Saturday, September 21, 2019


Evelyn Wisner: 
A Hero At 7,000 Feet
War heroes always seem to be men. Not so with Evelyn Schretenthaler Wisner.
The World War II flight nurse landed in war zones, located seriously wounded Marines, loaded them on an airplane, and treated them while flying high over the Pacific Ocean. How many lives she may have saved or help save will never be known.
“Those young Marines were so glad to get on that plane — all they wanted was a drink of water,” Wisner told Kate Czaplinski of The Ridgefield Press in 2010.
Near the war’s end, she recalled, many of the wounded soldiers looked so young she wanted to hold them on her lap like children. “They were beat-up kids,” she said. 
Evelyn Schretenthaler was born in 1920 and grew in a small North Dakota town.  She graduated from nursing school and, as a 22-year-old RN, decided to help the war effort by becoming
a Navy nurse. She underwent training at Great Lakes Naval Station where she was the only member of 200 in her class who met the tough requirements for becoming a flight nurse, including being in top physical condition and having the ability to swim.
Lt. Schretenthaler then wound up being one of only a dozen nurses, based in Guam, who flew into combat zones in the Pacific to rescue the seriously wounded.
Flights would take off at midnight and land at dawn on islands such as Iwo Jima. There she spent only enough time on the ground needed to screen the patients who required the most urgent care and get them loaded onto the aircraft.
It was dangerous work. “There was shelling,” she told James Brady for his book, Why Marines Fight. “We could see it and hear it. I was young and frightened.”
She flew on C-47 cargo planes that were converted into flying hospitals — except that there were no doctors on board. “We were on our own over all that water,”  Wisner said. “Me, the pilots and a medical corpsman,” treating 18 to 20 soldiers, mostly Marines from the fighting on Iwo Jima and later, Okinawa. The patients were headed for treatment at hospitals in Guam, Hawaii or in the States.
Treating wounded patients at 7,000 feet had special hazards. The cabins were not pressurized and at high altitudes bleeding was exacerbated. On her very first flight, “I almost lost a patient because, at 7,000 feet, he started to bleed, and I got the pilot to drop down to 3,000, even though it was bumpy.” The soldier survived.
The flights also carried food and supplies to combat zones. “We had our hands full,” she said.
In her interview with Czaplinski, Wisner recalled being asked to take a soldier home on the plane, even though he seemed uninjured.
“I looked at him and said, ‘Well, what’s wrong?’ I was told, ‘Nothing, he’s 16 — take him home.’ 
“A lot of young men lied then [about their age] but it was rare for them to make it that far,” she said. “Usually they got caught in boot camp.”
Wisner missed the announcement that the war was over. “When the war ended, I didn't know — I was up in the air,” she said with a smile.
Back in the U.S. she continued to treat soldiers including former prisoners of war. She also met
her future husband, a Navy dentist named Edwin J. Wisner. He died in 1985.
After her discharge in 1946, Wisner continued her nursing career, working for years as a  neonatal special care nurse at a Michigan hospital. In 1990, she moved to Ridgefield to be closer to her daughter.
In 2012, she was named a “Hero of Western Connecticut” by the American Red Cross.
She died in 2018 at the age of 98. She was survived by three brothers who all fought in World War II and all came home. 
 Although she and her siblings all survived the conflict, she did not look back fondly on her war experiences and disagreed with those who might call World War II a “good war.”  
“Wars are pretty nasty stuff,” she said. “I always said if a woman ran the country, there wouldn’t be as many wars because women have children and women have sons.”
But Wisner was also not without a sense of humor about the experience. “No one goes through a war without feeling it somehow,” the 89-year-old said. “I tell my daughter that I wouldn’t look so old if I hadn’t been in a war.”

Monday, September 16, 2019


Alonzo Barton Hepburn:
Farm-boy Financier of Altnacraig 
Barton Hepburn apparently had a lot on his mind as he rushed along 23rd Street in New York City that cold Friday afternoon in January 1922. He was on his way to the Fourth Street branch of the Chase National Bank — an institution he once headed. As he reached the intersection with Fifth Avenue, he did not stop and strode into the traffic. He was promptly hit by a Fifth Avenue bus.
Hepburn suffered a double fracture of his right leg. Doctors that Friday didn’t think the injuries were serious, but by Monday “they saw that the aged financier’s nervous system was not rallying from the shock,” The New York Times reported. Two days later,  Hepburn was dead. He was 75 years old.
A man many considered a genius at banking and at finance in general, Hepburn had risen from being a farm boy and small-town teacher to become the United States controller of the currency, heading the agency that charters and regulates all national banks. He was later president of Chase National Bank, one of the country’s largest financial institutions. 
He and his wife Emily also built the legendary High Ridge mansion called Altnacraig.
Alonzo Barton Hepburn was born in 1846 on a farm in Colton, N.Y., one of the most northern and remote parts of New York State.  
Alonzo, as he was called as a boy, had no interest in farming, much to the distress of his father. He had instead come under the influence of his three uncles, one of whom founded the famous Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper.  The others were also “in occupations that seemed to Alonzo more interesting, if not more profitable, than farming,” The Times said.
He attended nearby St. Lawrence Academy, then a teacher training school and now SUNY at Potsdam. To continue his studies he borrowed $1,000 to take courses at Middlebury College in Vermont. He taught in local schoolhouses in winter and labored in the summer on farms to work his way through Middlebury, graduating in 1871.
Hepburn then became a professor of mathematics at St. Lawrence Academy, by then called Potsdam Normal School. He was soon named principal of the Ogdensburg Educational Institute, the high school in Ogdensburg.
Meanwhile, he was also studying law on the side. After he was admitted to the New York
Bar. he opened a law office in Colton. There he had some clients who owned huge tracts of forest land in the northern Adirondacks. He saw an opportunity and began buying timberland — 30,000 acres at 50 cents an acre (equal to $10 an acre in 2019 dollars) — and soon left the law for lumber.
He was elected a state representative yearly from 1875 to 1879, and in 1880 was appointed superintendent of the State Banking Department, where he was a leader in efforts to reform the way New York State banks did business. As his interests turned more toward banks, he sold his lumber business for $200,000 (about $5,250,000 today) and devoted the rest of his life to banking.
He became a national bank examiner in New York City around 1890, gaining such a reputation as a conscientious reformer that, in 1892, President Benjamin Harrison appointed him the U.S. controller of the currency. A year later, he resigned to become president of the Third National Bank in New York City.  By 1899, he was president of Chase National Bank, a post he held until 1911 when he became chairman of the Board of Directors.
 He was also a director of such companies as New York Life Insurance, Sears, Roebuck & Company, Studebaker Corporation, the Woolworth Company, and the Great Northern Railway Company.
Hepburn was a writer, producing both books and many magazine articles on banking and finance as well as money itself — he wrote History of Coinage and Currency in the United States: Perennial Contest for Sound Money (1903) and  A History of Currency in the United States (1915). 
One of his more unusual books was published in 1913 by Harper & Brothers. The Story of An Outing is a light-hearted, 100-page account of a hunting safari that year to Africa with four friends. It contains many pictures of the hunters, the native people they met and the places they went, along with the usual  shots of dead animals.
 Hepburn was also a philanthropist, particularly when it came to education. He left   bequests of some $3 million — about $45 million today — of which $2 million went to colleges and libraries, including Middlebury, Princeton, Columbia, Williams, NYU, and one school in the South: The historically black Tuskegee Institute. He also gave $500,000 to libraries in his native St. Lawrence County, N.Y. (the Hepburn Library in Norfolk and Hepburn Library in Colton are on the National Register of Historic Places), and $600,000 to the A. Barton Hepburn Hospital in Ogdensburg, N.Y., now the Claxton Hepburn Medical Center.
In 1873, Hepburn married Harriet A. Fisher of Vermont. She died in 1881, leaving him with two young sons. Around 1885, he met Emily Eaton, who was 19 years younger than he was.
“It seemed unbelievable that he should be interested in me,” Emily said 60 years later. But Hepburn immediately began wooing Emily in a rather unusual way: He founded a cribbage club, named her president, sent her a cribbage board, and scheduled meetings — at which he was the only other member present. He would write letters that would include messages like “Can’t we have a meeting of the Cribbage Club the first night after I get back?”
She was soon beating him at the game, but he had won the prize. They were engaged in 1886 and married a year later. She became, with her husband’s support, an active suffragist and after Barton’s death, a Manhattan activist  for women and business leader who built the landmark Beekman Tower hotel near the United Nations in New York City (her profile has been posted on Old Ridgefield).
While Barton was Chase president, the Hepburns decided they wanted a country retreat. 
They opted for a lot on High Ridge in Ridgefield with a spectacular view to the west but from which one could also see Long Island Sound to the south.  The Ridgefield Press reported in May 1908 that “Mr. A.B. Hepburn, one of the most prominent financiers of the country, former comptroller of the currency and now president of the Chase National Bank of New York, is building one of the most handsome homes to be seen in this town of beautiful homes.”
The magnificent mansion was called Altnacraig, a Gaelic name that they translated, “high crag”  (Hepburn traced his ancestry to Scotland. However, Philip Palmer, operator of Allt-Na-Craig House, a B&B  in Scotland, reports the term means “water from the hill.”)  The building later became a well-known nursing home, also called Altnacraig. The mansion burned to the ground in a suspicious 1994 blaze, and was replaced with a house of similar size, but entirely different design.
The Hepburns counted many people in the arts among their friends, including artist Frederic Remington, novelist Irving Bacheller (both born in St. Lawrence County) and writer/humorist Mark Twain. 
Bacheller introduced the Hepburns to Twain, who lived in Redding. When the Hepburns arrived at Twain’s house, called Stormfield, for their first visit,  they were greeted by the yapping of  Twain’s dog. Before even introductions took place,  Twain told them, “This is my dog; whatever he does is law in this house.”
Soon after, the dog got a hold of Barton Hepburn’s brand new hat and took off with it, prompting Twain to point to a motto hung over his mantlepiece: “Life is just one damned thing after another.”

Wednesday, September 04, 2019



Lillian Loomis Dempsey: 
The Heiress of Northoline
A color postcard from around 1910 depicts “Northoline,” the then-new West Lane mansion of Lillian Loomis Dempsey. Recently widowed, Mrs. Dempsey had built the house after receiving a huge and somewhat controversial inheritance that made headlines from Georgia to New York.
 Lillian Dempsey was the wife of Thomas C. Dempsey, who had  died July 4, 1899, in Asbury Park, N.J. A few months later, on Sept. 25, 1899, The Baltimore Sun reported that “active negotiations have been pending for several weeks to prevent a threatened controversy” over Thomas Dempsey’s estate. 
That estate, according to The Sun and other newspapers, was said to be worth $1 million — equal to about $30 million in today’s currency.
“While Mr. Dempsey, who was 85 years old, was in bed three days before his death, he executed his will, by the provisions of which the bulk of his fortune goes to his widow, Lillian Loomis Dempsey, whom it appointed executrix,” the Sun continued, then adding, “She is about 32 years old and had formerly been the companion of one of his daughters by his first wife.”
In his will, Thomas left nothing to that daughter, Nellie, who was married to Richard Needham, a wealthy merchant from Columbus, Ga. He also ignored his son, Wilson P. Dempsey, who was an “inmate of a sanitarium” near Baltimore, The Sun said.
“Mr. Dempsey was a retired dry goods merchant of a Southern family, having his residence in Macon, Ga. He owned valuable real estate in that city and an old homestead in Ireland. The rest of his estate is comprised of securities, the exact amount of which is not known.”
Dempsey had lived most of the year in New York City and elsewhere in the North. “He was a member of the Roman Catholic Church and made liberal gifts to charity,” The Sun said. “There was much astonishment when it was ascertained that he had made no charitable bequests.”
While the will had been offered for probate in Macon, no formal objection had yet been filed, the newspaper said, adding, however, that “Mrs. Needham is much dissatisfied with its provisions, as she thinks she is entitled to a share of her father’s fortune. She has threatened to make a contest in behalf of herself and her brother.”
Who were this wealthy 85-year-old man and his 32-year-old wife?
A native of Ireland (he was not from a “Southern family,” as the Sun suggested), Thomas Charles Dempsey had been born in 1814 and came to the United States as a young man. He became a citizen in 1842 in Savannah, and was soon living in Macon where he amassed his fortune as a retailer and investor in real estate. Around the beginning of the Civil War, he married Marie Lumpkin. Wilson was born in 1863 and Ann Ellen, called “Nellie,” was born in 1871. His wife died in 1885.
Lillian Loomis Wickes was born in 1867 in Macon. While in school there, she became friends with Nellie Dempsey. At some point the widowed Thomas Dempsey began noticing this companion of his daughter and by the early 1890s, he had proposed to her. They were married around 1893, when he was about 79 and she was 27.
One wonders how Nellie Dempsey felt, seeing her old schoolmate become her stepmother. 
The next year, Lillian and Thomas had a daughter, Marie Monica. In 1896, Thomas Charles Jr. arrived, and on June 6, 1899 — a month before his father’s death — Norbert Anthony was born.
According to subsequent newspaper accounts, including an article in The New York Times, Mrs. Dempsey hired a New York City lawyer named Robert O’Bryne to handle the dispute over the will. In the end, Nellie and her institutionalized brother got $250,000, leaving around $750,000 for the widow Dempsey. That today would be about $7.5 million for Nellie and Wilson, and  $22.5 million for Lillian.
Attorney O’Bryne claimed a lot of credit for the settlement, but it is quite possible that Lillian Dempsey felt an obligation to her old friend and his brother — her stepchildren — and that Nellie, hardly poverty-stricken, realized that she would never get much more than that, especially considering that her dad had fathered  three children with Lillian — all of them then under 10 years old.
As one dispute ended, another began. Attorney O’Boyle filed suit in a New York City court in July 1900, claiming he had not been paid for his services. He maintained “he was the one who kept down a contest over Mr. Dempsey’s will, and for his services he was entitled to $24,000,” The Macon Telegraph reported.  
It added, “The widow vigorously denied owing him any money. She said she had never employed him, but had paid him for all he had done. He is insisting that what he did was worth the $24,000 additional.”
That $24,000 would be about $731,000 today.
The case went to a referee who apparently worked things out without publicity.
Meanwhile, Lillian Dempsey, who had been living in New York City, decided she would like a country house and somehow came upon a tract of West Lane farmland on a small ridge overlooking South Salem. The land was owned by John Brophy, who, like her husband, was a native of Ireland. Brophy had for many years been a  U.S. customs official at the Port of New York, a job in which he dealt with many influential people. It’s possible he and Thomas Dempsey had known each other and that Brophy offered the land to his widow.
She bought the property in 1901 and built her 22-room house. It is not known how much  she used Northoline, but she probably was in New York City and Macon much of the year. She apparently lived a quiet life, and her name no longer appears in newspaper articles. She was not active in the social world nor did she seem to become involved in any philanthropy. She was living in Macon in 1930, but by 1940 when she was 73, she shared a home in Scituate, Mass., with her two sisters. She died in 1946 in Cambridge, Mass., and is buried in Macon.
Her house is at 209 West Lane, a little south of Silver Spring Road and a bit north of the New York line — presumably the inspiration for its name, though it’s really more west than north of the state line. It later had a less controversial but far more famous owner:  Metropolitan opera star Geraldine Farrar, who bought the place in 1924, renaming it “Fairhaven.” Here, though retired from the stage, she entertained many international celebrities in the arts, especially the world of music.
Now surrounded by trees and shrubs, the house still stands, though at last look, it was painted white.

Monday, September 02, 2019


Frank Gibney:
Our Man In Asia
If Frank Gibney were still alive, he would hardly be surprised by the economic battles being waged today between the United States and China. He warned of them long ago.
Back in 1992, his book, “The Pacific Century,” predicted the rising economic power of  eastern Asian nations in the then-coming century. It was a companion to a 10-part PBS series, produced by his son, documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney. Few saw the series, however, because PBS scheduled it at one of the least-watched time slots of the week: 6 p.m. on Saturdays. Nonetheless, it won an Emmy for documentaries that year.
In the book Frank Gibney predicted that in the 21st Century, Pacific Rim nations like China, Japan, and Korea would become economic powerhouses, much more important to the United States than Europe. And how the U.S. handled relations with those nations would be critical.
“Gibney points out that, by the mid-1990s, our trade with the Pacific nations will be more than double our trade with Europe,” said Ray Cushing in a review of the book. “And yet, lack of understanding, even outright ignorance of these countries, is still all too prevalent in the United States.”
The book was written by a man who spent much of his boyhood in Ridgefield, the son of the couple who owned and operated the Outpost Inn on Danbury Road, now the site of Fox Hill condominiums.
And Gibney knew what he was talking about: He had spent his early career interrogating Japanese prisoners of war, devoted much of his later life covering Asia as a journalist living in Tokyo, and became a founder of the Pacific Basin Institute.
Frank Bray Gibney was born in 1924 in Scranton, Pa., and came to Ridgefield as an 11-year-
old when his parents, Joseph and Edna Gibney, took over the Outpost Inn. A former singer, his dad was a veteran of Longchamps and other prestigious restaurant operations, and turned Outpost into dining destination for many Ridgefielders as well as celebrities, including Lily Pons, Lawrence Tibbett, Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt, Clare Boothe Luce, and Eleanor Roosevelt (who, as first lady, drove herself there for lunch).
A bright boy, Frank Gibney commuted to Fordham Prep in the Bronx where he graduated as valedictorian of his class in 1941. He won a scholarship to Yale, but the war forced him to leave for service in the military. He was sent to the Navy’s elite Japanese Language School at the University of Colorado and became a naval intelligence officer. 
Gibney was assigned to a post in Hawaii where he interviewed many Japanese prisoners of war.  His dad, who had also entered the Navy after the war broke out, was working as a supply officer at the time. “When I became an intelligence officer,” Frank said in a 1992 interview, “I was assigned to interrogate Japanese POWs at a secret location in Hawaii. And who was in charge of supplying that secret location? My father.”
Later he was stationed in Japan during the postwar occupation. There he maintained contact with some of the prisoners he had once interviewed “through reunions at a sushi restaurant,” he said. “I was a small human bridge between Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s conquering army and a puzzled but receptive Japanese public.”
In 1947 Gibney came home and was looking for a job. While he was staying with his parents, “there was a gentleman who used to spend a lot of time at the Outpost Inn, who heard me talking about my situation,” Gibney recalled. The gentleman was Westbrook Pegler, a Pulitzer Prize-
winning syndicated columnist, who lived in Ridgefield. Pegler was impressed with the young man and called the Associated Press, which immediately hired him. Soon afterward he joined Time magazine as a correspondent  in both Europe and Asia. By 1949, he was Time-Life bureau chief in Tokyo.
In June 1950, while covering the Korean War, he was injured when an explosion wrecked the Han River Bridge, south of Seoul, Korea, as he was crossing it with two other journalists. “The three were fleeing from Seoul ahead of advancing Communist forces from the north,” the Associated Press reported. “The bridge was blown by the southern forces to slow the Red advance.” He was flown to Japan for treatment for relatively minor injuries.
Gibney later became a senior editor at Newsweek and a staff writer for Life Magazine. 
He also wrote a dozen books including “The Khrushchev Pattern,” “Korea’s Quiet Revolution,” and in 1960, “The Operators,” which was not about international politics, but about corporate criminals. “They’re Living It Up At Our Expense,” said the headline in The New York Times Book Review, adding in a smaller headline, “White-Collar Chiselers Thrive in the U.S. As Never Before, a Reporter’s Study Finds.”  It sounds like the 21st Century.
In 1979, he co-founded the Pacific Basin Institute in California “to further understanding, on both sides of the Pacific, of the tremendous importance of their relationship and their shared responsibilities,” the institute says. The organization moved to Pomona College in 1997. 
Frank Gibney died in 2006 at the age of 81. Among his survivors besides Alex were six other children, including  James Gibney, who became deputy op-ed page editor at The New York Times, features editor at The Atlantic Monthly, and is now an editorial writer at Bloomberg Opinion.
One of James Gibney’s toughest projects was a six-year stint overseeing the publication of the Encyclopaedia Britannica in Chinese, Japanese and Korean editions — “a task,” said  Times reporter Margarlit Fox, “that required him to be a scholar, editor and diplomat in equal measure.”
“One of Mr. Gibney’s most daunting tasks was to publish a Chinese edition, released in 1986,”  Fox said. “A six-year undertaking, it ran to 10 volumes and contained newly commissioned articles by Chinese scholars that dealt, however gingerly, with sensitive subjects like Stalin, the Korean War and Taiwan.”