In 1936, Vivien Testa began teaching art at Bedford Junior High School (now King’s Highway Elementary).
She moved to Staples (now Saugatuck Elementary) in 1948.
Ten years after that, she was part of the new high school campus on North Avenue. (In fact — having minored in architecture — she helped design the place. She has an enormous slide collection from that time, which she will donate to the Westport Library.)
Vivien Testa chaired the art department through the 1970s.
Today she celebrates her 99th birthday.
She is as sharp as when she ruled the 4 Building.
“I do a lot of reading,” she says. “People come to visit. Other than that, I sit in my chair.”
Does she have a birthday message for her many fans and former students?
“Tell them I enjoyed them all,” she says. “And they’re welcome to visit any time.”
Several years ago, while writing my book Staples High School: 120 Years of A+ Education, I found an interview Vivien Testa had recorded for the Westport Historical Society oral history project. Here is an excerpt:
My family spent summers in Westport, so I knew the town in 1936 when I came to teach art at Bedford Junior High School. It was the Depression, and my father said I was taking a job away from a man who needed one.
In 1936 the school had a place in the life of the community. Teachers knew what they were expected to do and not do. For example, teachers were not supposed to smoke. But the faculty played basketball against the youngsters, and put on plays for them. There was a feeling we were all growing and learning together.
When Mrs. Holden, the arts supervisor, left in 1948, I took over. We had a lovely art room in the building on Riverside Avenue. It was good size, and well lit. There were 15 to 20 students in a class, and I taught 4 or 5 classes a day. Westport was growing as an arts colony.
I still carried nearly a full teaching load, but I was given one or two afternoons a week to supervise. There were three townwide directors in art, music and physical education. Those were considered special subjects, and the principals were not trained in them. But the Board of Education members and superintendent really knew teachers. They came into the classroom all the time.
Pop Amundsen was the custodian, and his wife ran the cafeteria. They set the tone for Staples. If they saw youngsters doing anything out of line, they let them know. Students respected them just as much as the principal.
Everything was in apple pie order. No one dared mark a desk. We were a small family. Education at that time was a family business. Teachers and students and parents all felt responsible for what was happening. There was no closing eyes to what was going on. Everyone respected what was happening.
We got help from a lot of places. The Westport Women’s Club had a $350 art competition, and when Famous Artists School came in they gave scholarships. Al Dorne [a founder of Famous Schools] always helped. He’d produce booklets for new teachers or students. He underwrote hundreds of dollars.
I was involved in the plans for the North Avenue building. I worked with the architects, Sherwood, Mills and Smith. I minored in architecture, so I was able to lay out my ideas about what I wanted to have. It worked nicely for me, except when they cut this, that and the other thing, and we ended up with just a mishmash. That was kind of too bad. But it was still better than you would find in many places.
The "new" Staples, circa 1959. The auditorium (center left) and gym (largest building in the rear) are the only original structures that remain today.
There were many bugs in the building that had to be taken care of. A 3rd art room was cut out of the original plan, and a wing in the auditorium was cut. We had to put all the crafts stuff – kilns, etc. – in 2 rooms designed for 2-D stuff. Then when they added Building 9 a few years later, they added a 3-D room, and extended the stage.
Before they did that, a ballet company came to use the stage. The stage had only been planned for lectures and assemblies, not theater – there was no room for stage sets. As you face the stage, there was a brick wall on the right, and a passageway and electric panel on the left. A handsome male dancer ran right into the brick wall. Performers had to dress in the art rooms, too. It was quite a mess.
There was one boys’ and one girls’ bathroom – none for the faculty. I learned a great deal about youth by using that bathroom. But we always took an interest in keeping our building beautiful, because art is beauty.