To generations of Westport students, Lou Dorsey was phys. ed.
The Saugatuck native, Staples High School graduate and longtime teacher died November 2, in Florida. He was 93 years old.
Dorsey was a member of Staples’ Class of 1943. He left school after the basketball season, to join the Navy. “It was more important to get in the war before it ended than to get my diploma,” he said in 2004.
Nine classmates (out of a graduation class of 100) also left school early, for the war. Dorsey received his diploma eventually, on leave, in a special ceremony with principal Douglas Young.
Dorsey served in the Pacific Theater, as a radioman third class. After his service he received his undergraduate degree at Arnold College (now the University of Bridgeport), and his master’s at Columbia University.
He taught physical education for 33 years at Saugatuck and Burr Farms Elementary Schools, and Staples High School.
He was inspired to teach by his high school coaches, particularly Roland Wachob at Staples.
“Rollie would put me in charge of his 9th grade class when he’d go off on a baseball trip,” Dorsey said. “If you did that nowadays you’d get sued.”
Dorsey and his wife Pauline spent 60 summers in the western Maine mountains. They moved to Cocoa Beach, Florida 33 years ago, where Dorsey was an avid golfer.
He is survived by 4 children: Judith Dorsey and her husband Kenneth Gomberg; Kimberly Slimak and her husband Michael Slimak; Jiliane Dorsey and Louis Dorsey, Jr. and his youngest sister, Patricia Dorsey Wood, as well as 3 grandchildren and 3 great-grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held in Rangeley, Maine next summer. Click here to leave condolences.
Eve Potts is a longtime Westporter. She’s been active in the arts, history, education and much more. Today, she shares a special encounter with “06880” readers.
Those of us who have been in Westport a long time remember vividly when there was a great deal of discussion (not all of it positive) about inviting a group of youngsters from Bridgeport to join classrooms in Westport. The program was known as Project Concern.
Over 40 years have passed since those first eager kids jumped off a bus from Bridgeport and were enrolled in Westport elementary schools. My 2 daughters were in the lower grades at Burr Farms. They were excited to welcome one of the girls, Anjetta Redmond, to stay at our house overnight each Tuesday so she could be part of the special early morning music rehearsals.
Eve Potts painted Anjetta Redmond’s portrait 40 years ago, when she was a guest in their home.
A couple of months ago — after all these years — we had a wonderful reunion with Anjetta Redmond Holloway and her close friend, Lisa Jones Mendenhall, who often joined Anjetta at our house overnight.
The conversation was lively. Besides getting reacquainted and sharing photos of kids, grandkids and husbands, we talked a bit about their Westport experience.
Both talked frankly — and enthusiastically — about what a great experience it had been for them. They were emphatic that coming to Westport, and learning about this other world, had impacted their lives.
We asked how they were treated back in Bridgeport after they enrolled here. They said there was teasing, and some pretty derisive comments from some of their friends.
Both women insisted that they honestly never felt any prejudice from their Westport schoolmates, even as talk of recalling the Westport Board of Education chair swirled and became reality here in Westport.
There was a lot of reminiscing — about funny happenings, and about Lisa’s brother Leonard who had been accepted into the program because an older sister had suggested it would be good for him. Leonard was a favorite at Burr Farms School for his incredible ability to walk on his hands and do other acrobatic feats.
The women mentioned the treats that were available in Westport, like Baskin- Robbins, that weren’t available in Bridgeport. Amy remembered how her Bridgeport friends brought Now & Laters — candy not available in Westport — to school to sell to kids here.
It was a wonderful morning: very loving, very happy, and very nostalgic.
Both Anjetta and Lisa have had very successful careers and marriages. Anjetta has had a long career at People’s Bank, and is a research representative. Lisa, who also worked for years at People’s Bank, is now employed by the Board of Education in Bridgeport. She is involved in discussions about the validity, balance and fairness of magnet school policies.
Here’s what Lisa posted on Facebook when she got home:
OK. So the year is 1971. There’s a program called Project Concern being introduced to inner city communities. Myself, along with my friends Anjetta Holloway and Wanda Thompson-Mosley, to name a few, were allowed the opportunity to attend.
We joined Brownies, then Girl Scouts. We played the flute and clarinets, mastered cartwheels and splits, and went to sleepaway camp. Arthur Treacher’s Fish and Chips was good eating (no Arthur Treacher’s in Bridgeport), and we were completely fascinated with Baskin-Robbins’ 31 flavors.
Fast forward. It’s 2019 and you receive a friend request from Amy Potts. Hmmm. Amy and Abby from Westport — could it be? Yes, it was, and this morning after 40-plus years we met for breakfast with Amy, her mom, and her auntie.
What a great time we had reminiscing of how great life was way back then. Life is good. Always cherish each moment.
The Westport Farmers Market opens next Thursday (May 23). The Imperial Avenue parking lot will be filled with vendors selling fresh fruits and vegetables, meats, honey, ice cream, even pet food.
Musicians will play. Food trucks will serve pizza and tacos. It’s a wonderful part of Westport — organic, sustainable, (mostly) healthy and fun.
We have Paul Newman (in part) to thank. Back in 2006, he and chef Michel Nischan created the first Westport Farmers Market, at the Westport Country Playhouse parking lot.
But that was not the actor/automobile racer/lemonade, popcorn and salad dressing king/philanthropist’s first farm stand experience.
For years, he was a customer at Rippe’s. Westporters pretended to be cool as cucumbers as they saw Newman — then “only” an actor — and his wife Joanne Woodward casually checking out ears of corn, or putting apples in a bag.
Rippe’s Farm Stand, in its early years. It later grew into a more substantial building. (Photo courtesy of Paul Ehrismann, via Mrs. George Rippe Collection)
Rippe’s was one of several farm stands in Westport. Produce came from orchards behind it — stretching eastward, from Turkey Hill North to behind Long Lots Junior High — and fields on North Avenue, behind Burr Farms Elementary School.
The North Avenue farm is gone (so is Burr Farms School). In its place is a private road — the strangely named Greystone Farm Lane. In a nod to the past, a few of the homes include silo-like architecture.
The Post Road orchards and stand are gone too. They’ve been replaced by what — at the time — were Westport’s first and only condos.
In another nod to the past, they’re called Harvest Commons.
As befits a home built more than 150 years ago, it’s got a back story.
Plus a bit of mystery.
According to Tad Shull — a current co-owner and musician/writer in New York, who spent his childhood there — it was constructed as a caretaker’s cottage or gatehouse, elsewhere on Long Lots.
It was moved to its present site in the 1870s by William Burr, who inherited it from his father. Additions were built in the 1920s and ’60s. From the street, it still looks much like the original.
55 Long Lots Road. The entrance to Hall-Brooke is on the left.
It may (or may not) have served as a 1-room schoolhouse. But it has a definite connection to education: Burr Farms School opened in 1958 a few yards away. (It was demolished in the 1980s; all that remains are athletic fields.)
The most intriguing tale is this: Shull’s parents bought the house in 1957 from Elaine Barrie — the 4th (and last) wife of John Barrymore.
Shull had heard that the actor used the house as a “love nest.” It’s uncertain whether Barrymore lived there; Barrie bought it after he died in 1942.
Shull also heard rumors that Barrymore had an affair there with a married woman, Blanche Oelrichs, who published poetry under the name Michael Strange. Shull found a book of her poems — with her handwritten annotations — on his mother’s bookshelf last fall.
More lore: Stevan Dohanos’ famous “Thanksgiving” painting may have used the red Long Lots house as its model/inspiration. (“06880” posted that possibility last year; click here, then scroll down for several comments confirming it.)
Stevan Dohanos’ “Thanksgiving” painting. Recognize this house?
And, Shull adds, he heard from Tony Slez — who once owned a gas station at the foot of Long Lots, where Westport Wash & Wax now stands — that his Polish relatives worked as onion pickers on the road.
Shull says that as a youngster he was teased for living “next door to a mental institution.”
But he calls his boyhood “a paradise. There were plenty of kids around. We had a pond with frogs. It was a great place.”
His family hopes that whoever buys the house will preserve it. And — even if only part of its history is true — the red gingerbread that everyone passes on Long Lots has quite a past.
My parents moved to Westport in March of 1956. A blizzard prevented the truck from going up the driveway. The movers hauled just one bed inside, so my parents spent their first night in a barren bedroom.
My mother died in that same room almost a year ago.
This winter, my sisters and I sold her house. That ended 60 years of the Woog family on High Point Road.
It was quite a run.
I guess that qualified me for an email the other day from current High Point residents. The Westport Historical Society is building a Brickwalk, and my old street is going all in.
A special stone will say “High Point — The Best Road in Town,” with residents adding their own bricks engraved with the year they moved in.
I was honored to be asked. When she died, my mother had lived on High Point longer than anyone else.
The Woog brick will say “1956-2016.” But there’s no way that small rectangle can encompass 6 decades of life there.
High Point is the longest cul-de-sac road in town. Call me biased, but it’s also the best.
I was so fortunate to have grown up where and when I did. My parents — both in their early 30s — had no idea what High Point would become when they moved out of my grandparents’ house in New Rochelle, and up to this much smaller town.
Rod Serling and his family celebrating Christmas, at their High Point Road home.
They had a few friends here — including my father’s Antioch College pal, an already famous writer named Rod Serling. He and his wife Carol had just moved to High Point. There were plenty of building lots available, so my parents bought one.
The price — for an acre of land, and a new house — was $27,000.
As I grew up, so did High Point. My parents were among the first dozen or so families. Today there are 70.
I watched woods and fields turn into homes. Nearly each was unique, with its own design.
And nearly each had a kid my age.
My childhood — at least, my memory of it — was filled with endless days of bike riding, “hacking around,” and kickball at the cul-de-sac (we called it “the turnaround”).
At dinnertime in spring and summer, we’d wander into someone’s house. Someone’s mother would feed us. Then it was back outside, for more games.
When my parents chose High Point, they were only vaguely aware that the new high school being built on North Avenue was, basically, in the back yard of our neighbors across the street.
Having Staples so near was a formative experience. My friends and I played baseball, touch football and other sports on the high school fields. We watched as many football, basketball and baseball games as we could, in awe of the guys just a few years older. Once, we snuck into a dance in the cafeteria. (We did not last long.)
This aerial view from 1965 shows the separate buildings of Staples High School. Behind the athletic fields is High Point Road. My parents’ house is shown with an arrow.
There were enough kids on High Point to have an entire bus to ourselves (with, it should be noted, only 3 or 4 bus stops on the entire road).
But by 5th grade, my friends and I were independent enough to walk through Staples, across North Avenue and past Rippe’s farm, on our way to Burr Farms Elementary School.
We talked about nothing, and everything, on our way there and back. It was a suburban version of “Stand By Me,” and to this day I cherish those times.
The young families on our street grew up together. There were block parties every fall, carol sings at Christmas.
Every summer Saturday, Ray the Good Humor man made his rounds. High Point Road probably put his kids through college.
Spring and summer were also when — every Monday — one family opened their pool to the entire street. With 40 boys cannonballing, racing around the slippery deck and throwing balls at 40 girls’ heads, I’m amazed we all lived to tell the tale. I can’t imagine any family doing that today.
From the front, it was an average home on a wonderful road …
But that was High Point Road, back in the day. It was not all perfect, of course. Some of the older kids were a bit “Lord of the Flies”-ish (and the amount of misinformation they taught us about sex was staggering).
Behind closed doors, there was the same bad stuff that goes on anywhere (and everywhere).
But I would not have traded growing up on High Point Road for any place. As much as any street could, it formed me and made me who I am today.
… but the back yard was beautiful.
High Point Road has changed, of course. Many original houses are gone, replaced by much larger ones that could be on any Westport street. There are plenty of kids there now, but each has his or her personal bus stop. And I don’t think I’ve seen any gang of kids riding bikes since, well, we did it.
Still, it’s a wonderful road. The “new” residents have kept that neighborhood feel. There are social events. And they always welcomed — and looked out for — my mother.
Of course, you can’t put any of that on a brick.
So ours will just proudly say: “The Woog Family. Jim, Jo, Dan, Sue, Laurie. 1956-2016.”
And that says it all.
(Westport Historical Society bricks are available in sizes 4×8 and 8×8. They can include a custom logo, with a family row of 5 bricks for the price of 4. For more information, click here.)
I knew Jan Arenander. But I didn’t know any of that.
Janette Arenander, celebrating her 97th birthday.
To me she was “Mrs. Arenander,” my art teacher throughout Burr Farms Elementary School.
She taught in Westport for 42 years. I had her for just a few of those years.
I’m no artist. I only vaguely recall her classes. But she must have been a great teacher.
Her obituary on Facebook’s Burr Farms page drew plenty of comments. Reading them, I’m struck by several things:
How many people she influenced
The importance of art in the school curriculum
Westport’s long history supporting the arts.
Here are a few of the comments:
“I remember those art classes with Mrs. Arenander as a highlight of my week at Burr Farms.”
“So do I. ‘Don’t eat the paste.'”
“Adventures in plexiglass, in sandstone and in clay. We had no idea how good we had it!”
“It was amazing to think she’d bring her — duck? goose? — Becky in for us to use as a sculpting model. And that we actually had a designated art room, not some little wheeled cart that made the rounds for 35 minutes once a week.”
“She used to urge us to use the entire space, all of the paper, we were working on. And didn’t we also have a kiln?”
“I had no idea that she was so cool! She really did feed my love for art.”
“She was an amazing art teacher. Definitely first among my many art teachers who kept me going as a young artist.”
Recalling — and reporting on — an elementary school art teacher from 50 years ago may not seem like the biggest deal in the world.
Except, that is, to the thousands of young boys and girls she influenced, during a long life well lived.
(A private graveside service will be held tomorrow [Tuesday, February 16] at Willowbrook Cemetery in Westport. Click here for Jan Arenander’s full obituary.)
To generations of Westporters, Walt Melillo was a beloved elementary school teacher.
I’m one of his former pupils — from 3rd grade, in Burr Farms School. Ever since those long-ago days, he remembered me. And I’ve remembered him.
Walt Melillo died yesterday, at 91. Today I’d like his many friends to remember him, through a 2010 “Woog’s World” column I wrote for the Westport News. If you did not know him, please read about the life of a proud native Westporter — and a wonderful man.
Walt Melillo teaching a Project Concern student in 1972, at Burr Farms School.
Born in 1924, Walt Melillo grew up on Franklin Street in Saugatuck. During the Depression the house – which stills stands — was filled with 25 extended family members. Melillos, Romanos, Reales, Espositos, Carreras – all lived and grew up together.
They grew vegetables in a backyard garden; baked their own bread, and made Prohibition-era wine. Each October, a neighbor butchered a pig. Every family got a part.
Walt attended Saugatuck Elementary School on Bridge Street – where his parents had gone – and then Bedford Junior High (now Kings Highway Elementary) and Staples High School (the current Saugatuck El).
Staples was small. “We knew everyone,” he recalled. “There weren’t a lot of course options, like today. But it was an excellent school.”
He was influenced by legendary teachers like Gladys Mansir (English) and Eli Burton (social studies). He played baseball well enough to earn a tryout with the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds (in 1941), and football well enough to earn a spot on the Staples Wall of Honor (in 2004).
Walt Melillo, as a young man.
Right after graduation in 1942, Walt joined the Navy. He was on active duty in the Atlantic Ocean and North Africa campaign. His destroyer escort sailed to the Pacific, patrolling through invasions of Okinawa and the Philippines.
A kamikaze plane crashed into his ship. Melillo was blown from the signal bridge to the forecastle. His unit shot down four Japanese planes, and received a Presidential Unit Citation. Seventy years later, he chokes up recalling those events.
The dropping of 2 atom bombs saved Melillo from participating in the invasion of Japan. His ship survived another hazard: a typhoon in the shark-infested North China Sea.
“I was a lucky sailor,” Melillo said. He appreciates his chance to serve – and to see the world. “I met all kinds of people. Before I enlisted, the furthest from Westport I traveled was New Haven.”
The GI Bill sent Walt to college. He majored in physical education at Arnold College (now the University of Bridgeport), then earned a master’s degree from Columbia University and a 6th-year from Bridgeport.
In 1951 he was hired as a teacher by the Westport Board of Education. His salary was $2,800 a year — $300 more than usual, thanks to a $100 bonus for each year of military service. “That was a lot of money in those days,” Melillo noted. His first assignment was Saugatuck Elementary School – his alma mater, across the street from where his brother lived.
After 7 years, Melillo moved to the brand new Burr Farms Elementary School. There was tremendous camaraderie between students, staff, parents – even custodians. Principal Lenny Metelits was an ex-Marine; the talented, lively staff included Matt Rudd, Sam Judell, Ed Morrison, Lou Dorsey and Ace Mahakian. The number of male teachers was extraordinary.
“The parents were just fantastic,” Walt said. “They were so kind to us. They understood that teaching was a tough job for everyone.”
Walt Melillo inspired thousands of Westport elementary school students. This is his Burr Farms Class of 1973.
After nearly 2 decades at Burr Farms Melillo moved to Green’s Farms Elementary School, then Long Lots. He retired in 1986, after 35 years in education.
He kept busy, attending Senior Center functions and playing tennis (he and partner Paul Lane won tournaments in the Over-40 and Over-60 age groups).
But teaching and athletics were only part of Walt’s story. In 1947 he organized Westport’s 1st summer Beach School, at Compo Beach. He was still in college, without a degree, so football coach Frank Dornfeld ran the first year. But Walt soon took over, and for 29 years he and Bedford Junior High instructor Carol Bieling Digisi were in charge of a popular program involving thousands of children.
“It gave me another chance to meet great parents,” he said. “And the entire staff was teachers.”
Two boys in that initial beach school group were Jack and Bill Mitchell. Several years later their parents, Ed and Norma, opened a small men’s clothing store. Walt was the first non-family member they hired.
Walt stayed there — working Friday nights and Saturdays – for 13 years.
Bill Mitchell (left) and Walt Melillo.
Walt’s life was full. He and Ann – his wife of 60 years – had 4 children. When they moved to Hogan Trial in 1960, it was the 1st house on the road; now there are 40. As a child, Walt hunted there.
“This is my town,” he noted. “As Paul Newman said, ‘Living in Westport is a privilege.’ I love it here.”
The family will receive friends on Tuesday, Dec. 9 from 4-7 pm at the Harding Funeral Home, 210 Post Road East. The funeral will take place Wednesday, Dec. 10 at 11 a.m. at Assumption Church, 98 Riverside Avenue. Burial with full military honors immediately following mass. Interment will be private. Contributions in lieu of flowers may be made to the Westport Center for Senior Activities, 21 Imperial Avenue, Westport, CT 06880.
Scott Brodie was a baby boomer — one of tens of thousands of youngsters who arrived in Westport with their families during the late 1940s and ’50s. Like nearly all of that generation, his story begins with his parents.
In 1954, my father set out to relocate with his wife, 2-year-old son and infant boy. They left a 1-bedroom apartment on upper Broadway in New York City for a town midway between Manhattan and New Hartford, Connecticut, where he was the director of a summer sleepaway camp. They chose Westport, then a sleepy community of farmers and artists, with a population under 10,000.
They rented a house on Newtown Turnpike, and went looking for a lot on which to build a home. They settled on an acre near the end of Burr Farms Road, which was being developed as a street of cookie-cutter split-level homes extending past the Burr Farm apple orchard into the woods just west of North Avenue. He chose a wooded spot, on the uphill side of the street.
With time on his hands after the camping season was over he became his own general contractor. He built a California-style ranch house, unlike anything else on the street, largely with his own hands.
Richard Brodie in the rafters as he built his home, 1954.
There, he and his wife raised 2 children, and welcomed a generation of youngsters growing up on the street. It was a simpler time. Dozens of kids, all nearly the same age, enjoyed the quiet of the cul-de-sac, riding bicycles and toy cars, and sledding down each other’s backyard hills.
There were no “play dates.” We would walk over to a friend’s house, literally knock on the door and ask, “can Johnny come out and play?” We went trick-or-treating by ourselves, without a parent lurking a few steps behind.
Richard Brodie and his wife Esther, in the house he built. They were married nearly 65 years.
We all walked through neighbors’ yards to Burr Farms School, and later (through different yards) to Staples. (The first day I walked through the woods to the high school, I was worried to see a sign at the edge of a yard. Not to fear — it didn’t say “No Trespassing,” only “Please keep off the grass”!) Long Lots Junior High was a longer way off, most days a bike ride away.
The “synchronous culture” of the first generation on the street grew up and went their separate ways. We became doctors, lawyers, musicians, furniture makers (novelist Cathleen Schine grew up down the street). As new families moved in, they found fewer children of the same age as theirs to walk over and knock on doors.
Then came the tear-downs. With increasing affluence and rising real estate values, the 1-acre lots became desirable as places to build much larger houses, with 3-car garages, pools and tennis courts. But the lawns to play on and hills to sled down were smaller. We still refer to them by the names of the families who first lived in them, all of them long gone.
The “Steidel House” across the street from the Brodies’ – one of the few 1950s split-levels in its original state on the road, as it looked in 2012.
Most of them have been enlarged beyond all recognition except to a practiced eye:
The “Fleming House” just to the north of the Brodies’. The deck over the original garage remains, but the garage has been converted into living space, and a new garage added (left). The porch, dormer and new gables effectively camouflage the original ’50s split-level.
Our California Ranch is still there – now a wonderful place for an older couple, with no stairs to negotiate.
The Brodies’ house, today.
The house to the south of ours was replaced a year or so ago. The “Steidel House” diagonally across the street came down last month. There have been massive excavations, and new foundations were poured last week.
The lot where the “Steidel House” sat, as it looks today. At least the demolition crew left the red maple on the front lawn.
No one builds his house on our street with his own hands these days…
My father, Richard Brodie, passed away earlier this month, at age 96. He was a Westporter for nearly 60 years.
Richard Brodie, at his 96th birthday party.
Richard Brodie graduated from New York University in 1938. His medical studies at the University of Edinburgh were cut short by the outbreak of World War II. He joined the US Army, serving in the Philippines, New Guinea and with the Occupation Forces in Japan.
After the war he joined his father as director of Camp Berkshire in Winsted, Connecticut. In 1954 he, his wife and 2 young children moved to Westport.
He was active as president of the local chapter of B’nai Brith, and a leader of local Boy Scout troops, in the off-seasons between camp. He returned to school in his 40s, earning M.S. and Ph.D degrees in educational psychology from Yeshiva University.
Brodie spent many years as an educational psychologist in the Ridgefield and New Canaan school systems, and developed a private practice as a psychologist and nutritional advisor.
In the 1980s the Camp Berkshire property was sold to the town of New Hartford, which operates the site as Brodie Park. Richard remained an active and very competitive tennis player into his 90s.
He is survived by his wife of 65 years, Esther; his sons Scott and Bruce, and 5 grandchildren.
As the world — or at least my corner of it — celebrates today’s 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ arrival in America, the best music is everywhere.
That’s ’60s rock. Hands down.
I heard “She Loves You” the other day. It was only the squintillionth time I’ve heard that defining tune, which long ago receded into whatever part of my brain is reserved for songs I will still sing along to at 96, during my final days in a nursing home.
But this time was different. Instead of bobbing almost unheard in the background, as familiar songs often do, this time I heard it with almost cosmic clarity. The joyful guitar licks, Ringo’s thumping drumming, the giddily optimistic lyrics — all rushed back, as if listening to it for the first time ever.
In fact, I first heard “She Loves You” in the winter of 1964. I was not yet a teenager, but back in those pre-helicopter-parent days I enjoyed freedom today’s kids only dream about. I rode my bike wherever I wanted; my bazillion High Point Road friends and I played outside all afternoon with no adults in sight, and when we were hungry we wandered into someone’s house and found food.
Everywhere I went, I carried my transistor radio. It was laughably large compared to today’s teeny iPods, but as 5th graders who had just discovered rock ‘n’ roll, our lives demanded a soundtrack. The Beatles — and Stones, Searchers, Freddie & the Dreamers, you name it — provided one.
I thought of all that when I heard “She Loves You.” In the winter of 6th grade, my friends and I were kings of Burr Farms Elementary School. With 11-year-old swaggers, we strode the halls certain we had all the answers to life.
In fact, we didn’t yet know who we were — or even that we should be trying to figure it out. We were blissfully clueless that — like pre-adolescents everywhere — we were ready to take off on an astonishing journey of self-discovery. Because it was the ’60s, ours was especially wild.
Fifty years ago — on February 9, 1964 — the Beatles first appeared on Ed Sullivan.
A couple of months earlier, President Kennedy had been killed. For a while, the nation mourned. Now we were ready to look ahead. In the chill of winter, we needed something new and bright and bold.
In 1964, the Beatles provided that breath of fresh air. Fifty years later, half the band is dead. We’re all a bit jaded; half a century has taken its toll. But for 2 minutes the other day, the joyful energy of “She Loves You” took me back to a moment when anything — all things — seemed possible.
And you know that can’t be bad.
(The Beatles’ “She Loves You,” from their 1st Ed Sullivan Show appearance on February 9, 1964. The YouTube clip shows the English version of dates. If your browser does not take you directly to YouTube, click here.)
If you were alive on November 22, 1963 — and over, say, 5 years old — you understand how dramatically, and traumatically, America shifted that day.
If you weren’t, there is no way you can comprehend it.
The murder of President Kennedy was a horrific, galvanizing moment in time. It happened 50 years ago today, but I remember it like it was yesterday.
I was in 5th grade. Since September my friends and I had walked to and from school. We gathered on High Point Road, cut through the Staples High School athletic fields and parking lot, sauntered down North Avenue, walked across open farmland, and arrived at Burr Farms Elementary. We were like the “Stand By Me” boys: talking about kid stuff, reveling in our independence, figuring out each other and the world in a world that would soon mightily change.
Minutes before school ended that beautiful Friday, the teacher from next door burst into our room. “Kennedy got killed!” she yelled. A girl broke into spontaneous applause. Her father was a leading Republican in town.
Our teacher slapped her face.
Usually, our teacher wished us a happy weekend. That day the bell rang, and we just left. No one knew how to interpret her reaction. We’d never seen a teacher hit a student before.
Then again, we’d never heard of our president being murdered.
As my friends and I gathered for our ritual walk home, we suddenly had Something Big to talk about. For the first time in our lives, we discussed news. We had no details, but already we sensed that the world we knew would never be the same.
That vague feeling was confirmed the moment we walked down the exit road, into the Staples parking lot. School had been out for an hour, but clots of students huddled around cars, listening to radios. Girls sobbed — boys, too. Their arms were wrapped around each other, literally clinging together for support. I’d never seen one teenager cry. Now there were dozens.
Walter Cronkite on CBS, announcing the death of President Kennedy.
At home, I turned on the television. Black-and-white images mirrored the scene at Staples a few minutes earlier. Newscasters struggled to contain their emotions; men and women interviewed in the street could not.
The president was dead. Now it was true. I saw it on TV.
My best friend, Glenn, slept over that night. The television was on constantly. The longer I watched, the more devastated I became.
John F. Kennedy was the first president I knew. My father had taken me to a campaign rally in Bridgeport 3 years earlier. I could not articulate it then, but I admired his energy, was inspired by his youthfulness, and vowed to grow up and (like him) make a difference.
Now he was dead.
Bill Mauldin captured the grief of a nation.
Saturday was rainy and blustery. I watched more TV. Like most Americans, I was obsessed by this unfolding tragedy. Like them too I had no idea that the impact of that weekend would remain, seared in my brain and heart, 5 decades later.
Sunday was the first day I cried. The raw emotions of all the adults around — in the streets of Westport, and on the television screen — finally overwhelmed me. I cried for the dead president, my fallen hero; for his widow and children; for everyone else who looked so sad and vulnerable.
Then — right after noon — Jack Ruby killed Lee Harvey Oswald. Once again I sat transfixed by the TV. I was stunned, and scared.
Monday was a brilliant fall day. President Kennedy was laid to rest under a crisp, cloudless sky. The unforgettably moving ceremony was watched by virtually everyone in the world with access to a television.
To my everlasting regret, I did not see it live. Glenn said we could not sit inside on a day off from school. Rather than risk being called a nerd (or whatever word we used in 1963), I chose playing touch football at Staples over watching history. I was in 5th grade. What did I know?
The coffin, at Arlington National Cemetery.
The next day we went back to school. The Staples parking lot looked exactly as it had before that fateful Friday. Our teacher never said a word about slapping the girl who cheered President Kennedy’s assassination.
Thanksgiving arrived on schedule 2 days later. At our dinner — like every other table in America — the adults tried to steer the conversation away from the awful events that had consumed us for nearly a week.
In the days and months to come — as the country slowly, painfully, pulled itself out of its collective, overwhelming grief — I devoured everything about President Kennedy I could find. I saved Life, Look, Saturday Evening Post. I ordered the Warren Commission report. Like so many others I still have it all, somewhere.
In the years that followed my admiration for the young, slain president grew, then ebbed. But it never died. He remained my political hero: the first president I ever knew, cared about, was mesmerized by, and mourned.
When President Kennedy was killed, journalist Mary McGrory said, “We’ll never laugh again.” Daniel Patrick Moynihan — who worked for JFK — replied, “Mary, we will laugh again. But we will never be young again.”
Fifty years ago this morning, I was a young 5th grader without a care in the world.
Walking home that afternoon, I could never not care again.
(CBS.com will stream the original news broadcasts minute-by-minute in real time, just as they were originally delivered, beginning at 1:40 p.m. this afternoon. For more information, click here.)
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