Inner Ring Suburb

Olivia Shelton, African-American Pioneer

Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, June 2003

When Olivia and Clarence Shelton and their two children moved to 178 North Main Street in 1959, the man next door offered them $5,000 not to move there. This African American family crossed the housing boundary and some West Hartford residents did not like it.

In 1997, West Hartford resident Dorothy Billington interviewed Olivia Shelton when she was 87 years old. In that year, members of the West Hartford Historical Society took oral histories from members of our community whose stories may never hit the history books. These remembrances, now transcribed, offer a unique perspective into the past in our town which, when set in the context of their times, illuminate the character of our suburb.

Olivia Glascoe (1910-2001) was born on a farm in the small town of Franklinton, North Carolina. Her father rented land as a tenant farmer and they picked cotton. They raised cows and pigs. Olivia had aspirations and ambitions beyond the farm. She graduated from Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina and went on to get a Master’s Degree in Education from Columbia University. At Columbia she lived in the International House where she had contact with people from all over the world. Living in this house was probably not Olivia’s choice, but more likely, was a way Columbia segregated its dormitories.

After her studies at Columbia, Olivia taught school for eight years in North Carolina before marrying her husband Lt. Col. Clarence Byrd Shelton in 1942. From 1942 to 1944 they lived in Seattle and her first son, Clarence Jr. was born; they moved to Hartford in 1945.

When the Sheltons first came to Hartford, the Board of Education would only hire Olivia as a substitute teacher for three years, despite her teaching experience, her Ivy League education, and principal’s certificate. Why? Shelton replied, “Because I was black! I’m positive it was because I was black.” She took two or three years off when she had her second son and then decided to go back to teaching. Hartford did not hire her at this point. She appealed to Reverend Moody, one of the first black members of Hartford’s Board of Education, and he got a job for her.

This part of Shelton’s story reveals that segregation still existed in New England well after World War II. Many historians argue that World War II was a watershed for the civil rights movement because of the Fair Employment Practices Commission established by Franklin Roosevelt after much pressure from A. Phillip Randolph, a national leader of the African American community. However, as often is the case, practice was slow to follow this policy change.

The Sheltons rented a three-family home on Oakland Terrace in Hartford for their home from 1947 to 1959. They owned a farm in Burlington, Connecticut from about 1947 to the mid 1950s and spent their summers on the farm. Many friends and relatives visited. They had a huge garden, a large pond for swimming, and a barn with horses for riding. Her niece remembered many happy days there in the summer. Later, the Sheltons bought a Maine lake house with a number of other couples.

Olivia Shelton and her family moved to West Hartford in 1959 and lived in their 5 bedroom, 3½ bath Tudor on North Main Street for 35 years. Their second son Brent was 10 when they moved to West Hartford in 1959. He was the first black student to attend Bugbee school. Brent joined Cub Scouts and his den mother was G. Fox’s Beatrice Fox Auerbach’s daughter Georgette Koopman who lived nearby on Brookside Boulevard. Olivia said, “Brent made out alright, because at Bugbee, this lady took him in. He was friendly with her son… The people treated him alright. They didn’t dare treat him any other way because of Mrs. Auerbach… She owned G.Fox and Company. That made a difference.”

Olivia and Clarence Shelton moved to this house at 178 North Main Street in 1959. Though real estate agents tried to discourage them from buying the home by telling them there were termites and water in the basement, they went ahead and bought the house and lived there until 1994. Source: Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society.

Olivia and Clarence Shelton moved to this house at 178 North Main Street in 1959. Though real estate agents tried to discourage them from buying the home by telling them there were termites and water in the basement, they went ahead and bought the house and lived there until 1994. Source: Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society.

For Olivia, her positive experiences outweighed the prejudice she faced. Right after she moved in, she found a note in her mailbox which read “get out of here, you black bastards, while you still can.” She believed “that note did not represent the community.” At 87, Olivia’s recalled that she was happy she got the note before her sons, and that her overwhelming experience in West Hartford was “very good and wholesome.” She felt fine living on North Main Street, and said “Most of the people there are Jewish and they were nice to us.”

Olivia joined the First Church of Christ in 1961 and she taught third grade Sunday School for 12 years. The Sheltons were the only black family in the church. She was appointed a Deacon at the church as well.

Olivia volunteered as a clerk in the gift shop one day a week at the Science Museum. She served as the president of the Hartford Chapter of the National Council of Negro Women. She was also one of the founders of the West Hartford African American Social and Cultural Organization. In the summer of 1967, she trained to be a teacher for Project Concern. She was a Hartford teacher sent to work at Smith and Wolcott for a year.

When she moved to the McAuley in 1994, she was the first black resident. She lived on the edges and could go between cultures. She said that she lived a happy life as a pioneer.

Oral historians must be careful of their sources, and particularly of reminiscences of life. In a 1973 West Hartford News article, Olivia had quite a different take on her life here in West Hartford. Though in 1997, she did talk about the problems her sons had in school once they were in junior high and high school, she summed up her life here as very positive. In 1973, she told the News that there was a lot of “pettiness” here. Real estate agents told them that there were termites and water in the basement in certain houses so that they wouldn’t buy one in a white neighborhood. She said that the treatment made her so upset that after they moved in, they would attend real estate open houses in various neighborhoods “just for meanness and devilment… to scare the people.”

She said in 1973, “I don’t like to pretend to put forth that all is well— I’m sure that you’ll run into that, interviewing other black families.” She said that her oldest son Clarence “caught hell in high school.” He went to Conard. “The girls loved him but the fathers hated him. They gave him a hard time. Every time he looked around, the police were after him.” High school was “terrible for him.” They sent their second son to Watkinson hoping to protect him somewhat, but that was tough for him as well.

Residents of West Hartford struggled with the reality of an integrated community. Though African Americans had lived here from the 18th century, and are clearly here in the early 20th century, segregation seems to have increased in the 1930s and 1940s, until it was a noticeable event to have a black family move in in the 1950s. Between 1959 and 1973, 39 black families, a total of 265 African American people out of a population of 70,000 settled in West Hartford. Some were helped by the Connecticut Council of Churches which worked to get black families to move to the suburbs. The 1973 News article made the point that many of these families were upper income and the greatest proportion lived in the Aiken school district.

But, the tension over what our community was remained. There were many people, like Georgette Koopman, who embraced the idea of a multi-racial community. The relationships of one individual made a difference. Then there were those afraid of difference who tried to make people like the Sheltons question their right to live in the town. Tensions over living in a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious community are played out in neighborhoods and schools every day as we attempt to live out the promise of the American Dream.

The Political and Economic Landscape in 1957

Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, April 2007

The political year 1957 began with a salvo from the Republican Town Chairman Samuel K. Lavery, accusing the Democrats on the Town Council of “violating the spirit of the town charter” and he threatened court action. Lavery claimed he needed to take court action “to teach the Democrat members of the Council the meaning of democracy and minority representation.”

The Democrats appointed Republicans to the Board of Assessors and the Board of Tax Review who had not been nominated by the Republican Party. While the Democrats followed the letter of the law by insuring minority representation, the Republican Party had no part in their appointments.

Republicans had controlled the town of West Hartford since its independence from Hartford in 1854. It was 101 years later in 1955 when Democrats first took control following a tax referendum. Harold Keith became the first Democratic Mayor. Keith named a new Town Manager, Donald Blatt in 1956, and Republicans, though having a 2 to 1 majority in voter registration, had to play the role of minority party for the first time ever.

When historians look at the past, they see it both in a mirror and through a window. Some events look very different. Others seem so similar to the present day that we see ourselves perfectly in the looking glass of the “old days.”

Fifty years ago, West Hartford was in one of its greatest spurts of growth economically, educationally, and in population. The town government reacted by electing its Board of Education for the first time and asking to raise the mill rate by 6 ½ mills after a 0 mill increase the year before. Two schools were opened as residential growth continued to skyrocket. It was bound to be a year full of controversy and contention in a mostly small “d” democratic town.

The grand list grew almost 7% from 1956 to 1957. The main factor in the grand list increase, according to the Hartford Courant, was the addition of 187 homes in Elmwood Acres housing project just south of Route 84 and east of Mayflower Street. These homes, built by the federal government during World War II as war worker housing, were sold to individual owners in 1956, adding over $1 million worth of property to the grand list. New homes, numbering 572, were also added to the list.

Economically, the town grew fast residentially, commercially and industrially over the course of 1956. Total undeveloped land in town dropped from about 4,756 acres to 4,351 acres, a drop of about 9%. Commercial and retail buildings numbered 414, an increase of 27 buildings or a 7% increase. There were 98 factories, 12 more than the previous year, and an increase of 14%. In 1957, the town counted 12 horses and mules. There were 83 head of cattle, the herd growing by 5 in the past year.

The town budget was $10 million (compared to about $200 million in 2007) and a population of around 60,000, equal to today’s. The education budget made up less than half of the total budget (compared to about 60% today). The education budget went up 20% in one year while the remainder of the budget increased by 36%.

The town continued to build its infrastructure including paving seven miles of roads, completing Trout Brook Drive from Fern to Asylum, constructing 19 miles of sidewalks, providing money to lower Trout Brook, building hardtop tennis courts at Fern Park, and improving the golf course at Buena Vista Park. There was one million dollars for the construction of Wolcott School; money for Cornerstone Pool that was set to be built on 3.6 acres owned by the town on Raymond Road, and where a new park will be built after Blue Back Square construction is completed.

The budget called for a 2% raise for employees to match inflation. It had money to employ 23 men to operate the new incinerator expected to go into operation in the summer on Brixton Road. There was also an increase in interest to pay on the bonds floated for the numerous school building projects over the previous eight years.

This budget called for a 6 ½ mill increase, 10% increase in taxes, the biggest single tax rate increase in West Hartford’s history. When a large increase was presented in 1955, citizens called for a referendum and defeated the budget. There was no increase in the mill rate in 1956.

Ozzie D’Arche, who instigated the successful 1955 referendum, lay in wait. Democrat Mayor Keith claimed that one of the main reasons for the increase was a past when the government spent only the absolute minimum without regard for future growth. His budget included a three-year plan for growth. He argued that if school building projects had been planned, the town could have avoided double sessions and decreased costs of site acquisitions. The previous year’s budget had not increased. Public feedback showed the public would not stand for more than a 4 ½ mill increase instead of the 6 ½ mill increase proposed. D’Arche led the charge to rein in on town spending and he and the memory of the 1955 referendum that led to a change in political leadership reined in the budget.

On January 22, 1,200 townspeople went to a hearing at King Philip School to weigh in on the budget. After lobbying and meetings and a reappraisal of the budget, the Council settled on a 2 ¾ mill increase for the year, down from the original 6 ½ mills.

The municipal election, then held on Tuesday April 2, was a show of confidence for the Democrats, returning a 4-3 majority on the council. All four Democrats were re-elected, including Mayor Harold Keith. In 1957, townspeople voted in seven districts for their Town Councilor. In the Third District, anti-tax man Ozzie D’Arche ran as an independent in a three-way race, with the Republican winning the open seat with twice as many votes as either the Democratic opponent or D’Arche. Republicans won the Board of Education with a 5 to 2 split. With a Republican registration double that of Democrats, the results were something of a surprise.

Active West Hartford citizens were ever present to check the power of the local government, just as they have been over the last 50 years. They made sure that townspeople knew how much the economic base of the town grew in the previous year and tried to keep a cap on spending. The elected Democratic officials and the Town Manager believed that townspeople had to be willing to pay for the services provided. That is, if they expected excellent schools and recreation, it would cost more to live here than it did in other towns.

This voice of the citizens is what keeps elected government mindful of “democracy and minority representation.” A strong minority party, a growing economy, and an active, educated citizenry remain the keys to a healthy town.

Conard High School Celebrates 50 Years

Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, November 2006

This school year, Conard celebrates its 50th year. 15,000 students have graduated from the school and many choose to live in West Hartford and raise their children here. What was the school like 50 years ago?

With the tremendous growth in the town population after World War II, there was talk in the late 1940s of the need for a new high school in town. Hall High School opened in 1924 and was built for 700 students. In the next 25 years, the town grew from about 10,000 to 44,000 people. The last new school built was Sedgwick which opened in 1931. By the late 1940s Hall had over 1000 students in three grades. After much discussion about adding on to Hall in the center of town, the appointed Board of Education decided in early 1954 to build a new high school on a site in the south end of town.

Chairman of the Board of Education, Frederick Underwood Conard, led the Board to this decision over his seven year tenure as Chair. From 1919 to 1947, he was president of the Underwood Typewriter Company. The year he started as Chair, 1947, was the same time he became president of Niles Bement Pond Company, a part of Pratt Whitney (on the present day site of Home Depot). He died at age 63, six weeks after the vote and the Board decided to name the new school after him.

As early as December 1956, the newspaper reported that Hall would go on double sessions for the first three months of school in 1957 because it was not clear that the building would be done in time. However, by March, Republican candidates for the Board of Education pushed the School Building Committee to have the building open for September 1. Builders could have the classroom building ready, but the gym and auditorium would not come on line until about three months later.

In February 1957, the Superintendent named Hall Principal, Henry Weyland to be Principal at the new high school. Town officials worried about how the new school would be perceived, and sending Weyland to Conard made sense. He served as principal until 1974. Henry Rives, vice-principal at Hall was promoted to be Hall’s principal.

Superintendent Edmund Thorne announced the school boundary lines at the same time. Those who attended King Philip and Talcott Junior High would attend Conard. All Plant Junior High students went to Hall, in the center of town and the students at Sedgwick were split. Hall became a walking school, with about 60 percent of the number of students at Conard. Its population differed from today in that it was a north and south end school until the new Hall building opened in 1970.

When school opened on September 4, 1957, the school day began at 8:30 at the high and junior high schools. Students had a seven period day. About 1,150 students entered Conard on the first day. Over 11,000 attended the West Hartford Public Schools, in 15 different schools, more students than in 2006.

Dress in the first years of the school was strictly defined. There were no dungarees, no t-shirts, and no sneakers or cowboy boots. Girls had to wear skirts. Leather jackets were banned because of their connection to motorcycle gangs.

The course selection book offered different choices in 1957. Choices for the three years were limited by requirements and fewer elective classes. One requirement since 1952, was Driver Education. The town had one full time teacher in each high school to teach this class. This practice lasted into the late 1970s.

Academic departments have remained the same, though the content in each has changed. As early as 1963, the NEASC report on Conard encouraged history teachers to teach less about military battles. The first Advanced Placement classes made their way into the curriculum in the mid-1960s.

Home economics classes were strictly for girls. One course, taught girls the “basics of being a housewife.” Industrial Arts courses, including auto mechanics, drafting, and woodworking were designed strictly for boys. Changes in these programs came in the mid 1970s with federal pressure from Title IX.

The tradition of a school musical began in that school year. Music teacher William Lauer directed the first musical “Oklahoma.” Lauer began the tradition of having two casts, one for each night to give more students a chance to have lead roles. This tradition ended in the early 2000s.

When the school opened in 1957, boys could choose from eight sports teams. There were no interscholastic sports for girls. Girls joined the leaders club and played “competitively” on one day in the Fall. In 1970 girls competed in interscholastic Track and Field and not until 1986 did they reach parity with the boys with the number of sports teams.

On November 9, 1957, Conard played Hall in football for the first time and the contest was at Conard’s just completed stadium. Both teams came in with winning records, and each had a chance to win the CCIL championship. With Coach Bob McKee at the helm, his Chieftains defeated the Frank Robinson’s Hall Warriors 7-6. Today, in 2006, the grandson of Conard’s captain in that first game plays on the Conard team.

The Chieftains were boosted by the first appearance of the Pep Band, led by William Lauer, and the Pep Club with over 300 students dressed in scarlet and gray. More than 2,500 fans overflowed the stands to watch the first of many contests between these two rivals, many of which determined championships. On November 18, 2006, Conard and Hall will play their 50th football game. It looks like, just as in 1957, that a title might be at stake. The rivalry is just as fresh today as it was 50 years ago, but now it includes 26 teams with both girls and boys.

In June 2007, Conard will have its 50th graduation. There are some stirrings of a commemoration for these events. Those who graduated in the first class in 1958 are now in their mid-60s and do indeed have grandchildren old enough to be students at the high school. The traditions of learning and of school spirit are still alive and well.

Economic Development, 1950s Style

Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, March 2003

In early January 1962, the Town Planning and Zoning Commission unveiled a comprehensive Town Development Plan to guide land use in West Hartford into the 1980s. The main goal of this plan was to allow West Hartford to maintain its residential character, while allowing for industrial and commercial growth in specific areas of the city, and to move traffic.

What spawned this development plan? Why did the town feel compelled to draw up such a comprehensive plan at that particular time?

In the 1950s, West Hartford’s population grew from 44,402 to 62,382. And at the same time developers bought up farmland for housing developments and retail developers built strip malls in four different locations in town. Between 1949 and 1959, the town built 11 new schools. Town residents worried that building was out of control and that just anything could be put up if one had the money, or if the population kept growing

The 1962 plan projected a peak population of 85,000 and residents were concerned about what this meant for their quality of life in town. The Town Council spent meeting after meeting consumed by these development controversies as open space disappeared.

Commercial development caused tension between residents, the developers and the Town Council as the town weighed its tax base, its residential nature, and the desire of developers to make money and provide shopping facilities in town.

When Lord & Taylor moved to the southwest quadrant of Bishops Corner in 1955, most of West Hartford’s 62,000 residents shopped in downtown Hartford. This Lord & Taylor was the chain’s first ever suburban store outside of New York. A survey completed by developers in 1956 found that West Hartford residents spent only 35% of their consumer dollars in West Hartford.

This was the fourth suburban Lord & Taylor, and the first outside of New York. Built in 1954, the store had a restaurant called the Bird Cage, like all the other stores. Note the farmland and the beginnings of suburbanization in the southwest quadrant of Bishop’s Corner. Note the Hartford Tennis Club and the land that became Westmoor Park at the top of the photo. Source: Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society.

This was the fourth suburban Lord & Taylor, and the first outside of New York. Built in 1954, the store had a restaurant called the Bird Cage, like all the other stores. Note the farmland and the beginnings of suburbanization in the southwest quadrant of Bishop’s Corner. Note the Hartford Tennis Club and the land that became Westmoor Park at the top of the photo. Source: Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society.

In 1956, developer Five City Plaza, Inc. believed that there was a retail market in West Hartford and proposed a $7 million shopping center at Corbin’s Corner. The town held a series of five public hearings, which attracted over 1,000 people. The developers, represented by attorney Frederick U. Conard, Jr., tried to convince Democratic Mayor Harold Keith and the Town Council that this development would be good for the town. Issues covered at the hearing included traffic, the residential nature of the town, value of residential property nearby, and the ability of the nearby brook to absorb run-off from the massive parking area.

The plans called for 25 to 30 stores with Sears Roebuck as the anchor store. This Sears was planned to be the largest such store in New England. The Town Planning and Zoning Commission approved the plan for three separate buildings, cutting the size of the building farthest to the south, and not allowing Sears to have an automotive center.

The Town Council voted 5-2 to approve the development on February 13, 1957 and immediately they were criticized for their vote.

Of the two who voted the plan down, Republican Minority Leader Richard Smith argued that the elected officials were not doing enough to put the development in context. He argued that the development should not only be looked at from the standpoint of how it affected the geographical area, but also for its long term impact. He believed the plan needed to be part of a “comprehensive plan for the general area involved, which includes the large tract of land of the Minnie Corbin Kohn estate lying just to the west of the property here involved.” This area became Westfarms Mall 15 years later.

Residents of the southwest section of town appealed the Town Council’s approval to the Court of Common Pleas on the basis that the shopping center was too large for the area, would create traffic problems, and depreciate the value of their homes. The association also questioned whether this shopping center could be successful. Everett Clark, president of the Southwest Association claimed, “If it fails, the town will be left with a white elephant.”

The Common Court of Pleas rejected the appeal seven months later in September 1957. The judge believed he did not have jurisdiction and that this zoning question was a local matter. The property owners vowed to take the case to the state Supreme Court. The Supreme Court heard the case in June 1958, and in August the court voted unanimously to uphold the decision of West Hartford’s Town Council, then 16 months after council approval.

At the same time, the Town Council faced a proposal to build a shopping center on the southeast quadrant of Bishops Corner and the Council sent it back to the Zoning Commission for a definite recommendation.

In July 1958, the Common Pleas Court also ordered the Town Council to accept the petition for a $4 million shopping center on the northwest corner of South Main Street and New Britain Avenue. The Town Council did not approve this petition, filed in April 1956.

In February 1959, two years after the Town Council approved the plan, Corbin’s Corner residents voted to fight proposed changes in plans for the shopping center. They opposed a proposed fire and battery service building and plans to build a bowling alley in the basement of one of the buildings.

In the same month developers proposed another shopping center on the corner of Farmington Avenue and Boulevard with an A&P supermarket as the anchor store.

By June 10, 1959 the Town Council gave unanimous final approval to the Corbin’s Corner Plan requiring the developers to build a 6 ½ foot fence along the south side of the property, installing 28 foot high light poles, and prohibiting outside display of merchandise. Sears got approval for the automotive center, but the plan for a bowling alley was denied.

In July 1959, residents appealed the June action of the Town Council which changed the zone of some of the land included in Corbin’s Corners. They lost this appeal.

One of the last things the Democratically controlled Town Council did was to vote down the Farmington Avenue - Boulevard shopping center, claiming that it would decrease the value of homes in the area, despite the fact that the town planner had recommended its approval.

These contentious debates about town development allowed residents a say in the type of town they lived in, and many would argue, produced a better plan for development. In 2003, with a town with almost no open space, the town again is weighing its tax base, its residential nature, and the desires of developers to make money and provide shopping facilities in the center.

In February 2003, Scott Slifka proposed a new task force to be responsible for economic development in town. While West Hartford’s tax base has been somewhat stagnant for the past 20 years, there are some big new development possibilities both in Elmwood and in the center. The council believes that taking a proactive stance on development can ease some of the tensions of 45 years ago as developer’s desires to build and increase the tax base were balanced with retaining the special character of our town.

West Hartford in 1959

Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, October 2009

Fifty years ago, the West Hartford News published the Town Report written by Town Manager Donald Blatt who wanted to educate citizens on how the town government used their tax dollars. The Town’s population in 1959 was 60,000, just a few thousand less than the population in 2009. This report provides an interesting comparison of a town that was still growing in the 1950’s, with a mature West Hartford in 2009.

The Town Report celebrated “Highlights of the Year Gone By.” In 1958 the town celebrated Noah Webster’s bicentennial celebration. In 2008 we celebrated his 250th birthday. A new town charter went into effect that allowed for the election of the school board, at-large election of nine Town Council members, and guaranteed minority party representation. These revisions remain today.

The town dedicated the Rutherford Building on Raymond Road and Memorial Drive, and the remodeled north section of the Whitman School, as an Annex to the Town Hall. The building on that site today, built as part of the Blue Back Square development, is also called the Rutherford Building. The Town Hall with a gold dome on Main Street, built in 1936, now houses Flemings Steak House.

Bridlepath School in the western part of town was completed in 1959. When the population of West Hartford peaked in 1970 at 70,000 and then dropped back to 60,000, many schools in town were closed. Bridlepath closed as a public school in the 1970s.

In 1959, the town trumpeted its “continued program of sidewalk and sewer installation and street paving and reconstruction.” In 1959 though it was still legal to have a well and private septic system, the town was moving toward public water and sewers. The public works budget in the growing community made up almost 12% of the total budget. In 2009, with a developed infrastructure, public works make up only 1.6% of the budget.

While today, school officials worry about the H1/N1 virus, in 1959, “special clinics were held monthly during the year for West Hartford school children who were unable to receive polio injections from their private physicians. 1,087 were given during the year.” The Town Report charted the prevalence of chickenpox, measles, mumps and German measles from 1948 to 1958. A measles vaccine became available in 1963, mumps in 1967, German measles or rubella in 1969, and chicken pox in 1995. With the Health Department’s 1959 budget of $2,023, sanitation staff chronicled diseases and increased food and milk inspections.

As the 1959-60 school year got under way, the educational initiatives marked some changes in the town’s philosophy. One photograph is captioned “Schools respond to growing emphasis on Science,” responding to the national push that followed the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957. Funds from the National Defense Education Act (September 1958) encouraged the study of science, mathematics and foreign languages by funding professional development for teachers and building the infrastructure.

Superintendent Thorne managed a $5 million budget to educate 11,563 pupils at about $430 per pupil. Even in the 1950s, West Hartford prided itself on having an excellent school system and not spending the most per pupil. The school budget made up about 43% of the town budget. In 2009-10 Superintendent Sklarz’s education budget stood at about $123,000,000 with 10,000 school children for a cost of over $12,000 per student. This accounted for 61% of the budget. According to a purchasing power translator, this is about four times the per pupil cost of 50 years ago.

One major contributor to the increased costs of schools was the federal government’s mandate to educate all students that began with the Americans With Disabilities Act (1973) and then the Education for All Handicapped Children Act in 1975. These Acts have increased the cost of education considerably. In 2009, the Special Education budget made up close to 20 percent of the entire school budget.

In 1959, the system added honors courses in each subject area to strengthen the curriculum. Superintendent Thorne instituted an accelerated track in math allowing 8th graders to take high school level algebra. High School graduation requirements rose from 16 to 18 (in a three year high school) and the number of periods in the high school day increased from six to seven. Thorne encouraged a move to homogeneous groups in the elementary schools and formulated a program for “gifted” children.

For the 2009 to 2010 school year, the West Hartford Public School initiatives are based around the 2002 federal No Child Left Behind Act, which required testing of all students, with follow up for those who have not achieved. Students continue to have an accelerated track in Math, but now requirements for graduation include 21 ¾ credits (in a four year high school) and they attend an eight period day. State legislatures in 2009 showed some interest in raising the number of credits needed to graduate from a Connecticut high school, but the economic downturn ended this initiative.

Enrollment increased 119% from 1943 to 1959. The town built nine elementary schools over this time period, giving the town 21 school buildings. In 2009 there were 16 public schools and the student population had stabilized. Hall High School, built in 1924, had served as the only high school in town until Conard opened in 1957. Because of the age of Hall and its being landlocked in the center of town, in 1959, there was already talk of building another high school. However, according to the Town Report, “In light of the plans of the Archdiocese of Hartford to construct a high school in the near vicinity of the proposed North End High School, the target date for the latter has been postponed from 1961 to 1966-7.” Town officials felt that the opening of Northwest Catholic (1961) would take some enrollment pressure off the public schools. In 1959 there were 2 parochial schools in town and 11 private schools. The new Hall High School finally opened in 1970.

The picture on the cover of the 1959 report depicts an adult male showing an open book to an eager boy, about eight years old, who looks up at the adult. They stand in front of the Noah Webster Library. This image of the importance of books, of knowledge, of the passing of information from one generation to another remains at the core of the town government’s ideals fifty years later.

What Are Your Boundaries?

Adapted from a talk given at Emanuel Synagogue, “Why Do You Live Where You Live?” November 2, 2017.

If you walk or bike into Beachland Park from Manchester Circle, as so many school children did in the late 1950s, 1960s and 1970s to get to the Elmwood School and Talcott Junior High, right to the south of the path is a stone with a plaque. The plaque, mounted on a stone says,

THE FELDMAN WALKWAY
THIS WALKWAY
IS NAMED BY THE TOWN COUNCIL
IN HONOR OF
RABBI ABRAHAM J. FELDMAN, D.D.
DISTINGUISHED CLERGYMAN
AND CITIZEN OF WEST HARTFORD
NOVEMBER 10, 1958
DEDICATED JUNE 1960

Marker dedicated to Rabbi Abraham Feldman, located at the Manchester Circle entrance to Beachland Park

Marker dedicated to Rabbi Abraham Feldman, located at the Manchester Circle entrance to Beachland Park

Why was Rabbi Feldman (1893-1977) commemorated at this particular spot in 1960? Who paid for this? And why would it be in the south end of town, which was not known to be a place where many Jewish people lived?

Historians who study settlement patterns for Jewish people and African Americans in cities and suburbs look at many factors that contribute to where they live in communities. Redlining by banks, real estate agent steering, federal housing funding, vicinity to houses of worship, and education are among the many factors that both narrow and broaden choices for homeowners.

Through interviews with Jewish people who moved to West Hartford in the 1950s or 60s, we learn that it was “understood” by many that they could not live in certain neighborhoods. Informal exclusionary boundaries included Sunny Reach Drive, Westwood Road and Colony Road near the Hartford Golf Club, the West Hill District, on Hunter Drive on the mountain, Sunset Farms and Wood Pond. Though no written restrictions by race or religion have been found, often in these neighborhood associations, houses never went on the market, but were passed along by word of mouth to family members or those who were deemed to be “appropriate” to live within the bounds of their neighborhoods.

And even if a Jewish family offered $30,000 in cash to buy a house along Farmington Avenue, their real estate agent might report back that the seller took the house off the market, rather than sell to them.

So while bankers, federal mortgage programs, and real estate agents have been the targets of restrictions on who lived in neighborhoods, in West Hartford, it was also builders who controlled the market. As builders flocked to town to buy up farmland in the north end, the southwestern section of town and the center of Elmwood and take advantage of the push for suburban housing, some of these builders tightly controlled who bought their newly-built homes.

Brothers Victor and Raymond Carnelli were two of those builders who developed houses in West Hartford. They built hundreds of houses in town between 1945 and 1970. Carnelli built on Longlane, Winterset Lane and Hartwell Road before the new Hall High was built in 1970. They also built on Cherryfield Drive and Foxridge Road near Conard High School, and Orchard Road on the mountain.

The Carnelli Construction Company named their development near Eisenhower Park “Whitewood Farms.” A September 1960 Hartford Courant display ad for a Carnelli home on Winterset Lane, near Eisenhower Park said “Short drive to Bishop’s Corner, Shopping Center, New St. Timothy’s Parish and School, New Norfeldt School, Wampanoag Country Club and a newly proposed park.” Carnelli was clearly marketing to a Roman Catholic audience. West Hartford had the reputation and the history of being controlled by Protestants, and though there are six Catholic Churches in town in 2018, in 1960 there were only three. At the same time, Beth El Temple and Tumblebrook were also close to this development, but Carnelli chose not to mention them.

One person I spoke with recalled, “Jews could not buy a Carnelli home” and some in the Jewish community called this area around Eisenhower Park “Vatican Village.”

In the early 1940s, Carnelli included a restrictive covenant in at least two developments, Foxridge Road and Sunrise Hill which said that:

No persons of any race except the white race shall use or occupy any building on any lot except that this covenant shall not prevent occupancy by domestic servants of a different race employed by an owner or tenant.

In many ways, Carnelli was following the spirit of the times. William Levitt, famous for his developments which became Levittowns on Long Island, in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Puerto Rico, and three towns in Maryland — all had restrictive covenants. Blacks sued Levitt to be allowed to live in these towns. And though Levitt was Jewish, even he, at first, would not sell to Jews.

At the same time that Carnelli was building, so was Irving R. Stich. In 1954, Stich, a Jewish developer, who owned the company Ogden Homes, sold one of his homes on Miles Standish Drive, right west of Conard High School, to Frederick Neusner and Millicent Silverstone Neusner. Frederick Neusner’s father, a Russian immigrant, appeared in the 1940 census as a salesman for the Jewish Ledger, living on Asylum Avenue with his wife and three children. His son Frederick was 15 in 1940. Fourteen years later, he and his wife bought the house on Miles Standish.

Stich, like Carnelli, built hundreds of houses in West Hartford and in the Greater Hartford area. While Carnelli was discriminating against blacks and Jews on Foxridge Road and Sunrise Hill, just two streets south, Stich built houses on John Smith and Miles Standish Drive that Jews bought, and this in the south end of town.

Stich, the developer, was also president of the Webster Construction Company which developed 60 one-family “low-cost” homes on Manchester Circle. He was the man who donated the building lot to make the right-of-way through Beachland Park and put up the commemorative stone to Rabbi Abraham Feldman.

On November 22, 1958, the West Hartford Town Council approved a proposal to name the walkway between Beachland Park and Manchester Circle for Rabbi Feldman, a Russian immigrant and rabbi of Beth Israel Synagogue on Farmington Avenue. Mayor Harold F. Keith, the first Democratic Mayor of West Hartford and first Catholic mayor, thanked Irving Stich, who gave land for the right of way into the northwest corner of the park. Stich requested that the path be named for Rabbi Feldman and Stich offered to defray any expenses connected with the dedication, according to the Hartford Courant article.

Did Stich want to say: Jewish people can live in the south end, too? Or if Jewish people are being discriminated against, was he saying: I’m staking a claim here with this plaque for future generations to see?

Feldman’s plaque makes us think about invisible boundaries that exist all over our town. Are there places you don’t feel comfortable going? And how can we, like Stich, try to break down those barriers?

Town Center: The 1960s and Today

Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, October 2004

The homeowners of WH cannot permanently go on watching the residential character of our neighborhood and our town undermined and destroyed without doing something constructive about it.

In the last decade zoning decisions have had the wholly regressive tendency of commercializing our town. The have outraged the common sense of the people who must bear the burden of decisions which devalue their homes, rob them of prized social and psychological values, and then burden them with assessments for road improvements, increased traffic and taxes for additional town services.

— West Hartford Federation of Homeowner Associations Resolution, 1961

West Hartford residents have always cared about the character of their town. Whenever changes are proposed, residents and homeowners wonder if West Hartford will continue to be the town in which they chose to live. The Federation of Homeowners in 1961 reacted to the tremendous growth in retail in the town with the opening of Lord & Taylor in Bishops Corner in the mid-1950s, and the plans for Corbins Corner in the early 1960s.

The Town Council, Town Manager and Town Planner were all concerned about what these developments would do to the town center and they spent much time, money and political capital on trying to insure its continued success.

At first glance, the Homeowner Association quote might have come from the Save Our Center group concerned about the present-day construction of Blue Back Square.

How have their concerns changed as the town developed from a growing suburb in the 1950s and 1960s to a mature suburb with little population growth in the 21st century, and how have they stayed the same?

In 1951, when the Town Council commissioned a comprehensive town plan from the private firm of Alfred Kaehrle, the town’s character truly was changing. The town’s population stood at 44,000, and had grown about 33% since 1940. Residential neighborhoods sprouted up on any undeveloped land.

Downtown Hartford was still the main shopping area for the region, Lord & Taylor had not yet opened in Bishop’s Corner, and Sears in Corbin’s Corner was not yet planned. Burnham’s grocery store on South Main Street across from the Town Hall anchored the Town Center. Since 1898, it had been the hub of shopping in the center. Angled parking at curbside brought customers right up to the stores, but people complained about traffic and feared losing the residential nature of this town.

Residents were clear that West Hartford was a residential town, not a city like Hartford and that was a good reason to live here. Hartford’s population peaked in 1950 at about 170,000; out-migration grew tremendously in the 1960s and 1970s as highways connected suburbs to city and shopping moved to strip malls in the suburbs.

The town had to provide services for its growing population. Between 1949 and 1959, 11 new schools were built in West Hartford. Even though the tax base continued to grow, the town had to scramble to keep up with the explosion in school age population and the increased traffic.

In the 1950s, residents who moved here characterized the town as a suburb, not a city. The town government reaffirmed those beliefs.

By 1959, the Town Planning and Zoning Commission had reworked Kaehrle’s 1951 town center proposal to encourage its commercial growth while maintaining the neighborhoods in the center. The plan included the extension of Walden Street from Farmington Avenue to Arapahoe Road, and the extension of Arapahoe from LaSalle Road to South Main with an eventual link up through Memorial Road to Trout Brook Drive (just completed in 2004). LaSalle Road would end at Ellsworth and not go through to Pelham Road to maintain the residential nature of the town outside the perimeter of traffic.

The TPZ wanted to build a perimeter traffic plan because traffic was a problem at the main intersection of Farmington Avenue and Main Street and to contain development within the perimeter formed by Walden and Arapahoe on the south and west. According to Town Manager, Richard L. Brown, the plan would keep the residential areas safe and stable.

By this time, Lord & Taylor’s 100,000 square foot store in Bishop’s Corner and the planned Sears Roebuck with 130,000 square feet in Corbin’s Corner threatened businesses in the center. The town planners foresaw opening a “junior department store” in the center to support specialty shops. In 1959, the Town Center’s largest dry goods store had 15,000 square feet.

The new plan included concern about parking with the proposal for a two-level parking lot. Plans also surfaced for a 100 room hotel with banquet facilities to be located on the southeast corner of Trout Brook and Farmington (where the Exxon station is today.)

The new Hall High School on North Main did not open until 1970, but already in 1959, town planners knew that the new school would be built, just two years after the completion of Conard. Some wanted the Old Hall kept as an education center after the north end high school was built. One plan had this building transformed into a college; the high percentage of West Hartford’s high school graduates who planned college level studies, they thought, would produce an overflow of students who would not be able to enroll in a traditional college and this building could provide a place for residents to complete the first two years of college work on a tuition basis.

By 1962, the Town Council came up with still another comprehensive plan for development. The plan was based on the population continuing to grow from 62,000 to 80,000 in 20 years. The population actually peaked in 1967 at about 73,000 and then declined until the 2000 census to about 61,000.

The continued thrust of this plan was to establish the character of the town as a residential community. The plan said, “the prime planning objective is to preserve the town’s good residential character” and to keep high standards in planning any new developments. No more than 10% of the town would be for commercial or industrial use. In 1962, according to the plan, people “shop, work and recreate” outside of West Hartford. There was much talk about zoning for apartments as that was seen as the only means for residential growth.

In 2004, 42 years later, residents again speak out about development in the town center. But unlike the 1960s, West Hartford no longer portrays itself as only a residential suburb. This new Blueback Square development is a mixed use development which integrates residential, office and retail space so that use of the area is spread out over the course of the day.

Residents continue to be concerned about the character of the town. The concerns about traffic and residential neighborhoods continue. And with this development, instead of the Town Center reacting to development in the north and south ends of town, Westfarms Mall has weighed in with apprehensions about how the center’s growth will affect their retail sales.

Residents today, just as 40 years ago, raise the concern that the town may become too urban and lose what they consider to be the “small town” residential feel.

The town government continues to work as a partner with developers, in their efforts toward controlled development which balances the need for new tax revenues, with neighborhood concerns, and with the changing role the town of West Hartford plays as a regional destination for shopping and nightlife.

As West Hartford residents have always done, they will continue to candidly question the motives of both government officials and commercial developers in the debate over how new developments define the town’s character.

“Remember Me”: The Vietnam War

Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, February 2005

“Remember Me.” These are the plaintive words of Joe Donahue, historian of the Connecticut Veteran Memorial soon to be built in the center of town on the site where the first church was built in the West Division. Donahue has spent two years researching the 202 West Hartford war casualties. Donahue’s passion for finding out about these casualties embodies the spirit behind the building of the war memorial in the center of town.

A look at the 18 men who died in the Vietnam War gives a window on the sacrifices made by a country, a state, and a town when the federal government chooses to go to war.

The average age of the men who died was 24. Two men who died were 35; of the 15 others, the average age was 22. Four graduated from Hall, two from Conard, two from Kingswood and one from Northwest Catholic. Five were college graduates from Georgetown, University of Pennsylvania, the Naval Academy, Trinity, and Norwich University and all 17 graduated from high school. All were listed as Christian.

Geographically, only one man lived north of Asylum Avenue. One man lived on Hunter Drive, two in the Buena Vista area, and three in the area around Kennedy Park. Two lived near Fern Park, three near Morley School, and one near Conard.

Nine of the men died on the ground, one the result of an accidental homicide. Seven died in helicopter or plane crashes. The highest national and town casualties were in the year 1968, the year of the Tet Offensive. For the nation, 14,000 died, which was about 25% of total casualties. In West Hartford, 6 of our 17 were killed in that year.

Below is a short paragraph on each man who died based on Donahue’s research. They are listed in the order in which they died.

  1. Brian John Cronin, 775 Farmington Avenue was a Navy bombardier navigator aboard a light bomber that crashed in an unknown area. His plane was downed in the South China Sea. He was West Hartford’s first casualty and died in December 1964 at age 24. He played tennis. He went to UCONN where his father was Dean of the UConn School of Social Work. He graduated from East Hartford High School, and then lived with his widowed mother before he enlisted. JFK was his hero and he joined the Navy because of it.
  2. Edmund Francis Eddy, of West Point Terrace was killed by small arms fire in March 1966. He was a Marine Corps Field Radio Operator. He was 22 when he died in Quang Ngai Province.
  3. Edward Gaffney Creed, of North Steele Road, was killed in June 1966 in Thua Thien Province. He was a crew member on a medical evacuation mission when his helicopter caught fire from hostile gunfire and crashed. He was 21 when he died. He served for three 1/2 years.
  4. David Hight, of Meadow Farms Road, was in the Army, and died at age 24 somewhere in Vietnam in June 1966. He died from wounds suffered from a grenade. He signed up for two years of service but died after serving for nine months. His parents moved to West Hartford the year Hight graduated from high school in New York state. He graduated from Norwich University.
  5. John Welch III, age 24 from 28 North Quaker Lane and a graduate of St. Thomas Parochial School, Hall High School, and Georgetown University (1965) died of wounds suffered on the ground at Quang Ngai in February 1967. He entered Marine Corps Officers’ Candidate School in January 1966 and graduated with honors. He arrived in Vietnam in October 1966 and served for five months. Welch had a brother at the U.S. Naval Academy at the time and one other brother and two sisters.
  6. William Markarian lived on Bretton Road and died at age from an explosive device at Thua Thien. He left for Vietnam in May 1967 and died nine months later. He had been a gardener with Baker’s Nursery in Tariffville before he entered the military.
  7. Crosley Fitton, Jr. died in February 1968 at age 35. He was an Air Force pilot flying an F105 Thunderchief on a combat mission as part of the Tet Offensive, flying over the outskirts of Hanoi when his plane was hit by a surface to air missile. He and his co-pilot bailed out and parachuted safely to the ground. It was unclear what happened next as the Air Force listed them as “Missing in Action.” In 1975, Fitton’s remains were handed over to a U.S. congressional delegation to Hanoi. His wife, who had remarried by 1975, and his parents were skeptical that the remains were really his. At age 17, Fitton and four other West Hartford boys went to Detroit to compete in a national model plane contest sponsored by Plymouth. His interest in planes continued. He was married and lived on Oakwood Avenue
  8. John P. Holden II, who lived on Farmington Avenue, died at age 24 in Quang Tri Province. He served in the Marines and was killed in a mid-air collision of helicopters that had picked up four wounded Marines near Khe Sanh in February 1967. He was married.
  9. Army Corporal Radioman Adam Knecht, age 20 from Oakwood Avenue was killed at Binh Duong in May 1968 of multiple fragmentation wounds. Adam lived in West Hartford until he was 11. In one of his last letters, Knecht had questioned “the purpose of wasting young American lives” in the Vietnam conflict. He was drafted.
  10. Raymond Coyle Daley lived on East Normandy Drive and died in Quang Nam province in July 1968 when his helicopter was downed by enemy fire. He served as a First Lieutenant in the Marine Corps. He won the Air Medal, Purple Heart, Vietnam Service and Campaign Medal and National Defense Medal. He was 24 when he died. He graduated from Hall High School and attended Providence College and the Naval Academy.
  11. Robert Lyon Norton of Keeney Avenue and a graduate of Hall High school died at age 35 in Quang Nam Province in December 1968 as the result of a plane crash under hostile fire. He served for 14 years in the Marine Corps. Norton received the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal and the Purple Heart. He lived most of his life in West Hartford. He was an Eagle Scout and graduate of the Hall High class of 1951. He attended UCONN, but did not graduate, entering the Naval Air Cadet Program during the Korean War.
  12. Mark Hannay Dixon, of Uplands Drive died at age 23 in Quang Nam province. He earned a Purple Heart, Silver Star, Bronze Star, and Army Commendation for his service. He was killed trying to rescue a wounded comrade in Quang Nam. His Silver Star citation said that he “courageously crawled, under intense enemy fire, to the fallen soldier and began to administer first aid.” As he tried to carry the man to safety, he was hit by enemy fire. His tour of duty began in late March 1969 and he died one month later. He graduated from University of Pennsylvania. He was going to enter University of Michigan Law School in 1970. His father was a lawyer. Classmates at Kingswood established a scholarship for him and collected $6,500.
  13. Thomas Hill, of Florence Street died at age 21 in Binh Duong province by a mortar missile. He served as a Warrant Officer in the US Army and was killed in June 1969. He was a member of the first graduating class at St. Brigid School, attended Northwest Catholic, Cheshire Academy and Wichita State University in Kansas. He entered the Army in October 1968 and became a helicopter pilot. Hill’s father was a Fire Captain in town and his mother a secretary to U.S. Senator Abraham Ribicoff.
  14. Marine Lance Corporal Douglas Whiting Young, age 21 was killed on December 20, 1969 in Quang Nam Province as a result of an accidental homicide. He lived on Longview Road and graduated from Kingswood School in 1966 and attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute for two years. He was a member of the First Church of Christ Congregational.
  15. Loring McKenzie Bailey, Jr., of Saint Augustine Street, was age 24 when he was killed in March 1970 at Quang Ngai Province on the ground. He was with the U.S. Army infantry. He was married. He served for only 5 ½ months before he died. He graduated from Trinity College in 1967. His wife was from West Hartford, though he grew up in Stonington.
  16. Norman Westwood, from Terrace Road and a 1962 graduate of Conard High School, was killed at age 25 in May 1970. Westwood graduated from St. Anselm’s College. After college he joined the Navy. Westwood flew more than 100 missions and was awarded the Air Medal. He served for four years in the Navy in the reserves and as a pilot. He died when his F-4 Phantom fighter failed in its takeoff from the USS Coral Sea for a bombing mission over North Vietnam. His plane sank in the South China Sea. Westwood was the son of the West Hartford Deputy Fire Chief. Westwood hoped to return to the U.S. in June and marry his fiancé from California.
  17. Gary Lewis, from South Street, graduated from Conard in 1969 and was 20 when he was killed by a booby trap in Quang Nam on June 30, 1971. Lewis enlisted in October 1969. His parents said his tour of duty was up in September and he was planning to come home to go to college.
  18. Jeffrey Weed died in an airplane crash on his way to Vietnam on April 6, 1972. He was a Captain in the US Marine Corps. He grew up in West Hartford, and earned his Eagle Scout. He graduated from Mount Hermon School in Northfield, MA and then from Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. He had a low lottery number and chose to enlist. Because he was not in combat when his plane went down in the South China Sea, his name cannot appear on the Vietnam War Memorial. However, his name is on West Hartford’s wall.

The Veterans on the War Memorial Committee want the information Donahue gathered to be used in West Hartford’s history classrooms. Gathering the raw material is the first step toward helping teachers teach about war from a local perspective. As historians, teachers know that to accurately teach about war, they need to show many viewpoints: of those who fought, those who protested and those whose lives changed on the home front. Learning about those who died in service to the country is one of these perspectives.

Democrats vs. Republicans: 1958-1972

Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, October 2001

In 1961, it was socially improper, economically stupid and politically unwise to be a Democrat in West Hartford. But in 1972, it is an idea that has arrived.

This statement, made by Harry Kleinman, then Democratic Town Chairman, attorney, and past judge of the West Hartford Police Court, makes me wonder what changed in the town, at the state level, and at the federal level that turned West Hartford from a Republican to a Democratic town over these years.

Kleinman’s statement was a bit of hyperbole because, 17 years earlier, in 1955, Democrats gained control of the Town Council for the first time in the town’s 101 year history. At that time, the town was split into seven districts and Town Councilors were elected by district. Two years later, in 1957, Republicans outnumbered Democrats 14,000 to 6,000 but the Democrats maintained their 4-3 council majority by a mere four votes in the sixth district (Morley School and Quaker Hose Firehouse areas). Most of the Republicans lived in the first (largely north of Farmington and Asylum Avenues) and second districts (Town Hall, Sedgwick and Webster Hill School areas.) These two districts had much larger populations than the other five, but the districts established in the 1920s were not readjusted as the population grew.

In an article written for the West Hartford News in 1972, Nan Glass, former Democratic Mayor of West Hartford chronicled the history of the Democratic Party. She wrote that the original Democrats in West Hartford, prior to World War II, were largely Irish Catholics from the south end of town. The chairmanship of the party held by Edward P. Quinn was passed to his sister Katherine in 1942 when he resigned to become Registrar of Voters. She was chairman for 10 years and then Richard T. Scully took over when Quinn became involved in the state and national Democratic Party structure.

Following World War II, in the 1950s and 1960s, Irish from the south end dominated the party: Brian O’Meara, Robert Shea, Helen Murray, Dorothy Muldoon, Thomas O’Neill Jr. and Edward B. Connors all played major roles in Democratic politics and town government.

In the 1960s, a steady stream of Jewish voters moved from the North End of Hartford to northern West Hartford. They brought with them their Democratic Party affiliation. They were joined by a growing number of residents of Italian background. A fourth faction included the “Yankee” liberals –- like Catherine C. Reynolds and State Senator Jay Jackson, the first Democrat from West Hartford to be elected to the State Senate in 1966.

In the early 1970s, with the 26th Amendment and the anti-Vietnam War movement, the Democratic Party made a big effort to register 18 to 21 year olds as Democrats.

These constituencies led the Democrats to pull ahead of the Republicans in registration by 1971, 15,000 to 14,200 with 13,000 unaffiliated voters. However, that did not mean that the Democrats dominated politics, even in the 1970s.

Just as demographics changed over the 40-year period, so did the nature of the electorate. In 1958, the liberal Abe Ribicoff was the first Democratic Governor ever to win West Hartford. But West Hartford voters remained conservative on local issues. A referendum to allow the sale of liquor in restaurants on Sunday was defeated for the second time 9,195 to 5,457 with only one precinct, King Philip School, voting in favor.

But Republicans did not take these local and state wins lightly. In 1958, a new charter, supported by the Republicans, who outnumbered Democrats 3 to 1, allowed Town Councilors to be elected at large, rather than by district. In April 1959, under the new charter, the Republicans took control back from the Democrats winning six seats and the Democrats winning three. The April 1961 election found the Republicans in control once more, though the gap in registration narrowed slightly.

National politics in 1964 displayed the independence of the voters. Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson swept the district with 65% voting for him. Local Republican leaders were visibly upset with Barry Goldwater’s showing. This was the first time a Democratic presidential candidate won in West Hartford. Democrat Thomas Dodd defeated the Republican ex-Governor John Lodge for Senate. The jubilant party at Democratic headquarters on New Britain Avenue was filled with young Democrats who had started a young adult political organization, United Democrats for West Hartford, in August of 1964. This group enrolled many new voters and claimed their share in the margin of victory.

In 1967, the Republicans maintained a majority in registration, 14,200 to 11,400. There were 13,300 unaffiliated voters, who tended to lean to the Republicans. Popular Republican Mayor Richard Sheehan did not run for re-election. The Democrats won the election and took control of the Town Council 6-3. Architect John M. Huntington became Mayor even though he was the third highest vote getter. It was thought that he was the butt of negative campaigning when Republicans accused him of supporting “reverse busing” to integrate the schools, the “Project Concern” initiative, even though he did not.

The 1968 Democratic primary voters could choose between Eugene McCarthy, Robert Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey and this led to a split in the local Democratic Party, but ultimately led to a majority of Democratic registered voters. The national party called for a modernization of party machinery and changes that would “democratize” the party. The party establishment felt the purpose of the town committee was to get Democrats elected while the newcomers in the form of the Caucus of Connecticut Democrats were more interested in the party taking positions on social issues. This particular faction of the party supported Eugene McCarthy for the Democratic Presidential nomination. Oliver and Mims Butterworth spearheaded this group.

The CCD managed to oust Katherine Quinn, the second most powerful Democratic Party leader in Connecticut, from the Democratic State Central Committee, a position she had held for 40 years. Mims Butterworth, a McCarthy supporter, took her place on the state committee from the 5th District.

However, the Democrats controlled the town for only two years. In 1969, Republicans won the Town Council, 6-3 and chose Ellsworth Grant as Mayor.

The Democratic slate in the 1971 election was entirely new, except for incumbent Brian O’Meara, and did better than any other slate in history. Catherine Reynolds, in her first election, was the top vote- getter. The Democratic newcomers actually beat a Republican incumbent. The Democrats gained one seat in the Council (5-4) and gained control of the Board of Education (4-3). The Republican Party chairman, Alfred “Tim” Covello, credited the Democratic presence to a general unhappiness with government at all levels, especially on the federal level. By 1971, many voters opposed Nixon’s policies in Vietnam and that may have been felt in the election.

But, the Republicans came back strong in the 1972 federal election with President Nixon defeating McGovern by 23,000 to 18,000. At the same time, Bill Cotter (D) defeated Republican Rittenband for Congress and Republican Nicholas Lenge defeated Democratic incumbent Jay Jackson for the State Senate seat.

The Democrats lost municipal elections in 1975 and 1977, and with the defeat of Jackson in 1976, Harry Kleinman felt it was time to give up the reins of the Democratic Party. He resigned after holding the position for 17 years.

Kleinman helped build the party through voter registration, but it was up to the next generation to consistently win elections. West Hartford’s thoughtful electorate could not easily be bound to party, but by the 1970s it was no longer an embarrassment or liability to be a Democrat.

Conard’s Jimmy Johnson

Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, February 2014

When Jimmy Johnson was elected captain of Conard’s 1959-60 basketball team, he became the first African American to hold that coveted position. He lived in a town that, just 10 years earlier, had restrictive covenants limiting the sale of homes to anyone Black. And only 39 black families (265 people or .3%) moved to town between 1959 and 1973. His experiences trumped the discrimination felt by others as he played the role that W.E.B. DuBois touted of one of the Talented Tenth. DuBois believed that the top ten percent of Blacks could be successful and help lead the way toward full community integration.

Johnson moved to West Hartford on November 11, 1954, when it was one of the wealthiest towns in the United States. He, his parents, and his two sisters lived in the Duffy district. His father owned rental properties in Hartford. Johnson entered the 6th grade at Duffy School and at 5’6” entered 7th grade at Sedgwick Junior High. At Sedgwick he played soccer, basketball, baseball and handball. At that time, the four junior high schools had competitive sports teams and by 9th grade, Johnson starred on his 9th grade basketball team.

His family clearly was financially successful. When not in school, Johnson spent time fishing in the MDC reservoir off Farmington Avenue. He went horseback riding in the reservoir as well, with his friend Bill Butler from Sunset Farms. Jimmy owned a horse for a year, until his father realized the high cost of stable charges and feed. Once in high school, Jimmy could be seen driving his late model Ford convertible around town.

In the summer he played on the outdoor basketball courts at Duffy and at Morley. As a tenth grader, he played junior varsity but did not see much playing time. In the summer before his junior year, Johnson played 2 ½ hours a day, 5 days a week in his determination to play varsity his junior year. He claims he missed his sister Sandra’s Conard graduation because he was playing ball; Sandra was the first African American to graduate from Conard in 1959.

In the late 1950s, summer games at Morley School on Fern Street brought great players and crowds. On these public courts, Johnson bragged that he would dunk so ferociously that “sparks flew off the chain-link net.” Johnson played with the likes of High School All American Johnny Egan (Weaver, Providence College and the NBA) and Ray Moore. When Egan played, cars were parked on both sides of the street for a ¼ of a mile.

As a junior, Johnson made the varsity, being “welcomed… with open arms and kind words,” by star Ed Driscoll. Johnson was the inside player and Driscoll shot from outside. Johnson blocked at least three shots per game. In his junior year, Johnson was selected to the all-league team along with Driscoll.

According to the Hartford Courant in 1959, “Heading the list of letterwinners is stylish Jimmy Johnson, the popular captain-elect of the Chieftains. He was my most improved player from a year ago,” said Coach Larry Stewart. “After four games with the Jayvees, he was moved up to the varsity where he finished second to Driscoll in both scoring and rebounding. He should have a fine year this time around.” In his senior year, Johnson (6’2’) was joined by Senior Ed Driscoll, 6’3”, sophomore Billy Dunn, 6’5”, Senior Dick Gitlin, 6’4”, and Senior Al Grotheer (6’4). That year, the team made the state tournament with a record of 10 and 6.

On Friday nights, everyone from 13 to 20 years old, could be found in the Conard gym watching the team. Coach Stewart guided Johnson’s team to a 10-6 record in the ’59-’60 season. Driscoll and Johnson together scored about half of Conard’s points.

On January 9, 1959, Hall’s boys’ basketball team beat Conard 49-43 before 1,400 fans at Conard’s gym. Conard’s Junior Jimmy Johnson and his teammates lost to their crosstown rival at a game that Hall was slated to win. Administrators had to turn spectators away because the gym was full. On their second meeting, five weeks later, Hall trounced Conard 65-48. Johnson scored 11 points. The game was played before a “capacity crowd at the Conard gym. Many fans were turned away before the varsity attraction even began due to lack of seats.”

Conard won 7 of its last 10 games to nail down the 14th seed in the CIAC basketball tournament. Conard finished fourth in the nine team CCI League. In the tournament, they played Coach Howie Dickenman’s Norwich Acads. They played their first tournament game against Norwich in Storrs and lost in the final quarter with a come from behind win by the Acads, 53-38 with Johnson scoring 7, Billy Dunn with 10 and Driscoll with 13.

In August, 1961, at the end of his junior year, Billy Dunn, 17, a class behind Johnson was killed in a car crash in Northampton, Massachusetts. Johnson, who had just graduated from high school, was devastated by Dunn’s death. Dunn’s parents who lived on Brenway Drive near Bugbee School, wrote a note to Jimmy and his parents which Johnson kept. Dunn’s mother Ruth wrote, “Bill loved Jimmie, and we all admire him greatly. We shall be greatly interested in his future, and hope he will come here sometimes as he used to… P.S. If we can ever help Jimmie with a job — school problem — or anything — please come to us.”

Johnson’s story reminded me of journalist Isabel Wilkerson’s 2011 New York Times essay, “A First Time for Everything,” in which she scoured obituaries in newspapers across the country and found over 300 obits that had one phrase in common, “the first African American to. . .” Wilkerson, argued that “Each position was in its own way both a happy triumph and a sad reminder of what it took to get there.”

Does that tell the story of Jimmy Johnson, the first African American student at Conard to be named captain of a sports team? Even though in 1959, Johnson became captain of the boys basketball team, his legacy is not so well known. Johnson, now a successful trial lawyer in Michigan has kept in touch with many of his classmates and shared his pictures playing basketball with short snippets of his life in town. His experience here made a difference.

And yet, it wasn’t until 16 years later, according to Conard Coach Eddie Litos, that another Black athlete appeared in a yearbook photo of a varsity team. Mark Walker started his career as a three year varsity player in 1973-4 having earned a letter when he was a sophomore. He became the captain in 1976. Between 1960-1974, according to Litos, no other African Americans appeared.

According to Wilkerson, as she scanned the obituaries, she noted how mundane the “first” positions were, how modest the dreams had been. And yet, she argued, “they somehow bear witness to how far the country has come and how it got to where it is. They speak to how many individual decisions had to be made, how many chances taken, the anxiety and second-guessing at the precise instant that each of these people was hired for whatever humble or lofty position they sought.”

For Johnson, in retrospect, his skill and determination seemed to trump the anxiety he may have felt integrating the team, and helped the white teammates accept him. At the same time, his role must have caused some tension in a town, where in 1959, when the Shelton family moved onto North Main Street, they found a note in their mailbox which said “get out of here, you black bastards, while you still can.” Johnson’s legacy, of a young man who starred, had friends, and made an effort to keep in touch with classmates, shows another side of the integration of the town. Johnson’s memories focus on his successes and his relationships which kindled his success.

McCue, Sinatro and Reynolds

Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, June 2004

Bob McCue, Pat Sinatro, and Katie Reynolds participated in interviews with Conard’s Local History classes in mid-March for the Sesquicentennial. Public employees, business owners and elected officials like these three build bridges between different constituencies helping to develop a sense of a West Hartford community.

Bob McCue, retired Chief of Police was born in West Hartford during the Great Depression. He boasts three generations serving on the WHPD. His father Martin was Chief of Police and started his service in 1929. McCue’s son, Bob, Jr. is now Assistant Police Chief.

McCue joined the police force in 1952 at a time when West Hartford’s population was about 45,000 and retired in 1990 when the population stood at about 60,000. He showed interest in building bridges between the police and children and teens. In the late 1960s, there was animosity on the part of teens towards police officers that grew out of police actions towards civil rights and anti war protestors. In the 1960s McCue was one of the founders of the Police Explorers program which introduced young men and women to the career of the police officer. In 1969, McCue helped develop the “Officer Friendly” program to teach children about safety and to familiarize them with police officers. McCue and Detective Pete McDermott used these programs to encourage positive relationships between the WHPD and local teens.

McCue also felt it was important within his department to teach his officers the history of the department. He wrote a column called “Roots” in the police newsletter which described the changes in the WHPD. Before the department was unionized in 1964, officers bought their own uniforms and even their badges and couldn’t get paid for overtime work. McCue’s family tie through his father, gave him the impetus to pass the stories along to members of the department to help build pride in their department and in their work.

McCue remembered a closer relationship between the police and neighbors in the 1950s when he first joined the force. When the town had more of a small town feeling, residents left their house keys at the police station when they went on vacation, and during each shift, an officer checked their house. As the population grew in the 1960s, this practice had to be discontinued. Bike patrols, established in the last ten years, are an attempt by the police force to redevelop these personal relationships in neighborhoods.

When Katie Reynolds ran as a Democrat for Town Council in 1971, she was the first woman of that party to be elected. In her run for re-election in 1973, she won re-election and she was also the top vote getter and became the first of four female mayors over the next 25 years. In the 1973 election, Republicans led by Ellsworth Grant lost the majority they had held for 20 of the previous 26 years. In that election, the top four vote getters were women.

Reynolds’ election appealed directly to women and she dubbed her run, “the housewife’s campaign.” Reynolds rode the new wave of feminism which came out of the 1960s with the formation of the National Organization of Women in 1966 and the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment by Congress in 1972 both of which encouraged women to get involved in public life. And yet, she couched her election strategy on women being different; women, she argued, would be less partisan than men and would be more willing to make decisions for the good of the town rather than the good of the party. This same argument was used by many of the woman suffragists at the turn of the 20th century.

And, politics in the 1960s and 1970s in West Hartford were wracked by partisanship as politicians, business owners and neighbors argued over developments in Elmwood, at Corbins Corner, Bishops Corner and Westfarms Mall. The mall was a $40 million development project that took a reversal of a Town Council vote in 1966 and a Supreme Court decision in 1970 to go forward. Reynolds served on the council during its creation and the mall opened when she was mayor.

Reynolds has not dropped out of public life since leaving the council almost 30 years ago. She has been part of the center’s retail success with her store, Comina.

Pat Sinatro owns a real estate and insurance company in the center. His company, founded in 1936 by his father, owns many of the buildings in the center on LaSalle Road and Farmington Avenue. After Westfarms Mall opened in 1974, center stores lost business. Sinatro was instrumental in revitalizing the center in the 1980s when he lured popular stores and restaurants into town and developed a climate which drew people there. He has organized “Dancing Under the Stars” for the past few years to bring people of all ages into the center.

Sinatro believes both the educational and recreational facilities in town are top notch. The excellent educational system, including public, private and parochial schools, has a great reputation with area colleges. Sinatro thinks the town is particularly unique because of its recreational complex at Buena Vista which includes skating, tennis, golf and swimming, all within walking distance. At any time of day or year, people of all ages take advantage of these public facilities.

West Hartford has a character all its own. The sense of community here is built around a pride in the town and a desire to make the town a great place in which to live. Elections here are always contested. Parents believe the elementary school their children go to is the best in town. Shopping opportunities abound. Recreational facilities and sports leagues provide opportunities for athletes of all ages. But it is town leaders like Sinatro, McCue, and Reynolds whose ideas and actions build the sense of community which helps make the town exceptional.

Thank you to Local History students Casey O’Brien, D.J. Ehnot, Parth Thaker, Michael Abourizk, Tim Gerundo, and Andrew Reynolds for completing the interviews and analysis of these three town leaders. Thanks also to Mims Butterworth, Ellsworth Grant and Dick Woodworth for background information in their Sesquicentennial book Celebrate West Hartford.

What Kind of Town Are We?

Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, May 2004

“West Hartford has style,” says Sue Wilson.

Nan Glass said we have “stability and commitment” among our government officials.

Flo Woodiel said she feels lucky to be able to express her left of mainstream political ideals without retribution.

Dick Woodworth believes that “it is the quality of the people that, as much as anything, contributes to the rightly ballyhooed quality of life in West Hartford.”

Sue Wilson, a former Town Councilor, Nan Glass, former Mayor and Town Clerk, Flo Woodiel, community activist and Dick Woodworth, former publisher of the West Hartford News and co-chair of the Sesquicentennial Celebration, and others all participated in interviews with Conard’s Local History classes in mid-March for the Sesquicentennial. The participants included town leaders in politics, business, social organizations and religion. They readily gave of their time to share what it meant to be involved in community leadership roles through the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

Ilze Krisst remembered when she moved to West Hartford in the early 1970s, joining the League of Women Voters. Many women did not work outside the home, but felt a strong sense of civic responsibility. Under her direction, the League developed its first Voter’s Guide for local elections. Members addressed issues, went home and researched them and came back to twice monthly meetings and debated them. At these lively intellectual discussions, Krisst found a comfortable and politically active peer group. Krisst remembered that many of the League women had young children and for each meeting, one of the members agreed to forego the meeting and babysit for all the children. Thirty years later, Krisst played a fundamental role in the founding of the Park Road Playhouse.

Sue Wilson served on the Town Council for two terms, from 1979 to 1983. Wilson entered town politics with the first group of women riding the wave of the feminist movement. In her second election, the Democrats gained a majority and Wilson felt she could do more. West Hartford’s population had peaked in the early 1970s and a town which at one point had 23 public schools and 14,000 students had severely declining enrollment. In the mid-1970s the Whitman, Beach Park and Elmwood Elementary Schools were closed. In 1979 both Plant and Talcott Junior Highs closed. This decline led to tensions among sections of town, as well as between the Board of Education and the Town Council.

In the early 1980s, the Board of Education voted to close the Smith School, in the southeast section of town. For the only time that Wilson remembered, the Town Council overruled the Board of Education to keep Smith School open. They felt it was necessary to retain the viability of the neighborhoods which surrounded the school. Wilson was particularly interested in supporting services for low and moderate income families. She went on to support the Interfaith Housing Coalition building affordable housing. Wilson took on the issue of part-time workers at the public library. She worked to establish a standard wage and benefits for these women who made the library go. She also became the first woman president of the Unitarian Universalist Church on Fern Street from 1985 to 1989.

Pastor Carl Anton of the Bethany Lutheran Church came to town in the 1960s as the pastor and has stayed. The church opened in 1944 as a German Lutheran Church. The Lutheran Church in Hartford on Capitol Avenue had Swedish roots. When the church was being built during World War II, some people in town believed that the church was an arm of the German bund. Swastikas appeared in town, even though there was absolutely no connection to the Nazis. Because of this, there was never a church service held in German at his church.

When Rabbi Harold Silver moved to town in 1968, he became only the second rabbi at Beth Israel, following in the footsteps of Abraham Feldman who had been rabbi since the synagogue moved to West Hartford in 1936. Rabbi Feldman established his role as a political activist through his support of the controversial busing program, Project Concern in 1966 and in his role on the Library Board. Rabbi Silver continued in the role of community activist as he supported social issues such as the Interfaith Housing Coalition’s decision to build scattered site housing for low income and disabled people. Of the 30,000 Jews who live in the Hartford area, a large percentage lives in West Hartford. Silver continues to minister to them in his role as Rabbi Emeritus.

Angelo Faenza continues to leave his mark on the town through his businesses and through community service. Faenza moved to town from Hartford when he bought the Prospect Café in the 1970s. Soon a successful restaurant, in the 1990s, he opened Faenza’s on Main at Rockledge. But his restaurants were only part of his commitment to the town. In 1986, he helped to start “Celebrate! West Hartford,” the annual spring festival held in the town’s center. In 1986, the Center was not the vibrant and active place it is today. The town population had declined since the early 1970s, schools were closed down and Westfarms Mall, which opened in 1974, took away much of the business. Faenza’s leadership in this community celebration helped to spur the resurgence of the center.

John Green, President and CEO of Lux, Bond, and Green, is an example of a local businessman who helps make West Hartford Center unique. Green’s great grandfather, Morris Green founded the company in 1898 in Hartford. John’s grandfather Irving became its president in 1933 and during his tenure, the West Hartford store opened in 1957 on LaSalle Road. John’s father Robert took the presidency in 1973 and in 1987, the store’s headquarters moved from Hartford to West Hartford.In 1992, at age 36, John assumed the presidency of the company. Presently there are seven stores, six in Connecticut and one in Boston. Unlike other jewelry stores, Lux, Bond & Green sales personnel are not paid commission. The store prides itself on the trust they build with their customers. Green has also given back to the community through the golf tournament his company sponsors each year. In the last 14 years, the tournament has raised over $200,000 for area charities.

Many of the student interviewers wondered why these community leaders volunteered so much time through their political work and community service. It is these residents that help define what makes us such a special town. Their dedication not just to their work, but also their dedication to the town helps to define the sense of care and concern that builds a community to which people are proud to belong.

Thank you to students Julie Monahan, Anna Flores, Jennifer Lin, Nick Macca, Jesse Wrubel, Meredith Poltorak, Kristen Mangiafico, Ryan Kelly, Lauren Ramezanna, Joe Ryan and Jessica Feliciano for their help in recording and interpreting these interviews. Stay tuned next month for more interviews. Come to the Sesquicentennial’s Public History Day where you can hear what each of the interviewees believes make West Hartford unique.

About this book

Copyright © 2018 by Tracey M. Wilson. Life in West Hartford is freely available online at http://LifeInWestHartford.org and distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Readers may share the work for non-commercial use, by including a source credit to the author.

Creative Commons License

Print copies of this book are available for sale from the publisher, the Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society, in West Hartford, Connecticut. Proceeds of sales benefit the Society http://noahwebsterhouse.org.