Tag Archives: Suzanne Sherman Propp

Give The Ukulele Some Props

In high school, Peter Propp’s rock band played covers of the Clash, Talking Heads and Pink Floyd all around Albany. Later, in New York in the 1980s, he had a (quick) gig at CBGB. He went corporate, then got into tech. But he never left music behind.

Growing up in Westport, Orphenian and 1981 Staples High School graduate Suzanne Sherman liked James Taylor and Joni Mitchell. She earned an MBA at Columbia, worked in the recording industry, and is now a longtime and much-loved music teacher at Greens Farms Elementary School.

Peter and Suzanne got married. They share a love of all kinds of music.

Including ukulele.

Suzanne Sherman Propp and Peter Propp, ukes in hand.

They started playing last year, in a Westport YMCA group led by Steve Forlano. When they heard about Connecticut’s Got Talent competition in Norwalk, they submitted a video.

They were selected, and played the Kinks’ “Sunny Afternoon.” That advanced them to the finals, where they performed the Turtles’ “Happy Together.”

Excited by the competition, Steve and Peter decided to produce a Ukulele Festival. They found a perfect, intimate venue: Westport’s Suzuki Music School, on the lower level of Colonial Green.

The event is set for Saturday, September 29. Workshops run from noon to 5 p.m. Concert doors open at 6.

Peter has plenty of experience running tech and business events, for IBM and as CMO for the Stamford Innovation Center.

A music festival is a wee bit different.

He booked national talent like Victoria Vox, and organized a great lineup including the CUkes from Westport, Abe Deshotel (Norwalk) and the Educated Fleas (Bethel).

The Ukulele Festival also features food trucks and local music vendors. Instruments will also be available to borrow.

Peter has had plenty of help, including Factory Underground (handling the live sound). Steve Forlano will be MC and workshop leader.

So who will come? With ukulele’s growing popularity, Peter expects people ages 10 to 70, from all over New York and New England.

Tiny Tim died in 1996. But I’m sure he’ll be there in spirit too.

(Click here for tickets and more information.)

This Is ABC, Part 3: A Host Family, And An Advisor

On Monday, “06880” introduced a new series. “This Is ABC” is a photo-essay project my sister, Susan Woog Wagner, and I began last fall. The goal is to highlight the many facets of A Better Chance of Westport — the program that provides academically gifted, economically disadvantaged and highly motivated young men of color the opportunity to live in Westport, and study at Staples High School.

Today’s post features an ABC host family, and a Staples High School teacher.

——————————————

THE PROPPS: HOST FAMILY

Suzanne Sherman Propp grew up in Westport with 3 siblings, in a close-knit family. She and her husband Peter have 2 children, Rose and Bennett. As a music teacher at Greens Farms Elementary School, her life is filled with kids.

So when a friend suggested she and her husband would make a great A Better Chance host family, they considered it. But the timing was not right.

Then 6 years ago, Eric Seidman became president of ABC’s Westport board. He and Suzanne had been classmates at Colgate University. The Propps got to know the organization well.

One day, Suzanne saw Rose at a Staples High School football game. She was hanging out with Khaliq Sanda, an ABC scholar. “He was like a magnet,” she says of his outgoing personality.

She and Peter thought again about being a host parent. Rose and Bennett were all in.

The application process included questions about how the family spends typical weekends. Hiking, concerts, movies, hanging out, occasional trips to New York, they wrote. They were approved, and looked excitedly toward meeting Manny Ogutu.

“It was love at first sight,” Suzanne recalls of that first day at Glendarcy House. “He gave us the warmest, nicest hug!”

He spent his first weekend — Labor Day — at their house. That’s when she discovered he loves apples. A lot. Little things like stocking the kitchen counter with apples went a long way.

Manny Ogutu, with an apple.

For 4 years, Manny spent 3 Sundays a month — from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. — with the Propps. One weekend a month, they shared the entire weekend. (A second family hosted Manny whenever the Propps could not.)

Manny and the Propps developed comfortable routines. Peter and Manny bonded over a shared love of superhero films. They also plowed through the original “Star Trek” series.

Manny is “a good kid with a great heart,” Suzanne says. Time together included “eating, crashing, homework, hanging out.” Peter taught Manny how to ride a bike, and make a bacon egg and cheese sandwich. They took him to Six Flags, and “Kinky Boots.” When Manny went to the prom, they took photos.

But Manny was more than a member of the Propp family. He joined the extended Sherman clan too. Suzanne’s siblings, nieces, nephews and parents get together often. Manny was embraced by all. He returned the love.

Manny Ogutu (rear), with the extended Propp and Sherman families.

Manny called Suzanne’s parents by their nicknames: Papa and Savta. He wrestled with the cousins, and did a Final Four bracket with everyone. “He’s like a mensch!” Suzanne marvels.

Manny developed a special relationship with Suzanne’s father, Larry (“Savta”).

In the same way, she and Peter became part of Manny’s family. They spoke every week with Manny’s father Nash, and his mother Stephanie. Suzanne sent photos galore.

During the college process, the Propps took Manny to schools like Colgate and (with Nash) Union. Nash came from Bayonne, New Jersey to join Manny and the Propps for special events like Passover, Shabbat dinner and bat mitzvahs.

Over their 4 years together, the relationship evolved. In the beginning, Peter says, “we didn’t know if we were there for support and kindness, or if we should insert ourselves more in his life.”

They struck a balance. When Manny mentioned difficulty seeing a clock, the Propps worked with ABC to make sure he saw an eye doctor, and got new glasses.

Manny enjoys Halloween with the Propps.

Sometimes they followed his lead. When Manny was interested in doing the AIDS Walk in New York, they joined him.

“Manny is naturally happy and content,” Suzanne says. “I’m not sure how much we really did for him. I think he knows a lot of people in our family care for him, and he felt very comfortable with us. And he got a lot of support from many other people in Westport too.”

As for the hosts, Suzanne says, “I got another kid to love like crazy.”

Suzanne Sherman Propp, and Manny Ogutu.

“We love this area. But there’s not a lot of diversity,” Peter notes. “We believe it’s important to get to know a ton of people. You have to get involved personally to affect change. Getting to know Manny helped us. He inspired me to do more entrepreneurial work in Norwalk. And Manny showed me the importance of embracing opportunities and relationships.”

Being a host family is satisfying. But it takes work.

“You can’t be passive,” Peter explains. “You have to be willing to get involved. When your kid is around, he should be a priority — just like with your own child. You have to make sure he gets discipline, quiet, sleep, transportation and food.”

“You can’t project your own image onto him,” Suzanne explains. “You have to find out what makes him happy. And then support him as much as you can, no matter what the challenges.”

Peter Propp helped Manny learn to ride a bike.

Manny is now a freshman at Carleton College in Minnesota. He and the Propps text and call often.

Suzanne says, “Manny was a gift. He was the perfect addition to our family. I cry every time I think about it.

And, she adds, “There’s always a bed for him here.”

Manny with part of the Propp and Sherman extended family, at the holidays.


MAGGIE GOMEZ:  TEACHER/ADVISOR

In 2004, A Better Chance was a new organization. Board member Mary Lou Huisking — a Staples High School staff member — asked newly hired math teacher Maggie Gomez to serve as a one of the first ABC “mentors.”

It was an inspired choice. After graduating from Greenwich High School and Union College, Maggie taught in Barbados, then served in Malawi with the Peace Corps. She was used to helping in any way she could.

Maggie was matched with Charles Winslow. He was also one of her 9th grade students. “We were both new to Staples,” she recalls. “We figured things out together.”

They ate lunch once a week, in the math office, throughout his 4 years at Staples. Steadily, their relationship grew.

“He gave me great insight into A Better Chance,” Maggie says. “The boys make it seem easy, but I got to understand their struggles. What they do is really, really hard. They’re always under the microscope. Not many teenagers would leave their friends, and go to a foreign environment where they’re always scrutinized. I give them lots of credit.”

Their bonds remained strong, long after Charles graduated. When he got married in Florida, Maggie was there.

So were the scholars he had shared Glendarcy House with, and his host parents. The connections forged in Westport reinforced for Maggie the importance of A Better Chance, for everyone involved.

“I was so flattered to be invited,” she said. “This is what it’s all about: a great support system, and seeing how it continues.”

Maggie Gomez meets with an ABC scholar. (Photo/Susan Woog Wagner)

The program gradually phased out teacher mentors. But Maggie remains involved. She’s now the “faculty academic liaison,” serving as a bridge between Staples and the ABC board.

Part of her role is speaking with the scholars’ teachers, especially before ABC’s academic standards committee quarterly meetings.

Almost always, she says, teachers compliment the students. “They’re so well-spoken and reflective,” teachers tell Maggie.

“Even the freshmen,” she marvels. “And even with the less-than-stellar stuff. These kids are held to really high standards. I’m astounded how well they do — and in hard classes. Then they run track, or play in the band. Their time management skills are really impressive.”

She checks in with the scholars too, asking about classes and making sure seniors are on track with college application processes.

Maggie is also involved in the selection process for new scholars. She helps organize tours of the school, making sure to pair Student Ambassadors with prospective students who share their interests and personalities.

But she’ll always have a soft spot in her heart for Charles. Maggie’s first mentee spent a Semester at Sea while attending Cornell University. He gave Maggie a picture of himself, standing in front of the Taj Mahal.

“I see it every day,” Maggie notes. “It reminds me of the amazing things he’s doing, and how important this program is for so many people.”

 (More “This Is ABC” stories will be posted tomorrow. For information on A Better Chance of Westport, click here. For information on the Dream Event fundraiser on March 17, click here.)

Suzanne Sherman: Sing Daily!

Suzanne Sherman Propp loves to sing.

At Staples High School, the 1981 graduate sang in the Orphenians and choir. (She also played violin in the chamber orchestra, acted in Players, and was a cheerleader. She does not realize there are only 24 hours in a day.)

At Colgate University — where she majored in music and English — Suzanne led the a cappella Swinging ‘Gates group (and continued to play violin).

She then spent a year in Utah, working at an Alta ski lodge in the bar, at the front desk, and playing music.

Back in Westport, she accompanied herself on guitar at coffeehouses like Grassroots.

Suzanne went on to earn an MBA at Columbia University — and leveraged it to work in the music industry. She worked in new business development for a record label, and for Mark Spector — a Westport resident who was Joan Baez’s manager.

A casual conversation with 3 of her former Staples teachers — Dave Harrison, Dick Leonard and Phil Woodruff — at a Christmas carol sing (!) inspired her to change careers. They wondered why she wasn’t teaching.

Suzanne was certified in 1998. The next year she was hired to be Greens Farms Elementary School’s (surprise!) music teacher. She’s been there ever since.

Suzanne Sherman Propp

Suzanne’s more-than-24-hour days — which included raising 2 children — leave her plenty of time to spend on her newest project: Sing Daily!

Every day, Suzanne picks a song. She posts it on her website, and emails it to subscribers. After (hopefully) warming up their voices, everyone is invited to sing her Song of the Day.

“Singing makes you feel better,” Suzanne explains. “It livens your spirit. I see it every day in school. It’s been proven by studies. Everybody should sing every day!”

Suzanne Sherman Propp (center, in back wearing a hat) with young singers.

But — the morning shower aside — we don’t really know what or where to sing. And — lacking Suzanne’s beautiful voice — most of us are intimidated belting out a tune.

So Suzanne helps us along. She’s curated a varied list. There’s “Home on the Range,” and the Black Eyed Peas’ “Where is the Love?”

Every genre is represented. There are songs by Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Pete Townshend, the Indigo Girls, Herman’s Hermits, Billy Joel and (of course) Joan Baez. She includes a few original songs too, but downplays their importance. “I’m not trying to sell anything,” Suzanne notes.

Sometimes there are obvious tie-ins. On her husband Peter’s birthday, Suzanne wrote a special song for him. (Of course — why not?! — she also created an accompanying YouTube video).

She’ll celebrate holidays and special occasions. But sometimes, they’ll be secret. For example, the Greens Farms principal loves “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” That will be the Song of the Day on his birthday — though no one will know why.

Suzanne welcomes suggestions. “There are 365 days in a year. That’s a lot of songs!” she says.

She launched her project without a lot of publicity. Still, it’s found plenty of fans. One is her mother, Ruth Sherman. “She’s not a singer,” Suzanne says. “But she loves it!”

That’s the whole idea. You don’t have to be a singer. You just have to sing.

Actually, I’m wrong.

“Everyone is a singer!” Suzanne insists. “Try it. Your life will change!”

(Click here for Suzanne Sherman Propp’s Sing Daily! website.)

“In Wonderful Westport…”

When technical difficulties prevented a video of 2nd graders singing Westport’s praises from being shown at last night’s swearing-in of town officials, most of the Town Hall audience probably breathed a sigh of relief.

There’s a thin line between cute and cringe-worthy. Very few of the board, commission and RTM members wanted to test it.

But 1st Selectman Jim Marpe had an ace up his sleeve: Suzanne Sherman Propp,  and her Greens Farms Elementary School music students.

The song — which she and the kids wrote, with Cheryl Buck — is catchy and clever. It covers tons of Westport people, places and history. The 2nd graders are not the Vienna Boys’ Choir (for one thing, there are girls), but they carry a tune better than I do.

And the video — produced by Josh Margolis — is first-rate. Newcomers, old-timers and (especially) ex-pats will love the fast-paced photos. (It’s also clever. When the kids sing about famous families and come to “Sherwood,” there’s a shot of the diner.)

So go ahead. Click below. Enjoy the show!

4 Stony Brook, 5 Golden Rings

It was always a tense moment.

We gathered in the cozy living room of the Bacharachs’ house on Stony Brook Road. We’d caught up on each other’s lives, had a bit of food, sung a few warm-up Christmas carols.

Now it was time for “The 12 Days of Christmas.” Slips of paper would be passed out. Which “day” would you get?

There were a few dozen of us — old and young, relatives and friends, from near and far — but 12 days is a lot. Each of us would have only 3 or 4 other singers to help out.

All ages gathered at the Bacharachs' house for the annual carol sing. This photo is from the early 1970s.

All ages gathered at the Bacharachs’ house for the annual carol sing. This photo is from the 1970s.

If you were a good singer — and many of the Bacharachs and their guests were — you were happy to get the 1st day: “a partridge in a pear tree.” Another prize was “5 golden rings.” You could draw that one out like Enrico Caruso.

I love music. Unfortunately, my voice does not. I always hoped for “12 drummers drumming.” Inevitably, I got “2 turtle doves.”

I thought of all that recently, when a group of former Bacharach carol singers got together. I was with some storied Westport names — Anne Leonard Hardy, Suzanne Sherman Propp — and the more we chatted, the more we realized those holiday gatherings were more than just a fond memory.

They were transformative moments in our lives.

The Bacharachs' library, where generations gathered to sing. (Photo/Robert Colameco)

The Bacharachs’ library, where generations gathered to sing. (Photo/Robert Colameco)

It wasn’t just the warmth of the Bacharachs’ home — a 1796 farmhouse with a 3-sided fireplace in one of the oldest sections of town, that could have come right out of colonial New England central casting.

It wasn’t the warmth of the annual holiday party either, with its cherished traditions: the smiling patriarch Jim Bacharach leading everyone in song; his wife, the equally delightful DoDo, carving up ham and ladling out egg nog; the tree in the same spot every year, unchanging amid the turbulence of the world around.

And it wasn’t the guest list: the Bacharachs’ friends and neighbors; their 5 kids’ friends; girlfriends, boyfriends, college friends — the more the merrier. Jim and DoDo embraced them all.

DoDo Bacharach

DoDo Bacharach

All those memories came flooding back, as Anne and Suzanne and a few others talked. But it was something else that made those particular carol sings such a powerful piece of our past.

Among the folks always in the Bacharachs’ home were adults we knew from Staples High School: teachers we admired and respected. Phil Woodruff, the next door neighbor. Dick Leonard. Dave and Marianne Harrison. All were there, year after year.

At first we were a little intimidated by them. Singing “The 12 Days of Christmas” with the same people who handed out homework and gave us grades was — different. But socializing with those adults in that way made us feel a bit like adults too.

As we grew up, we grew in other ways. We graduated from Staples, and entered college. Returning to the Bacharachs’ for the carol sing, we had new things to talk about. We told them what we were studying. We offered our opinions. We were probably a bit pretentious, but our former teachers listened.

Relating with them on that level validated us. Those adult-type conversations — respectful, honest, about real issues — were some of the first times I felt like an adult myself.

At the same time, as I looked around at the many “kids” there, I saw younger versions of myself. I realized I had once been like them. For the first time I understood what it meant to grow up. I recognized with clarity that at that point, my life was poised between my past and my future.

As we moved on into the “real world” — with real jobs — we kept returning to that carol sing. Now we were the adults. The Bacharachs, Leonards, Shermans and others got married, and started families. And every year, they brought their own children to the annual Christmas party.

The Bacharachs' next door neighbor John Woodruff, with his young daughter Emily.

The Bacharachs’ next door neighbor John Woodruff, with his young daughter Emily at the carol sing.

The Bacharach carol sing is no more. Sadly, the house was torn down, replaced by something far less warm and much less meaningful.

But the memories remain, as strong as ever. It was a joy to share those memories the other day, with good friends who remember those great days.

Something else is strong too: My sense of self, nurtured so lovingly by those adults years ago, when I was a teenager trying to figure the world out.

Over ham, over egg nog — and yes, over the dreaded “12 Days of Christmas” — I tasted Westport at its best.

Remembering Dorothy Straub

Dorothy Straub died last month at 74. She was a longtime music educator in Westport and Fairfield; conductor and administrator for the Greater Bridgeport Youth Orchestras, and past president of the National Association for Music Education.

Dorothy — the widow of Robert Genualdi, former Staples High School orchestra leader and music director of the GBYO — was beloved in Westport for her work with young people.

Countless students got their start in music thanks to Dorothy. Many made it their careers.

Greens Farms Elementary School music teacher Suzanne Sherman Propp is one. She writes:

Dorothy was the kindest, most patient and sweetest music teacher. I started playing violin with her in 4th grade at Bedford Elementary School. Both Cindy Gibb and I (and many, many others) took lessons with her, in school and privately, for many years.

Dorothy Straub

Dorothy Straub

Dorothy often tried to encourage me to move on to what she considered “better” teachers. But none were ever as patient or as tolerant of my, um, “poor work ethic” as she. I always ran back to her.

She encouraged me, when I was 14, to audition for All-State. I made it, where I met many other Westport music heroes, including Tommy and Chris Hanulik, Sue Sweetnam, Suzy Polk, Keith Conant and Tommy Greenwald.

Dorothy loved to hear stories of my crushes, and Cindy and my escapades. She had an adorable laugh. We always knew that her very best friend was Bob Genualdi. She was downright giddy when she told us they were getting married.

To say that Dorothy Straub was a huge influence on who I am as a musician, educator and citizen of the world is a vast understatement.

Cynthia Gibb — a 1981 Staples graduate who went on to fame as a film and television actress, and is now a noted vocal coach in Westport — adds:

When I was 10 years old at Bedford Elementary School, we had an assembly. Not all 4th graders studied a stringed instrument, but a violinist in town wanted to attract more students to music. I was fitted for a 1/4-size violin by a sweet woman with a warm smile. That began my decades-long relationship with Dorothy Straub.

I studied regularly with Dorothy from that time through my senior year at Staples. She prepared me for my school and All-State orchestras, and chamber orchestra with John Hanulik.

Dorothy Straub's legacy.

Dorothy Straub’s legacy.

I would not have known at that time how to say what I know now as an adult: It was clear that Dorothy loved her job. She loved playing music, but I also felt her love of teaching.

She was kind, patient, encouraging, complimentary and joyous during our lessons. She was quick to laugh and smile, even when I hadn’t practiced!

Many years after leaving Westport, I got a call from Dorothy asking if I’d host an event for her. I was beyond honored to collaborate with her at the Kennedy Center for the annual gathering of the National Association for Music Educators, of which Dorothy was president. I was able to publicly thank Dorothy for being my mentor and inspiring my love of music, which has been a significant part of my career.

Hearing that Dorothy was sick, I tried to schedule a visit with her. Sadly, I did not manage to see her before her death. The regret and grief has weighed heavily on me, so writing some words to honor and celebrate Dorothy makes me feel a bit better.

Also, knowing that all children in Westport now study a stringed instrument because of her means that Dorothy’s legacy lives on through the music that our young people make. They may not know her name, but Dorothy Straub’s influence is felt throughout our schools and children.

I fully expect that Dorothy is up in heaven making music with Mozart and Bach. I hope she subscribes to Dan’s blog, so she can feel my love and appreciation.

It’s Baaaaaack!

Antonia Landgraf is many things. She’s

  • New to town
  • An alert “06880” reader
  • And a very alert Westporter.

Tonight, Antonia emailed me:

Is this the sign everybody was in an uproar about when it was removed? It was leaning against a tree today on the corner of South Compo and the Post Road.

Compo Acres palette

Yes! It is!

As “06880” reported nearly 2 years ago, the “paint palette” sign — a fixture at Compo Acres Shopping Center since it was built in the 1950s — disappeared when Equity One bought the property.

Another alert reader — Suzanne Sherman Propp — tracked down the man responsible for the center: Northeast regional manager Glenn Wilson. He sent a curt reply: “We had that replaced and I believe it was thrown out.”

Now, however — without fanfare — it’s back. It’s almost exactly where it sat, for decades. And — judging from the undated photo below — it’s almost certainly the original sign:

The Compo Acres paint palette is gone.

Score one for Equity One.

Now, if they can bring back Silver’s, Carousel Toy Store, Franklin Simon and the luncheonette…

A Star Is Born

Adam Kaplan stepped up up from understudy to lead in last Saturday’s matinee and evening performances of “Newsies.”

Adam Kaplan PlaybillThe 2008 Staples grad played Jack Kelly at the Nederlander Theatre.

A perhaps-only-slightly-less-than-objective Westport fan said, “He was wonderful! His singing, acting, comic timing and dancing were totally Broadway-worthy. ”

She was also struck by “the kindness, patience and genuine warmth that he showed to fans outside the theater.”

His fans included dozens of Westporters — among them his father and mother, Jeff and Carol; his former music teacher Suzanne Sherman Propp, and current and former Staples Players.

Adam Kaplan and a few fans, after the show.

Adam Kaplan and a few fans, after the show.

Adam — whose usual roles are both Morris Delancey and a newsboy — may take the role again soon.

Where will that lead? Read all about it — not in newspapers, but on “06880.”

(Fun fact: “Newsies” associate director Richard [Ricky] Hinds danced in Staples Players summer shows, before Adam’s time.)

The work of a star is never done.

The work of a star is never done.

Compo Acres Paint Palette — Part 2

If you’re holding your breath waiting for the return of the Compo Acres paint palette — first reported in Wednesday’s “06880” — you can exhale.

Unfortunately.

Alert “06880” reader Suzanne Sherman Propp tracked down the property owner (Equity One in New York City), and the man responsible for the Westport shopping center property (Glenn Wilson, Northeast Regional Manager).

She wrote:

Hi! My name is Suzanne Sherman Propp and I’ve lived in Westport since 1966. I’ve always been a huge fan of the light blue Compo Acres Sign in the shape of a paint palette that was leaning up against the tree at the corner of the Post Road and Compo Road North. Can you tell me what happened to it?

His one-sentence reply:

We had that replaced and I believe it was thrown out.

Equity One’s tagline is “improving retail real estate in urban communities.”

Suburban communities — not so much.

The Compo Acres paint palette is gone...

The Compo Acres paint palette is gone…

...but we do have this huge granite slab not far away.

…but we do have this huge granite slab not far away.

We had that replaced and I believe it was thrown out.

– Suzanne Sherman Propp

 
- Suzanne Sherman Propp

Blake, Ryan, Suzanne, Martha, Paul And Oscar

Suzanne Sherman Propp — no slouch in the talent department herself — was in Oscar’s yesterday afternoon.

Sitting a few feet away were Ryan Reynolds and his Gossip Girl, Blake Lively. Bedford, New York — where they just moved — may have Martha Stewart, but it lacks a good deli.

“Thank you, Paul Newman, for training us Westporters to be calm, cool and collected during celebrity sightings,” Suzanne says.

Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds (not at Oscar’s, and not at the Oscars).