Tag Archives: Tracy Sugarman

Tracy Sugarman: Amen!

You may hear that old adage “You’re never too old to try something new,” and scoff. Or shuffle off to play shuffleboard.

Tracy Sugarman takes it to heart.

The Westport icon — a famous illustrator for 40 years, who published 3 non-fiction books about his experiences as a Freedom Rider during the civil rights movement, and 1 based on his service as an officer in World War II (including storming the beach on D-Day) — has just written his 1st novel.

He’s 91 years old.

Tracy Sugarman

Tracy Sugarman

Nobody Said Amen is the fictionalized tale of 2 families — one white, one black — as they navigate the challenges of social change in the Mississippi Delta.

It’s a story of fighting for the right to vote, the Ku Klux Klan, and love. They’re not easy topics to write about — but Tracy Sugarman was there.

He was already in his 40s when he traveled to Ruleville, Mississippi in 1964 and ’65. His training group included 3 young men named Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney. On Tracy’s 2nd day in Mississippi, they disappeared.

He’d headed south as an artist, intending to draw the scenes he saw. “I was an observer for about 2 hours,” he says. “Then I become a participant. This was way too important to be a voyeur.”

Tracy’s involvement in the civil rights era changed his life. He developed a deep friendship with Fannie Lou Hamer. She and many other movement leaders visited his Westport home.

Tracy Sugarman was grand marshal at Westport's 2011 Memorial Day ceremony.

Tracy Sugarman was grand marshal at Westport’s 2011 Memorial Day ceremony.

Two of Tracy’s books — Stranger at the Gates and We Had Sneakers, They Had Guns — chronicled the civil rights era. My War was a collection of letters and drawings he’d sent to his young wife, June, during the harrowing days of World War II. Drawing Conclusions was his rendition, in words and pictures, of the biggest historical, societal and cultural stories of his time.

For nearly 90 years, he never imagined writing fiction.

But as he worked on Drawing Conclusions — it was published 5 years ago, when he was “just” 86 — he figured it might be fun to try a novel.

It took 2 years (though, he points out, “I did other things too”).

“I was charmed by this world I was inventing,” Tracy says of the writing process. “People just showed up, and insisted on being in it. They were characters I’d never met!”

He had no idea how the story would end. But — as with everything he’s done — Tracy made it all work out.

His publisher — Syracuse University Press — liked Amen. But after a change of editors, they decided fiction was not right for an academic publisher.

Tracy asked Maxine Bleiweis about self-publishing. The Westport Library director put Tracy in touch with David Wilk, a Westonite and expert in the field.

Nobody Said AmenThat’s how Nobody Said Amen became a book. (Officially, it’s “a Morris Jesup book, in association with the Westport Library.”)

More importantly, it’s on Amazon — in paperback and Kindle.

If it’s surprising to learn that a 91-year-old has self-published a book available on e-readers, you don’t know Tracy Sugarman. He looks, sounds — and thinks — like the young people he so admires.

“All these young kids put themselves in harm’s way,” he says of the Freedom Riders. “They thrived, survived, and changed Mississippi.”

That experienced reinforced an idea he’d had since World War II, 2 decades earlier: “Only young people can change the country. They’re wonderfully inspiring. They certainly changed my life.”

So, as he closes in on a century of living, what’s next?

“Everyone says you’re very old to write a novel,” Tracy says.  “Well, I don’t feel it!” He’s ready for plenty of new challenges.

“You’re as young as you feel” is one adage Tracy Sugarman proves true.

Here’s another: “You’re never too old to try something new.”

(Tracy Sugarman will discuss Nobody Said Amen at the Westport Library this Saturday, Dec. 15, at 2 p.m. Books will be available for purchase and signing.)

Memorial Day Soldiers On In Westport

Grand marshal Tracy Sugarman

Though rain canceled Westport’s Memorial Day parade for the 1st time since 2003, the ceremony went on at Town Hall.

Grand marshal Tracy Sugarman — a D-Day veteran, artist, author, civil rights activist and 60-year Westport resident — gave a resounding keynote speech.  He talked about war, peace, America, life — and the future of our country.

For an excerpt, click the YouTube arrow below:

Two fife and drums corps played.  Their marches rang throughout the packed auditorium.

The Staples band opened the ceremony, and closed with a rousing “Armed Forces Salute” (click YouTube arrow below).

Staples senior Tori Schachne sang the national anthem.  At her side — as he was throughout the ceremony, and for the past 41 Memorial Day parades — stood organizer Bill Vornkahl.

Reverend John Branson gave a powerful invocation and benediction.  His opening words are below:


Tracy Sugarman: From D-Day To Today

As a junior at Syracuse University’s College of Fine Arts, Tracy Sugarman had a great time.  He was on the lacrosse team, was dating a wonderful woman named June — “it was all Joe College,” he says.

Then the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

The next day, Tracy and a fraternity brother took a bus to Buffalo.  When they returned to campus, they were in the Navy Reserve.

He was allowed to finish school.  But 2 days after graduation — May 13, 1943 — Tracy headed to midshipman’s training at Notre Dame.

Tracy Sugarman

Within the next 4 months he married June, became an officer, trained crews in Maryland for D-Day, then headed overseas for more training along the coast.

“We kept ‘invading’ England,'” Tracy recalls.  “Then one day, it was time to invade France.”

June 6, 1944 was “extraordinary,” says Tracy.  “There were 3,000 planes, and 3,000 ships — as far as the eye could see.”

The day was sunny, but the seas rough.  They circled until 3 p.m.  Everyone was seasick.  As an officer, Tracy had to pretend he was fine.

“Finally we hit the beach,” he says.  “It was just awful.

“It was noisy.  It was smoky.  Ships were blowing up.  There were bodies in the water.”

Tracy made his was through the maze of iron.  He kissed the ground, then returned to the assembly area.

He spent the next 6 months unloading ships, working with troops, ammunition and hospitals.

Among Tracy Sugarman's many books is "My War" -- a collection of letters and drawings he sent home to his wife June, from overseas.

Finally — with the ports secured — he helped 2 other officers close up Utah Beach.  He went back to England.

On April 12, 1945 he had to announce to his ship that Franklin Roosevelt had died.  Most of the sailors had never known another president.

“I was 23,” Tracy says.  “I took 17-, 18- and 19-year-olds to the D-Day beach.  They looked at me — the ‘old man’ — to take care of them.”

That’s a theme he’ll return to on Memorial Day.  As grand marshal of Westport’s parade, Tracy Sugarman will give a keynote address across from Town Hall.  If you’ve never stuck around for the event — shame on you.  This year in particular, it’s a speech you should hear.

“We send kids to war,” Tracy will emphasize.  “It’s not John Wayne.  It’s kids, like those in Staples right now.”

Tracy Sugarman

Tracy is honored to be chosen as grand marshal.  “I’ve marched in the past with my son’s Boy Scout troops. During Vietnam, I marched wearing a black armband.”

Tracy calls Westport’s Memorial Day parade “a great community event.  I love it.  Kids show themselves off — and then everyone gathers around the statue” at the park across from Town Hall.

There are 1,650 names of Westporters from World War II on the honor roll there.  Another 250 served in World War I.

“That’s very impressive,” Tracy says.  “A lot of people paid a lot of dues.”

At 89 — and a Westport artist and author for 61 years — Tracy laughs that the military hat, shirt and pants he’ll wear will be “too tight.”  Maybe, he says, “my voice will be too.”

But his children, grandchildren and friends will come hear him speak.  Hundreds of Westporters will follow the parade to the park, to hear him too.

“I take the day seriously,” he says.  “It’s a time for looking backward — and then forward.”

With — thanks to Tracy Sugarman — a message that is timeless.

Census And Sensibility

The release this week of Westport’s census data — showing, among other things, that just 1.2% of our town identifies as “black or African American” — got me thinking.

While that percentage has long been paltry — it translates to 305 men, women and children, up just 13 from 2000 — Westport does have a history of involvement in the broad civil rights issues of the day.  Whenever that day was.

During the abolitionist movement, houses served as stops on the Underground Railroad.  At least one — on Weston Road, across from the present-day Methodist Church — still stands.  A once-hidden room — accessible from the outside — attests to its role in hiding runaway slaves.  (Though Connecticut was a free state, fugitives could still be captured and returned.)

Abraham Lincoln allegedly visited here during the Civil War.

That home was part of Morris Ketchum’s sprawling Hockanum Hill estate.  He frequently hosted Salmon P. Chase, as Abraham Lincoln’s Treasury Secretary sought funding for the Civil War.

Though no official record exists, Lincoln allegedly stayed at Hockanum Hill while president too.  The estate — on Cross Highway, near the foot of Roseville Road — offered an out-of-the-way respite on secret financing trips north.  The current deed refers to the “Lincoln room,” and a letter supposedly exists in which the president thanked Ketchum for his hospitality.

A century later, in the early days of the modern civil rights movement, Herman and Gladys Steinkraus lived on South Compo.  He was president of both Bridgeport Brass and the US Chamber of Commerce.  The couple were avid supporters of the United Nations, and often invited African ambassadors to Westport.  It was the 1st time some had ever been inside an American home.  Not all the Steinkraus’ neighbors were pleased.

Around that time, Ernestine White was a beloved music teacher at Bedford Junior High School.  A pupil invited her to his bar mitzvah.  A few tongues wagged — but the invitation was in keeping with the tenor of the times.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King definitely came to Westport.

Temple Israel’s rabbi, Byron T. Rubenstein, was deeply involved in the civil rights struggle.  Rev. Martin Luther King spoke at the temple in 1964.  A month later, Rubenstein and King were both arrested in the south, at a nonviolent march.  Rubenstein and others were instrumental in organizing Freedom Rides from Westport, challenging laws that enforced segregation.

Tracy Sugarman was one of several Westporters to participate in the Mississippi Freedom Summer.  He knew the murdered civil rights workers Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney, and developed deep friendships with leaders like Julian Bond and Fannie Lou Hamer.  Sugarman hosted them, and many others, in his Westport home.

The 1960s were a time of civil rights ferment, and many Westporters were active in the cause.  Both the Intercommunity Camp — bringing together youngsters from Westport, Weston, Norwalk and Bridgeport — and the school district’s Project Concern, serving dozens of Bridgeport elementary, junior high and high school students, were direct results of local activism.

The team that is TEAM Westport

For nearly a decade TEAM Westport — the first selectman’s committee charged with achieving and celebrating multiculturalism — has worked to make this a more welcoming place for all minorities.  African Americans have taken a leading role.  TEAM Westport has organized trips to the slave ship replica Amistad; led school panels, talkbacks at the Westport Country Playhouse, and community conversations; partnered with schools, religious organizations and the library, and worked in dozens of other ways, large and small, to reinforce awareness of diversity issues and concerns.

Of course there have been less visible, lower-key events too.  In 1960, Sammy Davis Jr. married Mia Britt.  At the time, 31 states outlawed interracial marriage.  Connecticut was not one of them — and, legend has it, the couple honeymooned at a home off Wilton Road.

These are just a few of the connections Westport has made, over many years, with civil rights issues.  We’re not a racial melting pot — but neither are we immune from the world outside our borders.  It was Westport’s involvement, in fact, that brought many families here in the 1950s and ’60s, when they could have chosen many other places to live.

Has Westport changed since then?  Are these issues still important, and are Westporters as involved?  If so, how?  If not, why — and what’s taken their place?  Click “Comments,” to share your diverse (and diversity) thoughts.

Tracy Sugarman’s Mississippi Summer

In the early 1960s Tracy Sugarman was a successful Westport artist.  With plenty of magazine and corporate work, he was happily illustrating “other people’s fantasies about America after the war.”

Tracy Sugarman

But different images — of police dogs, fire hoses and beatings — filtered up from the South, intruding on his sense of contentment.  He and his family wondered how they could help the burgeoning civil rights movement.

Tracy decided to go South, and draw what was happening.

In late spring of 1964 Tracy arrived in Ruleville, Mississippi.  Segregation and hatred were worse there than even Alabama or Georgia.

“Mississippi blew me away,” Tracy recalls.  “The only pool in town was closed, so blacks wouldn’t contaminate it.  Only 5% of blacks were registered to vote.  Convincing poor, illiterate people to let us stay in their homes was huge.”

But thanks to the young leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee — who Tracy calls “the cutting edge against the worst apartheid in America” — college students, and a few older folks like Tracy, arrived for “Freedom Summer.”

On his 2nd day there, 3 young volunteers disappeared.  Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney had been in the same training program as Tracy.

Andrew Goodman's grave

“We immediately knew they’d been killed,” Tracy says.  It took weeks for the FBI to open a field office to investigate the triple murder that galvanized America.

“It was a crazy summer,” Tracy says.  “I was more scared in Mississippi than I had been on D-Day.”

In World War II he’d been backed up by thousands of ships, planes and soldiers.  Down South, he says, “We couldn’t call the press, the clergy, the mayor or the police for help.”

So he called home whenever bail money was needed.  That summer, Westport raised $10,000.

Tracy developed strong bonds with the college students — black and white — he befriended.  “They were terrified every day, but they went out and did their job,” he says.  “American kids, when challenged, do remarkable things.”

The following summer, Tracy returned.  He worked with Fannie Lou Hamer, the sharecropper’s daughter who was the voice and symbol of SNCC’s Mississippi work.

Fannie Lou Hamer

Their friendship — which lasted until her death in 1977 — included visits to the Sugarmans’ Westport home.  “She was one of the smartest, most Christian women I’ve known,” he says.  “She was beaten, and people fired on her house.  But she said, ‘If I hate them, I’ll be just like them.'”

Tracy has carried Mississippi with him ever since those days.  Earlier this year — when he heard that SNCC was planning a celebration of the 50th anniversary of its founding — he knew he had to attend.

This past weekend, Tracy traveled South again — this time to Shaw University in Raleigh.  Organizers expected 300 people.  900 came.

There were — like 4 decades earlier — plenty of workshops and speeches.  Attorney General Eric Holder was there; so was SNCC benefactor Harry Belafonte.  The real stars, Tracy says, were unsung heroes like Charles Cobb, Hollis Watkins, and longtime friend Charles McLaurin.

But this was not a nostalgic look back at a watershed moment in American history.  The weekend, Tracy says, was “much more about tomorrow than yesterday.”

The crowd included many young social studies teachers and professors.  They discussed ideas like economic empowerment, and how to keep America moving forward.

“They’re very enthusiastic,” Tracy — now well into his 80s — says.  “The bit is in their mouth.  They asked good questions of those who came before them, like how do you organize a movement?

“It’s tough to pass on.  There was no rulebook.  SNCC’s strength was working things out as we went along.  I guess the legacy was:  Have faith in people.  Inspire them by your example, that you can make a difference.”

Back in Westport, Tracy says:  “It was a very affirmative weekend.  The baton is being passed.  I wanted to be there for that.

“You know,” he continues, “I never stayed in touch with anyone I served with in the Navy.  But the people from that summer — when we see each other across a crowded room, we rush to embrace.

“I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything else in the world.”

“The End Of An Era” At The Library

The barber shop as community gathering place — a spot where men swap stories, debate issues and tell tales, all under the wise, welcoming eye of the beloved barber — may be a thing of the past.

We’ve still got a few barbers in Westport — though many have morphed into “stylists” — but who has the time to sit around for an hour and yak?

Hold your horses.  A few months ago, 6 long-time Westporters did just that.  They gathered in Tommy Ghianuly’s Compo Barber Shop.  For several hours they talked about this town in the 1950s.

Normally such a gabfest would have less staying power than clipped hair on the floor.  But the oldtimers’ session was recorded for posterity — and arranged by — filmmaker Chuck Tannen.  Now it — and those memories of long-ago Westport — will live forever.

“The End of an Era — Westport in the 1950s” was Chuck’s idea.  He solidified it, appropriately enough, while Tommy was cutting his hair.

Chuck spent his career in journalism.  A year and a half ago he got interested in film.  He took courses at NYU and in San Francisco.  When he heard the Westport Historical Society needed help converting a series of interviews onto DVDs, he swung into action.

One of those DVDs included 3 very interesting residents — Ed See, Leo Nevas and Allen Raymond — talking about our town back in the day.  By the time Chuck delivered his work to the WHS, Ed and Leo had died.

Not longer after, Chuck was telling Tommy — his barber forever, whose walls are plastered with photos of old Westport — that the town’s collective memory was fading fast.  An idea took hold:  invite people to Compo Barbers, to talk about town life in the ’50s.

Which is how First Selectman Gordon Joseloff, former Staples sports star Vince De Pierro, artists Tracy Sugarman and Howard Munce, former disc jockey Ed Baer, and George Marks — who joined the police force in 1947 — came to Tommy’s one Sunday.

They talked.  A 6-man crew recorded them.  Now — 5 months later — the finished product is ready to be shown.

“It’s a reminiscence,” Chuck says.  “Anecdotes about a small town that was friendly and tight.”

The men discuss everything from why artists were attracted to Westport, to the Y’s role as a town center, to the joys of hanging out on Main Street.

“It was the end of an era — a time of innocence,” Chuck explains.  “The war was over.  People wanted to get on with their lives.  It was a quiet period, before all the upheavals of the ’60s.”

Life was not always as pleasant as it seemed.  There was anti-Semitism — particularly in housing.  That came up during the filming — along with the story of how the “Gentleman’s Agreement” was broken.

The 40-minute film premieres at the Westport Library on Tuesday, April 6 (2 p.m.) and Wednesday, April 7 (7 p.m.).  Discussions will follow.  Some of the “stars” will be at both showings.

And after those 2 screenings?  Chuck hopes his film will be shown at the Senior Center; in schools — and to any other audience that remembers, or wishes they knew, what life here was like back then.

Inspiring Teens To Tell Their Tales

Tracy Sugarman and Bill Buckley have spent their lives using film, words and illustrations to affect social change.

Bill Buckley trains his camera on the past -- and the future

Bill Buckley trains his camera on the past -- and the future

Now in their 80s — but not slowing down — they brought their 20-minute film, “Immigrant from America,” to the Westport Arts Center last night.  Their mission:  to inspire youngsters from Westport and Bridgeport to keep up the fight.

About 20 students from Bridge Academy — the renowned Bridgeport charter school — and 10 involved with the Westport Youth Film Festival watched the documentary, a probing look at how African Americans used education, economic strength and politics to overcome racial barriers.

Tracy and Bill then led a discussion about stereotypes that remain, 40 years after their film was made.  They challenged the teenagers from both communities to look outside themselves, and work toward a better world.

The filmmakers urged the Westport and Bridgeport youngsters to tell their own stories.  They can use traditional mediums like movies, art and literature, new ones like computer graphics and the internet — and those that have not yet been invented.

Everyone has something to say.  Personal stories are powerful.  After hearing from 2 men who have spent decades telling their own stories, and helping others tell theirs, last night’s audience seems ready to pick up the torch.

Pioneer Honors

If you know the names Tracy Sugarman, Joan Schine and Venora Ellis, you know why they’ll receive Diversity Trailblazer Awards this Sunday.

If you don’t know them, you don’t know 3 important pieces of Westport history.

The Trailblazers — all involved in some way in the battle to dismantle racial barriers — are being  honored by TEAM Westport, the town’s official committee on diversity.  The ceremony and reception is set for Ann Sheffer and Bill Scheffler’s Stony Point home, at 3 p.m.

Tracy Sugarman

Tracy Sugarman

Artist, writer and filmmaker Tracy Sugarman has chronicled the civil rights struggle since the 1950s.  His lectures — based on his eyewitness accounts of marches, sit-ins and much more in Mississippi and throughout the South — have had profound impacts on generations of Americans, including many Westporters.

As chairman of the Board of Education, Joan Schine fought to establish Project Concern in Westport.  The program — which brought Bridgeport youngsters to our schools — was so controversial in the early ’70s that the state Supreme Court had to strike down a recall attempt against her. 

In her 68 years as a businesswoman and resident of Westport, Venora Ellis challenged traditional social mores and shattered racial barriers, by action and example.  For much of her last  40 years here, Venora and her late husband Leroy were instrumental in attracting citizens of color to live in Westport.

It’s easy to dismiss Westport as an unrealistic bubble.  It’s also easy to pat ourselves on the back for not being as white-bread a town as cookie-cutter New Canaan or Darien.

Sunday’s celebration will provide context for both views.  No community is all — for lack of a better phrase — black and white.  It is filled with colors.  This weekend, TEAM Westport reminds us all how rich those colors can be.

(This Sunday’s TEAM Westport ceremony and reception is freee, and open to the public.  RSVP to info@teamwestport.org, or call 203-227-9671.)