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Thursday, December 22, 2011

Genealogist Rod MacKenzie Remembered at Fairfield Museum

Genealogist Rod MacKenzie Remembered at Fairfield Museum
By Mike Lauterborn
(for Fairfield Citizen News)

Fairfield, CT – The weather forecast for the day was overcast and rainy, but Walt Matis’ prediction about the tribute service for genealogist Rod MacKenzie couldn’t have been clearer. “At the end of the day, I think what you’re going to see is the mark of a man,” said Matis, at the start of the ceremony.

A program coordinator and colleague of MacKenzie’s at the Fairfield Museum and History Center, Matis and over 100 other co-workers, friends and family gathered in the lobby area of the 370 Beach Road facility late Wednesday morning to remember the lifelong Fairfielder. The tribute followed an 11:00 a.m. graveside service, handled by the Shaughnessey Banks Funeral Home, at Oak Lawn Cemetery.

MacKenzie, age 75, died on Friday, December 9, after a long battle with cancer. He was a genealogist and researcher at the Fairfield Museum and History Center, as well as Pequot Library, for over thirty years.

After signing a family guest book at the reception desk and partaking in a catered lunch, tribute attendees recalled the beloved man.

Pequot Children’s Librarian Susan Ei said, “It’s such a big loss. He was such a gentleman, and pleasure to be around. He went out of his way to say hello to every staff member every morning. He was also the doorway and navigator of our genealogical collection. He wasn’t someone who was ready to check out at all, and was very private about his sickness.”

Ei’s associate, Robin Valovich, said, “He personified courage, nothing got him down. He had a very positive attitude and will be sorely missed.”

Pequot Library’s Executive Director Dan Snydacker agreed with Valovich. “He had a wonderful positive presence and a kind word for everybody. I’ll miss him dearly. The books and collection will miss him and are calling to him,” he said.

Historian Bill Lee shared a number of connections with MacKenzie. “When I was director of the Historic Civic Center, Rod’s mom was on my commission,” he said. “I went to school with his mother’s sister and knew his grandfather, Judge Bent, too. One of his family married my cousin Peggy Lee. The last time I saw Rod was four weeks ago. I brought him a photo of his mom and me taken in the Sun Tavern. We spent an hour and a half talking, a wonderful last connection. He was very dedicated to the Fairfield Historical Society.”

Museum Executive Director Michael Jehle, standing atop a chair, said, “Rod in many ways was the spirit of the museum, and was passionate about what he did. He loved people coming here and connecting them with their stories. Over all those years, he was able to connect so many. He had a wonderful gift and is irreplaceable. Museums and libraries are repositories of books, but people bring them to life. Rod was a portal to our past in so many ways.”

MacKenzie’s sister Laura remembered other sides of the man. “As a kid, he would take his wagon around and sell seeds,” she smiled. “When he was in the hospital and given a walker, he said jokingly, ‘I hope I don’t get a speeding ticket with this thing.’ At the end, he said the hardest part of all was going to be telling Mike (Jehle) that he couldn’t work anymore.”

Perhaps the most touching words came from Jennifer Bebon Grascher, MacKenzie’s next door neighbor on Unquowa Road for 19 years. “Rod was our neighborhood anchor, our ‘steady Eddie’,” she said. “He never missed my children’s birthdays, and always wanted to know how we were doing. He may have been a keeper of history, but he embraced the future.”

Quoting a line from a Broadway show, Grascher added, “Because we knew you, we have been changed for the better.”

Rod’s wish was for donations to be made to the Fairfield Museum and History Center or to the Pequot Library.

Annual Christmas Count Is For the Birds

Annual Christmas Count Is For the Birds
By Mike Lauterborn
(for Westport News)

Westport, CT – For 65 years, bird enthusiasts have been reporting to the Westport area in December to participate in an annual Christmas bird count. The concept of counting birds dates back even further – 112 years to be exact – when the National Audubon Society first launched the effort.

Sunday was no different, when volunteer bird watchers at all levels of experience spent all or part of the day going out into the field in various locations within a 15-mile wide “count circle”. The circle was centered at Westport’s Twin Bridges on Route 57 and included “hot” bird watching locales in Westport, Norwalk and Fairfield. Others conducted backyard feeder counts in the same areas.

The object of participants is to identify and count each species of bird seen and record how many of each type are seen in a day. All the data from the Westport count, as well as 16 other counts in Connecticut, is provided to the NAS.

Connecticut is not the only state that counts. Over 1,700 other counts are conducted simultaneously nationwide and throughout the Americas and results are published in a document titled “American Birds.” The NAS count is the longest running annual census of bird populations in the country, thanks to some 44,000 volunteer birdwatchers.

Frank Mantlik, a Stratford resident who works as a mailman in the Compo Beach area, has been participating in the CBC since 1977, close to 40 years. In fact, he was the Westport CBC compiler and captain from 1979 to around 1994. The area captain is now Mardi Dickinson.

Since the participants are all volunteers, the names and faces of counters continually change over the years, said Mantlik. The number of participants has also gone down over time due to people getting busy at Christmastime, he said.

Property development has been an issue for local bird populations, Mantlik explained. “Where there were nice thickets, there are now manicured lawns. Still, there are local parks and beaches for birds to explore,” he said.

And there’s usually an amazing sighting. “This morning, I found a yellow-breasted chat, considered a warbler species,” Mantlik said. “It’s unusual any time of year. I saw this one at Taylor Farm Park in Norwalk. I also saw a double-crested cormorant, which is unusual in the winter months. They are more common in summer, when they breed on our offshore islands.”

The day started early for Mantlik, at 7 a.m. He and others gathered at Veterans Park in East Norwalk, before covering Calf Pasture Beach, Taylor Farm Park, Canfield Island, the banks of Norwalk River and Westport’s Saugatuck River shores. Because the day was windy and temperatures were only in the 20s, Mantlik put on about five layers, including two sweaters. As to equipment, he carries binoculars, a spotting scope for long-distance viewing, and a digital camera in case of a rare sighting.

“I look forward to this,” he said, “and put off holiday errands to do it. It often becomes a competition to see who found the rarest bird. You try to get accurate totals, and have to be quick.”

Saugatuck Parishioners Carol Sing as Fire Recovery Continues

Saugatuck Parishioners Carol Sing as Fire Recovery Continues
By Mike Lauterborn
(for Westport News)

Westport, CT – It would take more than a bad fire to mute the Christmas spirit of Saugatuck Congregational Church parishioners who gathered on the property’s Great Lawn to carol sing midday Sunday. As they recited favorite holiday songs, yellow police caution tape, tied from one post to another behind them, fluttered in the breeze, a very real reminder of the November 20 tragedy.

That evening, a fast-moving fire began at the rear of the church, creating heavy flames and smoke as it moved through administrative offices, meeting rooms and the nursery school. Thankfully, and due to the heroic efforts of firefighters from Westport and five other communities, the fire spared the 179-year-old main sanctuary.

Still, the event has put church activities as usual in flux and insurance investigators continue to inspect and assess the damage at the 245 Post Road East property, according to Doug Johnston, Chairman of the Board of Deacons.

“Onwards and upwards,” Johnston sighed, adding that the carol sing was organized by the Music Ministry team as a “chance to celebrate the Advent and Christmas season, and bring joy and happiness back into an otherwise challenging situation.”

Church members began the morning at Temple Israel, where they were invited to hold their normal 10 a.m. service and Fellowship Hour. Then, at noon, they shuttled to the church and, afterwards, planned to visit a number of other members who are shut-ins.

Johnston said the church hadn’t conducted a lawn carol in a number of years, so it was particularly significant to be holding one this year. “People have been rallying due to a huge emotional boost shared with and shown to the congregation by both local and far-reaching communities,” he said. “We’re not daunted by what we’re facing and will probably be stronger for it. It’s all going to work out, and we’ve been blessed by a beautiful day.”

The fire event has actually served to boost attendance at services remarked choir member Betsy Boak. “It’s at a record high level as people draw together in the spirit of restoration and renewal,” she said. “Our church leaders – clergy, lay leaders and choir director – are inspiring the spirit of Christmas and we are all working together to restore the church building. The congregation itself is thriving.”

Boak added that even though the church is in great need itself, members are reaching out to fulfill the community’s needs through an angel gift drive, coat drive and financial support to assist people in need.

“Our annual Christmas dinner – The Saugatuck Christmas Feast – will also take place as it has every year,” she said, though the site will be the Christ & Holy Trinity church at 75 Church Lane, on December 25. “Everyone is invited.”

Five Guys Burgers & Fries Opens in Fairfield

Five Guys Burgers & Fries 
Opens in Fairfield
By Mike Lauterborn
(for Fairfield Citizen News)

Fairfield, CT – Five Guys. Four partners. One great destination for juicy burgers and fresh French fries. Priceless.

On Friday, Five Guys Burgers & Fries, with 975 franchise locations across the United States, opened at 340 Grasmere Avenue, in the Whole Foods Market shopping complex, Fairfield. Three of the four owners – Mariann Marona, Dana Smith and Nick Marona – were on hand to welcome visitors, who dropped into the store at midday for lunch.

The Fairfield eatery is the fifth location that the quartet owns. The others are in Westport, Norwalk, Brookfield and Newtown. A sixth will open in Stamford on April 1. Newtown was the first in the group to open, in 2006. The very first Five Guys was started in Springfield, VA, in 1986, by the five sons of Jerry and Janie Murrell, the chain’s franchisors.

Nick Marona said the formula for success is simple. “We’re built around two core products: burgers and fries,” he stated, “but also that everything is 100% fresh, prepared daily. We have no freezers or microwave ovens.”

Five Guys offers hot dogs and veggie sandwiches as well, and the 15 available toppings are all free, as are soda refills. And while you wait on your order, you can enjoy complimentary roasted salted peanuts.

Ron Pine, a Fairfield resident who works security at Fairfield Ludlowe High School, was glad to have a Five Guys so close to work. “We have a limited lunch hour, so it’s great there’s a Fairfield location now,” he said. “Of course, you can always take lunch to go.”

Mike Mennillo, who works at Stone Ridge condos just down the street, was also glad about the new eatery. “This is really convenient and I like the little brown bag they give you with everything in it,” he said. “You can just split it right open on your table.”

Fairfielder Kurt Sanwald crowed, “It’s one of the best burgers I’ve ever had. Easy, simple, great choices of toppings. And the free peanuts are a bonus.”

As to ambiance, the 2,350-square-foot space is dressed in a red-and-white checkerboard pattern, with stainless steel appliances and cabinetry, and signage everywhere noting countrywide praise and awards the chain has received. Locally, the latter includes “Best of the Gold Coast” 2010 and 2011 from Moffly Media, “Best of Fairfield County” 2010 and 2011 from Fairfield County Weekly and “Readers’ Choice” from Danbury News Times. Zagat has also bestowed “#1 Burger in the Country” honors on the chain. 

Five Guys, 340 Grasmere Avenue, Fairfield. Phone: 203-254-3238. Open 7 days a week, 11a.m. to 10p.m. Orders can be placed online at

Police Holiday Toy Drive Draws Generous Westporters

Police Holiday Toy Drive Draws Generous Westporters
By Mike Lauterborn
(for Westport News)

Westport, CT – Rudolph was looking like a hit-and-run victim Saturday morning as Westport police officers stood curbside with him in front of Border Grill at 1560 Post Road East. It was the department’s annual holiday toy drive and the combination of a cross wind and faulty blower left the inflatable venison sitting down on the job.

No matter, though, as Westporters know the drill and exactly where to pull up to hand off their donations to the cause.

The drive began December 10 and will run through Sunday, December 17, with officers volunteering onsite in two-hour shifts 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. both Saturday and Sunday, ready to collect new unwrapped toys for children age 12 and under, as well as cash donations.

“This year was a little slow in the start but has picked up,” said Officer Michael Gudziki. “A lady this morning said she got a good bonus and gave us $40.” Cash donations are used to purchase additional toys.

Officer Albert Nowinski added, “We are also accepting toy drop-offs at police headquarters, 50 Jesup Road, during the drive. One gentleman last week dropped off a carload of Toys ‘R Us toys.”

Some toys go to Norwalk Community Center for distribution to needy families. Others go to the Town of Westport’s Human Services and Housing Department. The balance is loaded into a box truck provided by A&J’s Farm Stand and taken to St. Charles Church in Bridgeport. The haul includes toys collected at certain area stores, like Crate & Barrel and Athletic Shoe Factory, that are offering shoppers a purchase discount in return.

Westporter Jilda Manikas, who stopped to donate games, said she supports the effort every year. “This is awesome and convenient and nice for kids,” she said. “It’s almost a selfish act as it makes us feel so good.”

Historical Society Rings in the Holidays with Family Concert

Historical Society Rings in the Holidays with Family Concert
By Mike Lauterborn
(for Westport News)

Westport, CT – Sounding a bit like folk rock trio Peter, Paul & Mary, Mary Ann Hall and her Music for Children staff and students spurred children to jump to their feet and their parents to clap in time to a host of holiday tunes Sunday afternoon at Westport Historical Society.

It was the eighth consecutive year Hall had performed at the 25 Avery Place facility, and the event drew a full house of families. After enjoying and interacting with 15 holiday music classics, attendees snacked on hot chocolate and holiday cookies.

“This is so inviting in this informal setting,” said Hall of the space. “Performers and the audience are voice to voice, and eye to eye.”

Hall spoke about her center, which targets children from babies through age 14. “We offer comprehensive music education in a theoretical but playful environment,” she said. “Voice, dance, movement, eurythmics. Everything taught at a conservatory level is served to children and youth through dramatic musical play.”