Bob Powers: The View From Charlottesville

Bob Powers grew up in Westport. After graduating from Staples High School in 1971, then Amherst College in ’75, he headed to med school at the University of Virginia.

He loved life in the college town. His children were born there. He moved twice — to Minnesota, and back to Connecticut. But as Powers — a physician and professor at UVa’s med school — notes, he’s now spent 30 years in Charlottesville. That’s longer than he’s lived anywhere else.

Like any Southern town, Powers says, there’s a history of racial discord dating back to slavery. Though the university has provided an intellectual base, schools there closed in the 1960s rather than succumb to desegregation.

“I have African American friends here who helped integrate the schools,” Power says. “And I have white friends who were pulled out of them.”

One of his patients — an older black woman — was involuntarily sterilized.

“This is not ancient history,” he explains.

Dr. Robert Powers

As a youngster in Westport, he says, “I was blissfully ignorant of all that. It’s part of Southern history. There’s nothing like that in the north.”

When he moved to Charlottesville he noticed rebel flags, and statues of Confederate heroes. He saw “thinly painted over signs” for colored restrooms.

Since then, he says, the town of 45,000 has gentrified. UVa has drawn “carpetbagging Yankees like me” for years.

Much of Charlottesville remains “voluntarily segregated.” There are black and white churches, funeral homes and neighborhoods. “People feel a level of comfort” in separate cultures and identities.

There is little “overt animosity” between blacks and whites, Powers says. The university in particular has made great strides toward inclusion. The dean of the medical school, hospital director and Powers’ own boss are all African American.

What happened this weekend, he says, began with outsiders who seized on the fact that Charlottesville’s officials “dithered” about removing statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson from prominent places. Issues like cost, and what to do with them once they were gone, made the city a “fat target and convenient flash point” for alt-right and racist groups.

However, he adds, 2 of the main organizers have ties to the area. White supremacist Richard Spencer graduated from UVa in 2001 (with high distinction in English literature and music), while self-described “white rights activist” Jason Kessler lives in Charlottesville.

A rally last month drew Ku Klux Klan members from North Carolina. It was “nasty,” Powers says, “but not terribly violent.”

A striking image from the Ku Klux Klan’s July 8 rally in Charlottesville.

That led to a national call to action, by a variety of alt-right, Nazi and KKK groups. It also galvanized opposition from around the country.

“It was very clear that people came this weekend expecting to fight,” Powers says. Protesters wore fatigues, and carried helmets, batons and shields. Virginia is an “open carry” state; some brandished civilian versions of AK-47s.

Storeowners boarded their windows. The UVa hospital discharged patients, keeping beds open for mass casualties.

The weekend turned into “much more than the First Amendment right of assembly and peaceful speech,” says Powers.

Mostly, he says, “this was not local people behaving badly. It was people coming in to our city to behave badly.”

A scene from yesterday in Charlottesville.

On Friday night — hoping to “demonstrate opposition” to the march, by “showing our faces and being counted without confrontation or violence” — Powers and his wife Sally attended a large community prayer service. Harvard professor Cornel West gave a powerful speech. Other clergy — including Muslims — spoke too.

Powers was gratified to see that the majority of attendees were white. “This is not about race,” he says. “It’s an outrage of principle.”

A torchlight alt-right procession came close to the church. As a precaution, police kept service-goers inside.

On Saturday morning, Powers and his wife went to a clergy-led march. It ended around 9:30. The couple went home.

Soon, authorities revoked the alt-right marchers’ permit. They dispersed — unhappily — into smaller groups around Charlottesville. Police could not control them. Confrontations ended when a car roared into counter-demonstrators, killing 1 woman and injuring 19.

“I’d be horrified to watch this from a distance,” Powers says. “It’s even worse when it happens in your own back yard, in a city not prone to this.”

Now, he predicts, there will be finger-pointing. Why were demonstrators and counter-protesters allowed to be so near each other? On the other hand, how could a small city be expected to handle so many inflamed people?

Powers is sure of one thing.

“The vast majority of the city — rich and poor, white and black, university-affiliated and not — were unified against this.”

And, he notes, the woman who was killed was from Charlottesville. The driver was from Ohio.

“Someone in our town was murdered by someone from elsewhere,” he says.

Bob Powers grew up in Westport. But Charlottesville is now his home town.

Like many Americans, he grieves for it.

And like many of us — in Westport and elsewhere — he wonders what comes next.

“Honk Against Hate” Fills Downtown Bridge

For decades, the Ruth Steinkraus Cohen Bridge — the Post Road span named for Westport’s tireless UN and peace advocate — has been the site of social justice protests.

This afternoon, several dozen folks of all ages thronged the bridge. In the aftermath of yesterday’s horrific anti-black, anti-Semitic, Nazi-infused demonstration and murder in Charlottesville, the group had a united message: Hate has no place here.

“Honk against hate!” they chanted.

Many drivers obliged.

As they did, the protesters cheered and smiled.

Then they chanted even louder.

Photo Challenge #137

“06880” readers sure know where all the bones are buried.

Especially the ones in the Platt Burial Ground.

Many of us whiz past on Post Road West, never noticing the small cemetery just this side of Whole Foods. (Click here for the photo.)

But Susan Lloyd, Jill Turner Odice, Ellen Greenberg, Bob Weingarten, Diane Silfen, Bill Kiedaisch, James Weisz, Jacques Voris and Lawrence Zlatkin all knew exactly where it is.

Weingarten — the Westport Historical Society house historian — also knew the back story. He wrote:

In 1812 Samuel Platt willed a small lot to be used as a family cemetery which was used into the 20th Century on Post Road West, next to Whole Foods shopping area. The cemetery is now owned and preserved by the town.

We go above ground for this week’s photo challenge. If you think you know where in Westport you’d find this, click “Comments” below.

(Photo/Tom Feeley)

 

Tents Or Not? You Be The Judge.

I’m not the only one who noticed an invasion of pop-up tents this summer.

A recent “06880” post about summer crowds at Compo drew a number of comments about the pup tents, lean-tos and other space-filling mini-homes that have, in the words of one Westporter, turned our beach into a “tent city.”

(Another commenter, more charitably, compared it to the Caribbean.)

Of course this is not Compo. We don’t have a volleyball court in the middle of the beach.

Turns out it’s not just Westport.

According to the New York Post, a Jersey Shore town — Belmar — is considering banning all tents more than 3 feet high and wide.

Officials there have several concerns:

  • The tents block visibility
  • They take up too much space
  • They’re invasive
  • They cast long shadows
  • They obstruct the view of lifeguards.

One disgruntled beachgoer described his neighbors: “They bring tables, coolers. It looks like they’re moving in for a week.”

Another noted that tailgating is fine at MetLife Stadium. But, he said, the beach is not a Giants game.

What do you think? Take the poll below:

(To read the full New York Post story, click here. Hat tip: David Loffredo)

Pic Of The Day #117

Another beautiful Compo evening (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

When Comics Were King

Over the years, Westport has been known nationally for a few things.

During the Civil War, our onions helped Northern troops stave off illness. In the ’70s and ’80s we were awash in marketing companies.

And for a longer period of time — the 1950s through ’90s — we were part of “the comic strip capital of the world.”

Vanity Fair’s September issue explores that funny period in our history. Writer Cullen Murphy — whose father was one of those illustrious illustrators — looks at all of Fairfield County as the world capital. It was

where most of the country’s comic-strip artists, gag cartoonists, and magazine illustrators chose to make their home. The group must have numbered 100 or more, and it constituted an all-embracing subculture …. In the conventional telling, the milieu of Wilton and Westport, Greenwich and Darien, was the natural habitat of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit — and I was certainly aware of the commuters who took the train into Manhattan every morning from my own hometown of Cos Cob. But, for me, those salarymen with their briefcases seemed like outlandish outliers.

Murphy cites Westport’s “large cluster” of cartoonists Bud Sagendorf (“Popeye”), Leonard Starr (“On Stage,” “Little Orphan Annie”), Dick Wingert (“Hubert”), Stan Drake (“The Heart of Juliet Jones,” “Blondie”), Jack Tippit (“Amy”), John Prentice (“Rip Kirby”) and Mel Casson (“Mixed Singles/Boomer”).

Bernie Fuchs’ famous studio. It was demolished earlier this year.

Murphy’s father compared Bernie Fuchs to Degas. The writer adds: “Fuchs’s career was all the more remarkable because he had lost 3 fingers on his drawing hand in an accident when he was a teenager.”

Murphy does not mention Curt Swan (“Superman”). I’m sure he’s missed others.

From the 2002 book “Curt Swan: a Life in Comics”

Murphy offers a few reasons why this area attracted so many illustrators: lack of a state income tax; affordable homes, and of course the presence of other artists.

It was solitary work — which is why so many Fairfield County illustrators got together in groups, here and on Wednesdays when they brought their art to their editors in the city. They talked about their work. They also ate and drank.

Murphy notes:

One defining reality about the cartoonists was that although their characters —Beetle Bailey, Snoopy, Prince Valiant, Blondie — were known worldwide, they themselves passed through life more or less anonymously. Unlike actors or sports figures or reality-TV stars, they were never stopped on the street. They didn’t have a “gal” to protect them or “people” to speak for them.

Semi-domesticated, they depended heavily on their families, especially wives, who in many ways held the entire enterprise together, from basic finances to rudimentary social cues…. Life was interrupted mainly by mundane chores. More than a few collectors have bought original comic strips and found notations like “prescription ready” or “diapers, bologna, Chesterfields” in the margins.

Bud Sagendorf, and his most well-known character.

Of course, nothing lasts forever. Murphy writes:

The concentration of cartoon talent in Fairfield County was a product of special circumstances, and those circumstances have disappeared. Newspaper comic strips are not the force they were, and few magazines still publish gag cartoons.

The New York City newspaper strike of 1962–63 led to the demise of the Hearst flagship, the New York Journal-American, whose funny pages were the best in the country. Making it there was like opening at the Roxy. Now it was gone.

New York remains the center of the publishing industry, but the railroad is no longer a lifeline: the Internet has meant that artists can send their work from anywhere. Connecticut has a state income tax now, though that’s not what has made Fairfield County unaffordable — Wall Street is responsible for that.

Westport, of course, is now a financial capital — both as headquarters to the world’s largest hedge fund, and home to many financial executives.

I wonder what kind of cartoon Bud Sagendorf, Stan Drake, Mel Casson or any of the others would draw about that.

(Click here to read the entire Vanity Fair story. Hat tips: Doug Bonnell and Paul Delano)

From comics to capitalism: Westport is now home to Bridgewater, the world’s largest hedge fund.

Pic Of The Day #116

Sherwood Diner still life (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

Remembering Eleanor Craig Green

Eleanor Craig Green — a longtime Westporter whose books about working with troubled children influenced generations of educators, therapists and parents — died Monday. She was 87.

Her 1st book was P.S. Your Not Listening — and its subject was as fresh as its misspelled title. (It quoted a note from a student.)

In 1965, many youngsters with special needs were sent to programs or institutions, segregated from mainstream schools. Green volunteered to teach Connecticut’s pilot class, bringing “socially and emotionally maladjusted children” to an ordinary elementary school.

Despite community resistance and student defiance, her class demonstrated the social and educational benefits of “mainstreaming” kids with special needs.

P.S. Your Not Listening was published in 1972. It contrasted classroom drama with her other lives: Westport mother of 4 young children, and wife of an aspiring writer. (William Craig, her 1st husband, wrote bestselling World War II histories and suspense novels, including The Fall of Japan.)

Eleanor Craig Green

Writing as Eleanor Craig, she published 2 more books about her work with troubled children: If We Could Hear the Grass Grow and One, Two, Three: The Story of Matt, a Feral Child.

Her 4th book — The Moon is Broken — chronicled her relationship with her eldest daughter. Ann Craig was a performance artist who earned a cult reputation at Lower East Side dance clubs, before her death in 1987.

In 1978 Eleanor Craig married fellow Westporter Paul Green, a magazine publisher. Their Old Mill Beach home was the busy center of a large blended family, and an extensive network of devoted friends.

Paul Green– now 93 — remains an activist against Parkinson’s disease. With his wife’s help, he credits rowing with adding years to his life. She did not retire from her family-centered therapy practice until last year.

Eleanor Craig’s survivors also include her children and stepchildren Richard Craig of Arlington, Virginia; William Craig of Thetford Center, Vermont; Ellen Perlwitz of Putnam, Connecticut; Andrew Green of Oakland, California; Alex Green of Oakland, California; Doug Green of Washington, DC; Katherine Appy of Amherst, Massachusetts, and Peter Green of Westport; 20 grandchildren; 3 great-grandchildren, and her siblings Claire Megan of Wellesley, Massachusetts, and John Russell of Hull, Massachusetts.

A memorial service is planned for August 31 (11 a.m., St. Luke’s Church). In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Child Guidance Center of Southern Connecticut.

Friday Flashback #52

Today, the Friday Flashback turns 1 year old.

Since last summer, we’ve featured some fascinating photos of Westport’s past: The sanitarium. The Compo Beach bathhouses. Gorham Island. Ray the Good Humor Man.

To celebrate this anniversary, I wanted something truly iconic.

The cannons? Minute Man? Remarkable Book Shop? Big Top?

Nah. They’ve all been featured many times on “06880.”

The Minnybuses? Arnie’s Place? A bit too narrow.

Suddenly, it hit me. For generations of kids of all ages, nothing said “Westport” like the Ice Cream Parlor.

The final location, on the Post Road.

In 3 locations — Main Street, Compo Shopping Center, and finally the Post Road (opposite what is now Qdoba) — the Ice Cream Parlor served up a lot more than sundaes, wax candy and a Pig’s Trough.

It served up memories.

Mine are of wrought-iron chairs, more ice cream flavors than Howard Johnson’s, and jars filled with candy.

What are yours? Click “Comments” below.

An Ice Cream Parlor menu, signed by famous people who had been there.

Teens Swim 15.5 Miles, Raise $9,000. And What Did You Do Last Sunday?

The easiest way to cross Long Island Sound is on the Bridgeport-Port Jeff ferry.

You can also sail, motorboat or yacht across on your own.

It’s a lot tougher to actually swim those 15 1/2 or so miles yourself.

It’s especially difficult to do it faster than anyone else.

But that’s what a team of 6 Westport YMCA Water Rat swimmers did last Sunday. And they finished in just 6 hours and 20 minutes — beating 150 competitors by a wide margin.

It was hardly a day at the beach. Before taking the Swim Across the Sound plunge, they secured $9,000 in pledges for St. Vincent’s Medical Center.

Congratulations to the intrepid, strong and very fast group of 16-year-olds: Scott Adler, John McNab, Richard Nolan, Josiah Tarrant, Austin Twiss and Charlie West. All except Richard swim for Staples High School.

From left: Austin Twiss, Charlie West, Scott Adler, John McNab, Richard Nolan and Josiah Tarrant.

 

Fun fact: Swim Across the Sound director Liz Fry is a former Staples High School swimmer.

(Fast forward to the 10:00 mark below, for an interview with the Water Rat swimmers.)