Tag Archives: Gail Cunningham Coen

Remembering Toni Cunningham

The Independence Day fireworks are Westport’s biggest community celebration of the year.

It’s when Soundview Drive — our town’s handsome, quirky beachfront exit road — turns into a party promenade.

This year — as we prepare for another year of cookouts, hanging out, and bombs bursting in air — we should also pause for a moment (on Soundview) to remember Toni Cunningham.

The grande dame of Compo died on Thursday. She was 101.

Toni Cunnnigham, at her 80th birthday celebration.

In that century of life, she saw astonishing changes at the beach just outside her front window. She herself contributed to many of them.

Toni first came to Westport as a teenager. During the 1930s her parents — who lived in Scarsdale – rented #75 (now #17) Soundview Drive. She crewed on Star sailboats, often swimming out to join friends to help in races.

Gail Cunningham Coen — one of Toni’s 3 daughters — says that Toni also swam to Cockenoe Island and back.

When her parents moved here full time, she’d walk to Cockenoe in winter over thick ice.

Toni and Frank Cunningham, in front of 17 Soundview Drive.

Every year in late June, Toni’s father Frank Bosco drove to a special “fireworks contact.” He shot them off from a card table on the beach in front of his house. Neighborhood kids loved it.

Frank was a longtime treasurer of the Compo Beach Improvement Association — which really did spiff up the area.

The group organized field days, and swim races to and from the floats anchored offshore. Toni was an avid participant.

She also loved riding on the seaplanes that landed on shore.

In those days, “air conditioning” meant opening windows. Toni’s daily piano playing was enjoyed by everyone who strolled by. She knew all the popular songs, and was often asked to sing and play for parties.

As she grew older, Toni succeeded her father as treasurer of the CBIA. She also became secretary. Her talent for shorthand guaranteed highly accurate meeting notes.

Compo was a family affair. Toni’s mother, Margaret Bosco, created the first “beach rules.” They ensure safe, responsible behavior — and strong litter prevention practices. (Interestingly, Toni’s daughter Gail later became CEO of Keep America Beautiful.)

In 1938, a strong hurricane hit the area. Toni refused to leave, and rode out the storm.

In fact, during her 85 years on Soundview only one hurricane forced her to leave. That was in the 1950s, when waves chewed up the road and deposited huge chunks of the seawall in front yards.

As she earned fame for riding out storms, reporters regularly called her for blow-by-blow news.

Toni and Frank Cunningham, playing a 4-hand duet.

July 4th was not the only holiday  Toni enjoyed. She also loved New Year’s eve. In the early 1960s she built a party room on the 3rd floor of her house at 27 Soundview, where she and Frank raised their family.

It featured a Steinway baby grand. But the party wasn’t in full swing until Toni sat down to play. Governor John Davis Lodge and his wife Francesca were frequent guests.

Today a small sign on the flower bed at the start of Soundview Drive — near where the boardwalk begins — honors Toni Cunningham for her dedication to the CBIA, and her beautification efforts at Compo.

The sign on Soundview Drive.

It’s a simple gesture, but an important one. In many ways, that stretch of Compo Beach is Toni Cunningham.

Think about that as you enjoy the fireworks — the first 4th of July Toni Cunningham has not been alive for in over a century.

(Contributions in Toni’s memory can be made to the Compo Beach Improvement Association Traffic Calming and Beautification Fund, 40 Compo Beach Road, Westport, CT 06880.)

Improving Compo Beach, For Nearly 90 Years

In some ways, Compo Beach has changed little since the 1920s.

The sand is nicer. There’s a new jetty. But really, you can’t do too much to a beach.

In many ways, the neighborhood looks the same too. Homes line Soundview Drive, and fill the side streets. They’ve been winterized, modernized and raised to escape hurricanes and floods, but they’ve never lost that great beach vibe.

And after nearly 100 years, a Lane is once again in charge of the Compo Beach Improvement Association.

Back in the day, Joe Lane lived on Soundview. The CBIA was formed in 1928, and he was president. The organization took care of the beach, put floats in the water, and provided lifeguards. It also threw great parties.

In the 1950s, rafts off Compo Beach were a great attraction.

In the 1950s, rafts off Compo Beach were a great attraction. But look at those rocks!

Toni Cunningham succeeded Joe, and served for decades as CBIA president. She’s nearing 100 now, and still lives on Soundview. (Her daughter, Gail Cunningham Coen, and Gail’s husband Terry were longtime active CBIA members. Last year, they sold their Soundview home a few doors from Toni, and moved south.)

Three years ago, the torch was passed from Toni to Skip Lane. He’s Joe’s grandson. His father, Paul Lane, is the now retired, much-admired former Staples football coach who (of course) still lives in his own Soundview Drive home.

These days, the CBIA’s main job is taking care of the plantings along Soundview, monitoring issues like traffic and signs.

Skip Lane

Skip Lane

But Skip hopes to broaden the group’s impact. He’s getting more neighbors involved — including those on Minuteman and Bluewater Hill Roads, and around the corner on Hillspoint — and is looking at new projects, like how to add sand to the beach, and remove rocks.

“The beach is fantastic,” Skip says. “But it needs a little TLC.”

Skip now lives on Roosevelt Avenue, off Compo Beach Road.

“Even when I was growing up, I thought the beach could be better,” he says. “Little things like the parking lot bugged me. As much as everyone loves it, it can be polished.”

He is happy to see an influx of young families into the area. “There’s a group of them with little kids. They have parties at the end of Fairfield Avenue nearly every night,” he notes. “That’s the way it used to be. And the way it should be.”

Meanwhile, the Compo Beach Improvement Association is planning a party of its own. With summer renters gone — and some former residents coming back just for this event — the CBIA holds its annual barbecue this Sunday, at the Ned Dimes Marina.

There will be food and drinks. And plenty of back-in-the-day stories from Paul Lane and Toni Cunningham, who knew the beach then and still love it now.

A large wooden bathhouse once stood at Compo Beach. Today this is the site of the playground. The 2-story pavilion (right) is now only 1.

A large wooden bathhouse once stood at Compo; walkways led to the beach. Today this is the site of the playground. The 2-story pavilion (right) is now only 1.

Gail Cunningham Coen Keeps Westport (And America) Beautiful

Gail Cunningham Coen knows a thing or two about keeping things beautiful.

Things like Compo Beach. Westport. America.

Growing up on Soundview Drive — in a house that withstood the 1938 hurricane — she learned carpentry, fishing and beach improvement from her grandfather, Frank Bosco. One of the founders of the Compo Beach Improvement Association in 1928, he passed along his love for the area’s ever-changing landscape to his granddaughter.

From the age of 9, Gail was the neighborhood gardener. Summer renters did not know how (or want) to take care of their yards. So she mowed, trimmed hedges, and “transplanted” flowers between different lawns.

Gail also made money selling clams (a penny apiece) and fish ($1 each). The price included cleaning.

Gail Cunningham Coen, in her Soundview Drive home. It's been in the family for nearly a century.

Gail Cunningham Coen, in her Soundview Drive home. It’s been in her family for nearly a century.

She went to Saugatuck Elementary School, Bedford Junior High and Staples (where she was president of the marching band). After eloping with her husband Terry on Christmas Eve, and earning a bachelor’s of music at Hartt, Gail taught piano.

But playing “Jingle Bells” during a Christmas commercial shoot for Chase Bank one hot August afternoon at Supreme Court justice Abe Fortas’ estate on Minuteman Hill — it’s a long story — got her hired by Promotion Development Corporation, across from the old Fable Funeral Home on Post Road West.

One of her assignments was running spring break for Anheuser-Busch, which sounds like a really good gig for a young woman. After stints with Glendinning, Reach Marketing and MasterCard — as vice president of global promotions and sponsorships — Gail landed a job at Keep America Beautiful.

She began work at the non-profit — the largest community improvement organization in the country — on January 4, 1999, almost exactly 15 years ago. It was, coincidentally, the day Iron Eyes Cody — “the Crying Indian” — died.

Among Gail’s many contributions to Keep America Beautiful, the Great American Cleanup stands out. She brought it to cities like New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, New Orleans and Las Vegas.

Gail was awed by the strength and wisdom of the local leaders she met. She was particularly impressed by what she saw on the Gulf Coast, following Hurricane Katrina. She was in the trenches — sleeping on a wet mattress, eating MREs thrown from army trucks — and watched admiringly as residents of Mississippi and Louisiana replanted their communities.

Gail met mayors all along the coast. She calls them “strong, loyal public servants.” She remains friendly with many of them.

The Gulf Coast drew Gail in. She’d never been there, but quickly appreciated its beauty, its hardy residents, and — of course — its music. Some of the best Keep America Beautiful rebuilding ceremonies featured marching bands and gospel choirs.

During a nor'easter, Gail Cunningham Coen welcomed Waveland. Mississippi mayor Tommy Longo to her Compo Beach home. They forged a strong friendship in the months following Hurricane Katrina.

During a nor’easter, Gail Cunningham Coen welcomed Waveland, Mississippi mayor Tommy Longo to her Compo Beach home. They forged a strong friendship in the months following Hurricane Katrina.

Gail has aided her home town too, of course. Even before joining KBA, she helped transform Compo Beach. During 15 years as president of the Improvement Association — the group her grandfather helped found — she worked with Joe Palmieri on a “traffic and beautification” effort. From the Minuteman statue to Soundview, plantings and speed humps slow drivers — and calm them.

There are now planters on Main Street, police headquarters, Town Hall and Assumption Church, among many other places.

“Beauty is contagious,” Gail says. “It’s not about 150 signs telling people to slow down. What works is plantings, which people can enjoy.”

Gail’s 15 years at Keep America Beautiful flew by. Now, she says, it’s time for a new challenge.

In the years since her piano teaching days, Gail has worked with community groups, corporations and non-profits. The next step, she says, is “putting it all together, somehow.”

She’s thinking globally. She’s excited to figure out what’s next.

Whatever it is, Gail Cunningham Coen is sure to do one more beautiful job.


Sound And Fury

Gail Cunningham Coen has lived most of her life on Soundview Drive — the Compo Beach exit road.

She’s acutely aware of the beauty of Long Island Sound — and the power of nature.

She knows when a storm is coming, and what to do when it hits.

And as a former president of the Compo Beach Improvement Association, she’s been intimately involved in the political process of protecting the beach — and the residents across the street.

Gail can recite the history of the retaining wall that runs from the boardwalk all the way to Schlaet’s Point jetty at Hillspoint Road.

In 1998 Gail Cunningham Coen -- a tall woman -- demonstrated how high the Compo Beach seawall had once been.

It was built over 70 years ago to retain the seawaters and protect the new community of homes at Compo Beach, stretching all the way to the Minuteman statue.

Since that time, sand has built up against the seawall.

A nor’easter in December 1992 caused memorable devastation on Soundview and side streets.  After that storm, many residents raised the heights of their homes.

In 1998 the CBIA staged a “Save the Seawall” event to show town officials how tall the wall had once been.

Last week — in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene — Gail was meeting with her insurance adjuster.  She saw a group of men at the roped-off site by the wall.

When she asked if they were going to take the opportunity to repair and restore the entire wall — “since Mother Nature had so kindly excavated it with surgeon-like precision along its entire length,” Gail notes — they said no.  They’d work only on the part that was roped off.

Hurricane Irene swept away plenty of Compo Beach sand -- and exposed long-lost footings for the seawall.

Gail is concerned that town officials will “do a patch job and then push sand back up against the wall to hide the cracks and crevices, leaving us with a weak little pie crust of a wall — poised and ready to find our homes and possessions in a bowl of seawater and sludge all over again.”

Town officials and the state Department of Environmental Protection have had many discussions about the seawall.  Their engineers say it’s not the height of the sand that affects whether water overtops the wall — it’s the height of the water.

In other words, if tides are 12 feet above normal, they’ll be 12 feet above the normal sound height — not 12 feet above the sand.  Water will flow over the wall regardless.

Water seeks its own level.  So too, apparently, do storms at Compo Beach.

Westport And The Gulf

As senior vice president of Keep America Beautiful — and managing director of its signature program, the Great American Cleanup — Westporter Gail Cunningham Coen is intimately familiar with the Gulf Coast.  She spent time there following Katrina; she’s made many friends, and even hosted a Mississippi mayor in her Compo Beach home.

Gail Cunningham Coen enjoying a boat ride with Mayor Chipper McDermott of Pass Christian, Mississippi. Note the huge, clean wake behind them.

Now Gail is back on the Gulf Coast.  After 5 public space restoration and beautification projects in Mississippi Gulf during the last 5 years, she’s embarked on a new challenge:  helping her beloved shoreline communities recover from an almost incomprehensible tragedy.

Which includes spreading the word that the BP oil spill is, in many ways, not like the media has portrayed.

“The oil has so far stayed way out in the Gulf,” she told “06880” this weekend.

“The beaches in Mississippi are clear, clean and beautiful.  The Mississippi Sound looks and feels much like Long Island Sound.  It has tides and clear, warm water, broad beaches and soft sand.”

Keep America Beautiful has provided Glad trash bags to its affiliates along the entire coast — all the way to Florida — for beach cleanup before any possible oil landfall (making flotsam and jetsam easier to handle if it does occur).

Fishermen have been hired for up to $5,000 per boat — per day — to guard the booms and look for oil.  Early each evening, they return to harbor in armada-like fashion.

“The seafood in the area can’t be beat,” Gail said.  “The people are warm, friendly, very hospitable — and so sincere.”  Gail encourages anyone who has not been there to visit, and see how great it is to vacation and live.

However, she added:  “Louisiana has been the 1st and main victim of this disaster.  That story is so sad.”

She arrived in New Orleans April 22.  It was the end of the Great American Cleanup Earth Day extravaganza in Times Square, with Miss America, New York VIPs and Broadway stars.

The oil rig had exploded 2 days earlier — and sank on Earth Day.  Gail drove south from the airport, through wonderful-smelling bayou under a half-moon sky.

She had never been to Grand Isle — nor had she heard of it.  Invited to attend the annual Small Gulf Coast Cities Mayors’ Conference, she looked forward to meeting folks whose communities benefited from her organization’s post-Katrina efforts.

Though the conference was upbeat, it was overshadowed by uncertainty about what lay ahead.  Grande Isle fishing camps — restored from hurricane damage, now elevated, attractive and modern — were filled with residents eagerly awaiting the busy season of sports enthusiasts and seafood lovers.

Beaches were pristine; the water sparkled, and pelicans soared in the breezy sky.  Important business discussions were mixed with feasts of jambalaya, gumbo, crayfish and rice and beans.  Wonderful conversations took place in swinging chairs — seating 4-6 people each — suspended from the underside of a building.

Gail had to leave later for meetings in New Orleans.  Her heart had been won long ago by the Gulf Coast; in the days that followed, it broke each day as she watched the disaster on TV.

Now, Gail is glad to be back in the area.  She’s touching base with her many friends, and is trying to lift spirits in small ways.  She is helping Keep America Beautiful share best practices with state leaders.

On Sunday she took a boat ride with the mayor of Pass Christian and his wife.  They looked around — and enjoyed a beautiful Gulf day.

“Take care of Compo Beach for me until I return,” she said.  “And please keep these people in your thoughts.”

Keeping America Beautiful

The wind roared yesterday afternoon at Compo.  The waves had whitecaps; sand blew sideways across the beach.  It was a weird way to welcome Tommy Longo to Westport.

It was his 1st time in Connecticut, but Tommy — Mayor Longo, that is; he’s the 3-term leader of Waveland, Mississippi — is no stranger to high winds and frothy waters.  Nearly 3 years ago his town was obliterated by Hurricane Katrina.

The mayor’s trip is a thank-you of sorts.  His host — Gail Cunningham Coen, whose Soundview Drive home offers a breathtaking view of the beach, whether fine weather or foul — is senior vice president of Keep America Beautiful.  Last year she masterminded her organization’s “Great American Cleanup” in Waveland.

Tomorrow Gail emcees a noontime event in Times Square.  Top New York City and federal government officials will be there; so will the cast of “Wicked,” Miss America — and Mayor Longo.  All will appear on enormous Jumbotrons at the crossroads of the world.  The mayor won’t be in Kansas — I mean, Mississippi — anymore.

Gail Cunningham Coen and Mayor Tommy Longo

Gail Cunningham Coen and Mayor Tommy Longo

He loves his town, but he’s happy to spread the word about Keep America Beautiful’s spectacular public-private partnership.  “We lost 95 percent of our homes, thousands of trees, flowers — even our insects,” he said Monday.  “Keep America Beautiful made it feel like home again.”

“After Katrina there were no birds, no sounds at all,” Gail noted.  “It was so eerie.  It was so wonderful to be able to help rebuild.”

“We’re flourishing now,” the mayor said.  “When the first oak trees sprouted, it was the start of a new beginning.  Then the volunteers came in.  Now when people drive down the road, they don’t see emptiness.  They see a beautiful, thriving community.”

Gail (who grew up on Soundview) enjoyed showing the beach to Tommy (whose boyhood Waveland home is a few steps from the  Gulf of Mexico).

“We’re so many miles away, but our towns are connected by living next to the water,” she said.

“Westport’s not Waveland, but I feel at home here,” the mayor added.  “It’s beautiful.  It reminds me of Waveland, pre-Katrina.”