Tag Archives: John Kemish

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.