Tag Archives: Laddie Lawrence

[OPINION] Fred Cantor’s 24 Hours In “Our Town”

Alert “06880” reader — and longtime Westporter — Fred Cantor hears frequent laments about the changes in town since “whatever decade people grew up here in.” Of course, he admits, things are different.

But, Fred notes, the small-town feel that existed when his family moved here in 1963 is still alive and well. As proof, he offers a series of events that occurred recently, in just one 24-hour period.

Bruce Davidson, from his Staples High School yearbook.

It started with a visit to a local periodontist which, believe it or not, proved enjoyable overall. That’s because he’s Dr. Bruce Davidson, Staples High School Class of 1965, a family friend from back in the day and a former soccer teammate of my brother Marc. Bruce has practiced for decades at the same location on the Post Road, near Sylvan Avenue.

After a thorough exam and patient clarification of potential issues raised by X-rays taken in California, there was time to catch up and hear, among other things, about the status of a documentary film by Bruce’s brother, Doc (Staples ‘70).

After my appointment I drove to Cohen’s Fashion Opticals to pick up new glasses, which were almost ready. No problem: It was close to lunchtime, so I headed a few doors down to Gold’s. Owner Jim greeted me warmly.

I had a delicious turkey salad sandwich. The food at Gold’s is every bit as good today as when my parents first took me there in the 1960s — and the setting seems exactly as it did back then.

Jim Eckl and his wife Nancy have owned Gold’s since 2003.

Later in the day, I enjoyed a timeless outdoor Westport scene: a large crowd gathered on the hill to watch a Staples soccer game, on a beautiful Friday afternoon.

I had not arranged to meet anyone there. That didn’t matter. I sat with Bill Mitchell (Staples ’61) and former soccer coach Jeff Lea. We shared a few laughs and some entertaining stories. Dave Wilson (a Staples captain in 1974) was there too.

The ageless Laddie Lawrence (Staples ’64) also joined us for a while; so did former Westport Late Knights soccer teammate, Alex Anvari. Somehow Alex’s little boy Emerson has grown up — he’s 6-1 now!—to be a Staples senior who, to my delight, is on the varsity team.

Enjoying Staples soccer on the Loeffler Field hill (from left):L Fred Cantor, Jeff Lea, Bill Mitchell, Laddie Lawrence.

It was the last weekend of summer, with near-perfect temperatures, so after the game my wife Debbie and I headed to Compo to enjoy the sunset. As often happens, we ran into a couple of longtime Westporters.

I also had a nice chat with Joey Romeo, the owner of Joey’s By the Shore. He is every bit as friendly as any Main Street storeowner was in the 1960s.

Compo Beach sunset. (Photo/Fred Cantor)

The next morning I was walking on Bridge Street toward the train station. A car pulled over. The driver was Staples alum Mike Elliot; he offered me a ride. I explained that walking is my regular exercise these days.

As I neared the station, another car stopped. Staples classmate Bob Uly wanted to know how I was doing health-wise.

It was just 24 hours. Nothing truly out of the ordinary happened.

But those little slice-of-life occurrences demonstrate, at least for me, that certain “Our Town”-like qualities still very much exist here.

Norma Minkowitz: Artist On The Run

Norma Minkowitz has quite a routine.

In the morning she goes to The Edge. Three days a week, she runs 1.5 miles on the treadmill. Then she does lunges, curls and core work with a trainer. She follows up with an hour-long spin class. The other days, she runs outdoors.

Then she heads back to her Westport home. She climbs the stairs to her studio, and begins a full day of work as an artist. “I run from one piece to another,” she laughs.

A few of Norma Minkowitz’s pieces, in her Westport studio.

Next month, Norma interrupts that routine. She heads to Albuquerque, New Mexico, for a national championship track meet. She’ll compete in the 1500, 800 and 400 meter runs.

She hopes to win a US title in her age group: 80 to 84 years old.

At 81, Norma has spent fully half her life in Westport. She met her husband Shelly at Cooper Union. She studied fine arts; he was an engineer.

Jobs with Sikorsky and PerkinElmer brought them to Connecticut. But he changed careers, becoming a home builder. Harvest Commons is his work. Four decades ago, he built their house on Broadview Road.

Meanwhile, Norma pursued her own career. In the 1960s she began working with fiber. “Back then it was considered ‘arts and crafts,'” she says. “Now it’s a fine art.”

Norma Minkowitz, and 2 of her works.

Her specialty is crocheted cotton thread. She also does pen and ink, and sculptures.

Her style is “very personal,” she says. “It has a dark edge, about life, mortality and human nature. I’m interested in sequences, and how things evolve.”

Her art grows stronger every year, Norma notes. “I’ve pared things down to simple lines, shapes, forms and meaning.”

Norma’s work is now in 32 museums. And they’re big: the Metropolitan, the de Young, the Wadsworth Atheneum.

Norma Minkowitz, before the 1987 New York Marathon.

She came to running later in life. In 1985, a friend talked her into training for the New York Marathon. She did not prepare well, and lasted “only” 20 miles.

The next year, Norma trained with a coach. At 49 years old, she completed all 26.2 miles in 4 hours, 6 minutes — a 9:25 per mile pace.

The year after that, she had bronchitis. She ran anyway.

But, Norma says, she is “not in love with long races.” In 1986 she began running shorter distances, in the Westport Parks & Recreation summer series organized by legendary track coach Laddie Lawrence.

Those were more her speed. She’s participated every year since.

These days, she often trains with 4- or 5-kilometer runs. It sounds daunting. But Norma insists, “that’s not real long distance.” After training, she feels “healthy, strong, accomplished — and tired.”

She also feels “like I’ve done something for my body. Maybe it’s the blood going to my brain.”

Running helps her artwork, Norma says. In her studio, she often stands. “Artists have to be strong,” she notes.

She sees people her age who “hardly move.” No one says that about Norma.

One reason she loves her spin class is meeting so many nice (and young) people. “Some of them tell me they wish their mothers did this,” she says. “And their mothers are younger than I am!” She’s made many friends through the running community.

Her fellow spinners — and runners, and artists — are in awe of Norma’s accomplishments. They know how committed she is. And how hard she is training for the upcoming National Senior Games at the University of New Mexico.

Three years ago — at 79 — Norma Minkowitz led a pack of much younger runners.

It’s a big deal. Over 13,500 “seniors” — ages 50 to 100 — will compete in age group categories. Events include swimming, diving, biking, paddleball, bowling, golf, pickle ball and pole vault.

She qualified for her 3 track races last year, in a downpour in New Britain and a follow-up meet in New Jersey. Her times were well below the cutoffs.

But she’s leaving nothing to chance. She has no idea how the high altitude will affect her. So she’s working with former Staples High School runner and coach Malcolm Watson.

Last month, she ran in the Westport Young Woman’s League Minute Man race. Her mile time was 10:30. “That’s pretty good for 81,” she says.

It is indeed.

Two of Norma Minkowitz’ medals, from the Senior Games qualifying meet in New Britain.

“It’s exciting,” Norma says of the upcoming national meet. “I’m a novice. But you never know…”

And if Albuquerque goes well, there’s the 2020 Senior Olympics in Fort Lauderdale.

“That’s sea level,” Norma says with relief. “On the other hand, there’s the heat…”

(Click here for more information on the National Senior Games. Click here for Norma Minkowitz’s art website. Hat tip: Mitch Thaw.)

Westport Celebrates The Legendary Laddie

Dozens of former Staples High School runners — along with friends and fans from the Westport road race series and Pequot Runners — came from as far as California today to honor Laddie Lawrence, and his 50 years of coaching.

It was supposed to be a surprise. But when you’ve touched as many lives as Laddie, the secret was bound to get out.

Still, it was a wonderful and emotional afternoon. In half a century as the town’s running guru — including not only Staples cross country, indoor and outdoor track, and the summer and fall races, but also Thursday evening age group meets — Laddie has created a community of runners of all ages and abilities.

Former Staples teammates from his Class of 1964 were there. So were rival coaches — and Paul Lane, the former Staples coach who first introduced him to track. Parents came too. But most of all, there were runners, present and (recent and distant) past.

Laddie’s Staples classmate, artist Miggs Burroughs, gave him a special gift: this lenticular photo of him, back in high school and today.

He’s won an insane number of championships. His athletes have become All-Americans, and earned college scholarships. But today was a time for everyone, of every speed, to gather together and say “thanks” to a mentor and friend.

Best of all: This was not goodbye. Laddie is not retiring.

Actually, knowing him, he’ll coach another 50 years.

Laddie Lawrence: forever young, and forever loved.

Tracking Hannah DeBalsi And Henry Wynne

This weekend, the national track spotlight shined on Westport.

Yesterday, Hannah DeBalsi became the 1st athlete — male or female — ever to win 4 New England indoor track championships. The Stanford-bound Staples High School senior blazed to a 10:29.46 time in the 2-mile run.

(Photo credit/StaplesSports)

(Photo credit/StaplesSports)

In 2013, as a freshman at the same venue — the Reggie Lewis Center in Boston — DeBalsi watched Henry Wynne win the New England 1000-meter run for Staples.

This year — the day before — Wynne ran a 4:01.15 mile for the University of Virginia, at the Atlantic Coast Conference championship. He added more points by helping the Cavaliers win the distance medley (his 1600 split was a blazing 3:56.37), and placing 2nd at 3000 meters.

The Reggie Lewis Center is a favorite place for both DeBalsi and Wynne. In January, that’s where he ran a sub-4-minute mile.

(Click here, then scroll down for alert “06880” reader Jeff Mitchell’s video interview with Wynne, after Saturday’s race. The 2013 Staples grad gives shout-outs to Staples track coaches Laddie Lawrence and Malcolm Watson.)

3:58.74!

When Henry Wynne ran for Staples, everyone knew he was destined for stardom. The question was not if he would break a 4-minute mile — but when.

The answer is: yesterday.

Henry Wynne, after yesterday's race.

Henry Wynne, after yesterday’s race.

Running for the University of Virginia at Boston University’s John Thomas Terrier Invitational, the 2013 Staples grad — and Connecticut high school state mile record holder — roared to a 3:58.74 finish.

Even more remarkable: He was tripped, and had to hurdle another racer en route to his mark.

On hand for the performance — the 2nd-fastest in UVa history — were Wynne’s father Craig, sister Grace (a Staples junior), former Staples runners Luis Cruz and Erica Hefnawy, and former Staples track coach Malcolm Watson.

One of the first people Henry called after the race? Longtime Staples track legend Laddie Lawrence.

Bonus fun fact: The very 1st Connecticut runner to run a sub-4-minute mile was another Staples grad: Steve Wheeler. He ran a 3:59.4 in 1974 for Duke University — an ACC rival of Virginia. 

Malik Brantley: “This Place Has Given Me Everything”

Staples High School graduation is Friday. As they receive their diplomas, 463 seniors will earn well-deserved applause and whistles.

None should be cheered louder than Malik Brantley.

Malik Brantley a few days before graduation, in front of the Staples track trophy case.

Malik Brantley a few days before graduation, in front of the Staples track trophy case.

His story begins in Georgia. His father disappeared when Malik was 2, and his sister Claudine was 1.

His mother, Monique, married a man named Lavert. Malik called him “Dad.” But the couple divorced when Malik was 12.

Monique took her kids to Norwich, Connecticut, where she had an aunt. She got a job as a home health aide.

The next year, they moved to nearby Montville. Malik played middle school football — he was fast and good. The day he scored his 1st touchdown, he looked jubilantly into the stands. Lavert had promised he’d be at the game.

He wasn’t there.

“I shut down for a while,” Malik recalls. “Most kids had dads who taught them football. Everyone always asked where my dad was.”

Monique trained him to run faster. “She pushed me,” he says. “I hated her for that. But she’s tough. She took on both roles: mother and father.”

Malik Brantley.

Malik Brantley.

Moving again, Malik entered Norwich Free Academy (the city’s public high school). “All I cared about was football, hanging out and girls,” he says. Around that time, a drug dealer in his building was killed.

“I smoked a lot of weed,” Malik says. His friends sold drugs. But Malik  soon pulled away from that group.

An assistant principal at NFA was like a father figure. Yet the atmosphere was not encouraging. A guidance counselor told Malik he could go to community college, at best.

Malik got a job at Foxwoods’ bingo hall. Sometimes he worked double shifts. He gave most of his money to his mother. But he also bought sneakers and clothes. He wanted to look as good as the other kids.

In the middle of sophomore year, Malik’s mother took him to Greenwich Village. He always had a way with words. She’d arranged for him to meet with the director of a comedy club. He took classes, learned stand-up, and performed. The crowd loved him.

He also joined the NFA track team. When he ran, he thought of his paternal grandfather. He’d met him for the 1st time a few months earlier, and been inspired by him. Eight months after Malik met him, though, he died.

Midway through junior year, Monique’s name finally came up for housing — in Westport’s Hales Court. It was financially difficult, but she was determined that her children go to the best school possible. The family moved from a 2-bedroom apartment to a 3-bedroom house. “It’s really nice,” Malik says.

Yet Westport was a culture shock. On his 1st day at Staples, Malik walked into the cafeteria. He saw a sea of white faces — and walked right back out.

For 2 or 3 months, he felt uncomfortable. But, thanks to members of the track team — particularly star distance runner Henry Wynne — Malik found a spot for himself.

Malik Brantley, Staples track star.

Malik Brantley, Staples track star.

Coach Laddie Lawrence provided constant encouragement. So did guidance counselor Deb Slocum. When Malik repeated what his NFA counselor told him —  that all he could hope for was community college — she shook her head. She told him he could go to a 4-year school. And she followed up often, pushing him with a combination of toughness and tenderness.

When he handed in his research paper, English teacher Susan O’Hara gave it a “B.” Malik was content. O’Hara was not. She told him she knew he could rewrite it. He did — and got an “A.”

“Staples is the same size as NFA,” Malik says. “But the support system here is so much stronger. Mr. (John) Dodig (principal), Laddie, all my teachers — I can’t thank them enough. They were all there for me.”

Earlier this year, Malik got in some trouble. Assistant principal Pat Micinilio said, “I still respect you as a young man.” Malik was surprised — but soon realized the administrator truly meant it.

“I like getting up in the morning and going to school,” Malik adds. “I’ve found my place socially. I’m friends with a lot of different types of people.” Last week, he finished his senior internship at Green’s Farms Elementary School.

Malik says, “Staples changed my life. I honestly believe if I was back in Norwich I would’ve kept smoking weed, working 9 to 5, hanging out, or even worse, got into dealing.”

Malik Brantley in culinary class.

Malik Brantley in culinary class.

Instead, he’s headed to Monroe College. He’ll study culinary arts and physical education. He’s a recruited track athlete.

And — because he received the Laddie Lawrence Scholarship, Staples Tuition Grants and other awards — he does not have to worry about student loans.

“I’m poor,” Malik says. “I’ve worked hard for these” — he points to his Nike sneakers. “I keep them clean. I can’t go out and get another pair just like that.”

But — despite his preconceptions — he does not find Westporters stuck up.

“It’s not a rich, snobby town. Yes, there is money here, and big heads. But lots of people are willing to help.”

As one of very few black males at Staples, he felt intimidated at first. But, Malik says, “In Norwich I had to be tough. Here I didn’t have to show that side.”

Instead, he turned a 1.0 GPA into a 3.4. He made countless friends and memories. He shakes his head. “When I look back at what I used to be, that’s just crazy.”

Malik smiles broadly. “Given the chance, I’d be so happy to come back to teach and coach here. I feel I owe something to Staples. It’s given me everything.

“I love this school and town.”

Malik Brantley, surrounded by Staples friends.

Malik Brantley, surrounded by Staples friends.

This Weekend: The Greatest In Westport Sports History?

How great was it?

Consider these performances at the New Balance Outdoor Track Championships — the national meet — at North Carolina A&T University in Greensboro.

  • Today, Staples’ phenomenal senior Henry Wynne won the mile, in 4:07.84.
  • Yesterday, Wynne anchored the 4 x 800 relay team to 3rd in the nation. He and Peter Elkind, Patrick Nolan and Walker Marsh roared to a school record 7:42.11. Wynne’s split was a crazy-fast 1:48.93.
Henry Wynne, earlier this year in an indoor race.  (Photo courtesy of MSG Varsity)

Henry Wynne, earlier this year in an indoor race. (Photo courtesy of MSG Varsity)

  • Staples’ equally phenomenal freshman Hannah DeBalsi finished 3rd in yesterday’s 2-mile. Her 10:16.20 sets a national 9th grade record.
  • Today DeBalsi anchored the distance medley relay team — including Erica Hefnawy, Emily Troelstra and Tyler Scanlin — to a bronze medal (and state record): 11:53.61. DeBalsi’s mile  split was an amazing 4:48.
Hannah DeBalsi, in a meet earlier this spring. (Photo/Bob Luckey)

Hannah DeBalsi, in a meet earlier this spring. (Photo/Bob Luckey)

  • Wynne, DeBalsi and both relay teams earned All-American status. Congratulations to Staples’ fantastic runners, and their coaches Laddie Lawrence and Jesse McCray.

As if that wasn’t enough, Noah Arthurs just set the North American record for solving 16 Rubik’s cubes successfully — while blindfolded!


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