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Well Known Westporter Ralph Sheffer Dies at 93

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Ralph Sheffer: shown celebrating his 92nd birthday last year. WN File photo
Ralph Sheffer, a key figure in the arts, politics, education, and business of Westport in a career that spanned 60 years—including a record 10 years as moderator of the Representative Town Meeting (RTM) from 1959 to 1969—died today at his Westport home, his daughter, Ann Sheffer said.

Sheffer, who turned 93 last week, had been in declining health for some time.

“Westport has lost a leader and a treasure,” said First Selectman Gordon Joseloff, who ordered town flags flown at half-staff in Sheffer’s honor. “He truly was one of the ‘town fathers.’ We are deeply saddened by the news and extend our sincere condolences to the Sheffer family.”

Ann Sheffer said the family will be sitting shiva Wednesday from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at her home at 19 Stony Point Road. A memorial service has been scheduled for Westport Town Hall on Monday, Oct. 9, at 11 a.m.

The family requests that in lieu of flowers donations be made to the Westport Public Library.

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A war hero, successful advertising executive, fund-raiser and philanthropist, Sheffer long was one of the most active members of the Westport community in the second half of the 20th century.

He served in a variety of elected and appointed service positions as the town’s population boomed, going from a small town of 11,667 in 1950 to a bustling suburb of just under 26,000 at the turn of the century.

His passions were many—town government, the Westport Public Library, the Westport Historical Society, the Westport Arts Center, and the New York Yankees, among others.

“I can’t think of an important Westport cause or organization that Ralph Sheffer and his family did not support with unbounded enthusiasm over the years,” said Joseloff, who upon stepping down as RTM moderator last year equaled Sheffer’s 10 years in that position.WestportNow.com Image
Gordon Joseloff and Ralph Sheffer chat in the fall of 2005. Both men served as moderator of the Representative Town Meeting for 10 years, sharing a record for length of leadership of the town’s legislative body. Sheffer served from 1959 to 1969 and Joseloff from 1995 to 2005. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) WestportNow.com photo

Westport’s history over the past half century and Sheffer’s involvement were almost synonymous.

Shortly after his election to the RTM in 1953, he chaired the Nike Site Committee which dealt with the federal government’s ownership of the site off North Avenue—later to become home of Bedford Middle School.

A 1958 film that brought Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward to Westport, “Rally Round the Flag Boys,” portrayed the town’s troubles dealing with the Nike Site and its amorous GIs.

Sheffer was particularly pleased that Newman’s character in the film—a harried account executive—was based on him.

Sheffer was a member of the Coleytown Elementary School Building Committee when the school opened in 1953, the first year he was elected to the RTM.

Later, he and his wife Betty were supporters and participants in the school’s highly acclaimed amateur theatrical show called “Coleytown Capers.” It was run mostly by show business professionals who happened also to be Westport parents.WestportNow.com Image
Ralph Sheffer and Westport friend Lois Schine greet Pope John Paul II in Rome in 2004. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Contributed photo

In 1959, Sheffer was elected as RTM moderator and a year later sat on the committee which negotiated the acquisition of what is now known as Longshore Club Park.

The property today is widely regarded as one of the town’s “crown jewels” and its purchase one of the town’s most prescient real estate buys.

In later years, the soft-spoken Sheffer, with his ever present smile and twinkle in his eye, said serving on the Longshore committee was one of the proudest moments of his Westport civic service.

In a 1961 letter to RTM District 8 constituents asking for their vote, Sheffer explained his desire to serve his town.

“My reason for wishing to represent you stems from a continuing desire to protect and improve for all of us those things which make Westport such an attractive place to live—the quality of our schools, the pleasure of our recreational facilities, the value of our homes, the availability of town services, etc.,” he wrote.WestportNow.com Image
Ralph Sheffer celebrates his 93rd birthday earlier this month with (l-r) Lois Schine, daughter Ann Sheffer, Susan Malloy, and Maxine Bleiweis. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Contributed photo

Reflecting years later on his service on the RTM, Sheffer told an interviewer: “It was the greatest form of democracy since the Greek Senate. I used to say that and I believed it. All the people in the RTM—you can ask anyone—they all felt I was fair.”

There were three commissions in the 1970s and ‘80s to revise Westport’s Town Charter. Because of the widespread respect he had earned in matters municipal, Sheffer was named to chair all of them.

“The Charter is the law of this town,” Sheffer said of the document. “I regard my work on the commissions as most significant.”

Upon his retirement as moderator of the RTM in 1969, an editorial in the Westport News said: “The loss of Mr. Sheffer’s expertise in town affairs and his adroit control and guidance of the town’s legislature will be felt deeply by those familiar with the municipal workings of Westport.”

Not only did Sheffer make history, he recognized the need to preserve it. In 1980, he joined the Westport Historical Society Board of Directors and for the next quarter century supported the organization with money and time.WestportNow.com Image
Ralph Sheffer gets some kisses from wife, Betty (l), and daughter, Ann, upon his retirement as RTM moderator in 1969. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Contributed photo

In 2003, he celebrated his 90th birthday there as the Society dedicated its new Betty and Ralph Sheffer Hall.

Support of the Westport Public Library was especially important to Sheffer. He was chair of the library’s capital campaign from 1983 to 1985, a trustee from 1983 to 1990, and president of the library board from 1989 to 1990.

Sheffer played a major role in sale of the old library on Post Road East, now home of Starbucks, and its new construction on Jesup Road. He liked to recall that people didn’t think he’d get more than $1.1 million for the old building but ended up selling it for $2.8 million.

In the 1990s, he devoted many of his efforts to the Westport Arts Center and used his considerable fund-raising skills to help save it. He served as president and chairman of the board.

“I am particularly interested in art and music,” he told the Westport News in 1996. “My entire family can be ‘blamed’ for that.”

Sheffer’s son Jonathan is a composer and symphony orchestra leader. His late wife Betty played the piano and loved music. Her father, Aaron Rabinowitz, was a shareholder in Carnegie Hall, among his other interests.

Son Doug is an actor, producer, independent school board member as well as a skier and helicopter pilot, Daughter Ann is known for her philanthropic and charity work as well as promotion of the arts.

Aaron and Clara Rabinowitz had come to Westport in 1928 to join their friend, the famed social worker Lillian Wald, who had been Aaron’s mentor at the Henry Street Settlement in New York.

Born in Baldwin, N.Y., on Sept. 13, 1913, Sheffer was raised in New York City where he majored in pre-law. He attended Columbia and New York University Law Schools, receiving a law degree in 1937.

During World War II, Sheffer served with the U.S. Navy in the Pacific on a destroyer and battleship and saw action at Iwo Jima and Tarawa.

Sheffer and Betty Rabinowitz married in 1947 and soon after built a house in Westport where they first spent only summers. The five-acre plot next to Betty’s parents was a wedding present. Today it houses the Westport Weston Health District.

In 1951, the Sheffers decided to make Westport their year-round home and Sheffer became a full-time commuter to his Manhattan job at Spencer Associates. The advertising and marketing firm enabled Sheffer to become involved in the U.S. Olympic movement.

In 1966, Sheffer became chairman of the Corporate Participation Division of the U.S. Olympic Committee and raised megabucks for the committee. He sold his interest in the firm in 1977 following the death of his wife.

In addition to daughter Ann and sons Jonathan and Doug, Sheffer is survived by five grandchildren: Emily, Brian, Betty, Eduard, and Brooke.

3 thoughts on “Well Known Westporter Ralph Sheffer Dies at 93

  1. I feel like I grew up with Ralph because most of my childhood was spent hanging out with Ann and the rest of the family.  He was such a great role model of being a contributor to the community and I know that he will live on in the many things he did for Westport as well as in his family.  It feels like an end of an era and he will be missed.

  2. Oh, this news makes me so sad!  I know that 93 years is a long lifetime, but I thought darling, incredibly special Ralph would go on forever.  My love to his entire family.  Boy, if there ever were a good example of “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”, it is with how the branches of Ralph Sheffer’s “tree” have followed his example of charity, the arts, preserving history, loving family.  I’m glad to have known him.
    Linda Gramatky Smith

  3. To Ann and the Family,
        Please accept my deepest sympathies for your loss.  I didn’t know your Dad but certainly wished I had.  He leaves an incredible legacy.  It is truly amazing how very much he has done for the town of Westport.  A gem has been lost!
    Gail Latimer Gorian

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