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.
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.
If you live in this town long enough, you hear everything.
But it’s taken me my entire life to learn about Westport’s boxing club, Kid Gloves. And one of the men who trained there: Floyd Patterson, heavyweight champion of the world.
The story comes thanks to alert “06880” reader Franklin Mason. A 1960 Staples High School graduate who earned a Ph.D. in chemistry, taught college for 10 years and then became a technical writer in Silicon Valley, he emailed me recently with this fascinating tale.
Franklin Mason: 1960 and 2010.
Mason sent news clippings and photos too. There is no hook or angle to this; no upcoming title fight, demolition of the boxing club building or anything else. It’s simply a fascinating tale, about a long-buried part of Westport’s past.
In 1958, a few prominent Westporters started an after-school gym. The focus was on boxing and body-building. (There were also “figure control classes” for ladies.)
Seven years earlier, the group had helped start Westport Little League. Now they were doing something else for boys in town.
Kid Gloves was located in Nash’s Barn, at the head of Nash’s Pond on Kings Highway North. Built before the Revolutionary War, in the early 1940s it had been converted into a theater. Then it was a dance studio, with a hardwood floor.
Nash’s Barn, 1952.
The building no longer exists. It’s been replaced by a handsome private home — the one owned by singer Michael Bolton.
But in 1958 it hummed with activity. Jim Freeman — a boxer in the 1928 Olympics, World War II pilot and boxing referee, manager and promoter — served as Kid Gloves’ director and “heart,” Mason says.
He should know. Though just 16, scrawny and out of shape, his neighbor Virginia Mercier — Kid Gloves’ office manager — hired him as an instructor.
Freeman taught Mason how to teach the boys how to work out — including 14-year-old Westporter Michael Douglas. One day, his father — Kirk — came to visit. He strapped on gloves, and sparred with his son.
The actor knew what he was doing: In 1949 he’d starred in “Champion,” a boxing movie (based on a short story by Weston’s Ring Lardner).
Other young boxers at Kid Gloves included Daniel, Max and Peter Shulman. Their father, Max Shulman, wrote “Rally Round the Flag, Boys!” about the Westport Nike missile site. In 1958 it was made into a film starring Paul Newman. Soon he and his wife, Joanne Woodward, moved here.
Westport Town Crier ad, October 16, 1958.
In 1959, Floyd Patterson needed a spot to train for his rematch against Ingemar Johansson — the man who had recently taken the world heavyweight title from him.
He wanted a place with “peace and quiet.” A special, regulation-sized ring was ordered. Patterson’s smaller-than-usual speed bag was sent too.
Patterson arrived with his manager Cus D’Amato, and sparring partner Tommy “Hurricane” Jackson. Jackson spent several nights at Mason’s home.
Floyd Patterson, on the speed bag.
Ed Mitchell’s oldest son, Jack, was a football player at Wesleyan University. That summer, to get in shape for the upcoming season, he ran around the track at the old Staples High School on Riverside Avenue (now Saugatuck Elementary School). His younger brother Bill was with him.
D’Amato saw Jack, and asked if he wanted to work out at the gym. He brought the Mitchells across the Post Road. There was Floyd Patterson. They did some pullups and other exercises together.
Patterson asked Mitchell if he’d run on the track with him. “I was never a runner. He wasn’t either,” Mitchell recalls. “But we ran together.”
The brothers were told not to tell anyone that Patterson was there. They kept quiet.
But word got out. When it did, the Westport Town Crier ran this headline: “Boxing Gangsters Invade Westport.”
That was a reference to D’Amato’s alleged association with organized crime. When Patterson saw the headline, he left for another training facility, in Newtown.
Lou Dorsey and Franklin Mason, 1954
Freeman soon left also. But Kid Gloves added staff members. Lou Dorsey — a popular Saugatuck Elementary School phys. ed. instructor — took over as boxing coach. Derek Shelton taught dance to all ages; Edwardo Enrich was a judo instructor for boys and adults.
One of the dance students was Amy Vanderbilt — the famous etiquette expert. One day, waiting for a friend outside the building, Mason honked his horn. She rushed out, and reprimanded him. Sixty years later, he says, he still remembers — and has never done that again.
But Freeman’s departure was crucial. In January of 1960, Kid Gloves was sold. New owner Anthony Iannone of Stratford renamed it “Anthony’s Health Center & Gym.”
By that time Freeman could easily do sit-ups and chin-ups. He was adept on the free rings and trapeze.
Bridgeport Post ad, January 3, 1960.
In June of that year, Floyd Patterson knocked out Ingemar Johansson. For the first time ever, a boxer had regained the world heavyweight title.
Four months later, Anthony’s went out of business.
Alert “06880” reader — and longtime Westporter — Fred Cantor hears frequent laments about the changes in town since “whatever decade people grew up here in.” Of course, he admits, thingsare different.
But, Fred notes, the small-town feel that existed when his family moved here in 1963 is still alive and well. As proof, he offers a series of events that occurred recently, in just one 24-hour period.
Bruce Davidson, from his Staples High School yearbook.
It started with a visit to a local periodontist which, believe it or not, proved enjoyable overall. That’s because he’s Dr. Bruce Davidson, Staples High School Class of 1965, a family friend from back in the day and a former soccer teammate of my brother Marc. Bruce has practiced for decades at the same location on the Post Road, near Sylvan Avenue.
After a thorough exam and patient clarification of potential issues raised by X-rays taken in California, there was time to catch up and hear, among other things, about the status of a documentary film by Bruce’s brother, Doc (Staples ‘70).
After my appointment I drove to Cohen’s Fashion Opticals to pick up new glasses, which were almost ready. No problem: It was close to lunchtime, so I headed a few doors down to Gold’s. Owner Jim greeted me warmly.
I had a delicious turkey salad sandwich. The food at Gold’s is every bit as good today as when my parents first took me there in the 1960s — and the setting seems exactly as it did back then.
Jim Eckl and his wife Nancy have owned Gold’s since 2003.
Later in the day, I enjoyed a timeless outdoor Westport scene: a large crowd gathered on the hill to watch a Staples soccer game, on a beautiful Friday afternoon.
I had not arranged to meet anyone there. That didn’t matter. I sat with Bill Mitchell (Staples ’61) and former soccer coach Jeff Lea. We shared a few laughs and some entertaining stories. Dave Wilson (a Staples captain in 1974) was there too.
The ageless Laddie Lawrence (Staples ’64) also joined us for a while; so did former Westport Late Knights soccer teammate, Alex Anvari. Somehow Alex’s little boy Emerson has grown up — he’s 6-1 now!—to be a Staples senior who, to my delight, is on the varsity team.
Enjoying Staples soccer on the Loeffler Field hill (from left):L Fred Cantor, Jeff Lea, Bill Mitchell, Laddie Lawrence.
It was the last weekend of summer, with near-perfect temperatures, so after the game my wife Debbie and I headed to Compo to enjoy the sunset. As often happens, we ran into a couple of longtime Westporters.
I also had a nice chat with Joey Romeo, the owner of Joey’s By the Shore. He is every bit as friendly as any Main Street storeowner was in the 1960s.
Compo Beach sunset. (Photo/Fred Cantor)
The next morning I was walking on Bridge Street toward the train station. A car pulled over. The driver was Staples alum Mike Elliot; he offered me a ride. I explained that walking is my regular exercise these days.
As I neared the station, another car stopped. Staples classmate Bob Uly wanted to know how I was doing health-wise.
It was just 24 hours. Nothing truly out of the ordinary happened.
But those little slice-of-life occurrences demonstrate, at least for me, that certain “Our Town”-like qualities still very much exist here.
Westport is filled with men and women who give and give, then give some more. When there’s a job to be done or an organization to help, they’re the first to volunteer.
But it’s hard to imagine any 2 people who do more, in more ways, than Bill Mitchell and Gerry Kuroghlian.
Bill — a 1961 graduate of Staples High School — remains connected to his alma mater through Staples Tuition Grants, Players and sports. He’s been president of Rotary, deacon at Saugatuck Congregational Church, honorary chair of Homes With Hope, and a board member of the Levitt Pavilion, YMCA, St. Vincent’s Medical Center, Sacred Heart University and the Jewish Home for the Elderly. He’s offered his store — Mitchells — to help raise millions of dollars for groups like Near and Far, and the Inner City Foundation.
Gerry — a Fairfield native with a Ph.D., who spent nearly 40 years as a Staples English teacher, where he influenced thousands of students and colleagues — now serves as an ESL instructor at Mercy Learning Center, and a master’s degree student teacher at Sacred Heart.
The Bridgeport private school — 80% of whose students need financial assistance — has a proud record. Last year, every graduating senior was accepted to college. Together, they earned $15.2 million in scholarships and aid.
Bill and Gerry’s contributions to their successes are profound.
In 1999, Bill joined Kolbe’s Shepherds program. He sponsored and mentored freshman named Marques Brown, providing one-on-one support (and cheering at his basketball games). They became lifelong friends. In 2010, Marques — now a successful adult — established the William E. Mitchell Humanitarian Award, for a Kolbe graduate with “concern for others, compassion, a positive attitude and a big heart.”
Bill continues to aid Kolbe by securing speakers for fundraisers, sharing networking contacts with students and staff, and providing leadership opportunities for all.
Dr. Gerry Kuroghlian
Gerry’s volunteer work includes national education organizations, cancer and diabetes groups, Westport Library and United Church of Christ.
But Gerry spends nearly every afternoon at Kolbe. He’s a tutor, SAT and ACT advisor, and college application essay guide. He has arranged for 1,000 books to be donated to the library.
Gerry also organizes cultural field trips to Fairfield University and New York City. He attends sports events, chaperones the prom, and continually shares his philosophy that it is the responsibility of each individual to make a difference.
Now Kolbe Cathedral is giving something back to these 2 very giving men. On Sunday, May 1, the school’s annual “Making a Difference Celebration” celebrates Bill Mitchell and Gerry Kuroghlian.
It’s a fundraiser, enabling Kolbe to continue making a difference in the lives of teenagers.
They — and their school — are just a few miles from Westport. It’s a journey Bill Mitchell and Gerry Kuroghlian take often.
What a difference it makes.
(Kolbe Cathedral’s Making a Difference Celebration begins at 5:15 p.m. on Sunday, May 1 with a mass at St. Mary’s Parish in Greenwich. Dinner at Gabriele’s Steakhouse in Greenwich follows at 6:30 p.m. For more information, or to make a donation in honor of Bill Mitchell or Gerry Kuroghlian, call J0-Anne Jakab at 203-368-2648 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Bill Mitchell with Marques Brown (Kolbe Cathedral ’03).
Gerry Kuroghlian and Bryan Tacuri. The Kolbe Cathedral senior has been accepted at 7 colleges, including Fairfield, Sacred Heart and the University of Connecticut.
In 1958 — when Ed and Norma Mitchell took a leap of faith and opened a tiny men’s clothing store — their younger son Bill was still in school.
He helped his parents when he could, and joined the store officially in 1965. Since then he’s served in nearly every capacity, from back room to public face. He’s a greeter, back-slapper, problem-solver, contribution-giver, let-me-introduce-you-er, and much more.
Several years ago he and his brother Jack handed the reins of Mitchells — and its “family” stores in Greenwich, Long Island and California — to the 3rd generation.
Bill and Jack still play important roles, of course. (Though Bill jokes, “I’m on a day-to-day contract.”)
This Saturday (May 16, all day) Mitchells of Westport celebrates Bill’s half-century with the store. Everyone is invited to stop by, say hi, shake his hand and share a story.
If all of Bill’s friends come, the line will stretch out the door, down the Post Road, and waaay past the original location downtown.
Bill (left) and Jack Mitchell on the sales floor, a few holiday seasons back.
Bill Mitchell grew up in Westport. All his life, he’s seen Westport’s first responders do what they do best: respond.
Whatever the emergency — at the store his parents Ed and Norma founded; at the schools his 3 children attended; anywhere in town — he watched with appreciation as these men and women served our town.
For years, Bill has wanted to say “thank you.” Tonight, he did.
Bill Mitchell (left) greeted many first responders tonight, including police officer Ned Batlin.
His store — Mitchells of Westport — hosted a small reception, honoring everyone who helped out during Hurricane Sandy. And Irene. And the windstorm. And every other emergency, large and small, that hits our town.
First selectman Gordon Joseloff noted that first responders include not only police officers, firefighters and EMTs. During the hurricane, we were served by Public Works, the Health District, Human Services, the library, and CERT.
“This was not our first rodeo,” Joseloff said. “And there will be another.”
In the middle of the speeches, an emergency radio cackled.
Normally, the announcement of the Westport Y’s annual meeting wouldn’t rate a mention in “06880” — or anywhere else, outside the Y’s own bulletin board.
But tomorrow’s 87th annual meeting (Monday, June 20, 5:30 p.m., the Edward T. Bedford Room) rises above the level of ho-hummery.
In addition to the usual stuff — recognizing annual award recipients, voting on a new slate, saluting the 2-term accomplishments of Iain Bruce (president, board of directors) and Pete Wolgast (chairman, board of trustees) — the Y will recognize 3 longtime volunteers as trustee emeriti.
Their names are Bill Gault, Bill Mitchell and Allen Raymond.
Their faces and accomplishments are known to all.
The Gaults have been in town since the mid-18th century.
The Raymonds first summered here in the early 1900s.
The Mitchells are mere newcomers. Their store opened “only” in 1958.
All 3 — and their families — have been involved with the Westport Y ever since they themselves were members.
And all 3 give generously of their time, talent (and money) to countless causes besides the Y.
Tomorrow’s honor is richly deserved.
Knowing all 3 men, I can predict what will happen tomorrow: They’ll deflect any praise. They’ll thank instead the organization that is honoring them.
And they’ll say they only wish they could do more.
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