Monday, April 30, 2018
Boosting Sports for Women
In 1965, the senior class at Ridgefield High School dedicated its yearbook to Margaret O’Sullivan who, by then, was a guidance counselor at the school. Few students at the time knew of the role “Miss O” played in helping young women be a part of interscholastic athletics.
“Before girls sports at Ridgefield High School received an equality boost from Title IX legislation in the early 1970s, they got a formative hand from Margaret O’Sullivan some 30 years earlier,” said longtime Ridgefield Press sports editor Tim Murphy.
Margaret Claire O’Sullivan was born in 1911 in South Boston, Mass., and graduated from Boston University with a degree in physical education. She later earned a master’s degree at the University of Bridgeport.
When she joined the high school faculty as a physical education teacher in 1943, there were no interscholastic girls sports teams at RHS. Not one.
O’Sullivan quickly changed that, organizing varsity and junior varsity girls teams for one sport each season: field hockey in the fall, basketball in the winter, and softball in the spring. She later started a club team for girls tennis.
While turnout for the programs was good, conditions were not. The girls had limited equipment and shared fields with boys’ sports teams — mostly, they practiced and played when the boys were at away games. But O’Sullivan always fought for more time and attention to girls’ athletics and well-being.
She served as head of the girls physical education department at the high school until 1962, when she became a guidance counselor.
“All of us have seen the kind of person she is,” said the staff of the 1965 yearbook. “Loyal, sincere, self-sacrificing, dedicated — these are part of Miss O’s personality. Friendly, helpful, generous, devoted — these, too, describe Miss O. This list is endless. She is the manifestation of many of our ideals.”
O’Sullivan retired in 1973 and moved to Shrewsbury, Mass., to live with a sister. When she died in 1993 at the age of 81, she had been all but forgotten locally. The Ridgefield Press had only a brief, three-paragraph obituary, provided by the sister (but did run a picture of her, smiling).
Seven years later, the Ridgefield Old Timers Association remembered O’Sullivan, giving her a Posthumous Award for her work with girls at Ridgefield High School. ROTA said she had died “with much deserved praise left unsaid.”
Under the Elms
Eugene O'Neill often seemed an unhappy man. But America's only Nobel Prize-winning playwright may have been particularly unhappy in Ridgefield. He disliked the cold winters, perhaps felt the town was not close enough to the sea, and seemed to dislike what he considered a gloomy house. And he may even have imagined ghosts watching him here.
What's more, his marriage was in the process of breaking up when he lived in town.
Nonetheless, O'Neill used Brook Farm on North Salem Road and its environs as the inspiration for the setting of one of his best plays, “Desire Under the Elms,” and he wrote at least five other plays while here (“All God's Chillun Got Wings,” “Marco Millions,” “The Great God Brown,” “Lazarus Laughed,” and “Strange Interlude”).
And when he was selling the place, he had doubts about abandoning its beauty.
A native of New York City, Eugene Gladstone O’Neill was born in 1888, the son of an actor, and lived his first seven years mostly in hotels and on trains. He was expelled from Princeton, studied briefly at Harvard, and held many jobs — including a stint as a newspaper reporter.
He began to write plays in 1913 and by 1920 he had won his first Pulitzer Prize for “Beyond the Horizon.”
O’Neill bought Brook Farm in 1922 and lived here with his second wife, Agnes, and son Shane.
“His settling at Brook Farm realized an ambition never really achieved by his father — to own and live in a gracious homestead in which one’s children, and perhaps one's children's children, would grow up,” wrote Croswell Bowen in “The Curse of the Misbegotten.” “Agnes would have preferred a smaller place, but O'Neill always insisted he must have a big house. He felt that at Brook Farm he could at last ‘belong.’”
Silvio Bedini, the Smithsonian historian, grew up nearby and, as a boy, played with Shane O’Neill, whom he found both lonely and spoiled. To Silvio and his brother Ferdinand Bedini, Eugene O'Neill was a stern, brooding, almost superhuman presence in and about the house.
Indeed, the playwright suffered from loneliness, depression and alcoholism (biographer Bowen describes a famous binge in Brook Farm's cellar after O'Neill broke open a barrel of hard cider with poet Hart Crane and critic Malcolm Cowley. At one point, as the playwright poured pitchers of cider, poet Crane, waving a dead cigar, gave a recital as the equally drunk Crowley served as an audience).
O'Neill scholars and biographers say he was unhappy at the house, possibly because of the cold, perhaps because it was not near the sea. At one point, biographer Louis Sheaffer said, O'Neill believed “someone was peering over his shoulder as he wrote, and one night he thought he heard footsteps outside, going round and round the house.”
Nonetheless, in the trees and the stone walls he found inspiration that he employed in “Desire Under the Elms.”
In 1925, while he was living here, his daughter was born in Bermuda; when she was 18, Oona O'Neill married the much-older, comedian-director Charlie Chaplin, prompting an angry O’Neill to disown his daughter — they never saw each other again. Oona remained devoted to Chaplin until his death in 1977. She died in 1991.
By 1926, O'Neill was using Brook Farm only occasionally, but in a letter to his wife written in September 1927 shortly before he sold the place, he wrote: “Going to Ridgefield made me sad. It's so beautiful right now, and I couldn't help feeling more keenly than ever that that's where our family ought to be. I have half a mind to open (the house) myself, except that it would be so lonely all by myself.”
Soon after he divorced his wife and married actress Carlotta Monterey.
O'Neill went on to live in many other places here and abroad, win the Nobel Prize in 1936, and begin a long decline in health from a neurological disorder that ended in his death in 1953.
But though his output had dwindled in his last 20 years, one of his most important works, the autobiographical “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” was completed near his death and published in 1956, earning his fourth Pulitzer Prize. The only other individual to win that many Pulitzers was poet Robert Frost.
Sunday, April 29, 2018
Music for the Movies
Music for many of the top movies of the 20th Century was composed by Alex North, a man who also mentored many composers — including John Williams.
“You’d make a hell of a composer,” North often told a young Williams.
North, who had a home on Great Hill Road for a dozen years, earned Oscar nominations for 14 of his films and in 1986 was the first composer to receive a Lifetime Achievement Academy Award for his body of work.
Born in 1910 in Chester, Pa., North studied piano at the Curtis Institute of Music, Juilliard, and the Moscow Conservancy. He also studied with Aaron Copland.
North wrote ballet and classical music in the 30s and 40s – Benny Goodman performed his Revue for Clarinet and Orchestra.
During World War II, he spent several years in the U.S. Army, service that included being the officer in charge of entertainment for recuperating soldiers in hospitals throughout the U.S. He also wrote music for two dozen government documentaries related to the war.
His first movie score, for Elia Kazan’s “A Streetcar Named Desire,” in 1951 won him an Academy Award nomination, and he was eventually nominated 13 more times.
He wrote the music for dozens of leading films, including “Death of A Salesman” (1951), “Viva Zapata!” (1952), “The Rose Tattoo” (1955), “The Rainmaker” (1956), “Stage Struck” (1958), “The Sound and the Fury” (1959), “Spartacus” (1960), “Cleopatra” (1963), “Cheyenne Autumn” (1964), The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1968), 2001: A Space Odyssey, “The Shoes of the Fisherman” (1969), “Willard” (1971), “Dragonslayer” (1981), “Prizzi’s Honor” (1985), “Good Morning, Vietnam” (1987), and “The Last Butterfly” (1990).
As a young musician, John Williams played piano in North’s orchestras. “For those of us coming of age in the 1950s, and seriously interested in film music, Alex North was an inspiration, a role model and a hero,” Williams wrote the foreword to Sanya Henderson’s 2003 biography, “Alex North, Film Composer.” “He was then and remains so today.”
North also wrote much music for TV and won an Emmy for the score to “Rich Man, Poor Man” in 1976. In 1949 he wrote the music for Broadway’s “Death of A Salesman.” He won a Golden Globe for his score for “The Shoes of the Fisherman.”
North's song, "Unchained Melody," from the film “Unchained,” became a pop music classic. More than 1,500 different recordings of “Unchained Melody” have been made by more than 670 artists. In 1955, when it first appeared, three versions of the song (by Les Baxter, Al Hibbler, and Roy Hamilton) made the Billboard Top 10. Probably the best-known version, however, was by the Righteous Brothers.
North may have been introduced to Ridgefield through Marthe Krueger, a noted dancer in the 30s and 40s, who in 1942 opened the Marthe Krueger School of Dance on Branchville Road. North and she had collaborated on three dance pieces, and Kruger invited him to teach at her school.
North bought a home here in 1950 and continued to use it until the early 1960s. In 1954, he made some local news when he joined his neighbor, Time magazine chief Henry Luce, and Ridgebury conservationist Daniel M. McKeon in successfully suing the town to stop a development along Great Hill Road.
He died in 1991 at the age of 80 in Los Angeles. John Williams offered a eulogy at his funeral.
Saturday, April 28, 2018
Theater and the Elderly
A half century ago, Joe Dunworth was as well known in Ridgefield as any non-native was. Today, while few people in town may recognize his name, many benefit from two of the causes he championed: local theater and tax relief for the elderly.
Dunworth, who served in several capacities as a volunteer town official, was among the first to propose that Ridgefield help its elderly by providing a flat-out tax cut. His idea was eventually adopted and has provided millions of dollars in tax breaks for over-65 Ridgefielders.
He was also among the three people who founded what is today the Ridgefield Theater Barn, the first successful theatrical group in town.
Joseph Michael Dunworth, born in 1923 in New York City, had an early interest in the sea.
After working for McGraw-Hill and the Burnham Corporation, and earning a master’s degree at Columbia, he formed his own company in 1975. Panatech Engineering sold furnaces and other home heating equipment for such companies as Thermo Pride Industries.
He and his wife, Flo, moved to Ridgefield in 1956, buying a West Lane home that had once housed workers on Frederic E. Lewis’s estate, Upagenstit.
By the early 1960s he began to become active in the community. He eventually served on the Big Three town agencies: the Board of Education for six years — including time as chairman, the Board of Selectmen for four years, and another eight years on the Board of Finance. He ran unsuccessfully for first selectman in 1969.
For all those offices, Dunworth was a Democrat, but frequently he openly supported Republicans, finally switching parties in 1989. “My enrollment in the Republican Party approximately one year ago was about 40 years overdue,” Dunworth said in 1990 as he was running for state representative (he lost to Democrat Barbara Ireland, the incumbent).
In 1965, Dunworth, along with Evelyn Foley and Patricia DiMuzio, formed the Ridgefield Workshop for the Performing Arts for not only staging shows but also “fostering and developing creative talent.” Its first production, one-act performances of “Sorry, Wrong Number,” and the second act from “Auntie Mame,” took place that November. He went on to direct many subsequenthas its own venue on Halpin Lane.
He was also active at St. Mary’s Parish, where he was a director of the Catholic Youth Organization.
After the 1990 election, he retired from public life. He moved to Danbury in 2002 and died there in 2011 at the age of 88.
In 1972, when he was a selectman, Dunworth became perhaps the first local official to actively fight for significant tax relief for the elderly. In July that year he proposed and actually wrote the draft of a proposed state bill that would allow towns to provide tax breaks to homeowners 65 or older.
“Many elderly citizens are finding it difficult and, in some cases impossible, to pay their real property taxes,” he said. “Many of the elderly are living lives of quiet desperation. Many of them have lived, worked and paid taxes to the community for 40 to 50 years.
“I believe that towns should honor their golden-age citizens, most of whom have ceased benefiting from their tax dollars, and provide them with certain real property tax concessions, thereby endowing them with some dignity and security in their old age.”
Under Dunworth’s proposal, a town could cut a senior citizen’s tax bill in half at age 70 and eliminate property taxes altogether at 75.
That plan did not go over well, probably because of the large amount of money that under-70 taxpayers might have to make up. But a couple years later, Ridgefield adopted Dunworth’s basic concept, creating a set tax cut for those 65 or older.
When the full program began in 1977, senior taxpayers got a $450 annual reduction in their taxes. That $450 was roughly equivalent to $1,850 in today’s dollars. While the dollar amount of the tax break has gradually increased over the years to $1,048 today, thanks to inflation that’s effectively $800 less than what the town granted in 1977.
Joe Dunworth would not be pleased.
Self-Effacing, Top-Ten Designer
Most people have never heard of him. Even those who work in his field of graphic design might shrug their shoulders if you posed his name today. Yet millions of people have seen the work“on the top-ten list of the best 20th-century designers in the world.”
Over his 60-year career Nitsche was involved in art direction, book design, typography, illustration, photography, film, signage, exhibits, packaging, industrial and corporate design, and advertising. He created scores of posters, book and record-album covers, ads, postage stamps, and even typefaces. Some of his work, particularly posters, are in the collections of top museums.
“He was among a handful of progressive designers and artists who imbued American graphic design with a modern European sensibility,” said The New York Times.
Erik Fredi Nitsche was born in Switzerland in 1908 and studied at the Collège Classique of Lausanne in his home town. He began his career working as a graphic designer for magazines in Switzerland and Germany before moving to the United States in 1934.
He spent two years in Hollywood, where he was friends with composer Frederic Holländer, actress Marlene Dietrich, and MGM special-effects director Slavko Vorkapich. Two years later, he
In New York, he began doing covers and illustrations for such magazines as Harper’s Bazaar, Fortune, Town and Country, Vanity Fair, House and Garden, and Look. He created newspaper advertising campaigns for department stores like Ohrbach’s, Saks Fifth Avenue and
In the late 1950s, he worked for General Dynamics, which was building the Nautilus, the first nuclear submarine. Nitsche was commissioned to develop “a visual image that would introduce this submarine to the world and at the same time emphasize the company’s peaceful concerns,” The Times said. “The design for the submarine was top secret, so Mr. Nitsche devised a symbolic solution based on the message ‘Atoms for Peace.’ ” Posters from this campaign, published in six European and Asian languages, have become classics among modern posters and are in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, The Smithsonian, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
He also did memorable posters for Universal Pictures and 20th Century Fox. One of his best-known was for “All About Eve,” the 1950 film starring Bette Davis and featuring a little-known Marilyn Monroe.
Nitsche moved to Ridgefield in 1954 and lived in a large, turn-of-the-century house on Lounsbury Road in Farmingville, which he renovated in dramatic fashion in collaboration with the acclaimed architect Alexander Kouzmanoff. He later lived on Old Branchville Road. In 1974, he moved to Europe, but eventually returned to this country and was living on Mill Plain Road in Danbury when he died in 1998 at the age of 90.
His former wife, Margaret “Gretl” Nitsche, was a longtime Ridgefielder who worked as a
Erik Nitsche’s name may be unfamiliar even to some who are knowledgeable about the history of graphic design, probably because he was reluctant to seek publicity. He believed his work should speak for itself.
In a 1950s essay about Nitsche, designer and author P. K. Thomajan wrote: “Self-effacement, he finds, keeps the blighting shadow of the ego out of one’s work.”
Friday, April 27, 2018
Historian Who Loved Ridgefield
For a small town, Ridgefield has had a wealth of historians, with no fewer than three full-sized histories written about it, plus many shorter works. One of those brief histories was penned by one of the nation’s most prominent historians, a rare winner of two Pulitzer Prizes for historical writing.
Allan Nevins was still a young man when he came to Ridgefield in the 1920s, perhaps to work on a thesis in graduate school or to complete one of his early books on journalism. He lived at The Elms Inn and was so taken by the town that he wrote a 50-page profile, published by The Elms as a booklet entitled “An Historical Sketch of Ridgefield.” While the book is undated, it was published in 1922 and was one of the first written by Nevins, who went on to complete 50 volumes of history and biography, including the acclaimed eight-volume story of the Civil War, called “Ordeal of the Union.”
Born on an Illinois farm in 1890, Nevins earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English at the University of Illinois and then moved to New York City where he became a reporter for the New York Evening Post. That job inspired one of his first books; combining his work with his love of history, it was called “The Evening Post: A Century of Journalism,” also published in 1922. He may have been working on “The American States During and After the Revolution, 1775-1789,” published in 1929, when he was living in Ridgefield. Or perhaps his time here inspired that book.
His historical research and writings led to an appointment in 1928 to the history faculty at Columbia University where he remained until his retirement in 1958. He then moved to California and continued to write; he was still working on his Civil War series when he died in 1971. His biographies “Grover Cleveland: A Study in Courage” (1933) and “Hamilton Fish: The Inner History of the Grant Administration” (1936), each won a Pulitzer.
Professor Nevins was a friend and supporter of John F. Kennedy, and wrote the foreword to Kennedy’s “Profiles in Courage.” He also wrote the foreword to Silvio Bedini’s 1958 history of the town, “Ridgefield in Review,” in which Nevins sings Ridgefield’s praises like a chamber of commerce director:
“When I made acquaintance with Ridgefield some three decades ago, it delighted me for several reasons. The chief was that it made an ideal center for long country walks, as picturesque as those from a Cotswold or Burgundian village, and a good deal wilder…Ridgefield is set in a remarkably diversified terrain of hills, streams and woods, where no factory smoke stains the sky, and the distant train whistle seldom interrupts the cawing crows.
“My second reason for taking pleasure in the place lay in its historic memories. For it cherishes and fittingly exhibits its relics of colonial and Revolutionary days. Perhaps this filiopietistic trait has developed because Ridgefield has grown and changed but slowly. As a third reason for delight in the place, I liked its neat elegance. It is not merely shining and well improved; it has a distinct and old-fashioned gentility. Finally, it seemed to me a remarkably successful amalgam of new and old, of the provincial and the cosmopolitan.”
Bedini, incidentally, was no amateur historian himself. A Ridgefield native who became a curator at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, he went on to write more than 20 books of history after completing “Ridgefield in Review,” his first book, in only three months. Perhaps a bit of his inspiration came from Professor Nevins, who was teaching at Columbia while Bedini was a student there before World War II.
Playwright, Actor and Poet
He possessed one of the most colorful names any Ridgefielder ever had, and led a fairly colorful life. But few people today remember Hardwick Marmaduke Nevin.
Hardwick Nevin was a playwright, an actor and a poet whose careers on and behind the stage peaked in the 1920s and 30s.
Born in 1897 in Pennsylvania, Nevin was studying at Princeton when he left to enlist in the American Field Service in World War I, providing medical support for French troops. He received the Croix de Guerre for bravery from the French government.
After the war, he returned to Princeton, not to study but to help start the Princeton Theatre.
He also associated with many of the young literati of the period, including the poets Edna St. Vincent Millay and Edward Arlington Robinson, and the actor Claude Raines.
He began his career as an actor, appearing in smaller parts in Broadway plays. In 1923, he performed in Cyrano de Bergerac, starring the famous stage actor from Ridgefield, Walter Hampden. In 1925 he appeared with Bela Lugosi in “Arabesque” on Broadway.
Soon he was writing plays of his own. In 1929, “Young Alexander,” about Alexander the Great, was staged on Broadway and among its cast members was a young Jessie Royce Landis, who later lived on Old Branchville Road and is buried here.
“What Ever Possessed Her” was produced on Broadway in 1934.
He wrote other plays and one, “Blue Haze,” was to be produced by Leslie Howard, but the actor died before production began, and it was never staged.
Nevin, who wrote poetry, was a great fan of Walt Whitman, and was involved in an unsuccessful effort to save a Long Island schoolhouse where Whitman had taught for a year, He and his friends had more success in getting Whitman’s birthplace four miles away preserved.
Nevin had lived in Ridgefield, then moved to Redding (where his house burned to the ground, destroying much of his writing), and finally in Wilton where he died in 1965 at the age of 68. He is buried in Hillside Cemetery on Route 33 in Wilton.
He married twice, first to actress Patricia Barclay; they were divorced. His second wife, Edna Hoyt Nevin, survived him.
Wednesday, April 25, 2018
Vaclav Nelhybel was a prolific composer — more than 400 of his 600-plus works have been published — and many of the remaining 200 are in the process of being published. Some were composed during his five years living at the Ridgefield Lakes.
While his works have been performed by leading orchestras such as the Vienna Symphony and the Orchestra de la Suisse Romande, “Nelhybel’s passion for composing was all encompassing and left him little time for ‘marketing’ his works; for this reason, many of his compositions, though commissioned and performed, remained unpublished,” reports the University of Scranton, where he was composer in residence during his last years.
Scranton is a Jesuit institution and Nelhybel had a fondness for Jesuits — he studied eight years at The Archbishop Gymnasium in Prague, a Jesuit school.
Born in Czechoslovakia in 1919, Nelhybel studied composition and conducting in Prague and Fribourg. By 1948, he’d escaped from the Communist bloc and was composing for Swiss National Radio, and in the early 50s, served as the first music director of Radio Free Europe.
In 1957 he moved to this country, becoming a citizen in 1962.
He composed symphonies, ballets, a ballet-opera, and hundreds of other works for orchestras and bands — even several works for handbell ensembles. He conducted music and lectured at universities and schools in more than 30 states – including at Ridgefield High School.
More than 1,000 people attended the April 1973 Vaclav Nelhybel Festival in Ridgefield, with the composer leading junior and senior high bands.
“Although Nelhybel wrote the majority of his works for professional performers, he relished composing original, challenging pieces for student musicians and delighted in making music with young players,” Scranton said.
In 1980, the Ridgefield Symphony Orchestra premiered his work, “Six Fables for All Time,” commissioned in honor of the 35th anniversary of the United Nations. In a review of its premiere, composer Noel Regney described the piece in The Ridgefield Press as a “monumental prayer of hope and peace, through all the ups and downs of human life.”
“De Profundis,” a demanding piece for trumpet, was premiered in 1975 by Doc Severinson and has been performed by Seneca Black, who has served as lead trumpeter with Wynton Marsalis’s Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.
Nelhybel and his wife had a home on Lake Road from 1968 to 1973 when they moved to Newtown and subsequently to Pennsylvania. He died in 1996 at the age of 76.
Charles S. Nash:
The First Chief
Charles S. Nash, the town's leading carpenter and builder for many years, has had the unusual distinction of having his birth and very early life recorded in a diary that has been published in The Ridgefield Press and is available online.
On Friday, Oct. 8, 1865, Jared Nash, his father, inauspiciously wrote in pencil in his diary: “Clear, some warmer. Dug potatoes in orchard. Went to P.O. Just at night Chas. S. Nash born.”
Later entries talk of “Charly” and the toys and shoes his father made for him, his sicknesses, and his first birthday and baptism.
As a boy Charles Nash attended the old Flat Rock School on Wilton Road West and the West Lane School, now a museum on Route 35.
He learned the carpenter's trade from William H. Gilbert, and took over his business when Gilbert retired. William F. Hoyt joined him and as Nash and Hoyt, they did much of the building in Ridgefield during the first quarter of the 20th Century, including mansions like Casagmo.
Unlike his diarist dad, who stuck to the farm, Charles Nash was very involved in the town. He was the first chief of the Ridgefield Volunteer Fire Department, helped organize the Boy Scouts here, and was a member of the Board of Burgesses that ran the old village borough. He later served on the Board of Finance, as a trustee of the Methodist Church, a director of the Ridgefield Savings Bank for many years, and vice president of the First National Bank and Trust Company. He ran for state representative on the Democratic ticket in 1906 and 1910.
Nash was also very sharp. The Press once reported that while on the Board of Burgesses, “Mr. Nash figured out how to connect the sewer line for the new Bryon Park development into the borough’s main sewer system, rather than to build a new treatment plant. Mr. Nash was quite proud of that accomplishment because the skilled civil engineers who had been called in to study the problem said it couldn’t be done.”
He died in 1929 at the age of 64. Among the pallbearers at his largely attended funeral was Francis D. Martin.
Tuesday, April 24, 2018
Ahead of Her Time
Men had populated the Board of Selectmen for 265 years, when, in November 1973, that all changed: Lillian Moorhead was elected the first woman ever to hold a seat on the board.
“Womenpower” did it, she said the day after the election. “I hope my election will encourage more women to run for office.”
It may, indeed, have have helped do just that, for in the years after her election, women began winning more and more seats in town government, often holding majorities on boards and commissions. And eight years after her pioneering win, Ridgefield elected its first woman chief executive, Elizabeth Leonard, who, ironically, defeated Moorhead for the job of first selectman.
“I was in favor of a state income tax and Liz creamed me,” Moorhead said 10 years later. (In 1991, after years of debate, the income tax was finally adopted. “It takes the state a while to catch up with me,” Moorhead said afterwards with a smile.)
A native of New Jersey, Moorhead was born in 1932. She and her husband, James, had lived in the South and on the West Coast before moving to Ashbee Lane in 1963.
She was a liberal Democrat who won the 1973 election alongside First Selectman Louis J. Fossi, also a Democrat, but more of a conservative. Despite Ridgefield’s heavy Republican majority, the two Democrats controlled the board, holding two of its then three seats.
“Lou is a native, a very popular guy,” Moorhead said, explaining the win years later. “Also, there was Watergate and the beginning of the women’s movement.”
Moorhead was re-elected four times, holding her seat until 1983 when she retired. As a selectman, she was an especially strong advocate for creation of the Housing Authority that eventually built the Ballard Green senior housing project.
“There were few believers in the Housing Authority in those early days,” Fossi told Moorhead in front of more than 200 people who gathered for her retirement party in 1984. “But you acted out of concern for people who are less fortunate than most of us.”
Fossi and Moorhead often disagreed on issues, and votes sometimes found her in the minority, despite party affiliations.
“It’s better to be ahead of the times than behind them, and Lillian, you were ahead of them,” said Judge Romeo G. Petroni, a lifelong Republican, at the retirement dinner. “You have your principles and you stood behind them, even when Lou didn’t understand.”
Moorhead later served many years on the Housing Authority she helped to create. She was also on the Youth Commission, was a trustee of Danbury Hospital, and was a board member of the NAACP, and Regional Y. She was a founding member of the Women’s Political Caucus, which was active here in the 1970s and 80s, and which successfully pressed for the conversion of the Boys Club into a Boys and Girls Club. She also belonged to Friends of the Library, Meals on Wheels and the League of Women Voters.
Professionally, she tried on several different career hats, last of which was as a Realtor. She was well-regarded at that: In 1984, Governor William O’Neill appointed her a member of the Connecticut Real Estate Commission.
When she was moving to Martha’s Vineyard in 1991, she told a Press interviewer, “I used to be a newcomer. Now I’m a townie. It happened in the blink of an eye.”
A 1984 Press editorial said of Moorhead: “One of the most independent thinkers among recent selectmen, she was not afraid to stand up for positions that may have been unpopular with the administration and even with her party. Yet always her positions were enlightened ones, well-considered and with the community’s best interest in mind.”
When Moorhead died of cancer in 1997 at the age of 65, her daughter, Sarah, observed, “My mom was one of those individuals who truly touched the souls of everyone who was lucky enough to have met her. She embraced life with such determination and zest and tried to impart that to others.”
John Ames Mitchell:
The Father of Life
Magazine publisher, architect, artist, novelist, mystic, mystery: John Ames Mitchell was a Renaissance man who kept to himself but influenced many.
Born in 1845, the Harvard-educated architect designed a number of buildings including the beautiful Unity Unitarian Church in Easton, Mass, but soon decided architecture wasn’t for him. He went to Paris and studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, and in 1883 founded the original Life magazine, promising “to speak out what is in our mind as fairly, as truthfully, and as decently as we know how.”
Much more like today's New Yorker than the Life of the later 20th Century, Mitchell's magazine discovered and encouraged many fine writers and artists at the turn of the 20th Century, such as Charles Dana Gibson, the illustrator who created the Gibson Girl. It covered the literary scene as well as political and social issues. His staff included the Harvard graduate and founder of Harvard Lampoon, Edward Sandford Martin.
Life was purchased in 1936 by another Ridgefielder, Henry Luce, who turned it into a picture magazine. Mitchell and Horace Greeley of The New York Herald Tribune founded the Fresh Air
Mitchell also penned a half dozen novels, the most famous of which, “Amos Judd” (1895), was made into the 1922 silent film, “The Young Rajah,” starring Rudolph Valentino.
He was “a man who planted many seeds,” said Abraham Puchall, who has a much more than passing interest in Mitchell. He has lived and worked in Mitchell’s world for years.
The headquarters of Mitchell's Life is now The Herald Square Hotel in New York, a gift to Mitchell from Charles Dana Gibson in appreciation of the publisher’s having seen and developed his potential as an artist. The hotel is operated by Puchall, whose Ridgefield home on West Lane was once Mitchell’s home, called Windover.
Mitchell loved cherubs, he said, using them in his writing and as a symbol for his magazine — Gibson had noted sculptor Philip Martiny create a cherubic Winged Life over the main entrance to the Life building. To him, Puchall said, Cupid personified a cheerful but unrelenting guide to truths about human nature and the creative spirit.
Mitchell died in 1918 and is buried in Fairlawn Cemetery.
While his magazine is gone, his books mostly forgotten, and his camp has vanished, Ridgefield has one monument to John Ames Mitchell that thousands see daily. Soon after the turn of the 20th Century, Mitchell donated a watering trough for horses, handsome enough to be placed in the middle of the intersection of Main and Catoonah Streets. It had a large bowl to serve passing horses and included, at its base, a special opening for village dogs in need of a drink. The trough now stands in the island at the intersection of West and Olmstead Lanes, where it is often mistaken for a fountain.
Monday, April 23, 2018
Dr. Henry Minot:
The Bus-Driving Surgeon
A murder has occurred and police summon the medical examiner. The man who gets the call is behind the wheel of a school bus.
It happened more than once in the unusual career of Dr. Henry D. Minot Jr., a distinguished thoracic surgeon who, in retirement, became a school bus driver as well as an assistant medical examiner.
A native of Massachusetts, Dr. Minot was born in 1919 and graduated from Harvard College in 1941. During World War II he served as a Navy aviator in dive-bombing squadrons based on aircraft carriers.
After the war he studied at Harvard Medical School, obtaining his degree in 1950. He practiced in Vermont before coming to Ridgefield in 1960. Dr. Minot was a thoracic surgeon at Norwalk, Stamford and Greenwich Hospitals, with a practice based in Darien.
When he retired in 1986, there was a critical shortage of school bus drivers in Ridgefield. He signed on and drove buses here for three years and then became a driver in Wilton for more than a decade.
Retirement, Dr. Minot said, allows people to do low-paying jobs that are important to a community but not particularly popular. Bus driving is one example. "It's fun," he told The Ridgefield Press in 1992. "Some of the kids are very irritating, but most are okay and some are just amazing. It renews your faith in what's going to happen in the country and in the world."
As an assistant medical examiner, another job for which he volunteered in retirement, Dr. Minot was occasionally summoned when he was aboard his bus. He did not show up on the scene in a bus, though; he finished the run and grabbed his own car.
Did the retiree ever relax? Many ways, among them baking bread and driving his antique BMW motorcycle along picturesque back roads.
He died in 2004 at the age of 84.
A Generous Man of Music
Alan Meltzer, who died on Halloween 2011 at the age of 67, left a rather unusual will: He bequeathed $1 million to his chauffeur, and another half million to the doorman at the Manhattan building in which he lived.
Meltzer, who had a home on Old Branchville Road in the 1980s and 1990s, was a wealthy music entrepreneur whom The New York Post described as “the colorful former head of the New
Wind-Up, which has produced recordings for Creed, Evanescence, Seether, and many other artists, is one of the largest independently owned record labels in the world; the company says it’s been responsible for establishing many multi-platinum and diamond artists. (Creed’s three CDs had by 2003 sold 30 million copies.)
But when he and his wife, Diana, moved to Ridgefield, Alan Meltzer was involved in the retail side of music instead of production. He’d owned Titus Oaks Records, a small music chain in Long Island and, after moving here, opened Rainbow Records at 88 Danbury Road.
In 1985 he founded CD One Stop, a wholesaler of pre-recorded music. The business, which operated out his house here, was called the first of its kind to distribute only compact discs. Later merged into CDNow, it eventually became part of Amazon.com.
Meltzer was also a serious poker player, and frequently appeared on televised poker programs.
Tragedy struck in 1991. The Meltzers’ only child, Michael, a 20-year-old honors student at Syracuse University and a 1989 Ridgefield High School graduate, was killed in an auto accident on Danbury Road. In Michael’s memory, the couple established a scholarship for music and art students graduating from RHS that has given away tens of thousands of dollars in the years since.
Not long afterward, the Meltzers moved to Manhattan and acquired a small record label, Grass, soon turning it into Wind-Up Records. He ran the business while Diana sought out the musicians — Newsweek called her “the chief talent scout, the woman with the golden ears.”
Eventually, the two divorced. Meanwhile, Alan struck up friendships with his doorman and chauffeur — The Post called them “two faithful workers who gave him a shoulder to cry on.”
Both were surprised at the bequests.
“I appreciate it,” the doorman said in a 2012 Post story reprinted around the world. “He was a generous guy. He was a really good friend of mine, and I was a good friend of his. It’s a surprise. Peace and rest to him.”
“I don’t know what to do exactly with the money, but one thing I know for sure, every year I’m going to bring the guy some flowers at his grave,” said the chauffeur, the father of five.
That grave is in Ridgefield: Alan is buried next to his son Michael in Ridgebury Cemetery.
Sunday, April 22, 2018
Fr. Francis Medynski,
A Pioneer Pastor
Father Francis Medynski seemed to have built St. Elizabeth Seton literally from the ground up. In the early days of the new parish, he did almost everything himself — painting, mowing the lawn, planting the grass and trees.
When the church building was erected, he hand-made the wooden stations of the cross.
Though a bit of a carpenter and handyman, Father Medynski was first a priest and second a musician. These two vocations combined when he went looking for a baptismal font for the new church: He used the kettle of a kettle drum.
A native of New Jersey, Father Medynski was born in 1921, the son of Eastern European immigrants. His parents died in a flu epidemic when he was a baby and he grew up in an orphanage. He graduated from Catholic University of America, got a master's degree in education from the University of Detroit, and also studied music for many years. His specialty was choral music.
Over his career as a parish priest, he started 11 boys choirs. “Every time the bishop moved me to another parish, I started up another choir,” he told an interviewer.
In 1973, when he came to St. Mary’s as pastor, he founded The Little Singers, a choir that less than two years later sang at the Vatican. Singer Francesco Morales had lunch with Pope Paul VI and personally delivered a message from The Little Singers.
“Ridgefield was little bit different back then. It was less affluent,” said State Rep. John Frey,
In June 1976, the choir flew to London to sing at Westminster Cathedral and Royal Albert Hall. It was to be their last major appearance, however; that summer, Father Medynski was given the huge task of creating a new parish in Ridgefield, and had to suspend his work with the choir.
“I would like to think that we are putting them to sleep for a while,” Father Medynski told The Ridgefield Press at the time. “It is not easy for me or the boys. They had dedicated themselves to good music, and not just sacred music, but secular music.”
In 1976, as the town's population grew, Bishop Walter Curtis had asked Father Medynski to start the new parish honoring St. Elizabeth Seton, the first U.S. native to be canonized.
The parish was created later that year, with first masses in Ridgebury School. The church opened in December 1978, and Father Medynski continued as leader of the flock until 1996 when he reached 75, the church's mandatory retirement age.
"It's been a fantastic, marvelous experience and tremendous to be with the best people in the world for 20 years," he told The Press at his retirement.
Father Medynski continued his priestly work, serving in temporary assignments in many parishes in the diocese. He died in 2008 at the age of 86.
“He was an incredibly smart, most of the time very patient, very humble man,” Frey said. “Looking back, I didn't realize it then, he was a man who was born into unfortunate circumstances, with his parents dying young, who was of strong character, and was just a humble and good man and was a good role model for hundreds of young boys, not just me.”
Thursday, April 19, 2018
Our Father of Recycling
Ridgefield was a leader in Connecticut in recycling and while many worked to see that recycling succeeded here, no one was more instrumental than Walter McNamara.
A native of St. Louis, Mr. McNamara was born in 1938, grew up in Albany, N.Y., and graduated from Brown University. He flew helicopters in the U.S. Marine Corps, and was a United Airlines 747 pilot for many years.
Mr. McNamara moved here in 1969. Two years later, a League of Women Voters study of the dump, politely called the “landfill,” and waste management inspired the formation of the Ridgefield Environmental Action Program with the aim of creating a recycling program.
Soon, Mr. McNamara joined and soon REAP knew that a full-time recycling program and center were needed. He helped run REAP's first big fund-raiser, one that gained national attention: “The Dump Ball” took place outdoors on the parking lot of the town garage, right across the road from the town landfill.
“The Dump Ball was a gala event, but every now and then you’d get a whiff of the dump,” Mr. McNamara said 25 years later.
Recycling collections began at the town garage in early 1974, and the recycling center opened later that year. Until 1987, Mr. McNamara almost single-handedly managed the center. The bottle and can redemption law of 1979 cut into revenues, and later, New York's joining the redemption bandwagon hurt, too. But the center increased revenues by expanding what it would take.
By 1988, the job was getting too much for REAP, a volunteer organization; some 1,200 tons were being recycled annually. The town took over and a few years later hired Hudson Baylor, a large recycling corporation, which ran the center for many years. It’s now operated by Winters Brothers.
When recycling became mandatory in the state in 1991, Ridgefield was one of the few towns in compliance on the first day, Mr. McNamara said. When he retired from REAP after 16 years, The Press cited some statistics, such as the fact that just the newspapers that were recycled would form a stack 140 miles high.
“While the weight of what's been recycled over those years can be totaled up,” a Press editorial said, “the hours Mr. McNamara has devoted to recycling in Ridgefield are incalculable. And Ridgefield's loss at his retirement is just as incalculable.”
After leaving REAP, Mr. McNamara became a leader in efforts to control the water quality at Lake Mamanasco, along whose shore he lived. Around 2003, he retired to New Bern, N.C., where his interests including owning and flying his 1943 Seabee seaplane and building furniture. He died in 2015 at the age of 75.
Wednesday, April 18, 2018
R. Gordon McGovern:
A Kind, Corporate Leader
In the 1980s or 90s, if you were shopping at Ancona’s Market, you might have spotted a tall, well-dressed gentleman, fiddling with the neatness of the bread or soup can displays in the grocery aisles. It was probably Gordon McGovern, who had once swept floors at Pepperidge Farm and wound up its president, and then CEO of parent Campbell Soup.
Richard Gordon Gordon was born in Norristown, Pa., in 1926. An avid traveler all his life, he hitch-hiked across the United States as a high school student. He graduated cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Brown University in 1948 and received his MBA from Harvard in 1950. He served as a Navy radar officer during the Korean War
Starting as a management trainee sweeping floors for Pepperidge Farm, McGovern worked his way up to president of the company in 1968. He became chief executive officer of the parent company, Campbell Soup, in 1980, and retired in December 1989.
At both companies McGovern gained national recognition for the introduction of innovative products, including the 100% natural soup line.
He was always close to the customer. “He would shop for groceries in towns he visited, often discussing products and displays with the store manager,” a family member recalled. And he’d make sure Campbell/Pepperidge Farm items were perfectly presented. Even long after he retired, he could be spotted straightening Pepperidge Farm bread and neatening Campbell cans.
Mr. McGovern was proud of his record of never having closed a production plant at Pepperidge Farm and Campbell Soup (after he left, many were shut down).
Campbell has its headquarters in Camden, N.J., one of New Jersey’s most depressed cities, and during his period as CEO, McGovern’s was considered a “godsend,” said The Philadelphia News in 1989. “Gordon has been a tremendous asset to this city,” said Camden Mayor Randy Primas. "If we wanted to look at any one individual responsible for the development of the waterfront, it would be McGovern. He's one of the city’s unsung heroes."
A modest man, the CEO drove a yellow Volkswagen “beetle” for his corporate commute.
He was a strong believer in education and gave generously to universities, libraries and schools and served on the boards of Wheaton College and the Wooster School in Danbury. In Ridgefield, the Cain’s Hill Road resident contributed to such projects as building the lighted basketball courts behind the old high school on East Ridge. He and his wife, Julia, were major contributors to the Ridgefield Library, and helped pay for the building of the Dayton Program Room that the library used for more than 20 years.
He died in 2014 at his retirement home in South Kingstown, R.I. He was 87 years old.
Richard T. McGlynn:
First Professional Fire Chief
Richard T. McGlynn was fated to be a fireman. He was born in 1927 literally across the street from the firehouse and his grandfather, Michael T. McGlynn, had been a founder of the fire department in 1895.
He began fighting fires as a high school kid during World War II when many of the regular volunteers were in the service. When he was old enough, he joined the U.S. Navy during the war and served as a seaman in the Pacific aboard the USS Hugh Purvis, a convoy carrier.
After the war he worked in the family plumbing business while resuming service as a volunteer firefighter.
In 1950, only a couple of years after Ridgefield created the position of paid, full-time fireman, Dick McGlynn joined the paid force of four men. Still also a volunteer, he was elected chief of the volunteer department from 1964 to 1968.
In 1973, he became the paid department’s first chief, a post he held until his retirement in 1989. (In the early years, he was both the paid and volunteer chief at the same time.)
“He’s one of those rare individuals who gives everything of himself to the town,” said First Selectman Sue Manning at his retirement banquet.
When he started with the paid department, it had four people, enough to schedule one person on duty around the clock, seven days a week. If a call came in, that man could roll the ambulance or a fire truck while volunteers were being summoned.
Much changed in the McGlynn years. There was one ambulance, one firehouse, and four fire trucks when he started. By the time he retired, there were 26 men, two ambulances, eight trucks, and two firehouses.
He died in 2009 at the age of 82.
At McGlynn’s retirement party, Police Chief Thomas Rotunda suggested that if the long-discussed “new firehouse” is ever built, it should be named the “McGlynn Firehouse.” After all, he said, one McGlynn helped found and lead the volunteers a century earlier, and another led the development of a modern professional department that still works side-by-side with volunteers.
Tuesday, April 17, 2018
|Francis D. Martin and his wife, Doris.|
Francis D. Martin:
“Known affectionately as Mr. Ridgefield,” his Ridgefield Press obituary said, Francis D. Martin “was a jeweler, optician, banker, traveler, church and community leader, figure skater, and a philanthropist who aided many organizations and causes.”
Mr. Martin was probably also the best known Ridgefield resident of the 20th Century. When he and his wife, Doris, celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in 1966, more than 1,500 townspeople attended the open house at their gymnasium on the former Ridgefield School property on North Salem Road.
“My first hobby is helping my fellow man, my church, and my community,” he once told The Press.
Born in 1893 in West Park, N.Y., “Marty” came to Ridgefield at the age of three. His father was for 50 years superintendent of Gov. Phineas C. Lounsbury’s Main Street estate — including what’s we now the Community Center — and his family lived in a house on the south side of Governor Street, where the Wells Fargo bank parking lot is now.
Mr. Martin attended school on Bailey Avenue — “where there were no toilets and no running water, just a pail with a dipper from which everyone drank and no one got typhoid fever,” he once wrote.
He began working at the age of six, carrying mail to the Vinton School for girls on East Ridge (now the Ridgefield police station). At 12, he was caddying at 15 cents a round. A year later, he got the job of night operator for the telephone company at $3.50 a week — five cents an hour — working from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. He said he'd then go home, eat breakfast and catch the 7:35 train for Norwalk High School (Ridgefield didn't have a high school then).
At Norwalk he was captain of the basketball and baseball teams. At basketball, he said, he was high scorer in the state in his final year on a team that had a 21-1 record and won the state championship. The same year, he reported, he pitched Norwalk High’s baseball squad to a 19-1 record, and had the highest batting average, .421.
He later played regional baseball and basketball and, in 1916, pitched three no-hitters for the Woosters of Danbury. That September, he said, he tried out for the Chicago White Sox, was offered a contract, but refused because he was about to be married to Doris Godfrey, his wife of more than 60 years.
Mr. Martin attended the Philadelphia College of Horology and Optics. In 1911, at age 17, he opened Ridgefield’s first clock and optician store in the Donnelly building on Main Street. “For the first 23 years I never failed being at my place of business later than 4:30 in the morning,” he said. “And we kept the stores in Ridgefield open every night in those days.”
He became active in the community, helping found Ridgefield's first Boy Scout troop in 1912, raising funds for the county YMCA, establishing the Promoter’s Club, and serving as first president of the Lions Club. He was a 27-year member of the Board of Finance, a state commissioner of opticians, chairman of the Boys’ Club, chairman of the Red Cross during World War II, president of the First National Bank for many years, and a trustee of Danbury Hospital.
With A.J. Carnall, he worked on the acquisition of the Lounsbury estate to become Veterans Park and the Community Center, and even tried to convince the United Nations to establish its headquarters in town.
For many years, Mr. Martin headed the Branchville Fresh Air Camp, which hosted some 100 children a year through the Herald Tribune Fresh Air Fund. The camp was on the site of today’s Branchville School.
A leader in the Jesse Lee Memorial United Methodist Church, he was chairman of the church’s Board of Trustees for 35 years and led the church’s move from the center of town to its present location. He gave the church more than a half million dollars.
One of his favorite activities was figure skating, and for many years in February, he would plow snow off the ice at Lake Mamanasco and invite the entire town to a skating party there. Often, more than 1,000 people would attend.
In 1934, he was seriously injured in a skating accident. While he was recuperating, Mr. Martin decided to undertake “five projects to benefit Ridgefield and my fellow man.” He completed four and never revealed what the fifth was.
“The Depression was on, and business was very bad at that time,” he wrote of his first plan. “Foremost in my thought was that in 30 years, wealth would be gone and Ridgefield needed some kind of industry, but no factories, as we are a beautiful residential community.”’
So he began buying properties near the village, particularly along Grove Street and Old Quarry Road. Some people thought he was crazy, he said. One teacher even told his son’s class, “Wise people buy high and dry land; foolish people along railroads, town dumps, and filter beds.”
Eventually, however, the land was zoned for light industry and, improved by Mr. Martin, became home to such companies as Schlumberger and Digitech.
His second project was to upgrade his business into “the finest country jewelry store in America.” (By the time he sold the store to Helen Craig in 1950, he calculated that he had personally repaired 125,000 watches and 25,000 clocks.)
His third project was the acquisition of many run-down properties including the Tudor-style building where Planet Pizza is today. Many were fixed up, and shacks out back torn down.
In 1941 he bought the old Ridgefield Boys School on North Salem Road “with the sole purpose in my mind of keeping out of Ridgefield a very undesirable group of people who were after it,” he said without further explanation. He eventually decided to make it his home and much of the building was razed to make it more house-sized. (The property was once among the sites considered for the world headquarters of the United Nations, now in Manhattan.)
Around 1950, Mr. Martin purchased the 14 acres at the corner of Danbury and Copps Hill Roads so that “when Ridgefield (was) large enough, we would have a shopping center outside congested areas with parking room for over 1,000 cars.” The spot is now Copps Hill Plaza, built in the early 1970’s.
Mr. Martin’s final project was his favorite. “While still in bed, I laid great plans to have an exceptionally fine swimming place for the people of Ridgefield —a place that would be absolutely clean, well-guarded by the police and lifeguards.”
The land at Great Pond was acquired by Mr. Martin and others. Volunteers created a beach in 1953. Fees high enough only to cover costs of operating the private park were charged.
When the Great Pond Holding Corporation donated the property to the town in 1970, Mr. Martin had only two stipulations. “It is the wish of Francis D. Martin,” the deed says of one, “that this park be continuously self-supporting.” He did not want taxpayers who don’t use the beach to have to pay for it and thus, the town must charge fees for its use.
The only other stipulation was that “said premises will be known as Francis D. Martin Park.”
Francis Martin died in 1982 at the age of 88. His wife, Doris, died five years later.
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