The Independence Day fireworks are Westport’s biggest community celebration of the year.
It’s when Soundview Drive — our town’s handsome, quirky beachfront exit road — turns into a party promenade.
This year — as we prepare for another year of cookouts, hanging out, and bombs bursting in air — we should also pause for a moment (on Soundview) to remember Toni Cunningham.
The grande dame of Compo died on Thursday. She was 101.
Toni Cunnnigham, at her 80th birthday celebration.
In that century of life, she saw astonishing changes at the beach just outside her front window. She herself contributed to many of them.
Toni first came to Westport as a teenager. During the 1930s her parents — who lived in Scarsdale – rented #75 (now #17) Soundview Drive. She crewed on Star sailboats, often swimming out to join friends to help in races.
Gail Cunningham Coen — one of Toni’s 3 daughters — says that Toni also swam to Cockenoe Island and back.
When her parents moved here full time, she’d walk to Cockenoe in winter over thick ice.
Toni and Frank Cunningham, in front of 17 Soundview Drive.
Every year in late June, Toni’s father Frank Bosco drove to a special “fireworks contact.” He shot them off from a card table on the beach in front of his house. Neighborhood kids loved it.
Frank was a longtime treasurer of the Compo Beach Improvement Association — which really did spiff up the area.
The group organized field days, and swim races to and from the floats anchored offshore. Toni was an avid participant.
She also loved riding on the seaplanes that landed on shore.
In those days, “air conditioning” meant opening windows. Toni’s daily piano playing was enjoyed by everyone who strolled by. She knew all the popular songs, and was often asked to sing and play for parties.
As she grew older, Toni succeeded her father as treasurer of the CBIA. She also became secretary. Her talent for shorthand guaranteed highly accurate meeting notes.
Compo was a family affair. Toni’s mother, Margaret Bosco, created the first “beach rules.” They ensure safe, responsible behavior — and strong litter prevention practices. (Interestingly, Toni’s daughter Gail later became CEO of Keep America Beautiful.)
In 1938, a strong hurricane hit the area. Toni refused to leave, and rode out the storm.
In fact, during her 85 years on Soundview only one hurricane forced her to leave. That was in the 1950s, when waves chewed up the road and deposited huge chunks of the seawall in front yards.
As she earned fame for riding out storms, reporters regularly called her for blow-by-blow news.
Toni and Frank Cunningham, playing a 4-hand duet.
July 4th was not the only holiday Toni enjoyed. She also loved New Year’s eve. In the early 1960s she built a party room on the 3rd floor of her house at 27 Soundview, where she and Frank raised their family.
It featured a Steinway baby grand. But the party wasn’t in full swing until Toni sat down to play. Governor John Davis Lodge and his wife Francesca were frequent guests.
Today a small sign on the flower bed at the start of Soundview Drive — near where the boardwalk begins — honors Toni Cunningham for her dedication to the CBIA, and her beautification efforts at Compo.
The sign on Soundview Drive.
It’s a simple gesture, but an important one. In many ways, that stretch of Compo Beach is Toni Cunningham.
Think about that as you enjoy the fireworks — the first 4th of July Toni Cunningham has not been alive for in over a century.
(Contributions in Toni’s memory can be made to the Compo Beach Improvement Association Traffic Calming and Beautification Fund, 40 Compo Beach Road, Westport, CT 06880.)
In some ways, Compo Beach has changed little since the 1920s.
The sand is nicer. There’s a new jetty. But really, you can’t do too much to a beach.
In many ways, the neighborhood looks the same too. Homes line Soundview Drive, and fill the side streets. They’ve been winterized, modernized and raised to escape hurricanes and floods, but they’ve never lost that great beach vibe.
And after nearly 100 years, a Lane is once again in charge of the Compo Beach Improvement Association.
Back in the day, Joe Lane lived on Soundview. The CBIA was formed in 1928, and he was president. The organization took care of the beach, put floats in the water, and provided lifeguards. It also threw great parties.
In the 1950s, rafts off Compo Beach were a great attraction. But look at those rocks!
Toni Cunningham succeeded Joe, and served for decades as CBIA president. She’s nearing 100 now, and still lives on Soundview. (Her daughter, Gail Cunningham Coen, and Gail’s husband Terry were longtime active CBIA members. Last year, they sold their Soundview home a few doors from Toni, and moved south.)
Three years ago, the torch was passed from Toni to Skip Lane. He’s Joe’s grandson. His father, Paul Lane, is the now retired, much-admired former Staples football coach who (of course) still lives in his own Soundview Drive home.
These days, the CBIA’s main job is taking care of the plantings along Soundview, monitoring issues like traffic and signs.
But Skip hopes to broaden the group’s impact. He’s getting more neighbors involved — including those on Minuteman and Bluewater Hill Roads, and around the corner on Hillspoint — and is looking at new projects, like how to add sand to the beach, and remove rocks.
“The beach is fantastic,” Skip says. “But it needs a little TLC.”
Skip now lives on Roosevelt Avenue, off Compo Beach Road.
“Even when I was growing up, I thought the beach could be better,” he says. “Little things like the parking lot bugged me. As much as everyone loves it, it can be polished.”
He is happy to see an influx of young families into the area. “There’s a group of them with little kids. They have parties at the end of Fairfield Avenue nearly every night,” he notes. “That’s the way it used to be. And the way it should be.”
Meanwhile, the Compo Beach Improvement Association is planning a party of its own. With summer renters gone — and some former residents coming back just for this event — the CBIA holds its annual barbecue this Sunday, at the Ned Dimes Marina.
There will be food and drinks. And plenty of back-in-the-day stories from Paul Lane and Toni Cunningham, who knew the beach then and still love it now.
A large wooden bathhouse once stood at Compo; walkways led to the beach. Today this is the site of the playground. The 2-story pavilion (right) is now only 1.
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