Jeff Marks’ Wild Montana Skies

Growing up in Westport in the 1960s and early ’70s, Jeff Marks played plenty of sports. He hunted and fished.

But he was particularly interested in reptiles and amphibians.

He has no idea where the passion came from. He discovered — and studied — it on his own.

Jeff caught snakes, turtles, salamanders and frogs in the woods and ponds near his home off North Avenue. He played hooky from Coleytown Junior High, riding his bike to the Saugatuck Reservoir in Easton.

“My friends were not interested,” he says. “But no one ever gave me crap about it.”

Jeff headed to Paul Smith’s College in the Adirondacks, to study forestry. But he’d always been drawn to the west. He hitchhiked to the University of Montana, applied, and entered the forestry school.

He took other classes — zoology, wildlife biology, mammalogy — but was especially intrigued by ornithology.

“All I’d known were ducks,” he says. “I’d never paid attention to all the interesting birds around me. But 2 weeks in, I said, ‘This is it. This is what I’m going to do.'”

Jeff got a job with the Bureau of Land Management on Idaho’s Snake River. He clambered over cliffs, studying birds of prey. In his spare time, he went birding.

Jeff Marks in the East Pryor Mountains, Montana.

Long-eared owls became the subject of his master’s degree — and an object of fascination and research for the next 4 decades.

Jeff’s career took him back to the University of Montana as a BLM research biologist. He turned a field study in the tropical Pacific into his Ph.D. project. He examined birds that bred in Alaska, then flew all the way to coral sand atolls.

Back in Montana Jeff served as managing editor of a scientific journal, taught as an adjunct professor, and worked for the Audubon Society.

He married, and — around 50 years old — had 2 children. Though Missoula is a great college town, his wife found the winters rough. In 2006 they moved to Portland, Oregon.

There — and on frequent trips back — he co-wrote “Birds of Montana”: a comprehensive guide to the state’s 433 species.

These days he leads birding tours to places like Ghana, Senegal and Peru. And he’s deeply involved in a non-profit he developed, the Montana Bird Advocacy. It provides information on the status and biology of poorly known species, focuses attention on critical habitats under threat, and promotes conservation efforts.

Jeff Marks with a birding group in Portachuelo Pass, Peru.

Jeff graduated from Staples High School in 1973. He cannot point to any moment in his youth that led to his life’s work with birds and wildlife.

His ties to Westport today are few. But in some way, he is where he is today because of his hometown.

“Growing up where I did, when I did, gave me the intellectual freedom to immerse myself in fascinating things going on in the natural world,” he says. “Everything I’m doing now was grounded in what I did then.

Jeff knows that many wetlands he roamed as a kid now have houses on them. He hopes that some are untouched.

He has another hope too: That some youngsters growing up in Westport today can “be in touch with a place that a lot of people don’t think is wild. And it isn’t — compared to Montana. But there is still a lot of amazing life to see and do, anywhere you look.”

Jeff Marks with Jackson Owusu, in Ghana.

Pic Of The Day #1032

Cut-through from Church Lane to the Post Road (Photo/John Videler — go to https://videlerphotography.pixieset.com/printsforsale/ to buy prints of Westport)

“Vagina Monologues” Comes To Town

It began as casual conversations with friends. Soon Eve Ensler began talking with women she did not know. Eventually she spoke with 200 of them.

Their discussions about sex and relationships often turned to the topic of violence against women. The project — which Ensler had envisioned as a celebration of vaginas and femininity — became a crusade to stop that violence.

Since its off-Broadway debut in 1996, “The Vagina Monologues” — which explores consensual and nonconsensual sexual experiences, body image, genital mutilation, sex work and other topics through the eyes of women of various ages, races and sexualities — has become one of the most impactful plays of our time.

It also sparked the V-Day Movement, a global non-profit aimed at ending violence against women and girls.

“The Vagina Monologues” forms the cornerstone of the movement. Benefit performances take place worldwide each year between February and April. All  must stick to an annual script that V-Day puts out.

Performances benefit rape crisis centers, shelters for women and similar resources. So far, they’ve raised over $120 million.

This year, Westport Library has been chosen to produce a V-Day event. Beneficiaries are the Center for Family Justice and the Rowan Center sexual assault agency. Many cast members are Westport residents.

Set for Friday, February 21, the event begins with a 6:30 p.m. cocktail reception. The performance will be followed by a conversation between the cast and audience, about themes and issues brought up in the play.

The suggested donation is $20. However, all donation levels are accepted (and appreciated). For tickets, click here.

Persona Of The Week: Nancy Wyman

The Westport Library’s Forum is quickly becoming the place to be seen — and see some very intriguing folks.

CBS correspondent/podcaster/author Mo Rocca was there the other night. This evening, Titanic discover/undersea explorer Dr. Robert Ballard comes to town.

On Monday evening, Nancy Wyman was the featured guest. In the midst of a chaotic political week, the head of the state Democratic Party spoke to Westporter Rob Simmelkjaer about national and Connecticut issues.

It was the first in a series of live interviews at the Library. On Monday, February 24 (6 p.m.), former ESPN anchor Lindsay Czarniak and fellow Westporter Marysol Castro, the in-stadium voice of the New York Mets, talk about their careers in journalism.

Click below for the Nancy Wyman interview:

Rach’s Hope Shines Through

The family of one critically ill child could not visit much. The cost of hotels and meals away from home was prohibitive.

The family of another found lodging miles from a hospital — but had no way to get back and forth. Parents of a third worried about care for their other children, while they tended to their sick one.

When a child is diagnosed with a critical illness, parents face a blizzard of decisions. They’re in a fog of uncertainty and fear, handling a hurricane of tasks.

Yet in the midst of all that activity and emotion, one more weather-related metaphor stands out: a ray of sunshine.

It comes, gracefully and lovingly, from Rach’s Hope. The Westport-based foundation honors Rachel Doran. In 2018 the Staples High School National Merit Commended Scholar — a rising senior at Cornell University, talented Players costume designer, and founder of her own pajama company — developed a rare reaction to common medications.

She suffered severe burns to 95% of her body. She then developed another life-threatening syndrome. After 35 harrowing days, Rachel died.

Rachel Doran

Despite their grief, her parents Alan and Lisa remembered the kindness shown by friends, hospital staff and strangers.

Small gestures — finding a hotel 2 blocks from the hospital; arriving with healthy muffins and protein shakes; taking care of Rachel’s sister — sustained the family at a time when they were so focused on Rachel that they had no time or energy to care for themselves.

Since then, Rach’s Hope has provided real, important sustenance and hope to families tossed by the tornado of a child’s critical illness.

For example, a Westport resident who teaches in another town knew of a student in intensive care at Yale New Haven Hospital. Rach’s Hope sent Uber cards for transportation, and Uber Eats for meals.

“Family members have to eat and sleep well, so they can be strong for their child or sibling,” Lisa notes.

Another boy in that same district is being treated in Boston. Rach’s Hope provided gas cards to the parents, and covers their hotel bill.

Columbia Presbyterian is a great hospital. But there is no reasonably priced hotel nearby. The Dorans formed a partnership with the Holiday Inn in Fort Lee, New Jersey. They pay a discounted rate for families who stay there — and the hotel provides shuttle service to the hospital.

Though its reach is wide, Rach’s Hope’s Westport roots are deep. Lisa’s niece volunteered as a counselor at Experience Camps — the Westport-based program for children whose parent, sibling or primary caregiver has died.

Last summer, Rach’s Hope sponsored 2 children for the camp. They’ll send 5 this year. A week for each child costs $2,500.

To raise funds, Rach’s friends, their families and others close to her –including W Hair & Color, Rothbard Ale + Larder and Le Rouge by Aarti — are sponsoring the 2nd annual “Rach’s Hope PJ Gala.”

It’s Saturday, February 29 (7:30 to 11 p.m., Penfield Pavilion, Fairfield). Last year’s inaugural event was fantastic: warm, fun and energetic.

And it brought in over $100,000.

(Yes, you’re supposed to wear PJs. Rachel had founded her own pajama company, Rachel’s Rags.)

Rachel Doran (left) shows off her portfolio.

It’s clear she touched a ton of people. Her sister Ellie and friends founded a flourishing Rach’s Hope chapter at Staples. The school’s volleyball team hosted a fundraiser of their own. And Rach’s Hope is one of the charities receiving proceeds from this year’s County Assembly dances.

They all believe in Rach’s Hope. And they hope everyone who knew Rachel — and many who did not — will support the February 29.

The storm of a child’s critical illness will never go away. But with Rach’s Hope’s help, those dark clouds may part just a bit.

(For tickets, more information or to make a donation, click here.) 

PS: As a fashion design management major at Cornell, she was a research assistant in the Costume and Textile Collection, wrote for their blog, and became a curator. 

Her mentor Denise Green called her “the kind of assistant every professor, collection manager and peer dreams about. She was curious, determined, passionate, smart, kind, and had a great sense of humor.”

A central exhibition space — which housed her own project a few months before she died — has been named in her honor. Click here for more information, and to donate.

Pic Of The Day #1031

Deadman Brook, as it flows into the Saugatuck River (Photo/Michele Carey-Moody)

Jonathan Stumps For Joe

In December I posted a very inspiring story. For his bar mitzvah, Bedford Middle School 7th grader Jonathan Costello made a heartfelt video about his stutter.

It went viral. Stutterers of all ages found they had a voice.

Among those who saw it: Joe Biden.

His staff reached out to Jonathan. The former vice president — a stutterer himself — wanted to meet the young Westporter.

It happened a few days ago — in New Hampshire.

Jonathan and his dad Sean knocked on more than 30 doors for the campaign, before heading to a rally.

Jonathan Costello, on the campaign trail.

The presidential candidate was excited to meet the 13-year-old.

“They had a very heartfelt and touching conversation,” Jonathan’s mother Lauren reports.

The meeting …

“It ended with Biden asking for Jonathan’s phone number. What a moment!”

… and the hug, captured by C-SPAN.

No word on whether Jonathan heads now to Nevada or South Carolina to help in the next caucus and primary.

Or whether he’ll just give advice by phone.

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)

Stop The Presses! Lee And Kaya Scharfstein Take “Newsies” Stage

Lee Emery Scharfstein was a theater kid.

At Pleasantville High School — which had a Staples High-style professional performing arts program — he starred in shows like “West Side Story” and “Fiddler on the Roof.” He sang too — at Carnegie Hall.

As a freshman at Tulane University he was cast as the widow’s lover in the 1994 film “Interview With the Vampire.” (Tom Cruise bit him.)

Lee Scharfstein and Tom Cruise.

He spent summers in LA, but quickly learned that being an actor involves very little acting. Lee wanted to control his own destiny, so after moving to New York he took any kind of production assistant work he could.

He worked his way up the ladder. Now a Westport resident, Lee produced and directed music videos, documentaries, short films and commercials.

He spent 12 years on the agency side, as an executive in creative development.

Lee Emery Scharfstein: the first head shot.

But you can’t keep a theater kid out of the theater. Even if that kid is now in his 40s, a father, and hasn’t been on stage in more than 20 years.

Lee’s younger daughter Kaya is a 5th grader. Like her dad, she loves performing. She’s honed her skills at Broadway Method Academy, the Fairfield-based non-profit that trains youngsters in acting, singing, and dancing.

But even a kid-heavy show like “Newsies” — which closes its 2-week run at the Westport Country Playhouse this weekend — needs adults.

Which is how Lee has ended up back on stage.

And sharing it with his daughter.

Kaya is in the ensemble. Lee has 3 roles: Pulitzer’s henchman Wiesel, the deli owner and mayor.

“It’s a lot of work!” he says. The show was mounted in just 5 weeks. Tech week was particularly intense.

But he wouldn’t have it any other way.

Kaya Scharfstein, dressed for “Newsies.”

“It’s so much fun to be with these talented kids, as they learn and grow,” he notes. “And it’s important to support our arts programs.”

Hearing cues from the orchestra brings Lee back to his high school days. Nothing he has done compares to acting on stage, he says. “Newsies” has transported him back to “the childlike wonder” of his early theater experiences.

Acting at the Playhouse is special for anyone — especially a Westporter. Lee appreciates its renowned place in the theater world. It’s always a thrill to step on the section of stage that comes from the original.

He admits to stage fright before every performance. He felt that way in high school too. On the other hand, he says, “I haven’t forgotten any lines.”

As for sharing a show with his daughter: “It’s like drinking from the fountain of youth. It’s nice that she’s still at an age when she’s not embarrassed by me.”

In fact, when she passes him backstage Kaya says, “Go get ’em, Tiger!”

Lee Scharfstein, backstage at the Westport Country Playhouse.

With the perspective of parenthood, Lee occasionally tears up. “Seeing these great kids, their talented director Chaz Wolcott, and Equity actors like him who were part of the national tour — and being there with my daughter — it’s just a really great part of my life. I feel like the stars aligned for me to do this.”

“Newsies” closes Sunday. So what’s next?

“I’m very lucky. I love producing, directing, and the branding consulting I’ve been doing. Each fuels the other,” Lee says.

“I’ve written a couple of screenplays. My wife and I took a stand-up comedy class last year. And I’ve committed myself to do more stage and camera work.”

Once a theater kid, always a theater kid.

(“Newsies” is performed Friday, February 14 at 7 p.m.; Saturday, February 15 at 1:30 and 7 p.m., and Sunday, February 16 at 3 p.m. For tickets and more information, click here.)

“Newsies,” on the Westport Country Playhouse stage.

Pic Of The Day #1030

Compo Beach entrance, after today’s rain (Photo/Patricia McMahon)