Tag Archives: Walt Melillo

Remembering Walt Melillo

To generations of Westporters, Walt Melillo was a beloved elementary school teacher.

I’m one of his former pupils — from 3rd grade, in Burr Farms School. Ever since those long-ago days, he remembered me. And I’ve remembered him.

Walt Melillo died yesterday, at 91. Today I’d like his many friends to remember him, through a 2010 “Woog’s World” column I wrote for the Westport News. If you did not know him, please read about the life of a proud native Westporter — and a wonderful man.

Walt Melillo teaching a Project Concern student, at Burr Farms School.

Walt Melillo teaching a Project Concern student in 1972, at Burr Farms School.

Born in 1924, Walt Melillo grew up on Franklin Street in Saugatuck. During the Depression the house – which stills stands — was filled with 25 extended family members. Melillos, Romanos, Reales, Espositos, Carreras – all lived and grew up together.

They grew vegetables in a backyard garden; baked their own bread, and made Prohibition-era wine. Each October, a neighbor butchered a pig. Every family got a part.

Walt attended Saugatuck Elementary School on Bridge Street – where his parents had gone – and then Bedford Junior High (now Kings Highway Elementary) and Staples High School (the current Saugatuck El).

Staples was small. “We knew everyone,” he recalled. “There weren’t a lot of course options, like today. But it was an excellent school.”

He was influenced by legendary teachers like Gladys Mansir (English) and Eli Burton (social studies). He played baseball well enough to earn a tryout with the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds (in 1941), and football well enough to earn a spot on the Staples Wall of Honor (in 2004).

Walt Melillo, as a young man.

Walt Melillo, as a young man.

Right after graduation in 1942, Walt joined the Navy. He was on active duty in the Atlantic Ocean and North Africa campaign. His destroyer escort sailed to the Pacific, patrolling through invasions of Okinawa and the Philippines.

A kamikaze plane crashed into his ship. Melillo was blown from the signal bridge to the forecastle. His unit shot down four Japanese planes, and received a Presidential Unit Citation. Seventy years later, he chokes up recalling those events.

The dropping of 2 atom bombs saved Melillo from participating in the invasion of Japan. His ship survived another hazard: a typhoon in the shark-infested North China Sea.

“I was a lucky sailor,” Melillo said. He appreciates his chance to serve – and to see the world. “I met all kinds of people. Before I enlisted, the furthest from Westport I traveled was New Haven.”

The GI Bill sent Walt to college. He majored in physical education at Arnold College (now the University of Bridgeport), then earned a master’s degree from Columbia University and a 6th-year from Bridgeport.

In 1951 he was hired as a teacher by the Westport Board of Education. His salary was $2,800 a year — $300 more than usual, thanks to a $100 bonus for each year of military service. “That was a lot of money in those days,” Melillo noted. His first assignment was Saugatuck Elementary School – his alma mater, across the street from where his brother lived.

After 7 years, Melillo moved to the brand new Burr Farms Elementary School. There was tremendous camaraderie between students, staff, parents – even custodians. Principal Lenny Metelits was an ex-Marine; the talented, lively staff included Matt Rudd, Sam Judell, Ed Morrison, Lou Dorsey and Ace Mahakian.  The number of male teachers was extraordinary.

“The parents were just fantastic,” Walt said. “They were so kind to us. They understood that teaching was a tough job for everyone.”

Walt Melillo inspired thousands of Westport elementary school students. This is his Burr Farms Class of 1973.

Walt Melillo inspired thousands of Westport elementary school students. This is his Burr Farms Class of 1973.

After nearly 2 decades at Burr Farms Melillo moved to Green’s Farms Elementary School, then Long Lots. He retired in 1986, after 35 years in education.

He kept busy, attending  Senior Center functions and playing tennis (he and partner Paul Lane won tournaments in the Over-40 and Over-60 age groups).

But teaching and athletics were only part of Walt’s story. In 1947 he organized Westport’s 1st summer Beach School, at Compo Beach. He was still in college, without a degree, so football coach Frank Dornfeld ran the first year. But Walt soon took over, and for 29 years he and Bedford Junior High instructor Carol Bieling Digisi were in charge of a popular program involving thousands of children.

“It gave me another chance to meet great parents,” he said. “And the entire staff was teachers.”

Two boys in that initial beach school group were Jack and Bill Mitchell. Several years later their parents, Ed and Norma, opened a small men’s clothing store. Walt was the first non-family member  they hired.

Walt stayed there —  working Friday nights and Saturdays – for 13 years.

Bill Mitchell (left) and Walt Melillo.

Bill Mitchell (left) and Walt Melillo.

Walt’s life was full. He and Ann – his wife of 60 years – had 4 children. When they moved to Hogan Trial in 1960, it was the 1st house on the road; now there are 40. As a child, Walt hunted there.

“This is my town,” he noted. “As Paul Newman said, ‘Living in Westport is a privilege.’ I love it here.”

The family will receive friends on Tuesday, Dec. 9 from 4-7 pm at the Harding Funeral Home, 210 Post Road East. The funeral will take place Wednesday, Dec. 10 at 11 a.m. at Assumption Church, 98 Riverside Avenue. Burial with full military honors immediately following mass. Interment will be private. Contributions in lieu of flowers may be made to the Westport Center for Senior Activities, 21 Imperial Avenue, Westport, CT 06880.

Bill Mitchell’s Birthday Surprise

Every Saturday is “showtime” at Mitchells.

A steady stream of customers – from Brian Williams, Jack Welch and Jim Calhoun to your basic, everyday Joe Hedge Fund Manager and CEO — drops in. They grab a bagel, schmooze, and buy a suit or three.

Today was extra special. Bill Mitchell — son of founders Ed and Norma, father and uncle of the 3rd generation to run the store — turns 70 tomorrow.

The store was packed with well-wishers (and stocked with champagne and cake).

In the midst of all the A-Listers and heavy hitters, it was easy to overlook one older man.

But Walt Melillo was there too. He’s 90 now, but in 1958 he was the 1st non-family member hired by Ed and Norma.

Bill Mitchell (left) and Walt Melillo.

Bill Mitchell (left) and Walt Melillo.

Walt worked Friday nights and all day Saturdays . His real job was as an elementary school teacher (Saugatuck, then Burr Farms). In fact, both Bill and I were Walt’s students.

Today was a great day for Bill Mitchell. He was especially happy to share it with one of Westport’s most important — but seldom recognized — big, big names: Walt Melillo.

An Old Video Causes “Concern”

Not much gets by Bill Scheffler.

Somehow, the 1966 Staples grad spotted an eBay ad for a 16mm film. It couldn’t have been more obscure — an introduction to the field of social psychology — but Bill was intrigued that it included “community reactions to bussing and integration in Westport, Conn.”

He bought it sight unseen.

Because 16 mm projectors are almost as rare as 8-tracks, Bill had it copied to DVD. The other day, he gave me a copy.

The video focused on a long-ago local controversy: Project Concern.

In 1970, a number of Westporters — backed by the 2 Congregational churches, the Unitarian church and Temple Israel — urged the town to follow Hartford’s lead, and bring a small number of Bridgeport children to our schools.

In April, 1000 people packed a tense Board of Ed meeting. There were hisses, boos, and tearful speeches on both sides of the issue.

In December the board voted 3-2 to bus a limited number of Bridgeport youngsters — on a voluntary basis — to Westport. Almost instantly, a campaign began to recall Board of Ed chairman Joan Schine.

Republican Allen Raymond, Democrat Jim O’Connell and Westport Education Association representative Dick Leonard led the battle against recall. The fight reached the state Supreme Court. The 3-2 vote was upheld, and in 1971 25 or so Bridgeport children enrolled in Burr Farms, Coleytown and Bedford Elementary Schools.

Burr Farms Elementary School. (Computer image by Steve Katz)

They continued on through junior and senior high school, with other children taking their place in the lower grades. They joined after-school activities; slept over in Westport homes, and became valued members of our community.

Project Concern ended in the 1980s, when state funding for the buses ended.

The video Bill Scheffler bought focused on the experiences of 2 Project Concern students in Walt Melillo’s 3rd grade Burr Farms classroom. A few years before the program began, I had been a Burr Farms 3rd grader — and Mr. Melillo was my teacher.

The video — a “Psychology Today Film” — is not exactly The Hunger Games. Talking heads pontificate about the pros and cons of busing. “When black kids get to white schools, they sing white songs that is part of colonization,” one says.

Walt Melillo

Another “expert” offers: “It is bewildering for white kids to have black children suddenly disgorged in their midst. They probably talk with their parents about it. Liberal parents explain slavery and poverty, and say, ‘We don’t talk nastily to them.'”

The tape shows 2 boys — one black, the other white — hugging each other. When the white child smiles at the camera, the same “expert” explains that the white child was “seeking normative approval.”

The videos taken inside Mr. Melillo’s class, and on the Burr Farms playground, are far more compelling. The teacher helps 2 Project Concern children — Leonard and Durwin — with lessons, interact with classmates, and sing and play.

Mr. Melillo is interviewed at length (though never identified by name). He describes the differences between the 2 boys — one is very outgoing, the other introverted — and talks about how he treats them very differently based on their personalities.

He says, “This has been a tremendous experience for me. And this year my classroom is a richer place.”

The talking heads dissect Mr. Melillo’s methods, as if he and his students were creatures in a zoo: “The teacher is quite conscious of helping. He is very skillful….The teacher is willing to physically touch them. Many of us are not willing to do that.”

Walt Melillo's 1973 class did not include any Project Concern students.

The video also includes scenes of furious protest meetings. “Are we going to get a colored teacher or white?” one woman wonders. “What if (our kids) don’t understand the lingo?”

Another accuses educators of “trying to bring people from the jungle here.”

Those are not Westporters. The meetings shown were taped in Great Neck and Boston, during similar busing controversies. The video does not make that clear. On the other hand, it also does not make clear exactly who Mr. Melillo is, or where the Burr Farms scenes take place.

But I know. I remember Mr. Melillo, Burr Farms and Project Concern.

I know how much the program contributed to Westport.

And I know something the “experts” never mentioned: That as much as the Bridgeport youngsters got out of Project Concern, Westport got far more back in return.

(Thanks to Woody Klein’s Westport, Connecticut: The Story of a New England Town’s Rise to Prominence for some of the historical background.)