Tag Archives: Leo Nevas

Debbie Stewart’s Indomitable Spirit

Nearly every Westport Y member knows Debbie Stewart.

She’s the woman with long dreads and boundless enthusiasm. She popped in and out of Zumba and cycling classes; chatted with employees and members, and lit up every corner of the building with her presence.

Now, Y staffer Midge Deverin has told her story.

It’s astonishing.

A Jamaica native, her mother died of breast cancer when Debbie was 6. Her father soon left her and 3 siblings alone. Debbie graduated from high school, moved to Florida, and became a certified nursing assistant.

She worked in Brooklyn and Connecticut. Soon she was hired as a caregiver for Libby Nevas. She and her husband Leo were noted Westport philanthropists.

Debbie quickly became an important part of the family. She never left Libby’s side, Midge writes. “They were inseparable; talking, laughing, enjoying each other’s company until the day Libby Nevas died while Debbie, her ‘angel,’ held her hand.”

Debbie Stewart (middle row, 2nd from right) and the Nevas family.

Debbie Stewart (middle row, 2nd from right) and the Nevas family.

Debbie planned to return to New York. But Leo — “strong, healthy and exceedingly independent” — asked Debbie to stay. She accompanied him to plays and concerts in New York, and meetings in California.

Debbie charmed “statesmen, ambassadors, authors,” Midge writes, “with her easy banter and informed opinions.”

Debbie Stewart and Leo Nevas.

Debbie Stewart and Leo Nevas.

Suddenly, in 2003 — while studying to become a dental assistant — Debbie underwent emergency surgery to remove a large brain tumor.

It continued to grow. She endured 2 more operations. The last, in 2009, resulted in debilitating side effects.

Debbie was left with short-term memory loss. Her brain is no longer aware of the entire left side of her body, or surroundings.

Throughout all her surgeries — and her “tremendous physical and emotional turmoil” — the Nevas family was there for her.

In May of 2009, Pat Pennant was hired as Leo’s housekeeper. She met Debbie, who needed round-the-clock nursing care.

A few months later, Leo died. His daughter, Jo-Ann Price, promised Pat that when Debbie was out of crisis, but needed a companion/caretaker, Pat would get the call.

Three years later, it came.

Pat Pennant and Debbie Stewart.

Pat Pennant and Debbie Stewart.

“Many might say that from that time till now, Debbie has led a compromised and limited life,” Midge writes. But anyone who’s had “the pleasure and honor of really knowing Debbie” knows otherwise.

Her “enthusiasm and joie de vivre” followed her everywhere: from volunteering 3 days a week at the Notre Dame Convalescent Home in Norwalk, to Compo Beach, the Levitt Pavilion, museums, dancing, trips to New York, shopping at TJ Maxx and Home Goods — and of course the Y.

A few weeks ago, however, Debbie’s inoperable tumor grew again. She is now virtually immobile.

The other day, Midge visited Debbie at her Westport home. She was propped up by Pat, but Debbie’s welcoming smile filled the room.

She asked Midge about her Y friends. They visit often.

In typical fashion, Midge writes, Debbie did not talk about her problems.

Instead, she told Midge, she’s determined to be back.

Meanwhile, Midge misses Debbie at the Y. She misses her shimmying down the hall. She misses her irrepressible energy. Most of all, she misses her unwavering spirit, which “stares at both life and death with a smile.”

(To read Midge Deverin’s full story about Debbie Stewart, click here.)

Midge Deverin and Debbie Stewart, not long ago.

Midge Deverin and Debbie Stewart, not long ago.

Rabbi Orkand: Oscar’s Was A Link To Westport’s “Covenant” End

For 31 years — from 1982 to 2013 — Robert Orkand was Temple Israel’s senior rabbi.

Rabbi Robert Orkand

Rabbi Robert Orkand

He and his wife Joyce now live in Massachusetts, near their son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter. But Rabbi Orkand keeps close tabs on Westport, through “06880.”

The closing of Oscar’s sparked the same nostalgia and sadness many Westporters feel. But he has a special perspective on the history of downtown’s famed delicatessen. Rabbi Orkand writes:

The closing of Oscar’s is, in many ways, the end of an era. Locally owned businesses such as Oscar’s are, sadly, becoming a thing of the past.

There is an aspect to the story of Oscar’s, and many other businesses, that is not told often enough. But is a piece of the history of Westport that reflects its diversity and uniqueness.

When I arrived in Westport in 1982, there were a number of businesses that had been founded by Jews — Oscar’s, Gold’s, Klein’s, Westport Hardware, Silver’s, to name just a few. What few people know is how Jewish ownership became possible many years ago.

Gentleman's AgreementUntil the early 1940’s, many real estate agents in lower Fairfield County signed on to an unofficial “covenant” not to show property to Jews, or to discourage them from moving into certain neighborhoods. (The movie “Gentleman’s Agreement” depicted this practice.)

Even though certain cities, such as Norwalk and Bridgeport, had Jewish residents, many towns did not (and in a few places that is still true). Westport was one of the towns in which the “covenant” was enforced.

Before he died in 2009 at the age of 97, Leo Nevas told me how the real estate “covenant” ended in Westport.

He was the 7th and youngest son of Morris and Ethel Navasky, Lithuanian immigrants who met and married in the United States. They settled in Norwalk, and operated a small chain of grocery stores in the area.

Leo earned a law degree from Cornell University in 1936 and joined his brother, Bernard, in the practice of law in South Norwalk. Upon Bernard’s death in 1942, Leo opened an office in Westport. He continued to practice law for 73 years, until his death.

Leo Nevas

Leo Nevas

When Leo purchased the building in which his law office would be located, a local real estate agent inquired about renting an office in the building. Leo said that he would make a deal with her: If she agreed to ignore the informal “covenant” that made it difficult for Jews to purchase homes in Westport, she could have an office rent-free for a year.

She agreed. She began showing homes to Jews, which forced other agents to do the same. As Jews began purchasing homes, merchants opened stores and other retail establishments. One was Oscar’s, founded by Oscar Sisken and his wife, Sally.

While Westport’s Jewish community is strong and thriving, the retail establishments founded by the pioneers who helped establish that community are, sadly, gone. The memories of those pioneers will, however, remain with us.


Click here for “06880+”: The easy way to publicize upcoming events, sell items, find or advertise your service, ask questions, etc. It’s the “06880” community bulletin board!

Mille Grazie, Rafaella Sforza

Half a century ago, Aldo and Rafaella Sforza left their native Calabria, Italy for America.

Their 1st stop — Rochester, New York — was “too cold,” Rafaella says.

Moving to Connecticut in 1968, she worked as a tailor at Ed Mitchell’s. Her husband — also a tailor — was hired by Pack Roads.

Six years later, Aldo opened his own shop on the 2nd floor in the back of Colonial Green. It flourished. When he needed more help, Rafaella joined him.

Eight years ago, Aldo died. Rafaella has worked alone since then.

Now — at the end of the month — she’s retiring. “I can’t go on forever,” she says. “I hope God gives me a few more years to spend with my wonderful children, and my 2 lovely grandchildren.”

Rafaella Sforza, at her trusty sewing machine. She is surrounded by her beloved Vatican artifacts.

Rafaella Sforza, at her trusty sewing machine. She is surrounded by beloved Vatican artifacts.

Leaving is not easy. “It’s good to retire, but I feel so empty,” Rafaella says with emotion. “This is a like a big family. My customers, they’re good people. They make me feel so good. Everyone is happy. Everyone is so nice.”

Rafaella’s customers are devastated. Carolyn Cohen says, “She did old world- quality work for the most reasonable prices.

“But the best part was getting to know her. She was an oasis in a crazy world. She always had a smile and a hug, including my kids who adore her. She approached them as a kind, caring grandmother. She talked them into lowering their skirt and dress hemlines, which I could never do!”

Rafaella has watched generations grow up, move away, come back and start families. That includes her landlords.

“Please say how much gratitude I have for Mr. Leo Nevas and his family,” she says. “And Mr. Marc Nevas. I knew him when he was in short pants. Now he’s a professional man. Without them, I wouldn’t be here.”

Westport, she says, “is like my hometown. But this is life. The time has come.”

Rafaella pauses, overcome with emotion.

“Can you please say thank you to everyone?” she asks.

I can.

But more importantly, Rafaella Sforza: Thank you!