Then again — except for when plans are announced for a project like elderly housing — most Westporters tend to overlook Baron’s South.
But advocates for keeping the 23-acre hilly and heavily wooded property just a few steps from downtown Westport in its natural state got a big boost last week.
Since her appointment last summer, Parks and Recreation director Jen Fava has been quietly analyzing and assessing land her department oversees.
Now, Parks and Rec hopes to upgrade the trails crisscrossing Baron’s South. They’re accessible from Imperial Avenue and South Compo Road, from dawn to dusk — though few Westporters know they’re there, let alone open.
A path in Baron’s South. (Photo/Judy James)
The Parks and Rec Commission unanimously approved $75,000, to pay for upgrades suggested by Fava. However, she noted, the cost could be as low as $25,000. Most of the work will involve trees.
A private group — Friends of Baron’s South — has played a key role in cleaning up the property.
It’s a true town gem. And — very quietly, and unobtrusively — it’s about to get even more attractive.
We all remember influential teachers: The English instructor who convinced us we could write. The biology teacher who pointed us to a career in medicine. The middle school staff member who helped us get through a difficult time in life.
But who remembers the person who taught us to swim?
Phil Walklet has done that for thousands of Westporters, of all ages. At Staples — where he runs the Parks and Recreation Department’s program (and manages the lifeguards) — Walklet works with 3-year-olds. And 80-year-olds.
They love him. Walklet is a natural teacher.
He’s a lifelong swimmer too. Growing up in Williamsburg, Virginia, he and his 7 siblings were always on swim teams.
In 1969 — the summer after he graduated from high school — Walklet’s father got a job in New York. The family moved to Weston. He moved on to Clemson University.
The swim program was insignificant — the team used a 20-yard YMCA pool — and after a while Walklet transferred. He worked at several different jobs, including teaching small kids at the Staples pool.
A year later Walklet became assistant director of the Longshore pool. He’s now the director — a job whose timing works well with his school-year job (security supervisor at Greenwich High).
At Staples, Walklet works with his brother Colin and daughter Courtney. “She’s amazing,” he says proudly. “She’s so good with kids with autism and other challenges. She’s like a horse whisperer.”
He’s no slouch himself.
Walklet loves teaching. “It’s in our blood,” he says. “Back in Virginia, there was very little instruction. Now we break everything down.”
He laughs. “We didn’t even wear goggles.”
With 3-year-olds, Walklet says, “I put myself at their level. You can’t push them too hard. To trust the water, they have to trust you.”
Once they do, it’s a simple process: “Put your face in the water. Glide. Kick. Breathe.” Walklet goes at whatever pace is right, for each individual child.
“I’ve taught kids who were found at the bottom of a pool,” he says. “That’s so challenging. I just circle around, try different things, then come back so they’re not thinking about that anymore.”
Teaching continuing education swimming to adults on Wednesday evenings, Walklet sees a wide range of abilities.
One 80-year-old man — you thought I was kidding? — was traumatized as a child. All his life, he feared the water.
“I got him to move, with a kickboard,” Walklet recalls. “He didn’t learn to swim, but he was so grateful that he could be independent in the water.”
The key, Walklet says, is for a swimmer to feel comfortable and relaxed. “The rest is easy.”
Now in his mid-60s, Walklet has no plans to retire. Swimming has been part of his life forever. At Staples and Longshore, the pools still beckon.
Forty years ago last summer, Jaws terrorized America.
After work, a group of Westport lifeguards went to Post Cinema, to see what all the buzz was about.
The next day, guard chief Will Luedke told his crew to swim to the buoys. “That was the fastest I’ve ever swum in my life,” one recalls.
That story was one of dozens told — and retold — yesterday. Nearly 2 dozen men and women who spent summers in the 1970s at Compo Beach (and, occasionally, Longshore and Burying Hill) gathered for their 2nd annual reunion.
Lifeguard reunion host Ann Becker Moore, with former guard Bill Bellock.
They ate lobster (which they seldom did, back in the day).
They drank beer (which they often did).
But mostly, they told stories. They laughed. And they looked back with awe on the friendships, the camaraderie and the job that was — hands down — one of the best times of all their lives.
The reunion featured a slide show. Not much has changed in 40 years.
The days spent on the guard stands and in the shack were memorable. They did important work — keeping swimmers safe, providing first aid, finding lost kids — but they did it as a tight, fun-loving group.
The nights were even more memorable. They had their own basketball team, in a summer league. When someone’s parents were out of town, they partied. And if there was no party, they headed to one of Westport’s then-many bars.
One day, a call came from the Parks and Recreation Department office. Please stop wearing your red lifeguard jackets when you’re out at night, they were told. Too many people see you at too many different places.
Mary (Hughes) Treschita has fond memories of her lifeguarding days.
Mike Wolf — who went on to be Connecticut’s head FBI agent — brought a 40-year-old jacket to last night’s reunion, held at the rented beach-area home of self-described “lifeguard groupie” Ann Becker Moore. It was regarded with awe by the men and women who once worse them.
(It was also the object of much speculation. The jackets were supposed to be turned in at the end of the summer, not kept.)
The guards came from all over. Pam Washburn lives in California. Luedke — now an attorney — flew up from Texas. “I would have crawled here if I had to,” he said.
“It’s like we never left,” noted Dave Jones, who drove from Rhode Island.
Mary Treschita — back then, she was Mary Hughes — called those years “the prime of our lives. We still talk about the same things, and laugh the same way we did back then.”
“Sure, it was a job,” Jim Rodenbush added. “But boy, did we have fun.”
After dinner, the former guards wandered over to Compo for a nighttime group photo.
Posted onAugust 10, 2014|Comments Off on Lifeguard Olympics: Everyone Into The Water!
They save lives. They comfort lost children. They also compete in rescue board relays, 1-mile runs, a jetty-to-jetty swim, beach volleyball and a relay race.
They’re the Compo Beach lifeguards. On Friday night — after stowing their walkie-talkies and zinc oxide — the very fit, very tan guards hosted their Longshore counterparts in a “Lifeguard Olympics.”
Kyle Mikesh of Compo Beach (left) and Will Brant of Longshore fly into the water, at the start of the rescue board relay race. (Photo/Justin Rende)
The friendly (I guess) competition — sponsored by Westport Parks and Recreation — was a continuation of a tradition established years ago, when teams from Norwalk and Fairfield competed. (That’s why every night’s we’re-now-off-duty announcement mentions the “award-winning Compo Beach lifeguards”).
Compo guards practice for the volleyball event.
Friday’s event drew a large, appreciative crowd. They saw one more side to Westport’s superb lifeguards, who truly do it all.
Connor Weiler is very proud to be a Compo Beach lifeguard.
The Compo guards…
…and their Longshore foes. (Photo/Justin Rende)
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Every child’s life is marked by developmental milestones: Potty training. Shoe tying. Bike riding.
But — as basic as those sound — not every kid achieves every milestone with ease.
Westporter Barbara Greenspan is a pediatric occupational therapist. Working primarily with preschoolers to develop gross and fine motor skills — jumping, skipping, handwriting — she knows the physical and emotional benefits of being able to do everyday tasks.
Barbara is also a devoted bike rider. She works out at Sherpa, does the CT Challenge and enters triathlons. “Kids need to ride bikes,” she believes. But they don’t always have the ability to.
In 2007 she asked Westport Parks and Rec to help organize a bike-riding class for children with disabilities. “Inclusion” is part of their mission. Cyndi Palaia worked with Barbara to develop a “Cycle Club.”
They’ve run it every spring since. For 6 weeks at the Compo Skate Park, a half dozen or so youngsters learn about balance, starting and stopping, and safety.
Easy does it…
Every Monday — with help from Staples’ Service League of Boys (SLOBs), and other high school students — the kids hesitantly, then confidently, move from training wheels to independence.
Some are autistic. Others have Down Syndrome, or ADHD. All achieve an important milestone.
Barbara calls the teenage helpers crucial to the program’s success. “They literally hold the bikes, say when to pedal, and slowly let go.”
She notes that the teenagers “have to think about how to teach. They have to be empathetic. They’re in close proximity to the kids, physically and emotionally. I think they get as much satisfaction out of helping, as the kids do themselves. It’s a process, and they’re there for the kids every step of the way.”
Some of the teens return every year to help.
The Cycle Club is one of Westport’s lowest-key, littlest-known programs. But it has a major impact.
The other day, Barbara saw one of the program’s graduates on a bike near Roseville Road. “I rode to the beach with my dad, and back,” he proudly told her. “I rode 6 miles!”
The trees lining the entrance to Longshore are handsome and stately.
They’re also old. And dangerous.
The Parks and Recreation Department, with the consent of the tree warden, has identified approximately 15 trees that are the last of the originals along the entry road. They’re identified by their poor shape, and the condition of their crowns.
These trees have reached — or will soon — the end of their useful lives. The crowns are sparse and misshaped, as a result of deterioration and falling dead wood over many years. Large branches have fallen — threatening golfers, drivers, bicyclists and joggers — and the trees themselves may topple in high winds.
The trees lining the Longshore entrance have a long history — and are now old.
Nearly 20 years ago, Parks and Rec realized what was coming “down the road.” They planted a new strand of trees, further back along both sides of the entrance. Now mature, they create a visual row of trunks and shade. When the 15 oldest trees — which also crowd and shade the new trees — are cut, the new ones will benefit.
Parks and Rec — and the Westport Tree Board — understand the love many Westporters have for trees. (Until they fall on your property.) Thanks to the new trees, there will be no real visual impact after removal.
And the department and board hope the old trees will have a 2nd life.
That’s where “06880” comes in. If you’ve got an idea on how to “repurpose” those 15 trees, click “Comments.” Artists? Furniture makers (Todd Austin, perhaps)? Let’s hear your thoughts.
WARNING: There is no guarantee that the trees are in good enough shape for anything.
Longshore trees frame this wedding photo by Victoria Souza.
Compo Beach may soon look different. But this time changes will come from us — not nature.
Within the next few weeks Parks & Rec will issue a Request for Proposals. Engineering and design firms will bid on a master plan.
The Westport News quoted director Stuart McCarthy as saying the days of people “going to the beach, lathering themselves in suntan oil, and sitting in a chair” are over. Now everyone walks, jogs, bikes, pushes strollers, flies kites, launches windsurfers — you name it. And a lot more of us do it, too.
There’s always plenty of activity at Compo Beach.
Noting the sorry state of bathhouses and bathrooms, and the crowded entrances and exits, Compo Beach Association president Skip Lane said the beach “hasn’t been improved or really looked at in 100 years.”
Well, not quite.
In fact, the beach has seen many changes over the past century. (Historical reference point: The cannons were dedicated in 1910, 103 years ago. If they’d been there in 1777, maybe the British would not have landed and marched up to Danbury.)
For over 100 years, the cannons have been a Compo Beach icon. This painting is by Thomas N. Graves.
A wooden bathing pavilion was built in 1919; 750 bathhouses were rented by the hour. (Sounds sketchy, I know.)
By 1927, what we now call the “pavilion” — the open-air area with a few benches between the volleyball courts and beach — was a handsome 2-story affair, featuring dining and dancing.
A small lifeguard cottage, trimmed by a nice garden, sat by the water’s edge.
But as Roaring 20s-ish as that all sounds, the beach itself was awful. It was filled with rocks — good-sized ones, this being New England. It took a few more decades before Compo became the sandy beach we know today.
The wooden bathhouses, with a boardwalk over the sand — and the 2-story pavilion in the distance.
Anchored offshore — until about 1960 or so — were several large rafts. They were popular spots for diving, sunbathing, and teenagers trying to impress each other.
I don’t know why they were removed, but I bet liability was an issue. Things are much worse today, of course. If McDonald’s has to warn customers that coffee is hot, we’ll never see those rafts again.
Even through the 1950s, oldtimers say, the beach along Soundview Drive — from the drop-off area to Hillspoint Road — was considered “private.” It wasn’t, of course, but many Westporters asked permission of Soundview residents before sitting down to lather on suntan oil.
A scene from the late 1940s or early ’50. (Postcard courtesy of CardCow.com)
In my coming-of-age age — let’s call it the Age of Aquarius — Chubby Lane ran the concession stand. It was located where the volleyball courts are now. And with parking right outside, you didn’t need a sticker to drive up, order one of the best cheeseburgers known to man, and hang out until someone told you to move.
Chubby had another great way of boosting business. Employees — wearing blue button-down shirts, and high knee socks — roamed the beach taking orders. They called them in by walkie-talkie, and tied a balloon around a beach chair. Soon, another employee delivered the food.
The playground has changed over the years too. A carousel once sat near the basketball court, along with monkey bars and other stuff. The playground we now know was built in the late 1980s, in a burst of community spirit and volunteer labor — but not until a full-blown, nasty, typical Westport controversy wound through court.
Neighbors complained that the playground would ruin “the vista,” and send property values plummeting. It would also attract rowdy teenagers, who’d drink, do drugs and have sex.
Today, of course, the Compo Beach playground is one of the first things realtors show to prospective buyers. And kids party safely in their own basements.
It’s a full house at the Compo Beach playground.
So no, the beach has not just sat there, unchanging, for 100 years. Plenty has happened. Some of it’s good; some bad. Some has been planned; some not. I haven’t even mentioned the changes — to the coastline, the seawalls, the structures themselves — wrought by weather.
(Side note: A month ago, I wondered how Parks & Rec would ever get the post-Sandy beach ready for this summer. Thanks to a herculean effort — with help from Public Works and Kowalsky — it looks great. )
Back in the Carter administration, I was a young pup serving on a committee aimed at — surprise! — improving Compo Beach. Planning consultants were hired. They looked at the beach from all kinds of angles, and with fresh eyes. One of their proposals was to move parking away from the sand. “Reclaim the beach!” the consultants said. “People don’t need to drive that close to the water.”
No way, our committee said. This is Westport. People have always parked there, and they always will.
Let’s hope this next engineering and design firm comes up with some creative, reimagined ideas for the beach. They might even suggest diverting cars away from the water.
Hey, you never know.
Back in the day, cars parked even closer to the water than they do now. Check out the rocky beach. too.
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