Category Archives: Unsung Heroes

Unsung Hero #144

On any list of coronavirus heroes, front line medical personnel stand at the top.

Dr. Aaron Hultgren is one of them. And he’s one of ours.

A football and lacrosse player at Swarthmore College, he taught pre-K at a Quaker school in Philadelphia, then earned a master’s in teaching from Brown University.

Dr. Aaron Hultgren

He taught K-5 science at a private school in Providence. But he’d always wanted to be a doctor. He switched careers, and was accepted into Georgetown’s Medical School Class of 2006.

While there he developed a “Mini Medical School” program — focusing on the human body and careers in medicine — for children in the Washington area.

Aaron did his residency in emergency medicine at NYU/Bellevue, then a public health fellowship in international medicine at Columbia University, where he received his master’s in public health. During that training, he traveled several times to Ghana, for hospital work.

He is now an assistant professor and mentor for NYU medical students. He travels often to Thailand — where his wife Patra’s family is from — to do medical rotations, and continues to teach about the human body to New York City students.

Aaron, Patra and their 3 young children moved to Westport 8 years ago. He enjoys playing lacrosse, skiing, rock climbing, hiking at Earthplace, and going to Norwalk Aquarium and the Peabody Museum with his kids; gardening, and kite flying, paddle boarding and searching for natural treasures at Compo Beach.

Dr. Aaron Hultgren and his wife Patra have 3 children: a daughter in 7th grade at Bedford Middle School; a 4th grade son at Kings Highway Elementary, and a boy in Christ & Holy Trinity Preschool.

But for the past 2 months, he has not done any of that.

As an ER doctor at Bellevue, he’s stayed in New York. First he was in a hotel; now he’s at an NYU dorm.

It scarcely matters. He’s seldom there.

Aaron is scheduled for 8-hour shifts. He’s taken on many more — as well as other duties, like tele-medicine — since the coronavirus struck.

So much happens every day. Even the emergency room has changed. They’re in makeshift spaces, since part of where they worked has been converted to an ICU.

This is how Dr. Aaron Hultgren treats patients now.

At the height of the crisis, Aaron saw 20 to 30 patients per shift. Many had lower oxygen levels than he’d ever seen. And they stayed on ventilators much longer than usual.

Aaron says that one positive outcome is increased collaboration between physicians in different departments. Everyone helps everywhere; it’s all hands on deck.

And our neighbor, Dr. Aaron Hultgren, is in the middle of it all.

Thank you to you — and your countless colleagues — for all you do for all of us, every day. You are truly Unsung Heroes.

(To nominate an Unsung Hero, email Hat tip: Sandra Long)

Unsung Heroes #143

The other day, interim superintendent of schools Dr. David Abbey sent a “Dear Colleagues” letter to all Westport Public Schools staffers.

With his usual clarity and care, he noted the many contributions of a number of school district employees, in a wide range of areas. He said:

I am writing to thank you for the extraordinary work you are doing, and have been doing during the past month or so, as we struggle through this unprecedented challenge. Your dedication to our students, district, and larger Westport community has been nothing short of remarkable – even while dealing with the impact that COVID-19 is having on your personal and family lives.

During this crisis it has become evident that there really are no small parts in the work we do as public school educators. I speak of everyone who works for the Westport Public Schools – certified and non-certified. Regardless of your job descriptions, you have made contributions within and beyond your formally defined roles. A number of you have shown genuine courage in doing so.

So, thank you to:

Our teachers and administrators who, in the face of the pandemic, and in rapid time, have worked tirelessly and creatively to design and redesign a distance learning plan that is serving our students so well.

Our tech team for providing us with so much new and necessary professional learning – and for doggedly and expertly ensuring that our systems remain up and running.

Our paraprofessionals, who when called upon have continued to capably support our teachers, including providing direct service to students.

Our nurses, supported by our health assistants, even prior to school closing, while calm, sensitive and professional, protected our health – as they helped us navigate through unfamiliar territory. Since school closing, they have contributed time, expertise and materials to the larger Westport community.

Our secretaries and assistants, for supporting us in many ways, such as developing schedules for us to re-enter buildings, organizing our work, and communicating with the school community.

Staples’ popular head custodian Horace Lewis leads a great — and essential — staff. The other schools have equally dedicated crews.

Our custodians and maintainers who have continued to clean and maintain our buildings, so that they remain operational and safe – allowing us to continue the critical functions of district work.

Our security officers who have provided an array of services, including making certain that students don’t put themselves in danger, by congregating at school fields.

Our central office support staff for seeing that the essential functions of the district, such as paying vendors and meeting payroll, remain in effect. In this instance, special mention must be given to staff in payroll who, in the face of considerable adversity, have moved heaven and earth to get the payroll out to all of us.

Our substitutes, who are helping to maintain instructional continuity when it is necessary to fill in for a colleague.

Thanks also goes out to the Chartwells team. Although not technically district employees, they have continued to provide lunch and breakfast to students in need.

In the final analysis, words are insufficient to express the thanks that you deserve. I do hope that someday, when we are on the other side of this crisis, and surely that day will come, you can look back with pride on behalf of what you have done. One thing is certain, when I look back, I will always be proud of having been your colleague.

I wish the best of health to you and your loved ones.

That’s a wonderful summation of this week’s Unsung Heroes. Those accolades are rich, and well-deserved.

But Dr. Abbey left out one name: his own.

A year ago, he joined the district on a temporary basis. Actually, he re-joined Westport. Years ago, Dr. Abbey served as a special education coordinator here. He moved on to other posts — including principal of New Canaan High, then superintendent of schools there.

Dr. David Abbey

We knew we were lucky to lure him out of retirement. We have been luckier still to have him lead us during this turbulent time. In the wake of a chaotic resignation — and facing major issues such as the closing and reopening of Coleytown, later start times and now the COVID-19 pandemic — he has brought not just the stability we desperately needed, but wisdom, fairness, honesty, grace, and a much-needed sense of humor.

On July 1, Dr. Abbey hands the reins to Tom Scarice. He too is a superb choice. Given the nature of the times — and the fact that Dr. Abbey was here for just a year — it’s unlikely there will be a festive townwide sendoff (or even a formal thank-you) for all that he’s done.

David Abbey is not the type for big celebrations, anyway. But I hope others join me in thanking our entire district for all they’ve done during the pandemic, and in honoring Dr. Abbey for his leadership of the district through this crisis — and so much more. 

Unsung Hero #142

Alert, well-fed and grateful “06880” reader Pippa Bell Ader writes:

Lori Cochran, Westport Farmers Market‘s executive director, isn’t sitting behind a desk during the coronavirus crisis, shuffling papers.

Lori works hard, 60 to 70 hours a week, ensuring that Westporters — and residents of many other towns — have access to organic, locally grown food.

In normal times Lori would be taking a much deserved break from coordinating the Winter Farmers’ Market at Gilbertie’s Garden Center, before the summer market opens in May.

Lori Cochran

Not that Lori ever really rests. This is the time she normally regroups with summer vendors, making sure they comply with all health and safety regulations, understand the nuances of the market, and are ready for the vibrant Thursdays, from May to November.

But this year is different. Lori recognized early on that — given mayhem and shortages in supermarkets — there would be a greater than usual demand for locally grown produce.

She contacted farmers and food vendors; identified those with produce to sell right now; set up a method to purchase and pay for items in advance so that no money or credit cards touch hands; educated herself about best practices to minimize chances of spreading COVID-19, and developed a scheduling method to ensure that no more than 8 shoppers are at the market at the same time — and never closer than 10 feet.

And she did it all in less than 3 weeks.

Now in its second week, you’d think the current system at the Westport Farmers Market had been set up forever. Just click on the website before 4 p.m. Tuesday. Choose and pay for the items you want to purchase, then pick an available time to get your produce.

On Thursday, head to Gilbertie’s on Sylvan Road South at the allotted time; wear a mask and gloves.

Don’t mess with Lori. If you’re supposed to be at the market between 12:10 and 12:20, be there then!

A little rain — and a lot of coronavirus — doesn’t dampen Lori Cochran’s enthusiasm for the Farmers’ Market.

Parking is a breeze. Follow the signs to the first “waiting” station. When you reach the front of the line you are asked your name, and who you purchased from. Vendors place your prepaid order on the table. Pick up your food, then leave via a different route — still minimizing contact.

None of this happened by chance. Every detail, down to the meaningful statements posted at each station, was carefully thought out by Lori.

The Farmers’ Market’s many customers and vendors thank Lori for all of the work she put into this system of food purchasing.

We all wish for the day that this is no longer necessary. But until then, know that your local, organic produce from the Westport Farmers Market is brought to you in the safest possible manner.

Thank you, Lori!

(To nominate an Unsung Hero, email

Unsung Heroes #141

As “home schooling” parents all across the country have found out these past few weeks, teachers are heroes. Suddenly, everyone who hasn’t been inside a classroom for years realizes how many moving parts make up just one class. And how many classes make up just one day.

But it’s one thing to teach English or physics to teenagers, or even reading or math to elementary schoolers.

What about kids who are much younger — who need constant, immediate attention that childcare providers have offered so amazingly for so long?

Alert — and hugely grateful — “06880” reader Keri Stedman admires Eileen Ward. For 39 years, she’s served as director of  the Children’s Community Development Center, on Hilllspoint Road.

“There’s no one I’d rather see at the helm during this crisis,” Keri says.

Eileen Ward

Though the school has closed, Eileen encourages teachers of all age levels to find ways to stay connected. There are emails, texts, Facebook groups, livestreams and Zoom calls (“yes, even for my 2-year-old’s class!”).

The music teacher has weekly online sessions. The art teacher shares creative ideas for the kids. The phys. ed. coach posts workouts.

“It was all put together so quickly,” Keri says. “And it has been so incredibly impressive and useful.”

“As a mom juggling homeschool for 1st and 2nd graders, plus my toddler, CCDC’s support has been invaluable. Eileen and her staff truly are my heroes.”

In fact, just minutes before writing this, one of the teachers FaceTimed Keri to make sure she was doing okay (and to see how all her children were doing).

Noelle, talking to Keri’s 2-year-old.

“Noelle talked to my 2-year-old as the little one ran all over the house with the phone,” Keri reports. “She offered to read to my elementary school girls, and engage them in any way she could.

“She even offered to put together work packets for them. Then she sent me art ideas for outside projects, like puff paint for the driveway.

“We are so lucky to have this center in Westport, and Eileen’s leadership. She truly leads by example. She has kept everyone connected to CCDC steady, calm and positive.”

In fact, Keri says, “I believe Eileen is at the school today, working.”

Thanks, Eileen — and your entire staff — for your care, concern and compassion for all your kids (and their families). Keri is right: You are our Unsung Heroes!

(Do you know an Unsung Hero? Email

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

“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

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 ( 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 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 

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

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