Tag Archives: Ralph Sheffer

Westport History Museum Removes Historic Name

Ann Sheffer is a native Westporter. The Staples High School Class of 1966 graduate’s family arrived here nearly a century ago.

Her father Ralph served on the RTM for 16 years, 10 as moderator. He chaired the Nike Site Committee, which managed the difficult task of bringing two military facilities to town, on North Avenue and Bayberry Lane. As chief fundraiser for the Westport Library, he helped spearhead the move from the Post Road to its present location.

Ann’s mother Betty was an active town volunteer. After her death at a young age, the Betty R. Sheffer Foundation provided major funding for arts, education, health care and history projects.

Ann Sheffer

Ann has carried on the family tradition. She is involved in literally dozens of town committees and events, including arts, education, history and culture.

For many years, the main exhibition space at the Westport Historical Society was called the Sheffer Gallery.

The institution’s name change — it is now the Westport Museum for History & Culture — as well as new leadership has brought many changes. Among them: The Sheffer Gallery will now be called the Daniel E. Offutt III Exhibition Hall.

A number of Westporters who were long associated with the WHS have expressed dismay at the changes — including the renaming of the Sheffer Gallery. Ann Sheffer is among them. She sent this open letter to the Westport History Museum:

Last week I drove by Wheeler House. I was pleased to see that the bricks that I bought to commemorate my family’s tenure in Westport are still there (and my husband Bill’s name is now spelled correctly), as are Miss Liberty and Uncle Sam, who have graced the porch or lawn of the house since we donated them in 2000 as part of the Millennium celebration.

Bricks bought by Ann Sheffer and her husband Bill Scheffler, honoring the extended Sheffer family.

As the bricks note, my family has been part of Westport since 1930, and also very involved with the Westport Historical Society. I don’t want to recite all of the volunteer positions we’ve held, contributions to the archives we’ve made, and most significantly, the major contribution to the expansion of the building, which resulted in the naming of the Exhibition Hall in honor of my parents.

So I was dismayed to receive a letter from your board president, Sara Krasne, with the following vague, disingenuous “notice” that the Westport History Museum had received “a significant donation for the purpose of upgrading the exhibition hall to a modern, state-of-the-art standard in return for naming the hall after the donor.”

First, it’s very unprofessional of you to send me a letter rather than speaking to me in person — and trying to understate the fact that you are taking my parents’ names off of the Exhibition Hall. I’m disappointed that you don’t value our history of support for the organization enough to be honest about what you are doing.

Second, it is a fairly serious breach of faith and fiduciary responsibility to remove a donor’s name from a building without having the courtesy to ask their permission.

“Uncle Sam” and “Miss Liberty” — donated to the Westport Historical Society in 2000 by Ann Sheffer and Bill Scheffler — were almost sold last year. They still remain at what is now the Westport Museum for History & Culture. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

I would note that my family’s contributions are recognized by a number of other cultural organizations in town, most notably the Westport Library — whose director, Bill Harmer, called me as soon as the plans for the recent renovation were announced, to discuss how we would like our family’s name to be displayed in the new design.  Not only were we delighted to be consulted, but his approach resulted in our making additional contributions.

I’m very disappointed that an organization that is ostensibly dedicated to preserving and celebrating the history of Westport would be so insensitive and dismissive of the historical contributions that have insured their existence.

I have no interest in any further discussion with you. But I sincerely hope that you will not treat other donors in such a dismissive fashion, and that you will make an effort to honor the founding principles of the Westport Historical Society despite your name change.

Westport is, as we often say, a special place, with a long history worth celebrating — and the Westport History Museum has a responsibility to preserve that history in an ethical and professional manner.

 I asked executive director Ramin Ganeshram to respond. She emailed back: “Please find the official press release regarding the exciting opportunity to upgrade the Exhibition Hall in order to continue the Museum’s transformative path toward excellence in providing world class exhibits in the tradition of our award-winning ‘Remembered: The History of African Americans in Westport.'”

Here is that press release, dated Friday, January 10 but suddenly sent yesterday morning:

Westport Museum (formerly Westport Historical Society) is honored to announce that it will be naming its main exhibit hall after local philanthropist Daniel E. Offutt, III following a significant donation from the Daniel E. Offutt, III Charitable Trust. Mr. Offutt, who lived in Weston, was a generous donor to many local nonprofits both during his lifetime and via his estate.

The gift is the largest single donation ever received by the Museum. The main exhibit hall was formerly named after Ralph & Betty Sheffer, longtime supporters of the Museum who provided the major funding to complete the space in 2002.

“We are thrilled to be able to name this significant cultural resource after Mr. Offutt who was a generous and active member in the local community. His interest and support has helped many cultural organizations here and around the nation,” says Ramin Ganeshram, Executive Director of Westport Museum. “I only wish Mr. Offutt were with us to see the value his good work will bring to this and surrounding communities.”

Daniel Offutt had a lifetime interest in history and in art as both a collector and an artist. A self-described “farmer,” he was more aptly described as a “Renaissance Man”: a tennis player, traveler, sailor, metal sculptor, wood worker, fixer of anything, collector of everything, lover of projects, stock market investor, and a good friend. Mr. Offutt lived for more than 30 years in Weston, Connecticut in a house that he built himself.

The gift from Mr. Offutt’s Trust will enable Westport Museum to make much needed upgrades to its main exhibit hall, in keeping with national museum standards to provide quality experiences with universal access to the widest audience. The goal of upgrading exhibit spaces at the Museum is part of a multi-year strategic initiative to create a world class regional Museum in Westport.

“As Trustee, I am pleased to support the growth and improvement envisioned for the Museum,” said Richard H. Orenstein. “Working with Ramin has been an easy and creative endeavor.”

“Thanks to this significant gift we will be able to create our next ground-breaking exhibit with the highest standards in mind,” said Ganeshram. The first exhibit to open in the newly remodeled space will be in late 2020 about Westport’s indigenous people who inhabited the town and surrounds for 7500 years before European colonization.

While the name change is effective immediately, a plaque will be formally installed to rename the gallery “The Daniel E. Offutt III Exhibition Hall at Westport Museum” at a ceremony to take place at the opening of the 2020 indigenous people’s exhibit in November.

Why The Arts — And The Arts Center — Matter

The news that the Westport Arts Center is considering a new building on Jesup Green brought out the “06880” commenters. Some opposed the site; others opposed the WAC itself.

Lost in the discussion was an appreciation of the long — and important — role the arts have played in Westport.

Here — far more eloquently than I could say it — are some insights into that subject.

We can quantify our arts services. We can show how many people visited the Arts Center this past year for concerts, exhibits, lectures and classes. But the story is much more.

It is offering programming that nurtures creativity and broadens opportunities for learning. It is providing affordable studio space for artists, allowing them to remain productive in our community.

It is generating audiences to and from the Center, and in that process providing stimulus to local merchants and restaurants.

It is being a visible symbol to people looking to settle in our region, that we value and support culture.

Peter Van Heerden, the Westport Arts Center's dynamic executive director. (Photo by Helen Klisser During)

Peter Van Heerden, the Westport Arts Center’s dynamic executive director. (Photo by Helen Klisser During)

Corporate and foundation grants, individual gifts and money generated from our concerts, classes and lectures is money that is all returned to the community in services purchased, salaries paid and opportunities provided to people of all ages.

The arts are good business and good sense.  They contribute day in and day out to the quality of our region’s social, cultural and intellectual life. Support spurs us to renewed faith in ourselves, and doubles our commitment to even broader and more exciting arts services in the future.

Wise words indeed. And they are as true today as they were 21 years ago, when they were written by Ralph Sheffer. In 1992, he was president of the Westport Arts Center board.

When The Cold War Came To Town

Recently the New York Times ran a story on the top-secret nuclear bomb shelter built for President Kennedy near his Palm Beach home.  These days, it’s a tourist attraction.

We could have had something similar, right here in Westport.

Instead we turned our Nike Site into a school.

At the height of the Cold War, the U.S. government developed a defense system.  Nikes were line-of-sight anti-aircraft missiles that would destroy incoming bombers.

In the 1950s Bridgeport — an important manufacturing city, with military production places like General Dynamics, Remington and Sikorsky — was presumed to be high on the Russians’ target list.  Nike missiles would defend it.

They had to be launched from a high elevation, not far from the city.  Westport seemed a perfect spot.

Nike missiles on display.

The town was rattled.  RTM member Ralph Sheffer was appointed chairman of the Nike Site Committee.

Meanwhile, Ralph recalled in a Westport Historical Society oral history, the Army sent in “their best PR people — handsome young captains” to calm things down.

Ralph visited Nike sites around the country.  He even called a former classmate — President Eisenhower’s press secretary — to ask for help.  He offered to set up a meeting with Ike.

“I decided it would be too presumptuous,” Ralph said.

The missiles were placed in silos on North Avenue.  They were to be set off from another point in Westport — one with direct sighting to the Nikes.  The tower had to be built on a higher elevation:  the Sheffer family’s 32-acre property on Cross Highway, from Bayberry to Sturges Highway.

Ralph’s father-in-law — “a loyal American citizen” — donated the property to the Army for $1.  He stipulated that if the Nike site was no longer used, it would revert to the town.

The Army built barracks on Bayberry Lane.  Ralph said he spent mornings “throwing beer cans back onto Army property.”  Other military personnel — those with families — lived on Wassell Lane.

A typical Nike site -- much like the North Avenue one. Missiles were usually buried underground.

Westport writer Max Shulman wrote about the Nike Site  — the town’s reaction, and how it dealt with frisky GIs — in Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys!

In 1958, the book became a movie.  Paul Newman played the Ralph Sheffer character; Joanne Woodward was Ralph’s wife Betty.  The film introduced the Newmans to Westport.  They soon moved here — and never left.

“Of course,” Ralph said in his oral history, “by the time the Nike site was built and in place, it was outdated by new technology.”

In 1960, control was transferred from the U.S. Army to the National Guard.  Westport’s Nike Site closed 3 years later.

Rolnick Observatory -- the former Nike Site on Bayberry Lane -- in 1975.

The Bayberry Lane barracks became Westport/Weston Health District headquarters.  The control tower was turned into the Rolnick Observatory.

The North Avenue site has a more intriguing history.

For a decade, it lay abandoned.  Area children — including, ahem, me — have vivid memories of cavorting on the property.  The silos were open — well, we found a way to open them — and believe me, nothing beats the Cold War memory of clambering inside a missile silo.

In 1973 the Department of Health, Education and Welfare — which apparently had taken control — transferred the North Avenue land to the town.

According to the Norwalk Hour of October 1 that year, a ceremony was held.  Paul Newman called it “a great day for Westport.”  The Staples band played a couple of tunes, including — inexplicably — “On Wisconsin” and Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4.”

First Selectman John Kemish said, “The land once needed for war will now be dedicated to the pursuit of peace.  The property will now be redeveloped by our Board of Education as a facility for our children.”

Well — not quite.

Though envisioned as a possible location for the Town School Office, a curriculum center, a maintenance garage and/or a repair area for Staples’ automotive classes, it languished.

In 1977-78, industrial arts teacher Ed Ljostad created a “Woodshop to Nike” class.  Eleven junior and senior boys began a planned 5-year renovation project there.

Their goal was to build bedrooms, bathrooms, a kitchen, storage space, dorm rooms and a dining hall — a living environment that any Staples group could use.

They began removing walls, radiators, pipes and debris; the next step was plumbing and electrical work, a septic system, new windows and doors.

Project Adventure — a one-quarter gym option — installed a ropes course, high wire and 30-foot balance beam, to develop group cooperation.

But both projects petered out.  Generations of Stapleites recall the Nike Site as an abandoned, overgrown, unpatrolled area — the ideal spot for drinking, drugs and sex.  (“Hey, wanna see my silo?”)

You wouldn’t know any of that today.  The missiles are gone; so is any trace of the military.

Instead of Cold War civil preparedness — or teenage wasteland — the North Avenue Nike Site is pristine.

Few — if any — of the people there today know the history behind the property.

The property that today is Bedford Middle School.

The North Avenue Nike site today.