Animal Control Officer: Far More Than “Dog Warden”

Back in the day, Westport had a dog warden. His job was simple: respond to complaints about roaming or barking dogs.

Today, the position is “animal control officer.” Dogs are among the duties — and, with added regulations about Compo Beach and Winslow Park, there’s more to do.

But in 2019, Westport’s animal control officer also handles — sometimes literally — cats. Plus raccoons, coyotes, foxes, swans, hawks, owls, and of course deer. Along with every other bit of wildlife that believes it has as much right as you or I to live here.

Which of course they do.

On September 1, Westport welcomed a new animal control officer. Joseph Saponare replaced Gina Gambino.

But he’s hardly “new.” Saponare spent the last 18 years as assistant animal control officer, working with and under the legendary Peter D’Amico and Art Reale.

Joseph Saponare

Nor is Saponare new to Westport. He’s as native as you get: Born on Cross Street, raised in a house his sister still lives in, and a graduate of Assumption School, Bedford Junior High and a 1965 graduate of Staples High School (with a year of home schooling, after contracting rheumatic fever).

Growing up, Saponare’s passion was not animals. It was his hot ’61 Chevy with a 348 engine. When he wasn’t racing at Dover Drag Strip, he hung out at the Crest Drive-In (at the entrance to what is now Playhouse Square).

After Staples, Saponare worked at Pepperidge Farm, then spent 10 years as a Norwalk typesetter. He had a snowplow business, bartended, was a volunteer firefighter (and president of the Vigilant Hose Company on Wilton Road), and served as president, vice president and treasurer of Sons of Italy, when that Saugatuck group put on the beloved Festival Italiano.

He also became a travel agent. Saponare Travel opened in 1983 on Church Lane, then moved to Post Road West.

After 9/11 — when travel dropped dramatically — Saponare joined the Travel Exchange in Sconset Square. He’s spent the past 15 years too as a traffic agent, working at places like Staples and Bedford.

Most important for Saponare’s new post is his 18 years as an assistant animal control officer. He loves the satisfaction of bringing injured animals to Weston’s Wildlife in Crisis, and helping those in distress.

Joe Saponare, with Quinn.

Deer have become a big part of his work. Saponare rescued a fawn that had fallen into a swimming pool. When he brought it to the woods, the mother lurked nearby.

The officer had been careful to don gloves. If the mother smelled his scent on the baby, she would abandon it.

Another time, he was called to Willowbrook Cemetery. Workers worried that a fawn would fall into a freshly dug grave. Saponare carried it to a safe place, while its mother watched intently.

A couple of hours before we spoke, Saponare was called to rescue a deer caught in a fence. Police officers and firefighters helped release it. But its leg was broken, and it had to be put down.

There was another call that morning. A dog was struck on the Sherwood Island Connector. A Good Samaritan tried to help — and was bitten.

I asked the new animal control officer if he has a message for Westporters. He’s no longer a “dog warden” — but the topic was canines.

“Be responsible,” Saponare says.

“Don’t leave your dog unattended in hot weather. And be sure to license your dog. That’s the law. It’s the only way we can tell if your dog has been vaccinated.”

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Grace Salmon Park (Photo/Lucy Zeto)

Unsung Hero #116

Jeff Seaver runs Seaver Interactive, a web design and digital marketing firm in Saugatuck. He’s been friends, and worked with, Pete Romano — a Saugatuck native — for 7 years. Jeff writes:

Walking around town with Pete Romano is like going for a stroll with the mayor: folks say hello everywhere he goes. Pete’s well known not just for his expertise in running Landtech — an engineering and environmental firm on Riverside Avenue — but also for his community service. His reputation spans generations.

His father, PJ Romano, grew up in Westport. He was a PAL volunteer for almost 50 years. The athletic field behind Saugatuck Elementary School is named for him, honoring his role in developing PAL’s football, baseball, wrestling and other programs, including the ice rink at Longshore.

Pete’s mom, Joan Romano, still volunteers with PAL. That spirit continues, as Pete maintains a strong family tradition of service.

Pete played baseball and football at Staples High School. His mom recalls that Pete “would knock a player down, but then afterward, stop to help pick them up.”

Working with his longtime friend and partner at Saugatuck Sweets, Al DiGuido, Pete is one of the forces behind DiGuido’s legendary Al’s Angels charity. Last year, Pete helped organize and oversee over 2,500 holiday meals to help those in need.

Pete Romano (left) with his mother Joan, and Al DiGuido, at Saugatuck Sweets.

Al DiGuido said, “I have never thought of Pete Romano as a hero. I doubt he regards himself that way. He just has a tireless passion for doing the heavy lifting for those in need, which inspires me and so many others.

“Pete doesn’t seem to need or want the spotlight. He’s not looking for trophies, awards or accolades. I think he does this because its in his DNA. His family has always been committed to doing all they could to help the community. Some are content to sit on the sidelines, but Pete gets his hands dirty doing the hard work that is truly needed.”

But Pete has a superhero alter ego. Every Christmas he plays Santa Claus. He arrives on a Westport Police patrol boat at Saugatuck Center, lighting the tree and entertaining kids.

Here comes Pete — er, Santa Claus!

His good works could fill a book. They include being a major contributor to the renovation of the Westport Weston Family YMCA, and helping sponsor events for the American Cancer Society, Project Return, ElderHouse, Operation Hope,  Westport Rotary, Little League Softball, plus many other local causes.

Bill Mitchell has been a pal of Pete’s for many years. They support many of the same causes, including Operation Hope and Project Runway. Bill notes, “Pete and his family have been a gift to our community.”

Steve Smith, Westport’s building inspector, said, “Pete Romano is a successful community leader who is generous and always willing to help out a community cause. He has given his time to our town unselfishly — and always with his characteristically great sense of humor.”

Phil Cerrone, an architect who has partnered in a number of efforts with Pete’s firm, said, “Pete is one of the most caring and considerate people I know. He can always be relied on to help a friend in need. Just as important, he can also be counted on to supply top quality food and drink!”

One of Pete’s most treasured causes is Wakeman Town Farm. Pete often joins with his friend, architect Peter Wormser, scooping ice cream at the Farm’s special events. 

Pete Romano and Peter Wormser, at Wakeman Town Farm.

Pete always has time for Westport schools. He and his firm helped create the night lights at the Staples High School football field, the fields at Bedford Middle School, and the Loeffler Field terrace (granite seating on the soccer field hill).

He is a generous supporter of Staples sports teams, Staples Players and middle school theater productions, the Staples robotics team, and more.

Pete’s firm collaborates with Gault Energy on many projects. Gault family members are effusive in their praise. Ginger Gault and Jimmy Donaher say, “He has keen insight to go along with a big heart, and on top of everything else, he’s hysterically funny. Pete is the complete package.”

He is especially proud of his 2 daughters. They went through the Westport School System, and are now smart, vibrant, strong women. Pete said, “They got the best public education one could dream of. How do you ever repay that debt?”

Pete Romano

Pete celebrated a birthday recently. As with many hard-working and generous folks, one of the hardest challenge is figuring out what to give them.

What do you give a man like Pete Romano who does not have everything, but gives everything?

The only answer is: love and genuine appreciation for all that he does.

 

Facing Up To A Swastika: Jesup Green Event Set For Today

Longtime Westport activist Darcy Hicks writes:

Tonight at 5 p.m., on Jesup Green, we will come together to define who we are as a community, in a struggling country.

Anti-Semitic incidents have been increasing in America at an alarming rate. The Anti-Defamation League says that in 2017, anti-Semitic incidents jumped 57% over the previous year, and 2018 showed the third-highest rate of incidents on record. This year is faring no better.

Westport — as we know from last week — is not immune.

The discovery of a swastika, carved into a bathroom wall, has challenged our community. The question is how we deal with that challenge.

We need to focus not on “who?” but “how?” How did the plague of hatred in this struggling nation manage to puncture our town? Whether the perpetrator was a white nationalist (unlikely), or looking for attention (more likely), the ball is in our court.

And all Westporters are on that court, whether we want to be there or not. Our response matters.

According to Steve Ginsburg, director of ADL Connecticut — and a Westport resident — “The measure of that school, or that community, is not what happened there, but how they respond to it, and what they did to try to prepare people and prevent it from happening.”

True to that statement, Westport schools have handled the incident swiftly and expertly, with the collaboration of the Westport Police, the ADL, and the support of our elected officials.

Education is always the key. But education should not be limited to school grounds and school hours.

How much do you know about your child’s understanding of the symbol of a swastika? How do they feel when they see one? Afraid? Numb? And are there other forms of intolerance — to race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity — occurring in our kids’ lives? How can we help?

Tonight at 5 on Jesup Green, we come together as a community to learn from those who know how to begin answering these questions.

By this effort — not the hate crime — we will be measured.

(Speakers include Ginsburg; Lauren Francese, K-6 social coordinator, Westport Public Schools; Rev. John Morehouse, Unitarian Church of Westport, and Conor Pfeifer, Triangle Community Center. For more information, click here.)

Movie Theater Downtown: It’s Remarkable!

The Westport Public Schools do a wonderful job providing opportunities to students with disabilities.

But at age 21, they age out. Meanwhile, the state has cut funding for day programs for adults with disabilities.

A group of parents has a goal: increase employment for area men and women with physical and intellectual disabilities.

The result: a remarkable idea.

The parents were inspired by the Prospector Theater in Ridgefield. It shows first-run films; 65% of employees are people with disabilities.

Meanwhile, a different group of Westporters worked for years, trying to open a theater downtown. They had a name — Westport Cinema Initiative — but no building and little funding.

Stacie Curran and Marina Derman — longtime Westporters with sons with disabilities — met with Doug Tirola. As a Staples High School graduate, current resident and president of documentary producer 4th Row Films, he was perfectly positioned to help.

The 2 groups merged. Now they’re poised to bring a theater to Westport. It will train and employ people with disabilities.

And — in a brilliant homage to Westport’s history and arts heritage — it will be called the Remarkable Theater.

The name — as Tirola, Curran, Derman and thousands of others know — honors the Remarkable Book Shop. That’s the longtime, beloved and still-mourned store at the corner of Main Street and Parker Harding Plaza (now the still-closed Talbots).

Curran came up with the brilliant name. Mark Kramer and Wendy Kramer Posner — whose mother Esther owned the shop — are “thrilled, honored and completely supportive,” says Derman.

“It’s a reminder of a time when downtown was homey, friendly, warm and fun,” Curran adds. “And people with disabilities are remarkable.”

Remarkably too, today is National Arthouse Theater Day. That’s exactly the type of theater the Remarkable will be.

Tirola calls it a “state-of-the-art, independent arthouse theater.” It will show independent and older films. Think of New York’s Film Forum, he says.

You’ll still go to a multiplex for the latest “Star Wars” sequel. But the Remarkable will be the place to go for many intriguing films. On Veterans Day, for example, it might screen a series of historical movies. If a famous director dies, it’s flexible enough to quickly mount a tribute.

Among the Westporters working on the Remarkable Theater project: Front (from left): Joanna Borner, Marina Derman, Deirdre Teed, Stacie Curran. Rear: Doug Tirola, Kristin Ehrlich, Angie Wormser, State Representative Jonathan Steinberg, Diane Johnson.

The theater will be a venue for talkbacks too. Other groups — particularly schools — will be invited to use the space.

Tirola, Curran, Derman and others have already secured a $50,000 grant from the state Department of Developmental Services. Funds will pay for equipment and movie screenings.

Pop-up screenings could begin before the theater opens. Organizers hope to break ground 2 years from now.

As for where it will be: They’d love a downtown site. They’ve begun talking with landlords, looking for options.

After several years, there’s real movement for a movie theater in Westport. The curtain is rising on this remarkable story.

(For more information — or to help — click here, or email marina@remarkabletheater.org).

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Compo Beach sparkles, in today’s late-summer sun (Photo/Jimmy Izzo)

Wise Words At The Farmers’ Market

It’s a scene familiar everywhere in America.

A group of retirees gathers every morning. They sit in the same seats. Over a single cup of coffee, they chew over all the problems of the world.

A group in Salt Lake City realized that all their wisdom, all that advice, went to waste. No one listened to them.

So one Saturday, they headed to the local farmer’s market. They hung a sign — “Old Coots Giving Advice” — pretty much as a joke.

To their amazement — and despite the disclaimer “It’s pretty bad advice,  but it’s free” — people wanted to listen.

Old Coots at a Salt Lake City farmers’ market.

Sarah Gross saw a CBS News story about the group. Suddenly, a light bulb went off over the longtime caterer’s head: There are plenty of older Westporters, with lifetimes of experience and a wealth of advice.

And we’ve got a Farmers’ Market.

Which is why this coming Thursday (September 19), a group from the Senior Center heads a few yards south on Imperial Avenue. There — under a table, tent and chairs — the writing group led by Senior Center coordinator of writing programs Jan Bassin will offer advice to anyone who wants it.

The official topic is “what we would have said to our 25-year-old selves.”

But feel free to ask about anything else, from turnips to Trump.

Just don’t call them Old Coots.

They’ve taken the name Westport’s Wise Words.

Respect.

A couple of old coots at an early Westport Farmers’ Market.

FUN FACT: Robert Penn Warren rocked Sarah Gross in her crib, and Ralph Ellison held her in his arms when she was an infant in Westport. Her extended family was made up of  authors and artists and the like — and her father was a book editor and literary agent until his death a few years ago.

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Another great Eagle Scout project: behind Saugatuck Congregational Church, next to Winslow Park. (Photo/Tracy Porosoff)

[OPINION] Unsightly Stump Town

Alert “06880” reader — and concerned streetscape admirer — Bob Weingarten writes:

Westport’s tree warden decides whether a tree on town property should be removed.

That includes the strip of land extending from public roads to private property, in front of most Westport houses. We’ve all seen signs on trees that are to be removed. After authorization, a town crew cuts down the tree. But they frequently leave the stump, because it is costly to remove. (Homeowners who remove trees on their property usually do remove stumps.)

One stump …

Recently the town removed 4 trees, because of decay or other issues, on Hillandale Road. The stumps are still in place, and probably will remain.

… more stumps …

There are also 2 tree stumps on Center Street, and many stumps on other streets.

They become very unsightly, with all kinds of growth.

… and another. (Photos/Bob Weingarten)

The issue is whether the town should remove the stumps, because they change the characteristics of our streets and the value of our homes. I believe that since the stumps are on town property, homeowner cannot remove them.

I’d like to hear what other Westporters think.

Oh, Brother! Library Podcasts Offer A Seat At The Table

The Westport Library’s Transformation Project has drawn raves from Westporters. The community spaces, video technology, children’s section, even the café– all are re-imagined, welcoming and well used.

But the transformation was never just about physical spaces.

The library is transforming ideas about access, creativity, arts and communication too.

Nowhere is that more evident than in the new studio spaces. Music production, filmmaking, video editing — it’s all part of the Westport Library experience.

The library’s state-of-the-art recording studio.

Some of those features are not yet fully ready. But podcasts are.

Starting this week, anyone with a computer or smartphone — in other words, anyone in Westport, and billions more across the globe — can enjoy, be entertained by and learn from some of Westport’s most interesting people.

Like Miggs Burroughs, Trace Burroughs, Bill Taibe and Lori Cochran-Dougall.

They launch the library’s first 2 podcast series. The Burroughs brothers — Staples graduates, artists, and longtime Westporters — will chat with intriguing area residents for what they call “Oh, Brother! Not Another Podcast.”

“It’s about people who are the fabric of this town,” Miggs explains. “We’re personality driven. It will be like an expanded cocktail party conversation.”

Taibe owns and runs Jesup Hall, Kawa Ni and The Whelk restaurants. Cochran-Dougall directs the Westport Farmers’ Market. Their podcast is “A Seat at the Table.” They’ll focus on interesting ideas and trends, like CBD and farming.

“It’s table banter,” Cochran-Dougall explains. “When people talk, everyone learns.”

The Burroughses, Taibe and Cochran-Dougall will “create conversations that are crucial for this area,” library executive director Bill Harmer says. “We can help get those conversations out there — and preserve them.”

The 4 podcasters are working with Jay Miles. As the library’s manager of studio space, he’ll help them — and other aspiring podcasters — become experts at the craft.

(From left) Bill Taibe, Jay Miles, Lori Cochran-Dougall and Miggs Burroughs.

Since the transformed library opened in June, Harmer has been thrilled to see plenty of new faces. Many are young.

Podcasts and related studio services help support and encourage “the next generation of creative people,” he says. “Creativity, arts and writing is all part of Westport’s DNA.”

Harmer hopes to welcome many more podcasters to the studio. “Westport has no shortage of expertise,” he notes. “CEOs, financial gurus, entrepreneurs — anyone can use this, to the benefit of all.”

Governor Ned Lamont was wowed by the entire library — including the studios — on a tour prior to the June ribbon-cutting. His staff has called twice, asking if he could record podcasts there.

Of course, the studios are not just for young people — or only for podcasters. Harmer envisions senior citizens using them to record stories for grandchildren.

Right now though, the podcasts are the first big use of the studios.

The library will download one podcast each week, via their Vimeo and YouTube channels. The first are already available here:

Spotify and iTunes may be added soon.