Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Sylvia Hodge: 
A Life of Music
Among the most popular of the many 20th Century teachers at Ridgefield High School was a woman who had to commute 85 miles round trip to get to her classes. But Sylvia Hodge apparently liked teaching in Ridgefield and also liked living in her native New Haven.
And her students certainly liked her.
“What an amazing woman and teacher she was,” said Barbara Asketh Amaral. 
When she arrived at Ridgefield High School in 1964, she was known as Sylvia Randall and taught in the then tiny music department. Her name changed after her marriage to Cullen Hodge, who taught mathematics in New Haven.
She was born in 1920, a daughter of parents who had immigrated from the island of Nevis in the West Indies. Both a pianist and a singer, she studied at Yale School of Music and Columbia University and was a graduate of both the Juilliard School of Music and Albertus Magnus College.
During her 25 years at Ridgefield High School, she taught music and led choral groups (by the late 1970s, RHS had singing courses in A Capella Choir, Mixed Chorus, Choir, Voice, and Madrigal Singers). Her choral groups gave countless concerts both in school and in the community — even at Yale University, and in New York, Chicago and Philadelphia. After she led students in a concert for three Ridgefield senior citizen groups in 1973, Eddie Olsen of the OWLS said, “Sylvia Hodge certainly deserves an award as music director of the year.”
He wasn’t alone in his respect for Hodge. Dozens of her students have sung her praises on Old Ridgefield.
“She was an amazing person,” said Stacy Acon in a 2017 remembrance. “I was privileged to have her as my chorus teacher for four years.”
“She was such a kind lady,” said Tracy Skelly Brooks.
“Many wonderful memories of this lovely lady who let me sing even though I couldn’t carry a tune,” said Ellen Cole Tim. “She was the best!”
“Loved Momma Hodge!” said Tracy Petry. “My best memories of RHS are of being in her class.”
“Mrs. Hodge was my mentor — all my inspiration in music came from her, and also life in general,” said James Edighoffer. “She always encouraged me in everything I did.”
“Only woman in the world that could get me to sing in the choir,” said Guy Rossini.
“She used to have a sign up in the chorus room that said, ‘When you sing, you pray twice,’” said Patrice Sarath. “I always liked that.”
“Loved her,” said Deborah Karably. “She taught me how to sing the right way, and if she noticed that one’s diaphragm was not moving the right way to get enough air in your lungs, she had a ‘hands on’ technique that made sure you never made that mistake again!”
“Mrs. Hodge was one of a kind,” said Elizabeth Capalbo. “Juilliard-trained and should have been teaching at a much higher level than RHS. She was extremely talented musically and so very kind to me personally.  I was forced to audition for her in my sophomore year because I kept singing in Study Hall and the only way to not get detentions was to I did, of course.  When I had nodules on my vocal chords a year or so later, Mrs. Hodge found two doctors for me to see in Hamden and at NYU... When I was unable to sing for a short period, she would give me an excuse note and send me to Peach Lake Deli to buy her a shrimp salad grinder (best shrimp salad ever) and then have me organize the sheet music closet … Fond memories of a great woman who was a safe haven in a tough time.”
Hodge continued to teach into her late 60s, retiring around 1988. In New Haven, however, she continued to be active in music. She was the organist and choir director for many churches — including her own, St. Luke’s Episcopal. Over the years she served as a musical director for organizations in both Connecticut and the Virgin Islands.  
“She graced many stages here and abroad with her gift and love for the piano,” her family said at the time of her death.
Sylvia Hodge died in late October 2008 at the age of 88.
Perhaps the most touching tribute to her as a teacher came from Allison Staudacher, RHS 1974. “We had this great chorus that Sylvia hoodwinked us into,” she said. “Lots of us were drawn by her charm and effervescent humor. 
“I did not have the picture-perfect upbringing, and once I made the mistake of having so much enthusiasm and pride that I pleaded with my mother to attend a concert. She showed up drunk — badly, sloppy drunk. We all knew the norms, the acceptable; I was mortified. 
“I went to the girls room to wallow in tears. Sylvia came to my rescue. How many were there in her chorus — 50,  75? There were a bunch of us — but she knew each and every one. I won’t get into specifics, but the words she said to me changed my life. Sylvia Hodges saved my life.  
“I am 60 years of age; I will continue to pay it forward. I would not feel I gave her justice if I did not try to live her words.”

Wednesday, October 09, 2019

E. Armitage McCann: 
A Man of Many Models
Captain E. Armitage McCann. An impressive name but one that’s not exactly widely known — unless you’re a student of maritime history and especially model sailing ships. For Captain McCann has been credited with virtually founding the hobby of model ship-building.
And he knew what he modeled: McCann spent much of his life at sea, most of it captaining ships plying the Seven Seas. His first job, as a young teenager, was aboard  clipper ship on which Joseph Conrad was a first mate.
McCann’s last days were spent in Ridgefield, where he left behind a collection of models that seem to have vanished, unwanted, but would be worth tens of thousands of dollars today. 
      A son of an Irish clergyman, Ernest Armitage McCann was born in 1875 in Glasgow,
Scotland, and was educated in England. He left home at the age of 14 to go to sea, becoming an apprentice aboard the steel-and-wood clipper ship, Torrens, which was the fastest passenger vessel sailing between London and Australia in the 1880s and 90s. In 1891, the first mate of the Torrens was a Polish mariner who took the name, Joseph Conrad. Encouraged by a passenger, Nobel laureate John Gallsworthy, Conrad changed careers and became a celebrated novelist. Thus, McCann’s first ship was Conrad’s last.
       McCann went on to be  an accomplished writer himself, but only after being a first-rate sailor. At the age of 19 he was the master of the 412-ton bark Umvott that sailed the Indian Ocean. 
       Captain McCann also served on land. At the turn of the 20th Century, he fought in  the Boer War as a member of the Imperial Light Horse regiment in the South African Army. He was injured in battle and sent to Johannesburg to recuperate. There he remained for a while after the war, acquiring “a modest fortune,” according to one historian. 
He eventually returned to England  where he was director of the International Art Association in London for several years.
World War I drew him back to the sea. He held captain’s licenses in both England and the United States, and commanded merchant marine vessels for both countries during the conflict. 
After the war, he occasionally captained American vessels but he seemed to tire of the maritime life — but not of ships. An accomplished artist who had painted many sailing ships and had built his first model ship at the age of 16, he began in the early 1920s to design precise scale model replicas of famous vessels. And it was here that he found a second “calling.”
His very first post-war model was praised by the noted American maritime artist Gordon Grant, and wound up being sold to Col. Henry Huddleston Rogers, a collector who donated the Rogers Collection now housed at the U.S. Naval Academy Museum in Annapolis.
One of his best known creations was the very ship he signed onto when he was 14: the Torrens of Joseph Conrad. By the 1920s, the Torrens had long been scrapped and he had to recreate the miniature vessel almost entirely from memory. The result was so good, it sold for $18,000 — around $275,000 in today’s money. Quite possibly, the high price was attributed not only to the craftsmanship, but also to the Conrad connection and the fact that the craftsman had sailed the same ship.
McCann’s love of model-making led him to start contributing a series of how-to columns to the magazine, Popular Science, starting in 1926. The last article was published in 1938, the year after his death. The columns, each offering detailed model plans for a different ship, generated such a large number of followers that McCann joined artist Grant and naval architect Charles G. Davis in founding the Ship Model Makers Club in 1929.  Thanks to his popular columns, the club soon grew to more than 1,000 members nationwide. 
During the same period, McCann was also writing books on model making, including some very focused, such as one dealing solely with how to tie the tiny knots and string the fine rigging lines on accurate miniatures of sailing ships.
He wrote scores of articles for newspapers, including The New York Times. In a 1936 Times piece, he explained some of the attractions of the hobby:
“With a very small outlay of money for material, one can either get results fairly quickly or spend the spare time of years in endeavoring to achieve perfection; some even say that a ship model should never be completely finished. A workshop is convenient, but not necessary. Good models have been made by the bedridden. Unlike so many things that are uninteresting until finished, a ship model is good to look at from the first roughing out of the hull. An earnest modeler is as eager to invite comment and praise of his progressing ship as of his finished product.”
McCann also edited the club’s magazine, The Shipmodeler, for five years until, in 1933, his health started to fail.
Thinking that the country climate might help his illness, Captain McCann moved from Brooklyn, N.Y., to Ridgefield that year, finding a house on Bryon Avenue. 
“The captain’s Bryon Park home was filled with models of ships of all descriptions as well as pictures of vessels and other treasures collected during his lifetime,” The Ridgefield Press reported. “One of his masterpieces was his model of the frigate Hartford, the masthead of which is in the state capitol at Hartford.”
Four years after he came to Ridgefield, the captain died at the age of 62. The Press noted that he left a nearly completed article  (which Popular Science published in 1938) and  “virtually complete a model of the Confederate ship Alabama on which he had been working for more than a year. Judging from the value of his other work, this model should be worth several thousand dollars.”
Alas, a sad story was to soon unfold. Captain McCann died without a will and had less than $60 in the bank, said modeling historian John C. Hudock. He was estranged, possibly divorced, from his wife, British sculptor Wilhelmina Louisa Neuwirth (1877-1964), who lived in England. They had had no children.
McCann left behind 22 models and a library of books that required 15 pages to list in the
Ridgefield probate records. “Remembering that Captain McCann died in the depths of the Great Depression, it is not too surprising that the court was unable to sell the models and the books in four years of trying,” said another historian, Bill Russell. “At that point the court gave everything to the undertaker to compensate for the debt he was owed.” 
No one knows what ultimately happened to the models, but they were probably sold for a fraction of their true value which, in today’s money, would be more than $1 million! The funeral home was Lawrence and Gillespie on Main Street (predecessor of Kane), which may have sold or given away some of them locally. Thus, somewhere in Ridgefield today, on shelves gathering dust, may be a few priceless E. Armitage McCann models of historic ships, just waiting to be discovered.

Tuesday, October 08, 2019

Adolf Gund: 
Ridgefield’s Geppetto
To Ridgefielders in the 1930s, the old man with the German accent might have been Geppetto. Working in his shop in the barn behind his house on North Salem Road, the   white-haired retiree created marvelous stuffed animals, many with innovative moving parts. People came from far and wide to acquire his creature creations, made mostly because he loved to make them.
The man was Adolf Gund, who years earlier had founded the Gund Manufacturing Company, “creator of novelties” that included some of the earliest Teddy Bears.
Today Gund stuffed toys are sold around the world, both new and as antique collectibles, thanks to a man who loved making things for children but who had none of his own.
 Adolf Gund was born in 1869 in the Bavaria section of southern Germany, and came to the United States in 1894. Four years later in New Jersey, he married Luise Bigler, a fellow immigrant from Germany. 
That same year, Gund established a small toy company in Norwalk, Conn. Probably to get closer to more potential customers, he soon moved the operation to Manhattan where it was incorporated as the Gund Manufacturing Company. 
There he continued to design toys, especially plush animals, sometimes with fairly elaborate moving parts for which he obtained several patents. Some could walk, some could dance. One could jump, thanks to a spring mechanism, “bringing it to life.” He also patented a large-sized duck that children could ride on; as the wheels moved, the duck’s bill opened and closed.
Gund was not only an innovator in the toy world, but a strong believer safety. One historian says he created some of the early safety standards for toys.
In the early 1900s,  along with Steiff, he was also among the first to produce Teddy Bears, capitalizing on a much publicized incident in which President Theodore Roosevelt was reported to have refused to kill a captured bear. Gund Teddy Bears are still being made today.
In the 1920s, Gund hired a Russian immigrant named Jacob Swedlin, teaching him to become a cutter and pattern-maker in his small factory. He liked Swedlin and eventually taught him the business operations of the company. In 1925, when he decided to retire, Gund sold his company
to Swedlin for a mere $1,500 — about $22,000 today. Perhaps the low price reflected their friendship and also Gund’s requirement that the company always bear his name. To this day, after being led by three generations of the Swedlin family and now owned by Enesco, a European conglomerate, the brand name is still Gund. And the motto for many years has been “Gotta Getta Gund.”
Soon after he retired, Gund moved to the country, buying a farmhouse in 1927 at the corner of North Salem Road and Wooster Street. Why here? He probably knew Ridgefield from his days in Norwalk, but he also had another connection: His half brother, Fritz Gund, a book-binder by trade, died here in 1915. He is buried in Ridgefield Cemetery.
Though retired, he continued to make toys in a workshop he set up in a barn on his property. These one-of-a-kind creations were sold to people who admired his work and didn’t mind driving hundreds of miles for a hand-made Gund. The barn he worked in was later converted into a house.
Although much of his Adolf’s life was spent creating stuffed toys that entertained youngsters, he and Luise had no children. In 1936, Luise died at the age of 64. She is buried in Fairlawn Cemetery. Two weeks after her death, Gund sold his house and moved back New York City where he died in 1945 at the age of 75.
Most Ridgefielders — then and now — were unaware the toymaker had lived here, probably because he and his wife were a quiet couple who kept to themselves. But as a young man, town historian Richard E. Venus knew of him.
“Adolf was a master toy maker and  used the barn on this property for his shop,” he wrote in a Dick’s Dispatch column in The Ridgefield Press. “He enjoyed such a reputation as a fine toy maker that people traveled great distances to purchase his handiwork.”
But even in 1982, when he wrote his column, Dick Venus didn’t realize that the very private Adolf Gund was the man behind a thriving company that has brought smiles to the faces of hundreds of thousands of children who’ve loved his stuffed toys for more than a century.

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