We celebrate November 11 because — 102 years ago today — World War I ended. The armistice took effect at 11 a.m., on 11/11.
Twelve years later — on November 11, 1930 — we dedicated our doughboy statue.
That was 5 years after the town voted to erect a monument to soldiers in “The Great War.” According to Woody Klein’s history of Westport, the commission was offered to Laura Gardin Fraser.
Yet her design — showing a bronze relief figure of Victory — did not meet the committee’s approval.
Three years later the Veterans of Foreign War and American Legion raised $10,000. They commissioned J. Clinton Shepherd, an illustrator, sculptor — and pilot — to memorialize a soldier from “the war to end all wars.”
The doughboy statue. (Photo/Amy Schneider)
Six months after Westport’s first-ever Memorial Day parade, the Doughboy was dedicated. But it was not at Veterans Green, across from what is now Town Hall (and was then Bedford Elementary School).
The original site was the grassy median on on the Post Road 2 miles east — across from what is now Shearwater Coffee, near the foot of Long Lots Road.
A crowd of 3,000 turned out for the dedication of the 20-ton statue. Governor John H. Trumbull was there, along with hundreds of veterans, and 7 bands. Children pulled ropes to unveil the statue.
The doughboy was moved to its present location in 1986. A formal re-dedication ceremony was held on Memorial Day 1988.
The ranks of World War II veterans are rapidly thinning.
One of these years, no one will remain from that world-changing conflict to honor at Westport’s Memorial Day parade.
But it seems like Nick Zeoli has been — and will be — around forever.
The 2019 grand marshal is a proud Saugatuck native. He was born in 1923 to Dominick (a firefighter), and Olympia Zeoli. On July 1, he will be 96 years young.
Zeoli was a star football, basketball and baseball player at Staples High School, on Riverside Avenue just down the street from his home.
Young Nick Zeoli.
He was offered a football scholarship to Gettysburg College. But with war raging, he enlisted in the Navy.
He was assigned to the USS Boston, a heavy cruiser. Zeoli spent 3 years in the Pacific Theater. His ship engaged in 13 major battles, including Okinawa.
He was promoted to Radarman 3rd Class, and received a commendation from legendary Admiral William Halsey Jr.
After discharge in December 1945, Zeoli enrolled at Arnold College (later absorbed into the University of Bridgeport). He earned a BA in physical education, then went on to receive master’s degrees from both Bridgeport and Columbia.
Zeoli spent his summers during college as head lifeguard at Compo Beach. That’s where he met 1949 Staples grad Joanne Scott.
They married in 1952. On June 13, they’ll celebrate their 67th wedding anniversary. Their children Steve, Chris and Nikki are all Staples alumni.
Nick’s grandchildren — Jennifer, Charlotte and Nicholas — attend Westport schools. All are on track to be 3rd-generation Staples graduates.
Nick Zeoli, physical education teacher.
Zeoli began his career as a substitute teacher in Westport. But Wilton — newly opened as a high school — offered him a full-time job as phys. ed. teacher and head football coach.
He soon became Wilton’s first athletic director, and won national awards for his work.
He spearheaded the development of the high school field house — the first in New England. When he retired in 1994, it was named the Nicholas T. Zeoli Fieldhouse.
In Westport — where he always lived — Zeoli directed the Special Olympics program. He trained Special Olympics coaches in Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Nick Zeoli, a few years ago.
For many years, Zeoli emceed the Sportsmen of Westport awards ceremony. In 1985, the organization presented him with its Sportsmen Award.
Last June, Zeoli was honored by the Fairfield County Interscholastic Athletic Conference for his lifetime contribution.
There’s still plenty of life left in Nick Zeoli. He and his wife live now on a lake in Vermont.
He looks forward to making the trip south, and talking about nearly a century of life in Westport, and in war.
(This year’s Memorial Day parade kicks off on Monday at 9 a.m., at Saugatuck Elementary School. It heads down Riverside Avenue to the Post Road, goes over the Ruth Steinkraus Cohen Memorial Bridge, and takes a left on Myrtle Avenue before ending up at Town Hall. A ceremony — including grand marshal Nick Zeoli’s address — follows immediately, approximately 10:30 at Veterans Green. The parade and ceremony are two wonderful Westport traditions. Don’t miss them!)
We do it with one of the town’s most popular and beloved events of the year: a fun, wonderful and wide-ranging parade, followed by a solemn yet uplifting ceremony across from Town Hall.
It’s a huge undertaking. Hundreds of town employees and volunteers pitch in to make it all work. It seems effortless, but it’s anything but.
None of it would happen, though, without the leadership of Bill Vornkahl.
This will be the Westporter’s 49th year at the helm. When he started in 1970, the parade may have included Spanish-American War veterans. Today there are only a few who served in World War II.
Vornhkahl — now 88 years old — is a Korean War vet. He spent 14 months on the island of Hokkaido, Japan, working as a high-speed radio operator in the 1st Cavalry Division.
In 2013, he was inducted into the Connecticut Veterans Hall of Fame.
Vornkahl has been a member of the Westport Veterans Council even longer than he’s run the parade: 57 years.
From 1996 to ’99 he was treasurer of Westport’s War Monument Committee, helping place memorials to various wars on Veterans Green.
He joined the Greens Farms Volunteer Fire Company in 1950. He’s served as secretary/treasurer of both that company and Saugatuck Hose Company #4, and as president of the Westport Volunteer Fire Company from 1973 to ’93.
He coached Little League for more than 20 years, and for over a decade was part of the Staples High School football sideline crew.
Vornkahl has dedicated his life to Westport. Of all he’s done, the Memorial Day parade is his special passion. He makes sure it all happens flawlessly.
In 2015, Bill Vornkahl and 3 Girl Scout Daisies recited the Pledge of Allegiance.
Of course, the one thing he can’t control is the weather. The last 2 years, predictions of rain have canceled the parade, and moved the ceremonies indoors.
You may have seen him inside Town Hall, introducing the color guard, bands and speakers.
This Monday, we all hope he’ll be outdoors on Veterans Green, doing the same.
He’ll be busy — as he has been every Memorial Day since 1970. So now is the best time to thank him for all he does.
Veterans usually don’t like honors. But Bill Vornkahl is a true Unsung Hero.
This year’s program — in which the entire town is encouraged to read the same book, then participate in discussions, lectures, videos and more — focused on “Regeneration.” Pat Barker’s historical fiction features a British officer who refuses to continue serving during the “senseless slaughter” of World War I.
The novel inspired Kathie Motes Bennewitz to do some digging.
The town arts curator knew that when “The Great War” began, Westport was already a thriving arts colony.
What, she wondered, was the connection between local artists and World War I? Kathie writes:
Over 220 Westport men fought in the US armed forces. Many were “doughboys,” a nickname given to soldiers in the American Expeditionary Forces.
We know from wartime draft records the names of many artists who lived here in 1917, as every man ages 18-45 was required to register. Among the residents were Karl Anderson, Edmund M. Ashe, E. F. Boyd, Robert Leftwitch Dogde, Arthur Dove, Ernest Fuhr, Ossip Linde, Lawrence Mazzanovich, Henry Raleigh, Clive Weed and George Hand Wright.
While Ashe, Mazzanovich and Dodge registered as national guardsmen with the Connecticut Militia, many others were too old to do so. So they used their talents to serve the home front in other ways.
Editorial cartoonist Clive Weed, a summer resident since 1910, made spirited illustrations on wartime events, like this one: “He Might Be YOUR Boy,” for the Philadelphia Public Ledger.
George Hand Wright drew similar illustrations.
Other Westporters — including Ashe, Boyd, Fuhr, Raleigh and Wright — created graphic posters to recruit servicemen and nurses, or urge citizens to purchase Liberty Bonds to finance the war. One example is Ashe’s “Lend the Way They Fight” (below), which shows an American infantryman hurling a hand grenade at German soldiers in a trench on the western front of France.
Hundreds of posters like this were made, raising $21.5 billion for the war effort. Here’s one from Raleigh:
In August 1918 — only months before the war ended — Anderson joined creative and patriotic forces with his Westport neighbors Mazzanovich and Linde to paint a billboard advertising war stamps, in downtown Bridgeport. The trio were filmed in action by the government for a newsreel, which was shown in movie houses nationwide.
When the war ended, younger artists flocked to Westport.
Kerr Eby, James Daugherty, and Ralph Boyer and his future wife Rebecca A. Hunt had each served as camoufleurs. They painted camouflage — a novel and demanding job.
Eby — assigned to the Camouflage Division of the US. Army 40th Engineers, Artillery Brigade in France — had it the hardest. Working on the front, he produced camouflage for artillery and troops. He also made drawings of the horrific images he witnessed on the battlefield.
Boyer and his art school friend Daugherty were both assigned to Baltimore for another important job: to execute “dazzle” painting designed to protect Navy vessels from enemy site and fire.
This new art involved painting abstract murals on ships that would soon be loaded with troops and ammunition. Swinging from a bosun’s seat, the artist laid the design on the side. A gang of painters followed rapidly behind, cutting in the geometric pattern with precision.
USS Leviathan in “dazzle” camouflage, 1918.
“The result was supposed to confuse and befuddle the German submarine gunner,” Daughtery said. “It could hardly do less.”
Of course, Westport’s most enduring legacy of World War I is the Doughboy statue at Veterans Green, across from Town Hall. Bennewitz explains:
Sculptor J. Clinton Shepherd was another wartime camoufleur. He served in the Illinois National Reserve and Air Corps. When he moved to Westport in 1925, the town had voted to erect a monument to honor its soldiers and nurses, who had returned from the front, and memorialize the 7 who had died.
In 1928 Shepherd received the commission. He sensitively rendered a life-sized soldier “with a pensive expression to memorialize the personal side of that ‘war to end all wars.'”
Dedication of the Doughboy statue in 1930. It was located on the grass median dividing the Post Road, between what is now Torno Lumber and the former Bertucci’s restaurant. This view looks east. The statue was moved in the 1980s to its current location opposite Town Hall (below).
Facing us was a beautiful New England scene: the Doughboy statue on Veterans Green, with spectacular fall foliage behind it. It could have easily appeared on one of those New Yorker covers decades ago.
As we got closer, I saw right behind the statue another quintessential, timeless New England scene. It could also have been a New Yorker cover: a row of political signs, opposite a row of brilliant orange and yellow trees.
With Election Day near, the signs in such close proximity to the Doughboy statue seemed so fitting. After all, so many American soldiers over the years gave the ultimate sacrifice in defense of our freedoms and rights — including the right to vote.
That right is something I have never taken for granted. Perhaps something we can all agree on — no matter where we stand on the political spectrum — is that this Tuesday, Westport residents hopefully will continue their tradition of high participation rates at the polls.
Many veterans live quietly in “06880”-land. And we’d like to give them their due.
If you’ve got a photo and/or story about a man or woman who served their country — recently or long ago; still living, or no longer with us — send it along (firstname.lastname@example.org). We’ll post this special tribute on our veterans’ special day.
Plaques, memorials and a statue fill Westport’s Veterans Green.
To everything there is a season, and all that. In a nearby location, 9 new trees will soon provide beauty and shade.
The Westport Tree Board has announced a “Memorial Tree Program” for Veterans Green. Trees may be purchased to honor — here’s the tie-in — veterans, for their service to our country.
New trees will join old on Veterans Green.
A donation of $2,000 includes the cost and planting of the tree, 5 years of maintenance, and a 4 inch-by-8 inch commemorative plaque.
Nine spots have been chosen, on a first-come, first-served basis. The size and species of each tree will be determined by the tree warden.
Applications are available in the Town Clerk’s and Public Works department offices, up the hill from the green in Town Hall. They’re also at the Parks & Rec office at Longshore. For more information, call 203-341-1134, or email email@example.com.
Deadline for full payment is October 20. Just in time for Veteran’s Day.
Click here to help support “06880” via credit card or PayPal. Any amount is welcome — and appreciated! Reader contributions keep this blog going. (Alternate methods: Please send a check to: Dan Woog, 301 Post Road East, Westport, CT 06880. Or use Venmo: @DanWoog06880. Or Zelle: firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks!)