Wednesday, December 28, 2016
By James Lomuscio
Perhaps more than other years, 2016 for Westport was marked by farewells, perhaps too many of them. From those who moved on or retired after long careers to those who died leaving behind larger than life legacies, it seemed like an avalanche of goodbyes.
But it wasn’t all losses when it came to those who epitomized the town’s sense of community. Westport also made some positive gains, small steps and large ones, most of them having to do with infrastructure needs and planning for the town’s future.
As the clock ticks down, what follows is WestportNow.com’s annual look at highlights of the past year.
After 17 years at the helm, Schools Superintendent Elliott Landon marched in his final Staples High School commencement late June, saying goodbye as he headed into retirement. Most of the graduates were toddlers when he had arrived in the district.
Asked what he considered his greatest achievement, it was not buildings or programs. He summed it up in one word: “people.”
The school system’s academic programs have grown with its physical facilities, with Landon finally getting two years ago what he had pushed for when he first took the helm-—all-day kindergarten.
Landon’s post was filled July 1 by Colleen Palmer, former schools superintendent of Weston. She told the Westport Rotary Club in November it was “the best job in the world.”
Police Chief Call Retires, Koskinas Fills Shoes
After 35 years on the force, the last four as chief, Police Chief Dale Call retired at the end of March, passing the baton, or badge, to Deputy Chief Foti Koskinas. Capt. Samuel Arciola and Capt. Vincent Penna were each be sworn in as deputy chiefs.
Prior to leaving, Call referred to the photo of his father, the late George Call, behind his desk. His father had risen through the ranks to Inspector, an ascent the son had chronicled in a framed collection of his dad’s badges next to his photo.
“He was the one I grew up watching,” said Call, 53, who first joined the force as a special officer in 1981, just one year after graduating from Staples High School. “Actually, I grew up in this building.”
Near year’s end, it was announced that another chief will be retiring—Fire Chief Andrew Kingsbury. A veteran of 31 years in Westport, he will leave effective March 1 to become chief of the Nichols Fire Department in his hometown of Trumbull.
Assistant Chief Rob Yost, whose late father, Jack, was fire chief in Norwalk, was named to replace him.
Human Services Director Barbara Butler Retires
Known for compassion and calm during difficult times for those she served, Barbara Butler, Westport’s director of human services since 1989, retired at the end of June.
Sarah Heath, assistant human services director, succeeded Butler on July 1.
“I am so proud of this department and the work that it does, and the support it has received over the years from the town, its boards and commissions, and Westport residents,” said Butler, who served as a selectman with former First Selectman Bill Seiden.
“None of that could happen without the department’s outstanding professional staff and the many volunteers who grace us with their talent and commitment,” she added. “I leave with confidence that they will all continue to serve the community as capably and generously as they always have.”
Also retiring this year after 30 years service to the community was Susie Basler, executive director at Project Return. At mid-year, it was announced that the nonprofit group home for girls has joined forces with Homes With Hope, a local agency that addresses homelessness.
Police ‘Heartbroken’ by Myer’s Death
Well loved by his fellow officers and always upbeat, the early May suicide of Sgt. Robert Myer sent emotional shockwaves through the Westport Police Department. He was 48 and a 23-year member of the force.
Myer was well known to many Westporters, having grown up in town. His late brother James was a 30-year Westport firefighter.
“We’re an organization that’s heartbroken,” Police Chief Foti Koskinas said at the time. “We’re heartbroken for our department and for his family. For us it’s like losing a relative.”
In October, Myer’s wife, Beth, made an emotional plea to help bring depression and suicide out of the shadows. She was addressing hundreds taking part in the Out of Darkness suicide prevention walk at Sherwood Island State Park in Westport.
Musical Chairs at P&Z Department
After just seven months on the job, Westport Planning and Zoning Director Steve Palmer resigned Nov. 14 to become New Canaan’s town planner. Westport’s Deputy Director Mary Young filled the post.
Palmer, who assumed the director’s role April 1, replacing Laurence Bradley, said he was grateful for the time he has served Westport “and am happy that Mary will continue as director of the department.”
Operations Director Loselle Resigns
Dewey Loselle, Westport’s operations director for almost two and a half years, resigned his post for other opportunities in late November, prompting First Selectman Jim Marpe to seek a replacement.
Loselle was the first to hold such a position since the administration of First Selectman Joseph Arcudi in the 1990s. The $100,000 position initially drew criticism from Democrats for First Selectman Jim Marpe, a Republican.
“I wish Dewey well as he pursues other interests,” Marpe said. “His input, determination, work ethic, and expertise have been invaluable to the town employees, department heads and, most importantly, to the residents of this community.”
Former First Selectman Doug Wood, 85
Douglas R. Wood, Westport’s first selectman from 1989 through 1993, laying the groundwork for creating ball fields at Wakeman Farm, the expansion of the Compo Beach marina and adding 152 railroad commuter parking spaces, died Jan. 8. in Port Charlotte, Fla. after a long illness. He was 85.
Wood, his wife Helen, daughter Suzanne and son Donald moved to Westport in 1970. While in Westport, Wood, a Republican, served on the Representative Town Meeting’s (RTM) Planning and Zoning Committee and later three years as its moderator. He was elected first selectman in 1989.
Town Loses Oscar’s – and Lee
On a Sunday morning in late July fans of the iconic eatery Oscar’s crowded the 42-year-old Main Street restaurant for a final chance to say goodbye.
Oscar’s, the narrow, snug, albeit cozy eatery with a distinctive touch of Manhattan and an artsy, bohemian flare at 159 Main St., officially closed the next day. Its owner Lee Papageorge, 65, had been battling stage four lung cancer.
A week later Papageorge, the unofficial mayor of Main Street, who held court for 42 years there amid the bustle of pastrami on rye, Hebrew National hot dogs, matzo ball and chicken soup, died. He was 65.
Goodbye, Too, to Bertucci’s Bobby Q’s, Blue Lemon, Others
In January, Bertucci’s Italian Restaurant, 833 Post Road East, closed after 24 years in the location after its lease expired and owners could not come to terms with the landlord. The Clam Box occupied the location from 1940 (except for the World War II years) until 1985, followed by Tanglewood’s before Bertucci’s opened in 1992.
In April the popular Bobby Q’s Barbecue & Grill located at 42 Main St. since 2004, closed to reopen in late May at 11 Merwin St., Norwalk.
Also in April the Blue Lemon restaurant, a 13-year mainstay in Sconset Square, served up its last meals. Le Penguin French Bistro opened there in mid-August.
In other restaurant changes, Arby’s closed at 1000 Post Road East after a 10-year run (it was a Burger King previously) and Starbucks moved in from down the street to Westport’s only restaurant location with a drive-up window. Boca opened at 43 Main St. in space occupied for 20 years by Acqua Ristorante.
Harvest Restaurant opened at 36 Railroad Place in space long home to Mario’s, and Parker Mansion opened at 547 Riverside Ave. in space occupied for 56 years by Mansion Clam House.
Retail Changes Included Learning Express, WishList, Others
Holiday shopping this season was brisk at Learning Express, with eventually 50 percent off all merchandise until the stock ran out. Owner Alice and David Marks, who have operated the shop for 21 years in town, said it was difficult to keep going with high rents at the Compo Shopping Center and e-commerce that cut down customer traffic.
Competition from the internet and large health food outlets was the explanation given for the closure of Fountain of Youth, a health organic market located since 1983 at 1789 Post Rod East in the Westfair Shopping Center opposite Stop & Shop.
Pet Supplies Plus closed at 1870 Post Road East after 20 years, WishList, the girls’ and women’s apparel store at 606 Post Road East closed after 18 years, New York Sports Clubs closed at 472 Post Road East after 14 years, and home furnishings retailer Pier 1 Imports Inc. closed at 1460 Post Road East after having a Westport presence since 1974.
New arrivals included Michael’s, the hobby store, at 1850 Post Road East in space long occupied by Walgreen’s. Serna & Lily was welcomed at 35 Elm St. in the former Kemper-Gunn House, moved there from Church Lane.
Real Estate Mover and Shaker Drew Friedman, 86
Westporter Drew Friedman, for decades a downtown tour de force in commercial real estate, died Feb. 27 from an apparent heart attack at his River Lane home. He was 86.
Friedman, whose downtown real estate holdings once included the old Westport Public Library building and 36-42 Main St., which was the site Bobby Q’s, formerly Onion Alley, was revered as a Westport landlord. More than 30 years ago he founded the Westport Downtown Merchants Association (WDMA).
In recent years, however, Friedman became disillusioned by town zoning laws, so much so that in November 2014 he sold the two-story building at 36-42 Main St., which he had owned for 31 years, for $9.2 million.
The sale marked the end of Friedman’s long history as one of Main Street’s major movers and shakers. He had acquired the property in 1983.
Dean of Westport Artists, Howard Munce, 100
Howard Munce, the Westport artist whose career as illustrator, art director, teacher, sculptor and author spanned generations earning him the sobriquet “dean of Westport artists,” died March 5 at his Rockyfield Road home. He had turned 100 in November.
A Westport resident since 1935, Munce’s tall, thin, spry, and until recently energetic presence ubiquitous in town arts circles appeared ageless. More than an elder statesman, he seemed a living link to the community’s vibrant, creative identity in the latter part of the 20th century.
It was an era of illustrated magazine covers, billboards and Dashing Dans to Madison Avenue agencies where art directors held clout. Munce was one of them, rising to creative director at Young & Rubicam, where he met and soon married his wife Geraldine, in 1950.
“I don’t know of anybody else who’s alive today who could speak of the arts history of this town,” said filmmaker Martin West, whose 2009 town documentary “Years in the Making” showcased 50 town artists.
“He was one of the main people who moved the arts scene along,”
The Westport arts scene was bolstered in May with the Westport Library’s BOOKED for the Evening event honoring Ron Chernow, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer of “Alexander Hamilton,” the inspiration for the Broadway hit “Hamilton.” It was the first sell-out in the event’s 18-year history.
Sitcom Finds a Home in Westport
Until this past October, when one spoke about Westport and sitcoms, the typical response would have been “I Love Lucy.”
So much for the past. Now after a six decades’ absence in that genre Westport is front and center with “American Housewife,” the ABC-TV sitcom set here.
Initially titled “The Second Fattest Housewife in Westport,” the comedy series stars Katy Mixon as Katie Otto, described as “a confident, unapologetic housewife and mother of three,” who raises her flawed family in Westport full of “perfect mommies” and their “perfect offspring.”
Monica Lewinsky Talks About Bullying, Bill Clinton Raises Money for Hillary
Just one month before the presidential elections, Monica Lewinsky spoke at the Westport Arts Center (WAC) as an anti-bullying advocate 20 years after she endured worldwide ridicule for her affair with President Bill Clinton.
Her appearance, which was closed to the press, coincided with the WAC exhibit, “MORE Than Words,” which examines the topic of bullying.
Bill Clinton also came to Westport in 2016, appearing at an April fundraiser for wife Hillary at the Beachside Avenue home of financier Marc Lasry.
Finally, North Avenue Bridge Reopens
After more than a year’s delay and $2.4 million in work, the North Avenue Bridge over the Merritt Parkway was finally reopened Aug. 23 to two-way traffic—two days before a deadline set by the Connecticut Department of Transportation (CDOT).
Compo Beach Gets a Walkway, Plans to Improve South Beach
The final section of the new walkway at the East Beach at Compo Beach was completed in mid-June.
And Parks and Recreation Director Jennifer Fava’s $100,000 request for design and engineering services regarding a walkway and unisex restrooms at Compo Beach’s South Beach won approval from town bodies.
Problem Intersection Finally Aligned
Westport’s Compo Road North, between Cross Highway and Main Street at the intersection of Clinton Avenue, was finally realigned and reopened in late September. The $2 million project aimed at aligning Compo and Clinton, which in the past forced traffic turning left on Main Street on to to Clinton to turn behind oncoming traffic.
P&Z, RTM Bite Bullet on Multi-Family Housing
Staring down the state’s affordable housing statute 8-30g, Westport’s Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z) took a bold step in September -– approving a four-story 94-unit rental property on Post Road East.
In October, a Representative Town Meeting (RTM) petition to overturn the P&Z vote failed by a vote of 23 to 9.
Even though most of the RTM agreed a four-story structure was too high for the town—and even though developer 1177 PRE Associates LLC had offered an alternative three-story building—the RTM conceded the original four-story proposal would give the town more affordable housing units and a four-year moratorium on how to handle 8-30g.
Farewell to Tina, the Beloved Homeless Woman
Christine “Tina” Wessel, the homeless woman with long, gray-blonde hair and a limp who regularly asked for money, usually a dollar, in various parking lots, died Nov. 29. Her body was found in a maintenance shed where she stayed behind the Westport Center for Senior Activities.
She died of gastrointestinal bleeding due to ulcers, said the Office of the Chief State Medical Examiner.
On Dec. 9, Wessel became more than just another tragic, homeless statistic. More than 150 persons filled Christ & Holy Trinity Episcopal Church for her funeral, with many saying Tina was always grateful and gracious for receiving as little as a dollar.
The Rev. Peter R. Powell, the retired CEO of Homes with Hope, eulogized her as a larger-than-life figure, “Christ in our midst,” challenging the community to do even more to address the needs of homelessness in town.
“We need to transform this community, so that no one else lives and dies the way Tina did,” Powell said.
Incumbents Re-Elected, Marpe Mum on Re-Election Plans
In November, Hillary Clinton took 69 percent of Westport’s vote with Donald Trump winning 27 percent.
It was an off year for municipal elections, but state Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, a Democrat, did win a fourth term along with a return to office of Republicans state Rep. Gail Lavielle (who was unopposed), and Sens. Toni Boucher and Tony Hwang. Democrats U.S. Rep. Jim Himes won another term along with U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal.
First Selectman Jim Marpe, a Republican, who began his fourth year in office in November, was playing it close to the vest as to whether he will seek re-election next year.
In a talk to the Westport Rotary Club, he laughed at a question whether he might have some interest in helping reform the state by taking a job in Hartford. He said he had his hands full here.
The Westport job is a tough one, he said, and he often returns home and asks wife Mary Ellen, “What was that all about?”
And often her response is: “have a drink.”
Have some other 2016 Westport memories? Add them via comments below. And watch for WestportNow’s 2016 Year in Pictures on New Year’s Day.
Posted 12/28/16 at 05:00 AM
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