His Own Drummer
Four Ridgefielders have been their party’s candidates for governor of Connecticut.
The Lounsbury brothers, Phineas and George, were both Republicans and both successful at winning the office.
Melbert B. Cary was a Democrat, but he lost.
And Walter Gengarelly was a Libertarian and, perhaps needless to say, he also lost.
But few people have been as dedicated to a party and its ideals as was Gengarelly, who died literally while running for office and whose name is recalled today in an award offered by the Connecticut Libertarian Party.
Walter Janvier Gengarelly Jr. was born in 1935 in New York City, but grew up on a poultry farm in Hillsdale, N.J. He served three years in the U.S. Army as an artillery radar technician.
Gengarelly began his career in aviation when he took a job at the Ramapo Valley Airport in Spring Valley, N.Y. to earn money to help pay for his own flying lessons. He worked his way up from a mechanic’s helper to a commercially rated charter pilot, flight instructor, and finally manager and vice president of the airport itself.
In 1967, while living in Vermont, he was involved with stage and screen choreographer Michael Kidd in establishing the Red Fox Airport, a small air strip near Bondville, which he subsequently managed. He owned a Cherokee 235 and used it in business and pleasure for many years.
Gengarelly became an advertising and promotions executive for publications in the aviation field. He and his family moved to Ridgefield in 1974, after he joined Air International News, a magazine based in Danbury.
In Ridgefield he became active in the Ridgefield Taxpayers League, the Mill Rate Watchers,
Three years later, after dropping out of the GOP, Gengarelly ran for governor on the Libertarian ticket. He knew he would not win the election, but putting himself up as a candidate allowed him and his party to spread the Libertarian message.
“The simplest explanation is that we are fiscal conservatives and social liberals,” Gengarelly told The Ridgefield Press. “The point, really, is that people should have a right to make choices about their lives themselves, and not have the government make it for them. How you would educate your children, what kind of medicine you would use if you’re sick, what kind of doctor to get to if you’re sick, what work you do, what you get paid for working.”
Gerard Brennan, state chairman of the Libertarian Party at the time, said Gengarelly was chosen based on his political experience and his ability to articulate the party’s philosophy. Because the Libertarian platform was not well known, it was that articulation, rather than winning the election,
“We don’t have any delusions about winning right away, but it’s important to disseminate our ideas,” added state secretary Richard Loomis.
In the end, Gengarelly got only about 8,000 votes — winner William A. O’Neill, a Democrat, received 569,000 votes and Republican Lewis B. Rome, 496,000.
Gengarelly did not give up with his efforts to promote Libertarian positions. He ran for state representative from Ridgefield in 1983 and for congressman in the 5th Connecticut District in 2002, 2008 and 2010.
Gengarelly was locally known not just for his political activities but also for his rather troubled gas station. In 1978, he bought what had once been called the Hilltop Service Station on Route 33, Wilton Road West, near the Wilton line. In the late 1960s, Shell had acquired the old family-run operation, tore down the low-key but comely Hilltop building that had included a convenience store, and built a modern, glassy station with three service bays — and no store.
Shell sought a permit to do auto repairs at the station, something Hilltop had never done. The Zoning Board of Appeals refused to allow repairs, saying it would be an illegal expansion of a non-conforming use, and courts upheld the board. Shell was stuck with a three-bay station that could sell only gasoline, oil, and tires, not a moneymaking proposition back then, and the operation eventually shut down.
When Gengarelly took over, he gave up his job working for the aviation magazine, which required a lot of travel, and began working full-time at the gas station. Long hours, many problems and lots of stress resulted. Six months after he bought the station, the nation was hit by the big fuel crisis that resulted from the Iranian revolution. Many stations — especially Gengarelly’s new operation — could not get needed supplies of gas. Long lines formed at stations, and rationing was common.
All this stress helped lead to the breakup of his marriage. It was a sad irony, Gengarelly said,
The station could not bring in enough money to pay the bills and eventually failed, but Gengarelly, as a Libertarian believer in free enterprise, did not blame the failure on the system. “That’s one of the perils of the free enterprise system,” he said. “Sometimes you go into business and you make money. Sometimes you go into business and you lose money. It just didn’t work out for me — or us, I should say,” referring to his family.
Things got so tough that, for a while, Gengarelly was living in the gas station. Despite all his problems, however, he always seemed optimistic and invariably wore a big smile.
The property was eventually sold, owners got permission for it to become a convenience store, but the station has nonetheless remained closed for years — a sad eyesore on a scenic highway with no other commercial properties for miles.
Gengarelly eventually moved to Newtown and later Danbury. He died of heart problems in 2010 at the age of 75 while in the midst of yet another campaign for Congress. In his honor, the Connecticut Libertarian Party State Central Committee issues the Walter Gengarelly Jr. Award at its annual convention to a person who has exhibited a “sustained and selfless effort to support the cause of liberty” at “extreme sacrifice to him or herself.”
“He was a kind, gentle and generous person who — to those of us who knew him well — very much marched to the beat of his own drummer,” said Wilson Leach, managing director of Air International News. Citing Gengarelly’s Libertarian campaigns for governor and congress, he added, “To the average person this may have appeared to be an unrealistic pursuit, but clearly Walt was a staunch believer in individual liberties.”
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