An Astonishing Leader
Friday, September 16, 2016
Leo F. Carroll:
An Astonishing Leader
An Astonishing Leader
Few public servants stand larger in 20th Century Ridgefield than Leo F. Carroll, who spent 56 years of his life in public service on five fronts including 34 years in the state police, four years as chairman of the State Liquor Commission, 10 years as first selectman, and six years as a school board member.
All through those years, he was a flamboyant, colorful character. And as first selectman he was one of the most accomplished leaders of the town.
Born in 1900 in Bethel, Leo Francis Carroll was one of 13 children raised on a Bethel farm. He was introduced to Ridgefield while in high school, frequently playing the Hamilton High School squads as captain of the Bethel basketball and baseball teams. “I fell in love with the town at first sight,” he once said.
He served in the U.S. Army at the end of World War I and in 1920, became a state Motor Vehicles Department inspector, assigned to the “flying squad” of motorcycle men who spot-checked for defective autos and trucks on the growing network of state highways. Because he was only 20 years old — not yet an adult, “I could catch you, but I couldn’t pinch you,” he recalled in an interview with Marilyn Vencel in 1975. “So I would catch the cars and pull them over for the old men, who were old enough to make the arrests in case of speeding and drunken driving.”
In 1921, he joined the Connecticut State Police, and Trooper Carroll was assigned to the new Ridgefield barracks in what was later the Boland house at 65 West Lane. He eventually bought a house on Wilton Road West and Ridgefield became his home for the rest of his life.
He was promoted to sergeant in 1927 and two years later became a lieutenant in command of Troop G in Westport. He continued to rise through the ranks until 1947 when Major Carroll became the executive officer of the entire Connecticut State Police — the highest rank one could reach in civil service.
“I’ve had a tremendous career, a very successful career and if I may tell you this, I never injured one hair on any criminal’s head,” he told interviewer Vencel. During his policing years, he investigated dozens of murders, bank robberies, arsons, and other major crimes. “May I boast a little bit now,” he said.l “You probably never met a boy or a man who has had so many good, big cases to his credit.” (Several of those cases are described in “Wicked Ridgefield,” a new History Press book due out in October 2016.)
In 1953, he was named chairman of the State Liquor Control Commission for four years.
A Republican, he was not reappointed by Democratic Governor Abraham Ribicoff, and that ended his hope of one day being appointed commander of the state police – a job that had been held by his next-door neighbor on Wilton Road West, John C. Kelly.
Instead Carroll ran for first selectman of his hometown. At the 1957 GOP caucus that nominated him, he quoted Mark Twain: “Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest.” It was typical Carroll.
Always a colorful personality, he proceeded through a lively 10 years as first selectman for a period when the town doubled in population. During his administration, Ridgebury, Farmingville, Scotland and East Ridge Middle Schools were built and Branchville was started. The Planning (and later Planning and Zoning) Commission, Conservation Commission and Historic District Commission were created; and many hundreds of acres of open space were acquired, including the 570-acre Hemlock Hills and Pine Mountain Preserves in Ridgebury.
Under Carroll, the number of miles of paved road went from 60 to 120 — Ridgefield, even in the 1950s, had many miles of dirt roads. What’s more, Carroll himself sometimes maintained the town’s roads — he said he thought nothing of grabbing a free highway department truck and plowing the town’s roads “when we had a big, heavy snow storm.”
Much about town government was modernized during his years in office — at his retirement, Carroll himself listed 50 major accomplishments of his administration.
He was famous for his oratory and for the scores of colorful letters and columns he wrote in The Ridgefield Press.
After he retired as first selectman in 1967, The Press recalled the Twain quotation and observed that “Leo Carroll is a great showman, a sensitive man, a hard worker with an uncanny sense of people, individually and collectively. He is indeed an astonishing man.”
But his retirement was short-lived; in 1969 he was appointed to a school board vacancy and was later elected to a six-year term that ended in 1975. It was no breeze, either, for Carroll was in the middle of the famous “book burning” controversy in 1973 — he objected to the schools’ use of Eldridge Cleaver’s anti-establishment book, “Soul on Ice,” in a high school elective course on politics. The board was also involved in many school budget and school construction battles during his tenure.
In 1979, Carroll was named Rotary Citizen of the Year.
Leo Carroll was a man who always seemed satisfied with his life and his accomplishments. “The only one thing that I should be criticized for is that I don’t like to go away from home,” he told Vencel. “I’ve always loved my home.”
“I like to sleep and I take naps,” he added. “I like good food. I like good people. I have a burning desire to be with decent people.”
He also had a good sense of humor.
Years ago Routes 7 and 35 intersected with a 90-degree junction at which many accidents occurred. Around 1940, Lt. Carroll, who was commanding Troop A in Ridgefield, asked the state highway department to improve the intersection, resulting in a semi-rotary arrangement that lasted until around 1984 when the state returned the T, but this time with traffic lights. Carroll claimed that the old rotary was “the safest intersection in New England. There hasn’t been a single (serious) accident out there.”
However, the seeming complexity of the traffic circle gave rise to some complaints, most of them half teasing, and the intersection became known as “Carroll’s Folly.”
One day soon after the intersection was completed, the Rev. Hugh Shields, pastor of the First Congregational Church, called Carroll at the barracks and said: “Lieutenant, I’m up here at 35 and 7, and I don't know which way to go to get to Danbury.”
Carroll, knowing the minister never touched a drop of liquor, replied: “Listen, you sober up and you’ll find your way,” and promptly hung up.
He died in 1985 at the age of 84.
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