Tag Archives: Martha Aasen

Larry Aasen: “North Dakotans Never Give Up”

Larry Aasen has just written his 4th book about North Dakota.

That may be a world record.

“Very few people write books about North Dakota,” the Peace Garden State native and longtime Westporter says modestly.

“Then again, very few people live in North Dakota, period.”

At 96 years old, Aasen still has all his wits — and his wit.

So I should note here: Very few 96-year-olds write books, period.

Aasen’s oeuvre includes “North Dakota 100 Years Ago,” “Images of North Dakota” and “North Dakota Postcards 1900-1930.” The postcards are fascinating — some are from his parents’ collection (they corresponded that way when they were courting, and lived 30 miles apart) — and so are the photos his mother took using a new-fangled camera (they were sent to Minneapolis to be developed, and arrived back 3 weeks later).

Larry Aasen has written 4 books. All focus on North Dakota.

His latest book — “North Dakotans Never Give Up” — goes beyond images, postcards and history. It’s a personal memoir, weaving together Aasen’s youth in the still-pioneer state with the inspiring story of residents who overcame great adversity, and achieved big things.

(Eric Sevareid, Lawrence Welk and Peggy Lee, to name 3.)

“The Depression was a terrible time,” Aasen says of his youth. “Many young people in North Dakota today have no idea. There were grasshoppers, drought — you name it.”

Those North Dakotans who never gave up survived by raising cows, turkeys, chickens and pigs. They made their own food. They built chairs and benches out of wood they chopped. They were self-sufficient. They had to be.

“Winters were tough,” he says. “Kids really did walk to school in the snow.”

He was one of those kids. And he’d go to school after milking cows. “We smelled. The town kids teased us,” he recalls.

Larry Aasen’s garage is filled with North Dakota — and political — memorabilia.

Aasen’s grandparents were certainly tough. All 4 lived into their 80s. Their stories form an important part of the new book.

“Weak people died,” Aasen says. His grandparents never went to the hospital. They didn’t even have medical care.

“It cost $1 for the doctor to come to the farm. That was too expensive.” He doesn’t remember ever seeing medicine in the house — “except maybe cough syrup.”

His mother kept a diary, which he still has. “She would talk about whatever happened that day,” Aasen says. “‘Today an airplane flew over the farm.’ ‘We butchered a pig.’ ‘Hoover was elected president.’ There were a lot of bank robberies too.”

Larry Aasen’s mother’s 1929 diary (left), and 2 pages from 1937.

Aasen is an assiduous researcher. He spent 9 months writing the most recent volume — and did all the layout too. (His son-in-law got it copy-ready.)

“I’m 96, but I’m too busy to be a senior citizen,” Aasen — whose Mississippi-born wife Martha, 89, is equally active — says.

Aasen’s books sell well — and all over the country. They’re bought by libraries, universities, people who live in North Dakota, and those who have left.

They’re reviewed regularly in publications like the Bismarck Tribune, Grand Forks Herald and Forum of Fargo.

Aasen promotes his books himself, partly through direct mail. After 4 volumes, he’s built up a robust mailing list. (Robust by North Dakota standards, anyway.)

He used to go back every year. His trips now are less frequent.

“I had 31 cousins there. Now there’s 1,” Aasen says. “My classmates, my Army mates — they’re all gone.”

Memorial Day 2018 grand marshal Larry Aasen and his wife Martha. (Photo/Ted Horowitz)

Larry and Martha Aasen moved to Westport in 1963. They’ve been involved in town life — too many activities to count — ever since.

But nearly 6 decades later — after nearly a century on the planet — Larry Aasen still loves his home state. And he’s proud to honor the people he grew up with there.

“A lot of people today, if they can’t get a job they sit around feeling sorry for themselves,” he says.

“In North Dakota, you couldn’t do that. You’d starve.

“You had to be tough, and figure things out.”

Like his book title says: North Dakotans Never Give Up.

(To buy a copy of Aasen’s book, email aasenm@aol.com, or call 203-227-6126.)

Senior Center: An “Old” Home Is Now Very New

Martha Aasen remembers when Westport’s Senior Center was part of Staples High School.

Two small rooms were hidden between the fieldhouse and wood shop. It was open just a few hours a day. Lunch came from the school cafeteria.

In 2003, a new Senior Center opened on Imperial Avenue. It was a spectacular improvement.

Bright and airy, it was filled with rooms for meetings, lectures, fitness and films. There was a library and dining room too. Seniors flocked there for events, classes and camaraderie.

That was 15 years ago. When First Selectman Jim Marpe cuts a ribbon tomorrow (Friday, January 4, 11 a.m.), Westporters of all ages will marvel at the first major enhancement of the Senior Center since it opened.

The 9-month project comes in on schedule — and on budget. The town appropriated $3.975 million. Friends of the Senior Center raised $300,000 for equipment and amenities.

(Clockwise from lower left): Martha Aasen, Leslie Wolf, Stan Nayer and Sue Pfister in the lobby of the newly modernized Senior Center.

Last week, Senior Center director Sue Pfister, Friends president Leslie Wolf, and Aasen — now in her 90s, and as passionate about the Center as ever — offered a tour of the new facility. It blends seamlessly with the original.

The 5,000-square foot new wing includes:

  • A new fitness center, with modern treadmills and machines
  • A strength classroom, also used for tap dancing and Zumba
  • A new library, with a computer and magnifiers
  • A drop-in game room
  • All new furniture and carpeting
  • New display cases for artwork
  • Outdoor access to the adjacent Baron’s South meadow, for tai chi and meditation
  • Offices for program manager Holly Betts, and interns
  • New restrooms with showers (for when the Senior Center is used as an emergency shelter).

Martha Aasen on the new treadmill. Doors open onto the Baron’s South park.

Other parts of the Senior Center have been modernized too. There are new floors, chairs and tabletops in the “Sue’s Cafe” dining room (where “grab-and-go” food will soon be available); a new wood floor next door, for dance classes; a second art room, and a handsome new custom desk in the entry foyer.

“It’s even better than we envisioned,” says Aasen — who was closely involved in the project — proudly.

“We’ve had so many meetings, and we saw all the plans. But when you actually see it finished, it’s unbelievable.”

“Stunning!” adds Pfister.

New windows provide the same airy look as the original wing of the Senior Center.

The Senior Center director credits the project’s smooth completion to “tremendous cooperation” from local officials. The Building Department’s Steve Smith, the Department of Public Works, and Parks & Recreation director Jen Fava were all all-in.

Architect Brian Scheuzger designed the original building too. A.P. Construction — which is also handling the Westport Library’s Transformation Project — did all the work.

The Senior Center attracts a wide range of people, Pfister notes: Those who are very active; those looking for quiet activities; those who want to meet old friends, and those seeking companionship.

It’s a welcoming facility for some, a second home for others.

Now — for all of them — Westport’s Senior Center is better than ever.

Workers were still finishing up — and unloading furniture — last week.

Larry Aasen Leads Memorial Day Parade

“This is incredible. I’m 95. At my age, you don’t get many awards.”

That’s Larry Aasen’s reaction to being named grand marshal of the 2018 Memorial Day parade.

The World War II airborne sergeant — and 55-year Westport resident — will ride the route from Riverside Avenue down the Post Road, and up Myrtle Avenue to Veterans Green, on Monday, May 28. There, he’ll give the keynote address.

Aasen — and many other Westporters — hope the 3rd time’s the charm. The 2 previous Memorial Day parades have been canceled due to weather. The grand marshals delivered their addresses in the Town Hall auditorium.

Larry Aasen, at last year’s Memorial Day parade.

Aasen has a lot to talk about.

He was born in a log cabin in the middle of a North Dakota snowstorm. There was no electricity, running water, central heating — not even a bathroom.

Aasen rose to sergeant in the 13th Airborne. After training in North Carolina, he was sent to France. His division had 20-person gliders, with no protection. The mission was to drop behind enemy lines, and destroy anything of value. Gliders had a 70% casualty rate, Aasen says.

His job was cryptographer, encoding and decoding secret messages. He had a security clearance from the FBI.

After his discharge in 1946, Aasen earned a journalism degree from the University of North Dakota. He headed east, for a master’s at Boston University.

Aasen moved to New York, “to seek my fortune.” He spent 14 years with New York Life Insurance, rising to vice president of public relations, then 20 years with the Better Vision Institute on campaigns urging Americans to get their eyes checked. Aasen worked with Bob Hope, Muhammad Ali and other celebrities on those projects. (He’s also met 6 US presidents.)

When they posed for this photo, President Obama said to Larry Aasen, “let’s put the rose (Martha Aasen) between 2 thorns.”

In 1963, he, his wife Martha and their young children moved to Westport. “We needed more room than a New York apartment,” he explains. “There were a lot of media people here, and they loved it.”

He and Martha live in the same Ellery Lane house they bought over half a century ago. He calls it “the best investment we ever made.”

Aasen served 17 years on the Representative Town Meeting (RTM). His other volunteer activities include the Democratic Town Committee, Y’s Men, Rotary Club and Saugatuck Congregational Church.

Larry and Martha Aasen have not missed a Memorial Day parade in 54 years. This year, he’ll have a special role in it.

A well-deserved honor for one of Westport’s favorite 95-year-olds.

Larry Aasen: 95 Years, 6 Presidents, Bob Hope And Muhammad Ali

On December 5, Larry Aasen turns 95 years young.

As the big day nears, he’s going through scrapbooks and albums. Recently, in the Ellery Lane home he and his wife Martha have lived in for 54 years, Aasen recalled some intriguing stories.

He was born in 1922, in a log cabin in the middle of a North Dakota snowstorm. There was no electricity, running water, central heating — not even a bathroom.

When he got to New York City in 1949, he heard about a Times Square “gag writers school.” The $5 tuition was put into a hat, at the beginning of class.

Aasen went on to work for the Better Vision Institute. Its mission was to encourage regular eye exams.

The organization used celebrities in its ads. Because he had eye problems, Bob Hope did radio and TV ads for free. Toward the end of the comedian’s career, Aasen did a fundraiser with him in Miami. He was tired and weak. But when the spotlight hit him, he did a jig, picked up his violin and performed well.

Bob Hope (left) and Larry Aasen (right).

One day, a friend gave Aasen Muhammad Ali’s phone number. Aasen told the boxing champ the BVI wanted to use his photo on a poster. Ali, however, was more concerned about how Aasen had gotten his number.

Aasen explained that the poster would read, “Your fists can’t hit what your eyes can’t see!” Ali yelled “Okay!” — then slammed down the receiver.

Aasen and his wife are political junkies. In his long life, he’s met 6 presidents.

In 1950, while working as a writer/photographer for the Journal of Accountancy in New York, he was assigned to take photos of CPAs at the Waldorf Astoria. Hurrying over, he knocked down a frail old man. When he got up, Herbert Hoover gave Aasen a stern look and said, “Watch where you are going!”

Five years later, in Kansas City, Aasen learned where Harry Truman parked his car for his daily walk to work. Sure enough, at 8:15 a.m. he drove up.

It was snowing hard. The former president was all alone. Aasen asked if he could walk along. Truman smiled, and asked Aasen where he was from.

He said North Dakota, and that his wife was from Mississippi. The two men talked about those states’ senators, as well as the Hayes/Tilden “stolen” election of 1876. Then, after a firm handshake, Truman bounded up the office steps.

Martha and Larry Aasen.

In 1960, Martha’s father was a Mississippi delegate to the Democratic convention. The state shared a “very poor hotel” with the Wyoming delegation. Though they were small, and seemingly unimportant at the end of the roll call, candidate John F. Kennedy arrived at the hotel to meet them.

Kennedy jumped out of a car, and shook Aasen’s hand. That night, Wyoming’s votes gave Kennedy the Democratic nomination for president.

Ronald Reagan, Aasen says, was even better looking than his photos. Martha and he first met him at a motel in San Mateo in 1963, after a Rotary speech. The actor invited a group to his suite. He told jokes, in a disarming way.

The Aasens saw Reagan other times too, when he promoted the “GE Theater Show.”

In 1975, Aasen was in Atlanta. Jimmy Carter walked down a hotel hall, put out his hand, introduced himself and said he was running for president. He invited Aasen to a speech.

That night he spoke quietly, describing his plans for the country. Aasen thought it was too bad that such a “intelligent, decent man” might never be president. Of course, he laughs, “Carter didn’t know that.”

Larry and Martha Aasen, and then-1st Selectwoman Diane Farrell Goss greet President Clinton. His helicopter landed at Sherwood Island State Park.

Bill and Hillary Clinton visited Westport often, usually to meet donors. Aasen says he often forgets how tall the president is, and how he is “always in motion. He has that skill of connecting with his audience — and he will not let them go.” Clinton loves to talk — “which is why he is always late.”

As for Barack Obama: Once, leaving a stage, he posed for a photo with the Aasens. “Let’s put the rose between the 2 thorns,” Obama suggested.

President Obama and Larry Aasen flank “the rose”: Martha Aasen.

Happy upcoming 95th birthday, Larry Aasen. Here’s hoping you meet many more presidents — and have many more stories — in the years to come.

Senior Center: Town Jewel Seeks Enhancements

There are about as many senior citizens in Westport as school-age children.

But you can’t lump all our older folks together, any more than you can say kindergartners are the same as, um, seniors.

The men and women who frequent our Senior Center — formally known as the Westport Center for Senior Activities — range in age from 60s to 90s. Some come nearly every day; others regularly, or infrequently.

They head to the handsome downtown building for a variety of reasons: Fitness, aerobics, Pilates or yoga. Discussions and lectures. Meet longtime friends, and make new ones. Parkinson’s support groups. Lunch. Use computers. Play pool, bridge, poker, Scrabble or ping pong. Paint, sculpt or sketch. Read. Help with taxes, financial planning or Medicare options. Parties. Movies. Blood pressure screening or flu shots. Find companionship, and a community.

A Senior Center lecture draws a typical full house.

Our Senior Center is one of the most popular, well organized and best staffed in the country. But growth — up to 350 people a day — has created a critical need for enhancements.

In 2007, town planners predicted the Imperial Avenue center would run out of space in 2011. The recession forced improvements onto the back burner.

For the past 7 years, they’ve been part of the 5-year capital forecast. On Wednesday, May 17 (8 p.m., Town Hall), Senior Center representatives will ask for $3.9 million for enhancements.

Plans for the enhanced Senior Center. Click on or hover over to enlarge.

The Senior Center — run under the umbrella of the Human Services Department — has been around since the mid-1980s. Originally one room in the YMCA’s Bedford Building, it expanded when Greens Farms Elementary School closed (space there was shared with the Westport Arts Center).

When Greens Farms reopened, the Senior Center moved to a couple of rooms at Staples High School. The Imperial Avenue facility — built with strong support from First Selectman Dianne Farrell — opened in 2004. (“Ahead of schedule and under budget,” director Sue Pfister notes with pride.)

Much has changed since then. Closing hours were lengthened and Saturdays added, to accommodate seniors who still work.

Westport’s 60-plus population has risen dramatically — and they’re living longer.

As the Senior Center expanded its programming, more men and women attended more often.

There’s no more room for some activities. Four times a year, when registration opens for popular classes like yoga (gentle, regular and intense levels), the line forms at 6:30 a.m.

The small fitness area was filled to capacity on Saturday morning.

The other day, Pfister joined Enhancement Committee chair Lynn Goldberg and member Martha Aasen to explain the $3.9 million request.

There are 3 prongs.

One involves adding 4,500 square feet, offering:

  • More room for existing and new programs.
  • Space to socialize. “Many people meet friends here; they don’t go to each other’s homes nowadays,” Pfister says.
  • Meals to go (the Center serves 11,000 lunches a year — but for some seniors it’s their only real meal of the day).
  • Flexibility to adapt to changing future needs. “There’s a whole group of ‘new elders’ coming down the line,” 87-year-old Aasen notes.

(From left): Martha Aasen, Lynn Goldberg and Sue Pfister. Fitness equipment is stored in the hallway, because there’s no room anywhere else.

The 2nd element is parking and transportation. “If people can’t get here, our great programs are worthless,” Goldberg notes. For popular events, people now park as far away as Colonial Green.

“Senior-friendly” enhancements include more spots closer to the entrance, eliminating inclines, and adding ramps.

The 3rd category is “building tweaks.” This includes flashing work, making the front doors easier to use, adapting the computer room to the increase in laptops, and repositioning the fitness room so it opens onto walking trails on Baron’s South. (Parks and Recreation director Jen Fava is a member of the Enhancement Committee.)

A rendering of the proposed Senior Center building.

The Senior Center is a Westport jewel. And it’s not just for seniors.

Pfister is a huge proponent of intergenerational activities. Staples students volunteer there (one particularly popular activity: iPhone and iPad training). STAR delivers meals. The Senior Center often partners with the Library and other town organizations to sponsor programs.

“Mixing generations together helps reduce cognitive decline,” Pfister says. “And younger people get a lot out of interacting with older ones.”

A young volunteer at the annual lobster/clambake. The Senior Center serves 11,000 meals a year. For some, it’s their only real meal of the day. The proposed enhancement would enable the addition of “grab-and-go” meals.

She is excited about a new, upcoming activity. Suzuki has offered to run a course. Pfister must decide between violin or voice lessons.

Why not both? I ask.

“There’s no room,” she says.

Not now, anyway.

Bill Clinton Comes To Town

As president, Bill Clinton visited Westport 3 times — all for fundraisers.

He was back again last night. This time he raised cash on behalf of someone he hopes will be another President Clinton: his wife Hillary.

Attendees paid up to $2,700 for the event, at the Beachside Avenue home of hedge fund manager/Milwaukee Bucks co-owner Marc Lasry.

Press coverage was not allowed. Attendees said Clinton spent half an hour making a spirited case for his wife’s election, then chatted with guests for another half hour.

President Clinton with longtime Democratic activists Lee Greenberg and Martha Aasen.

President Clinton with longtime Democratic activists Lee Greenberg and Martha Aasen.

President Clinton and Senator Richard Blumenthal have been friends for many years.

President Clinton and Senator Richard Blumenthal have been friends for many years.

President Clinton with RTM member Kristan Peters-Hamlin. She is a descendant of Abraham Lincoln's first vice president, Hannibal Hamlin.

President Clinton with RTM member Kristan Peters-Hamlin. Her husband is related to Abraham Lincoln’s first vice president, Hannibal Hamlin.


Martha Aasen: Quite A Life Of Convention

In 1960, Martha Aasen was living in California. The Democratic National Convention was held in Los Angeles.

Martha came from a family of avid Democrats. Her father was a convention delegate from their native Mississippi. Her brother wangled a job as a driver for Stuart Symington, one of several men still jostling for the nomination.

Martha and her husband Larry got a room with the Mississippi delegation, in a rundown Spanish-style hotel on the outskirts of L.A. They had just checked in when another candidate appeared. It was John F. Kennedy, on his way to meet the Wyoming delegation at the same “crummy hotel.”

Martha walked up to the Massachusetts senator. He took her hand, and looked straight at her. Half a century later, she remembers his “unbelievable charisma.”

Kennedy’s visit paid off. On the night of the roll call, Wyoming’s 15 votes gave him the nomination over his closest rival, Texas senator Lyndon B. Johnson.

Though longtime Westporters Martha and Larry Aasen have been active in Democratic politics — and attending conventions — ever since, 1960 was not their first. Four years earlier, one of Larry’s North Dakota Republican friends got them into the Republican convention at San Francisco’s Cow Palace. They watched as President Eisenhower and Vice President Nixon were renominated.

Fannie Lou Hamer faces the Democratic credentials committee.

In 1964 the Aasens were in Atlantic City. Martha’s mother was a Mississippi delegate. That year, the biracial Freedom Democratic Party challenged the seating of the state’s all-white delegation. Fannie Lou Hamer gave a rousing speech. The governor urged his white delegation to walk out. Most did. Martha’s mother was one of the 3 or 4 who did not.

Forty years later, in 2004, Martha was a delegate at the Boston convention.  Connecticut was seated next to Mississippi. Thousands of delegates — of all races — paid tribute to the work of Fannie Lou Hamer, and other brave people who fought for civil rights.

Martha and Larry Aasen.

The Boston convention also featured an electrifying keynote speech by Illinois legislator Barack Obama. “Everyone there knew we were hearing someone special,” Martha recalls.

Martha was in Denver 4 years ago, when Obama was nominated for president.

She’d been back in Los Angeles in 2000, too. That was one of the few times  Connecticut had good seats. They were seated right in front, next to Tennessee. The reason, of course: Al Gore’s running made was Joe Lieberman.

Martha missed the 1968 Chicago convention — perhaps the most famous of all — as well as the others before 2000. She was working for the United Nations, and could not be actively involved in domestic politics.

Now 82, she looks forward to the upcoming Charlotte convention. The event has changed since the JFK days — more security, less spontaneity, and the nominee is known in advance — but they’re still exciting.

“It’s more of a pep rally,” Martha says. “You hear speeches, and realize why you believe so strongly in what you do. You go home energized, eager to support your candidate.”

And who knows? Some day, once again, a candidate may come calling on Connecticut. Just as John F. Kennedy did with Wyoming back when he needed a few more votes, wherever they were.