Tag Archives: John Kemish

Friday Flashback #371

A reader writes:

As Halloween approaches, there will be stories about miscreants stealing cemetery headstones and other acts of vandalism. One story you may wish to post is about the man who tried to steal a cemetery.

In the early 1980s, the owner of the small commercial property nearby attempted to claim Platt Cemetery as his own.

Until that time, Westport did not take responsibility for the maintenance of several non-active and seemingly abandoned cemeteries in town. The Platt Cemetery in particular was incredibly overgrown. In summer, only the tallest headstone spire could be seen above the vegetation.

The surrounding stone wall had long been pilfered of its best material. What remained was little more than a low pile of rubble tumbling into the Post Road.

No one had been buried there for generations, no one bothered to maintain it, and no one seemed to care.

However, it did occupy a nice location on Post Road West, and would have been of considerable value if not for the long-ignored graves. It was therefore a tempting target for someone to claim.

One view of Platt Burial Ground today …

Driving by one day, a member of a Westport board noticed the rear of the cemetery was being cleared by heavy equipment. The police were called, and the clearing stopped.

The owner of the adjoining commercial site claimed that he owned the cemetery, and was only doing maintenance on his property. However, since this
“maintenance” included pushing headstones and grave markers into a pile along with the brush and debris, essentially eliminating any trace of the burials, he was immediately issued a cease and desist order.

That night, a local television station broadcast an interview with the attorney for the commercial property owner, who claimed his client had a deed to the cemetery.

In response to outrage from numerous residents, the town attorney researched the title and found that the supposed deed did not exist. In effect, there was no longer a clear owner and it was essentially another abandoned cemetery.

The town could have prosecuted the property owner and contractor for a number of crimes, including trespass, malicious mischief, vandalism, excavation without a permit and desecration of a grave, but the administration felt it was bad publicity for the town and agreed to not prosecute if the damage was restored.

The uprooted brush and debris was removed, and the cleared area graded and seeded. Unfortunately, some of the uprooted headstones and markers were also removed, explaining why there is an open area in the southeast corner of the cemetery.

… and another, with the “empty” graves in back.

Although this was an unfortunate episode, a greater good did come from it, bringing to the attention of the town the plight of abandoned cemeteries in Westport. The town eventually accepted responsibility for the Platt Cemetery, and along with assistance from civic organizations rebuilt the stone wall, removed the encroaching vegetation and restored the site to a respectable condition.

Westport’s Parks & Recreation Department and the Westport Garden Club now oversee continued maintenance for both this and several other abandoned cemeteries.


50 years ago this week:

Republican First Selectman John Kemish and Democratic challenger Jacqueline Heneage engaged in a debate at the Saugatuck Congregational Church in front of “more than 100 senior citizens.”

Heneage criticized Kemish for “failing to pursue apartments long ago.” She proposed that Westport explore allowing “housing for the elderly by special permit.”

Kemish had served 2 2-year terms, beginning in 1969. Heneage won that 1973 election however, and was re-elected twice more. In 1977 the 1st Selectman’s term was lengthened to 4 years; she served from 1973 through 1981.

Jacqueline Heneage and John Kemish

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Friday Flashback #318

With a 6-part HBO Max series and a newly published memoir, Paul Newman has been back in the spotlight lately.

Both include plenty of details about his half century in Westport.

It’s well known that Newman and his wife, fellow actor Joanne Woodward, found our town thanks to the Nike Sites.

Proposed at the height of the Cold War as missile defense systems to protect electronics manufacturing facilities in Bridgeport — with the missiles housed underground on North Avenue, and a launch center on Bayberry Lane — they were highly controversial. (Click here for the full back story.) 

Westport writer Max Shulman wrote about the Nike Sites — the town’s reaction, and how it dealt with frisky GIs — in his novel Rally Round the Flag, Boys!

In 1958, the book became a movie. Newman and Woodward played characters based on town official Ralph  Sheffer and his wife Betty. They soon moved here — and never left.

The defense system was outdated from the moment it opened. In 1960, control was transferred from the US Army to the National Guard. The Nike Sites were closed 3 years later.

The Bayberry Lane barracks are now the Aspetuck Health District office; behind it is the Westport Astronomical Society’s observatory. (Now it makes sense why those structures are there, right?)

A typical Nike site — much like the North Avenue one. Missiles were buried underground.

For years the North Avenue site — just north of Staples High School — was abandoned. In 1973, the US government transferred control of the land to the town.

Neither CNN nor Newman’s memoir mention what happened next.

The Westport Astronomical Observatory — the former Nike Site launch center on Bayberry Lane — in 1975.

On October 1 of that year, a ceremony was held.  Paul Newman took part.

He called it “a great day for Westport.”  The Staples band played a couple of tunes, including — inexplicably — “On Wisconsin” and Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4.”

Paul Newman (far left) at the Nike Site ceremony on October 1, 1973. From left: 2 unidentified men; 1st Selectman John Kemish. (Photo courtesy of Jim Kemish)

First Selectman John Kemish said, “The land once needed for war will now be dedicated to the pursuit of peace.  The property will now be redeveloped by our Board of Education as a facility for our children.”

It took a while for that to happen.

A plan to create a “Workshop to Nike” for Staples students — with bedrooms, bathrooms, a kitchen, storage space, dorm rooms and a dining hall for any school group to use — was never completed.

Project Adventure — a one-quarter physical education option — installed a ropes course, high wire and 30-foot balance beam there. It too was abandoned.

Generations of Staples graduates recall the Nike Site as an overgrown, unpatrolled area — perfect for teenage mischief, tantalizingly close to the school.

Finally, the town found good use for the land. Today — shorn of any trace of both the military and its then-derelict state — it is the site of Bedford Middle School.

Few people remember those days. Fewer still remember the Paul Newman connection.

The North Avenue Nike site today.

Remembering John Kemish

Former First Selectman John J. Kemish died April 25 in Boca Raton, Florida. He was 93.

Kemish served three 2-year terms as Westport’s chief executive, from 1967 to 1973. Prior to his election, beginning in 1958 he was the town’s first professional controller (now “finance director”). He improved Westport’s credit rating from A to AAA by establishing the town’s first Capital and Non-Recurring Expenditure fund. As controller he also played a pivotal role in the purchase of Longshore Country Club, under First Selectman Herb Baldwin.

John Kemish

Kemish earned a bachelor’s degree from Hillyer College (now called the University of Hartford), and a master’s degree in public administration and municipal finance from the University of Connecticut.

Woody Klein, in his book Westport Connecticut, The Story of a New England Town’s Rise to Prominence, called Kemish “a personable and highly competent public servant.”

At the time of his election, Westport “was about to face one of the most defining moments in the Town’s history.” United Illuminating Company, a statewide utility, had just announced its intent to build a 14-story nuclear power plant on Cockenoe Island, less than one mile offshore from Westport’s Compo Beach…. Kemish would soon become one of the key figures in the Cockenoe campaign.”

UI’s announcement galvanized the town, and sparked a “Save Cockenoe Now” campaign spearheaded by Jo Fox Brosious, editor of the Westport News.

The First Selectman’s Committee began a year-and-a-half environmental battle, with national coverage. The solution involved the purchase of the Island by the Town. MrKemish engineered the financing that made the purchase possible, and recouped 75% of the money from the federal government. Westport now owns Cockenoe Island in perpetuity.

Cockenoe Island. Thanks in part to John Kemish, it remains pristine.

MrKemish also spearheaded construction of the first solid waste transfer station (the current site of the Levitt Pavilion), effectively ending sanitary land filling of garbage in Westport. This was a landmark for Connecticut, and culminated in the formation of the State Resource Recovery Authority.

Among other important contributions to the quality of life in Westport, Kemish created Westport’s Beautification Committee. Chair Claire Ford and her organization gained the support of the Planning & Zoning Commission.  Significant changes included plantings and the restriction of signage along the Post Road.

Kemish was also responsible for the acquisition of the 38-acre Wakeman Farm, acquisition of the Nike Site on Bayberry lane, and a similar one on North Avenue (providing additional land adjacent to the Staples High School property, now the location of Bedford Middle School).

Bedford Middle School, on the site of a former Nike Missile Site.

During his years as first selectman, Kemish succeeded New York Mayor John Lindsay as president of the Metropolitan Regional Council, which was instrumental in improving services of the Metro-North railroad.

In addition, Kemish worked with Union Carbide and American Can Company on expansion of their municipal resource recovery and solid waste processing systems. In retirement he traveled extensively with his wife Gloria, and enjoyed family time in his homes in Connecticut and Florida.

He is survived by his wife Gloria Kemish, her family, and sons James and Steven.

Marpe Notes Death Of Former 1st Selectman John Kemish

First Selectman Jim Marpe says:

It was with deep sadness that I learned of the passing of former Westport 1st Selectman John Kemish on April 25, at the age of 93. John served three 2-year terms as Westport’s 1st Selectman from 1967 to 1973.

Prior to his election, John served as the town’s first professional controller (now the finance director), where he improved the town’s credit rating from A to Aaa. As controller, he played a pivotal role in the purchase of Longshore Country Club for the town under then-1st Selectman Herb Baldwin.

As 1st Selectman, John played a major role in the town’s campaign to save Cockenoe Island from United Illuminating Company’s plans to erect a nuclear power plant at that offshore site. Under John’s leadership, the agreement to sell Cockenoe Island to the town and eliminate the plans for the power plant proved successful. The town owes John a debt of gratitude, along with many others involved in that environmental fight to save the natural beauty and landscape of that island over 50 years ago,

First Selectman John Kemish (tie) is flanked by veterans at the Memorial Day parade.

According to Woody Klein in his book, Westport Connecticut: The Story of a New England Town’s Rise to Prominence, John is credited with the “acquisition of the Wakeman Farm as open space; he led the town’s effort to acquire the Nike Site on Bayberry Lane for the Westport-Weston Health District and Rolnick Observatory; he was responsible for the acquisition of the North Avenue Nike Site, providing additional land adjacent to the Staples High School property, (which became Bedford Middle School); he established the first major town beautification program by creating the Beautification Committee; and he played a role in the creation of the Transit District and the subsequent introduction of the Minnybus.” He also played an important role in the development of the original Levitt Pavilion.

Those accomplishments notwithstanding, I understand that John was a dedicated public servant who placed the issues and concerns expressed by many Westporters first. I know that generations of Westporters have and will continue to benefit from his due diligence, calm demeanor and leadership capabilities.

On behalf of the Town of Westport, I want to express my sincere condolences to his wife Gloria,  his sons James and Steven, and his entire family.

1st Selectman John Kemish (far right) with Westport YMCA director Matt Johnson (standing) and (seated from left) YMCA president George Dammon, and CBS News anchor (and Weston resident) Douglas Edwards.