrew.

Unsung Heroes #131

The other day, Saugatuck Rowing Club marketing director Diana Kuen noticed there are a lot of kids in the youth program — but very few teachers.

She figured one reason might be cost.

That’s an easy solve. So now the Riverside Avenue facility — which includes a state-of-the-art fitness center — offers half-price off memberships.

But Kuen did not stop there. She realized there are other town employees to honor too. So the Saugatuck Rowing Club offer is extended to Westport police officers, firefighters, EMTs and other first responders.

Best of all: This is not a one-shot, take-advantage-of-the-January-slump kind of deal. It’s good all the time, all year long.

The Saugatuck Rowing Club wins plenty of trophies on the water. Now they’re winners on land too.

Saugatuck Rowing Club (Drone photo/Ward French)