Cliff Barton — a longtime Westport educator — died last week. He was 90, and had recently suffered a stroke.
An outstanding student who attended Florida A&M University on an athletic scholarship, he was a skilled practitioner of jewelry casting before earning a masters degree in education and organizational theory from Columbia University’s Teachers College.
He joined the Westport school system in 1958, and over the next 29 years served as a teacher, speech pathologist and assistant superintendent. Throughout his career he maintained a private practice as a speech pathologist and educational consultant.
In 1958 Cliff and his wife Sylvia purchased a home on Stonecrop Road in Norwalk, integrating the neighborhood. Cliff involved himself in a wide range of civic affairs — including the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency, the Mayor’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Race Relations, the Carver Foundation, the Mid-Fairfield Child Guidance Center, Norwalk Hospital, and the Norwalk Power Squadron — that continued until his death. He was a founding member of the boards of the Norwalk Arts Council and Norwalk Maritime Center.
Veteran Westport educator Garry Meyers remembers Cliff Barton:
In my third of a century of Westport teaching experience, Cliff is one of the last of the greats. He’s right up there with Gladys Mansir, Wyatt Teubert, Charlie Burke, Tony Arciola, Harold Allen, Nick Georgis and Gerry Rast, among others.
All these professionals, with diversified personalities and academic perspectives — committed to the quality education of every kid — put Westport on the Gold Coast map.
The local community of Gray Flannel suits in the time of the Famous Artists Schools wanted the best. Then, with the Soviet challenge of Sputnik, the national government wanted the best in education as well.
The dialogue about various teaching approaches in the new Staples High School faculty room — for the first time mixed with males and females — was constant and intense, loud, humorous, sometimes angry, always provocative.
Cliff Barton, then a speech teacher who traveled among the different Westport schools and administrative offices, often punctuated the emotional dialogue with a non-controversial observation that was sane, possible and always respected.
Cliff put his words into practice as an administrator. As the head of special education and a former teacher, he recognized the complexity of kids with physical, emotional and academic needs. Cliff understood the political task of integrating them and their parents into the regular school community.
And he recognized the importance of his staff in getting the job done. In characteristic gentlemanly style, Cliff insisted that all teachers tar themselves away from their demanding, often isolated involvement to meet every Wednesday in the supportive, informal Adams Academy — the 1-room schoolhouse away from typical, overly administrative property — where Miracle Workers could see each other as normal people.
Cliff exuded trust in us whenever we might lose trust in ourselves. This respect and confidence ultimately extended beyond the meetings and beyond the school, into our private lives.
When I visited my former partner, former boss and old friend for the last time, I held his hand. He clasped mine in return and whispered reassurance: “Our paths will cross again.”
(Donations in Cliff Barton’s memory can be made to the Carver Foundation [www.carvercenterct.org] or the Norwalk Maritime Center Children’s Opportunity Fund, 10 N. Water St., Norwalk, CT 06854.)