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Friday, August 19, 2011

9/11: Ten Years Later

9/11: Ten Years Later
Recollections of a responder and victim’s sister 
By Mike Lauterborn
(for Fairfield Magazine, Sept/Oct. issue)

Fairfield, CT – On the eleventh day of the month ten Septembers ago, America’s innocence was taken when hijacked jetliners were deliberately crashed into the World Trade Towers. Nearly 3,000 people were killed in the attack, the effect of which rippled to communities far and wide. Fairfield, just 60 miles from Ground Zero, was among these areas. On this somber anniversary, a responder and victim’s family member, both Fairfielders, shared their memories of the events that unraveled that chaotic day.

Paper, Steel and Dust

On the morning of the attack, Fairfield Asst. Fire Chief Doug Chavenello, then a lieutenant, was off duty and fishing for blues on his boat at Black Rock Harbor. A report over his marine radio indicated a serious event in New York. He reported to the firehouse and immediately started making plans to get equipment to Ground Zero.

At midday, he started down with four vehicles, steered first to a training academy in Westchester to await further instruction. While they were moved to a more forward staging area, they were not called into service and returned to Fairfield.

The following day, Chavenello handpicked 12 men and, with full gear, they took a train, then bus, to the site. “It was dusk and looked like a nuclear holocaust, with everything covered in gray ash,” he said. “There were hundreds of crushed, burned out and still-burning emergency vehicles.”

His team helped clear pathways then combed the “pile” to search for survivors. “We found a lot of body parts and knew some may have been fallen comrades. The site was very unstable. It was paper, steel and dust – everything else was gone.”

“A Dagger in My Heart”

Kathryn Lewis Hebert, a City of Norwalk employee, was home with her adopted daughter on 9/11. Her husband, Jay, a Norwalk firefighter called and asked, “Where’s your brother?” referring to Adam Lewis, a Fairfield resident and 36-year-old married father of four children ages 1 to 8. Kathryn expected he was working, as a trader for investment banking company Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, in Two World Trade Center. “You have to turn on the TV, do it now,” Jay said.

“It was like I was in slo-mo,” Kathryn said. “I turned it on just as, boom, the second tower was hit. Adam was on the 89th floor – I just knew he was dead. I couldn’t imagine anyone surviving.”

Still, as the search for survivors unfolded over the next few days, Kathryn and her family held out hope that maybe he was still alive, perhaps walking in a daze.

“Ultimately, we admitted the unthinkable and, for closure, conducted a memorial service at Westport Country Playhouse,” she said. “Over 1,000 people attended. It was quite amazing.”

The emptiness lingers. “It was a dagger in my heart,” she said. “He had an enormous amount of energy and lots of friends. He was so full of light and happiness.”

Colonial Era Clothing

Colonial Era Clothing
(Fairfield Mag - We’ve Got Answers column – Sept Oct 2011)
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Q: Did Fairfield families make their own clothing in Colonial times?

Though all Fairfield landowners in the 1600s and 1700s were growing flax, which was commonly refined on a spinning wheel to produce linen, few Fairfield families were making their own clothing. Flax was primarily grown simply to produce the seed, which was then exported to Ireland, or used to make linseed oil.

A key reason is that few average Fairfield families had the room in their homes to accommodate a big loom, so they bartered for their clothing. And while some wealthier women made their clothing, the linen end-product was not very fine. Some wool fabrics were made in Fairfield as well, though a huge amount was imported from England, as it was better quality. Textiles came in through seaports in Boston and New York and were brought to Fairfield by merchants.

The expense of wool (and silk) was so great at the time that it was advisable to have someone knowledgeable about clothing construction do at least the cutting out of the material. Men’s greatcoats were meant to last a very long time, so their manufacture was an investment. Likewise, skilled dressmakers were often employed to make garments if expensive fabric was involved. Silk gowns would be updated many times over the years as fashions changed.

Three Cheers for Bravo Exhibit

Three Cheers for Bravo Exhibit
(Fairfield Mag - We’ve Got Answers column – Sept Oct 2011)
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2011. All Rights Reserved.
REVISED 7/28/11

Q: Where can I see theatrical costumes and other local theater history?

On September 25, the Fairfield Museum and History Center (FMHC) debuts “Bravo”, an exhibit that will run through March 18, 2012, celebrating regional theater in Fairfield County. It will focus on three regional showplaces – Westport Country Playhouse, White Barn Theatre and the American Shakespeare Festival of Stratford – and include such memorabilia as costumes, props, scripts, original set designs, scale models, photographs, show programs, posters, film clips and recordings.

These three institutions hold a special place in the history of American theater as spaces where playwrights, actors and designers have been able to experiment and refine their work before presenting it on Broadway.

The Playhouse was opened in 1931 by producer Lawrence Langner as a summer stock theater, which then became a year-round host for incredible talent and performances.

Westport-based White Barn, founded by producer Lucille Lortel, staged the premiere of 134 American plays and 50 American premieres of international works. Lortel will be spotlighted in the Museum’s exhibit, with regard to her roles as glamorous hostess, caring benefactor, inspired entrepreneur, creative patron and hard-working producer. Today, Lortel’s legacy continues through the Lucille Lortel White Barn Center and White Barn Theatre Program at Westport Country Playhouse.

The Shakespeare Fest, founded in 1955, also by Langner, was among the first equity theaters in the U.S. dedicated to the English playwright’s work and was active until 1982.

In addition to the exhibit, the Fairfield Museum is developing a five-month-long series of collaborative programs that explore and celebrate the regional history and impact of the performing arts. The project’s chief goal is to involve visitors in the experience of live theater and inspire the artists and audiences of tomorrow. In highlighting the regional rich theatrical heritage, FMHC is partnering with more than 30 other organizations to encourage visitors to learn about the stories of regional theater history and its impact on local communities, strengthen residents’ civic pride, build appreciation for the arts and connect regional theaters to the broader history of America theater.

A gala reception opens the exhibit Saturday, Sept. 24.

Families ‘Beat the Heat’ on Pequot Library’s Great Lawn

Families ‘Beat the Heat’ 
on Pequot Library’s Great Lawn:
Second annual gathering 
focused around water games
By Mike Lauterborn
(posted to 8/19)
© 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Southport, CT – It couldn’t have been a more ideal day for a program with the title “Beat the Heat”. Temps were in the high 70s, the sun was bright and the skies clear.

Held on the Great Lawn at Southport’s Pequot Library, the water games-focused, hour-long activity late afternoon Thursday attracted a dozen or more local families craving some good old-fashioned fun.

“This is the second consecutive year we’re doing this,” said Susan Ei, Pequot Library’s Children’s Librarian, the coordinator behind the event. “We’ve had great weather both times. It’s really a fun, simple summer distraction, with chalk, water, sun, friends, Twister, relay, popsicles. The feeling it evokes is relax, enjoy.”

Watching his daughters dash through a sprinkler, Southporter Jim Santa Barbara said, “I read about this online, it sounded fun and I got out of work early to be able to do. I love the library. It’s a fun family place, and so inviting.”

Looking on as her five-year-old son Jack bent himself into a pretzel while playing Twister, Westporter Julie Blitzer commented, “We came for the great games and to see our friends. This is a great afternoon, with lots to do. Classic summer fun for kids.”

As her daughter Maddie enjoyed a popsicle fetched from a large ice-filled cooler, Jennifer Prather, visiting for a month from New York City, shared, “We were here for the Fourth of July party, and now this, marking this summer. This is a great library in a seemingly wonderful community. I love that my city kids can have some outdoor summer fun here.”

“Isten Hozott!” Say Calvin United Church Parishioners at Annual Picnic

“Isten Hozott!” Say Calvin United Church Parishioners at Annual Picnic
By Mike Lauterborn
(for Fairfield Citizen)

Fairfield, CT – Near to the ceiling on a wall space above a stage in Calvin United Church of Christ’s Calvin Hall, there’s an expression painted that sums up the open-armed feeling exhibited here: “Isten Hozott”, Hungarian for “Welcome.” That spirit is seen in the friendly faces and warm handshakes that greet you, clap on the back from the head clergyman, wonderful food smells that tickle your senses and folksy music that recalls an Old Country atmosphere.

These elements were part of the reception attendees of the Church’s Annual Picnic encountered midday Sunday. According to Bishop Bela Poznan, the institution’s leader, the event has been held for the past 17 consecutive years. “For 15 years, we had sunny weather,” he said, and the event was held outside under sun tents. “The last two years, we have had rainy weather, but people are still faithful and come to enjoy the fresh food.”

There was no lack of the aforementioned, which covered the tops of several long tables at the head of the room. In pots, trays, bowls, plates and warming dishes was gulyas (goulash), chicken paprikas, stuffed chicken legs, roast pork dinner, kolbasz (sausage), stuffed cabbage, stuffed peppers and a field of pastries.

Standing behind the tables were several volunteers, spooning these wonderful selections onto large paper plates and handing them to patrons, who were mostly Hungarian, and Roman Catholic, the church’s discipline.

“My maiden name is Horvath,” said one volunteer, black-haired, pleasant-faced Gabriella Kari. “I was born in Kisgyar, Hungary, and came to the U.S. in 2000. I came by myself to visit a Hungarian friend. She ended up going back to Hungary, while I stayed. I married, but divorced five years ago. I’ve gotten used to life here, but I still like to take part in Old Country traditions.”

Manning the dessert table was the Bishop’s wife, Julianna Poznan, along with Rita Boldogh.  “This is the biggest event of the year besides the Beef Goulash Dinner in January,” Julianna said. “One-hundred percent of the funds raised here go to our mission work and to support the church.”

The Bishop noted that the parish was founded in 1925 and has always been Hungarian based. Currently, there are 120 parishioners. “Membership has dropped over the years as older parishioners die,” said Bishop Poznan. “The Hungarian church is experiencing a real estate crisis in Fairfield. It’s hard for people of lower and mid-income to get established here. People are having to come from great distances to enjoy services.”

Looking out across the sea of faces gathered in the hall, one could see they were mostly senior citizens – the aging population of which Poznan spoke. Their collective memories held many stories, but perhaps no more so than Steve Olajos. He was one of some 30,000 Hungarian Freedom Fighters who, in 1956, revolted against Russian occupation of their country imposed by Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev. Olajos was reluctant to dredge up details, so he instead shared his experience in the United States.

“I came here in 1973,” he said, “and established a precision metal fabricating business in New Haven. It’s a blessing to be an American citizen, to be free with ideas, enhance your wisdom, pursue your dreams. I’m thankful to God for all my achievements and success.”

Sitting within earshot of Olajos, Veronica Litrop, who is Slovenian but was raised in a Hungarian community in the west end of Bridgeport known as Hunk Town, shared her own thoughts about declining church membership. “In the late 50s, the exodus began, with people moving from Bridgeport to Fairfield, and Easton. Young Hungarians are mixed marrying and not following religious traditions. When you pick and choose what you want in a religion, it becomes diluted.”

Certainly, challenges to the enclave were several going forward but, for now, the uppermost thought was “Jo Etvagyat” – a Hungarian’s way of saying “Bon Appetit” or “enjoy your meal.”

View Finder: Sand Jammin’

View Finder: Sand Jammin’
Last beach dance and 
film for the season
By Mike Lauterborn
(posted to 8/18)
© 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Fairfield, CT – They were kicking up their heels, racing across the sand, taking a late day dip or just setting themselves up with a pizza – all part of the fun of the last Sand Jam and Movie Under the Stars of the season, presented by Fairfield’s Parks & Recreation Department.

A highly anticipated tradition here in town, Thursday, August 11th’s Jam attracted several hundred families to Jennings Beach, where DJ Marvin and an oversized inflatable movie screen were the most noticeable features adjacent to the cinder block pavilion. As with all previous Jams, the event was supported by a lone sponsor – in this case, Sabita Kanhai of Sabita Holistic Center, located in Southport. The comely Indian woman, dressed in a lime green tank top, white shorts and trainers, had set up a massage chair at the foremost part of the cement deck and used her firm hands yet gentle demeanor to provide five-minute massages to any takers.

Of course, if you were a kid age anywhere from two to 12, most likely you had come to the event not for an adjustment but to expend a little energy bopping to the beats electronics wizard and tune master Marvin was laying down.

Just maybe, too – and this applied to the above-12 set – you were in it for “Toy Story 3”, the feature film attraction. Flickering to life at sunset, the cinematic treat delighted the masses, who snuggled under woolen blankets and donned sweatshirts to counteract a chill that settled on the beachfront – a sign that fall was not far behind and that school books would soon replace snack trays in the hands of junior event attendees.

Family Fun Day Rewards Achievements, Helps Constituents Bond

Family Fun Day Rewards Achievements, Helps Constituents Bond
Giant Steps School supports autistic individuals ages 3 to 21
By Mike Lauterborn
(posted to
© 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Fairfield, CT – They laughed and smiled, gobbled down grilled food and had some good old-fashioned family fun. It was a little reward for putting in some long hours and keeping their noses in their books while other children and young adults lapped up lazy summer days.

Thursday, August 11 marked Giant Steps School’s Family Fun Day, a celebration of the academic and social progress and achievements of its students ages 3 to 21, who have autism spectrum disorder and/or other neurological disorders. The special education private institution helps these individuals with therapy sessions pertaining to speech, physiology, occupational pursuits and music. Other programs help with ADL (activities of daily living and self-help), vocational play and adaptive physical education.

Features of the event, which ran from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., included a huge inflatable water slide, water play (pools, pouring stations, toy boats), an indoor area set up with a Wii video game system and DVD projector, and a full grilling station donated by the Fairfield Fire Department. The grill dispensed hamburgers and hot dogs throughout the day, while cold drinks were served up from several ice-filled coolers. School tuition monies covered the cost of the event.

“This is the first year we are doing this,” said Lindajeanne Schwartz, the Head of the School and Program Administrator, who came on board in April at the facility, which is situated on Barberry Road in Southport. “We had one earlier, similar day in June signaling the end of the traditional school year. Based on student response to that Fun Day, we decided to schedule another summer-based one. It’s really an opportunity for students to bond in a social setting, for families to interact with their children, to strengthen the bond between students and teachers and to have some good old-fashioned fun. The kids and staff love this!”

Tom Maloney, the school’s registered nurse, who was on hand helping out with activities, echoed Schwartz’s remarks. “This is a great celebration of a wonderful summer that concluded our seasonal programming,” he said. “The kids had fun learning and absorbed a lot. Family Fun Day is an appropriate name given the family involvement.”

Westporter Christine Cutie, whose daughter Jocelyn is in the program, offered a parent perspective on the school. “These kids work really hard most of the time,” she said. “It’s nice for them to get entertainment and outdoor activities. It’s a good reward for them and fun for us all.”

Another parent, Teresa Trucks, of Guilford, whose son Nuno is a student, said, “This is definitely a fun day, and a good way to meet other parents in similar circumstances. I feel blessed to have our son – and Giant Steps. It’s a special challenge. The school has been a lifesaver for us.”

Offering a teacher’s view on the event, Jenna Beik, a speech therapist, shared, “This day is good for socializing between students themselves and between teachers and students. Our program is all-year long. Granted, we have vacations, but our kids are in school longer than public school children.”

With regard to Giant Steps’ programming, Beik explained, “The most challenging cases we have are students who are non-verbal. As communication facilitators, we rely on augmentation technologies to help our students express themselves. For instance, a lot of our kids have access to a Proloquo-2-Go application, which is augmentation communication software for the iPad that provides students with a visual means of expressing their wants or needs. The system renders a voice output, which serves as the child’s personal voice. Everything is individualized.”

Beik’s passion for the school, its programming and the students was very evident. “This is a program that really deserves to be showcased,” she said. “There are some amazing things happening here.”