Michael Gilbertie was busy on Facebook’s Westport pages recently. He posted photos of major fires from our past. There were 2 in the same Sconset Square (then called Sherwood Square) shopping center.
One was the Carousel Toy Store:
The other was the Paint Bucket:
(Photos courtesy of Michael Gilbertie)
Remarkably, it was the 2nd fire for Carousel. It had relocated to Sherwood Square after burning to the ground in Compo Acres Shopping Center (where Solidcore is now).
Those were not the only big blazes in local history. Others included the Klaff’s block on the Post Road (across from the downtown Starbucks); Westport Lanes bowling alley (today it’s BevMax), Long Lots Junior High School, and the furniture store on Main Street (now The Gap).
The worst fire in the past decade or so was the 2011 fire at Saugatuck Congregational Church. Heroic work by the Westport Fire Department, and neighboring towns — plus fireproofing, done a few years earlier — saved the building, where Westport’s town charter was born.
In fact, it’s the Fire Department’s ongoing work, including inspections and education — that have kept our town so safe since the 1970s.
Dan Sullivan — a longtime teacher and administrator, who had a profound impact on the Westport Public Schools — died Monday, surrounded by his family. He was 81.
Sullivan (not to be confused with the Staples High School Latin teacher with the same name) began his career here in 1964, as a Long Lots Junior High School math teacher.
He was named department chair in 1969, then vice principal in 1973. In 1986 he moved to Coleytown Elementary School as principal. He retired in 1997; served as a special assistant for building, planning and construction, then returned full-time in 2001 as principal of Greens Farms Elementary.
Those are the facts. But they don’t convey the warmth, empathy or great good humor that made Dan Sullivan a legend in Westport education.
I was not exactly an Einsteinian math pupil. But I had Mr. Sullivan in 8th grade, and he made math actually fun. Like any great teacher, he loved his subject. But he understood that not all of us would be mathematicians — and that was okay. He also had a wicked sense of humor.
Later, when I was a substitute teacher, Long Lots was a favorite school. Mr. Sullivan fostered a warm, loving schoolwide environment. I saw how he treated every student sent to the office as a special individual, worthy of his time, his ear and his respect.
In the 1980s and ’80s, Long Lots had a very complex schedule. Classes were varying lengths: science labs were long and met only a couple of times a week; foreign language classes were short but met often, for example.
Because of those time periods, very few classes let out at the same time. The halls were never crowded — the bane of any school.
It was a brilliant schedule. It was devised completely by Mr. Sullivan — all by hand. Many schools could have benefited from the setup. Of course, no other other had a Dan Sullivan to create and implement it.
And — this would never happen today, for many reasons — he allowed a neighborhood dog the free run of school. One day Doozer wandered in to Long Lots, and never left. He roamed the halls, sat in on classes, and lay down in the cafeteria.
Most vice principals would have called Animal Control. Mr. Sullivan turned a blind eye (when he wasn’t petting him). It helped make Long Lots feel not like a school, but a home.
Mr. Sullivan had a similar impact on colleagues throughout the Westport Public Schools. He was an innovative thinker, a wise mentor, and a very funny guy.
Dan Sullivan graduated from Milford High School in 1957. He earned a BS from Southern Connecticut State College, an MS in secondary supervision from the University of Bridgeport, and certificates in advanced studies for administration and supervision from Fairfield University and Teachers College, Columbia University.
He later became an adjunct professor at both the University of Bridgeport and Sacred Heart University.
Mr. Sullivan is survived by 4 children: Kevin of Los Angeles, Maureen and Lorna of Philadelphia, Daniel of Fairfield, and 6 grandchildren. He was predeceased by his wife Lorna.
Longtime Westport physical education instructor — and avid golfer, skier and college sports fan — Connie Miller died July 22 at her home in Milford. She was 75 years old.
Connie was born April 7, 1945 in Glenside, Pennsylvania. Her family moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1961. It was the home of her beloved University of Michigan, from which she graduated in 1967. She later earned a master’s degree from the University of Bridgeport.
Connie began her teaching career at Long Lots Junior High School. She later taught at Staples High School and Greens Farms Elementary School. She was a much loved field hockey, basketball and softball coach. Through her career she influenced many young people.
Connie helped start the junior high intramural sports program in Westport. After teaching for 37 years with dedication and passion, she retired to spend more time on the golf course and the Vermont ski slopes, from her cabin in Wilmington, Vermont.
In the spring and summer she worked at The Orchard Golf Course in Milford, where she did everything but cut the grass.
Connie volunteered at the Milford Hospital Auxiliary, Milford Campus as well as the Walk-In Center. She served as president for 8 years, and was instrumental in creating the therapy dog program at Milford Hospital. She received many awards for her service and dedication to the Auxiliary.
Connie’s love of animals and commitment to animal rights were constants in her life. Her dogs went everywhere with her. She touched the lives of her students, colleagues and many friends and family with a beautiful smile and generous heart.
Connie is survived by her sister, Lynn Miller of Dunedin, Florida. Due to the current health conditions and restrictions of COVID-19, a memorial service will be held at a later date.
Josh Markel is one of those long-ago Westporters who still retains a love for this town (and who reads “06880,” for its blend of yesterday and today).
Josh sent along this story. On one level, it’s about a teacher he remembers fondly, from the late 1950s.
On another level though, it’s a paean to educators everywhere. They may not remember every student — but their life lessons linger decades after their classroom lessons are done.
I hit Long Lots Junior High around 1959. Scott Wright (his real 1st name was Guyer) was the art teacher. He had a profound effect on my development, and I think with others as well. He had a great talent for connecting with kids who weren’t successful in the traditional academic manner. And he was far more than just a successful art teacher.
I would hang out in his room after school, waiting for the late bus. Other kids did too.
Long Lots, back when it was a junior high.
As an example of his unconventional approach, he sponsored 3 competitions for different types of art work, which were shown at Long Lots. Early on (compared to the rest of the world) he saw the value in film as an art form. One of his competitions was a scenario for a short film, which he paid to produce in 8 mm.
It was won by Zazel Wilde, who also spent time in his room after school. Hers was about 3 crises that send a kid over the edge. Very sturm und drang adolescent stuff. Zazel later became a model, and appeared on the back of the Doors’ “Strange Days” album.
Zazel Wilde (left) on the back of “Strange Days.”
Wright also sponsored competitions to design an outdoor sculpture, and a large mural to be affixed to the side of the school. They were fabricated by students, at his expense. Apparently he had a small inheritance which I found out about when I, quite inappropriately, asked him how he could afford a Porsche on a teacher’s salary.
His dedication to the art world went beyond that of a teacher. He put out an irregularly published magazine, “The Palette,” that solicited comments from well-known world figures on the importance of art. He got statements from amazing people, including Winston Churchill. I recently saw Wright’s correspondence and responses, including hand-written signatures, for sale on the internet for $12,000.
In class he tried to make kids aware that art originally was thought to have magical powers. For a project to make an image of something we wished for, he played Bo Diddley for us (showing music as art imbued with magical force) — far out for a teacher in those days.
Scott Wright taught about Bo Diddley, and corresponded with Winston Churchill. This may be the 1st time the 2 men have ever appeared in the same photo collage.
Once, he assigned us a project of designing a getaway house for ourselves. I came up with a boring rectangular plan. He showed me what Mies van der Rohe had done with a rectangle in his famous Barcelona pavilion. That sparked my life-long connection to architecture and design.
The potential for creativity in architecture was underscored when he showed me the house he designed for himself in Weston or Wilton. It was a modern home with a boulder built into the living room.
Wright furthered my interest in cars, racing and automotive design by taking me to my 1st sports car race at Lime Rock, upstate. My wife still suffers under the weight of all the car magazines in our house.
Despite Sputnik’s success, Scott Wright believed in the importance of arts education.
Wright also authored an article for Saturday Review about the importance of art education, when the rest of the world was exercised about science education in the wake of Sputnik.
Long before the light shows of the ’60s, he fabricated a device that projected random light effects on a frosted, TV-like screen. He told me of Russian composer Scriabin’s experiments with compositions that combined light and sound.
Wright was on fire. I would love to know more about him, and what happened to him.
“06880” readers: Do you remember Scott Wright? Click “Comments” below. And if you don’t, feel free to add your thoughts about the influential teachers in your lives.
In the 1960s and ’70s, Long Lots was a tight-knit junior high community.
The faculty and administrators were some of the finest Westport has ever seen.
Camaraderie and spirit — among staff, students and parents — was sky-high.
It wasn’t much to look at. But Long Lots Junior High was a great school.
Over the past few years, some of the people most instrumental in making the school what it was have died.
Joe Koeller. Art Bleemer. Joe Ziegahn. Rich Rollins. Lee Hawes.
Add John Day to the list. He passed away last week in Arizona.
John was a wood shop teacher, back in the day when all boys took that course. But although his room was down a long flight of stairs, he was as important an instructor as anyone.
Like any good teacher, he taught the whole student. Like any good educator, he cared about the entire school environment. Like any good role model, he was firm, fair, and fun.
John was also Long Lots’ 1st soccer coach, back in the day when Westport’s 3 junior highs battled each other — and Darien, New Canaan and Greenwich — in interscholastic sports.
He’d learned the game in England, during World War II. He kept 40 or so 8th and 9th graders on his teams. He didn’t have a field — football took the upper area, and the lower part had not yet been carved out of the woods — so his teams practiced on a tiny patch of grass where the playground is now. They played their home matches at the very small Green’s Farms Elementary field.
How he did it — handled so many kids, in such a limited space — I’ll never know.
But one of those soccer players was me.
I wasn’t a very good wood shop student. Nor was I a soccer star.
But John Day gave me a chance. I loved the game.
Decades later, I still do.
And — with considerably more resources than he had — I too am coaching. In fact, before I coached at Staples, I succeeded him at Long Lots.
Thanks, Mr. Day. You influenced thousands of kids.
On the long list of early-adolescent activities I participated in, and of which I am not particularly proud (though nonetheless willing to share with thousands of “06880” readers), few rank higher than the true tale I am about to tell.
It is Halloween. I’m in 8th grade. I’m also desperate for acceptance by the hundreds of 8th graders clogging the halls of Long Lots Junior High, all of whom know telepathically how to dress (chinos and penny loafers), talk (“groovy,” “outasight,” “hey man”) and walk (coolly), while I have to work at such things as if they’re a full-time job.
Me, in 7th grade. A year later I was tossing mailboxes into ponds.
I am part of the in crowd, which is merely the most important thing in the entire universe to me, but I am fully aware that my position there is tenuous. I can be cast out at any moment by the queen bee, who has the power to do such things and often does, just on a whim (or perhaps simply to watch her fellow 8th graders squirm).
So naturally I am willingeager frothing to do anything it takes to stay cool.
Including tossing my own parents’ mailbox into the pond across the street.
I do not, mind you, set out that Halloween night to vandalize my mother’s and father’s mailbox. That is the furthest thing from my mind. The nearest thing is to follow along with whatever the rest of the in crowd does.
This, I quickly determine, is tossing other people’s mailboxes this way and that.
Now, I do not have anything against these folks. In many cases, I do not even know them. I have certainly never noticed their mailboxes.
And I should emphasize that I am not exactly a major player in this juvenile delinquency gang. I am not the person — Ricky, let’s call him — who cunningly determines which mailboxes will live, and which will die.
I am not the one — hmmm, Glenn sounds like a good name — who physically uproots the mailboxes Ricky has selected for extinction.
I am only one of many mindless drones who haul the mailboxes to the places our leaders decide will be the final resting places: The woods. The fields. The middle of the road.
Or, in the case of my parents’ mailbox, the pond across the street.
It was not easy being in the in crowd at Long Lots Junior High.
Let me say, in my defense, that I do not think trashing my parents’ mailbox is a particularly wise idea. I wonder whether they will be able to replace it in time for tomorrow’s postal delivery.
I hope they will not see me.
I pray the cops will not come racing down the street.
But like a good 8th grade follower, I keep my concerns to myself.
Part of my brain waits for my friends’ peculiar code of honor to kick in. The one that will enable them to say, in the middle of demolishing this particular mailbox, “Hey, wait a sec. That’s Dan’s parents’! Lay off, guys. This is wrong!”
Another brain part waits for someone to gracefully put his hands over my eyes while the dirty deed is being done.
I might as well wait for them to start discussing the use of imagery and allusion in Lord of the Flies.
Rather than letting me off the hook, my friends maliciously egg me on. To get me in exactly the right vandalistic frame of mind, they use the key phrase guaranteed to propel any insecure 13-year-old into action: “Come on, man. Everybody’s doing it.”
So I do it.
I help yank the mailbox out of the ground. I toss it in the air.
I hear the splash as it hits the water. I watch the ripples as it sinks slowly, s-l-o-wl-l-y, to its watery grave.
I feel ashamed, giving in so easily to my friends.
But I feel elated too, as my “buddies” slap my back. They congratulate me for trashing yet another mailbox.
For one more day, my place in the in crowd is secure.
There is, of course, a moral to this story. I am now many years older, and perhaps a bit wiser.
This Wednesday is Halloween. I know what it’s like to be a kid that night, and try like hell to fit in with the crowd.
So here is a message, especially to all you socially insecure 8th graders out there:
If you even think about tossing my mother’s mailbox into the pond, I’ll kill you.
Right now, there’s a proposal on the table — la table — to eliminate middle school French within 3 years.
While that’s not the extent of my French ability, it’s close.
It’s all ALM’s fault.
If you didn’t go to school in the 1960s, you missed out didn’t miss anything. ALM was a language instruction method rooted in rote repetition. Wikipedia says it was “discredited as a teaching methodology in 1970,” but those of us who suffered through it then (and after) in Westport have it seared in our brains.
“Où est Sylvie? A la piscine.”
“La neige est belle aujourd-hui.”
And something about mounting a balcony. Plus, of course, Monsieur et Madame Thibault.
Other victims students from that era have similar ridiculous and basically useless sentences embedded in our memories, crowding out anything remotely resembling vocabulary, grammar or the rest of the French language.
Which is not to say that learning French at Long Lots Junior High School was not memorable.
My 8th grade teacher was Carmen Delgado. A large, imposing and very loud woman, she was — as her name implies — not French, French-Canadian or even Cajun, but rather Puerto Rican.
Louis Pasteur, a French scientist who gained fame for inventing a cure for rabbis.
English was probably her 3rd language, which is why she said such things as “Louis Pasteur invented a cure for rabbis.”
At least that is understandable. What were 13-year-olds to make of “Daniel, what is it you are staring at? The moon of Valencia?”
I have obviously remembered at least as much English from Mademoiselle Delgado as I have French.
Also cemented into my cerebrum is a play we produced, “Astérix et Cléopâtre.” Based on what Mademoiselle assured us were very popular French cartoon figures, it probably broke every licensing law in the books. How she had the cojones to charge admission — it was only $1, but back then that was real francs — to watch us mangle the French language is beyond me. Yet that was part of Mademoiselle’s charm.
As it turns out, I have not had many opportunities to show off my lack of French. I have traveled to 5 continents, and over 3 dozen countries, but only one of them was French-speaking. (It was France, of all places). It did not snow there, and I did not need to know that Sylvie was at the pool, but I managed to eat, drink and find the bathroom (salle de bain).
I even was able — thanks to Monsieur et Madame Thibault — to know which door to use.
The snow is beautiful today. Is that Monsieur Thibault on his bicyclette?
When Staples’ Class of 1980 met last weekend for its 30th reunion, Janet Dewitt joined the festivities.
She’s not a Staples grad — she left Westport schools after junior high — but she was welcomed joyfully nonetheless.
In fact, Janet never lived in Westport. From grade 3 in Burr Farms Elementary School through grade 9 at Long Lots Junior High, she joined dozens of other Bridgeport youngsters enrolled in Project Concern.
At the time, Janet did not realize how controversial the program was. Opponents railed against bringing Bridgeport children to Westport schools. Some adults were so inflamed, they tried to recall one of Project Concern’s staunchest champions, Board of Education chair Joan Schine.
Proponents worked hard to make the program a success. School administrators involved the youngsters in every facet of school life, offering academic help, social support and transportation home after extracurricular activities.
Westport parents supported Project Concern too. Many opened their homes to the Bridgeporters youngsters, after school and on weekends.
That’s why when Janet came to the 30th reunion, she had nothing but fond memories of her experiences here.
“I met a lot of great people. I loved the teachers. I learned a lot. I had a lot of very nice friends,” she says.
Her 1st year here, Janet met Susan Robins. The women remain in frequent touch. “Her family took me in,” Janet says.
As Janet got older, she understood that some Bridgeport friends were jealous of her Westport education. Some were angry at the opportunity she had.
Many were curious as to why she became part of the program. She herself did not know why.
At the end of 8th grade, Janet transferred to Bridgeport’s Bassick High for personal reasons.
“Bridgeport schools were different,” she says. “It was tough to adjust.”
More than 3 decades later — when Susan told her about the Staples reunion — Janet wanted to attend. She’s glad she did.
“It was beautiful,” she says. “I remembered quite a few people.”
They remembered her too. Many also knew her brothers, Bo and Ricky. They too were in Project Concern, from Green’s Farms Elementary School and Long Lots Junior High through Staples.
These days, Janet babysits for her 3 grandchildren — the oldest is 11 — and works for the Connecticut Post.
Like many people — in Westport and Bridgeport — she wonders why Project Concern was allowed to end. (Budget constraints and transportation difficulties contributed to its demise. There is another program in its place, but it does not offer as much academic or social support as Project Concern did — and it serves fewer youngsters.)
“It was a beautiful program,” Janet says. “It would really be nice if they still had it.
“A lot of kids here don’t finish school. I think they’d be better students, and they’d learn more about life, if the program was still around.
“Westport schools made a difference. As long as you wanted to do something for yourself, the schools were there to help.
“And of course everyone just really needs to get out and meet different people, as much as they can.”
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