Tag Archives: Julie Belaga

A League Of Its Own

In 1949, Westport stood on the brink of change.

No one knew what the 2nd half of the 20th century would bring — but the town had already begun moving toward something different, modern and new.

A group of women wanted to influence the future.  They were smart and energetic — and, despite their many responsibilities as housewives and mothers, they found time to work for Westport.

That year — sitting around a tea set in Mrs. Wolcott Street’s Myrtle Avenue home — they formed a chapter of the League of Women Voters.

Over the next 6 decades, the organization grew — in numbers and influence.  The LWV helped determine the structure of the nascent Representative Town Meeting (RTM); later, the League made sure there was open space on the Post Road, and led the crusade to “green” it.  Look at the Post Road today in Westport — compared to neighboring Norwalk — and you’ll see the lasting effect the LWV has had on our town.

League of Women Voters members, 1966.

Two years ago John Hartwell — an LWV member (it’s not just for men anymore!), who was taking video production classes at Norwalk Community College — was asked to tape a coffee celebrating the Westport chapter’s 60th anniversary.  Four former LWV presidents were scheduled to speak.

A detached retina forced John to cancel.  To make amends, he promised to interview the 4 ex-presidents in their homes.

The stories he heard — and the careers the LWV launched — amazed and inspired him.

Julie Belaga

For example, after her League presidency, Julie Belaga served in the Connecticut Legislature, ran for governor, served as New England director of the EPA, and was appointed by President Clinton to the Export-Import Bank.

Jackie Heneage went on to serve 2 terms as first selectman — the 1st woman ever elected to the post.

Pat Porio had a long career after her service as president.

By the time John interviewed the 4th woman — 5-time LWV president Lisa Shufro — he realized there were many more voices to be heard.  He vowed to direct a video — and asked Lisa to produce it.

Sixteen more interviews followed.  There were visits to the house where the League was founded.  Hours and hours of footage — and hundreds and hundreds of stories — had to be edited down to the final 43-minute product.

Two themes emerge from “A League of Their Own.”  One is how the LWV empowered so many women.  For example, Martha Aasen went on to become the national organization’s official observer at the UN; she then worked full-time there.

Ann Gill was a major force on Westport’s Planning and Zoning Commission for years.  The list goes on and on.

From left: Marty Hauhuth, Ann Gill, Barbara Butler, Mary Jenkins, Jacqueline Heneage -- LWV members, and accomplished women all.

The 2nd major theme is the impact the LWV had on Westport.

The video debuted at the League’s annual meeting in June.  It was shown at the Westport Library in September, and Senior Center earlier this month.

Always, the feedback was the same:  Wow!

Women interviewed for the film were impressed how well their stories were told.  Other viewers remarked how much they learned about the League — and Westport.

Seeing and hearing about women who have gained so much from the LWV — and in turn have given so much back, to their town and country — brought tears to the eyes of some.

You can watch the film now:  click here.

Or you can go to the Westport Historical Society this Sunday (October 30), for a showing.  Afterward, 2 of the League’s living legends — Jackie Heneage, and Selma Miriam (a leading proponent of Project Concern, and the founder and longtime owner of Bridgeport’s Bloodroot restaurant and bookstore) — will talk, and answer questions.

The video’s title is a pun on the League of Women’s Voters — and the 1992 film about women’s professional baseball — but it aptly describes the role of this organization in the life of our town.

For 6 decades, Westport’s LWV has been in a league of its own.

A screenshot from "A League of Its Own."


Speed Dating, Westport-Style

Speed dating is a big-city thing.  Singles (hopefully) spend a few minutes chatting with a random stranger.  A bell rings; then it’s off to the next table, and a few more after that.  If both parties like each other, organizers provide them with contact info.

But this is Westport.  Our “speed dating” event needs an intellectual — and environmental — bent.

Also, no hooking up allowed.

Expert Minds” is this Thursday’s (July 14, 7 p.m.) Westport Arts Center speed dating-inspired event.

Futurist Watts Wacker definitely looks like an expert.

Working with Green Village Initiative, the WAC has assembled 10, um, expert minds.  Each hosts a table with 4 seats.  For 15 minutes, everyone chats — presumably about the expert’s area of expertise.

Then it’s on to the next randomly selected table.

There’s a break after the 1st 2 sessions, for food and wine; then 2 more tables.

After the 4th table, everyone is invited to mingle (and, I guess, drink a bit more).

The experts include:

  • Michael Aitkenhead, Staples High School environmental teacher and Wakeman Town Farm steward
  • Julie Belaga, former state representative, gubernatorial candidate, and New England director of the Environmental Protection Agency
  • Maxine Bleiweis, Westport Library director
  • David Brown, public health toxicologist
  • John Fifield, architect and innovator
  • Deepika Saksena, “zero waste manager” whose weekly household waste fills just one plastic newspaper sleeve
  • John Solder, member of the world champion Staples High School robotics team
  • Bill Taibe, chef/owner of Le Farm
  • Watts Wacker, futurist
  • Eden Werring, arts and education advocate

As the experts and their guests talk, they’ll be surrounded by Christo.  The environmental artist’s stunning works may inspire some of the discussions, says Deanne Foster, the WAC’s interim executive director.

“Art can take you to another place,” she says.  “There’s always lots of conversation here, as people look at the exhibitions on the walls.  This event is one more way to get people thinking, and engaged.”

“Expert Minds” — speed dating, arts-style — is something the 92nd Street Y might do, Foster says.

“But it’s here in Westport.  We’re lucky to be surrounded by so many amazing people.”

(Tickets for “Expert Minds” are $25.  They’re available by phone at 203-222-7070, and online by clicking here.)