Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Sue Hout Baker: Teacher, Conservationist, Preservationist

In June our thoughts naturally turn to summer, and in Greenwich they often turn to the beach and Tod’s Point where today we can enjoy sun and sea and the loving restoration of the buildings nearby, the Innis Arden Cottage and the historic old barn, dedicated recently as the Sue H. Baker Pavilion, in honor of Sue Baker, retired Greenwich High School teacher and active preservationist who has been instrumental in the restoration work at Tod’s Point from start to finish.

In March 2011, Greenwich Oral History Project interviewer, Richard M. Blair interviewed Sue Hout Baker just two months before the official opening of the Cottage.

Sue Baker’s history with the Innis Arden Cottage goes back to her earliest teaching days at Greenwich High School. Having taught in the area since the 70s, by 1980 she had secured a position as a marine biology teacher at the high school and, as she says, became “joined at the hip” with Dan Barrett, the highly regarded science teacher and founder of the school’s oceanography program. Because of its enormous success, over time, the program was integrated into the curriculum and became a two-semester course, both of which entailed fieldwork. The old Queen Anne building, now the Innis Arden Cottage, at Greenwich Point was appropriated for lab work, and it was at that time in a state of disrepair.

Sue remembers that “great chunks of plaster were falling off the upstairs ceilings, the second-floor ceilings and walls, and the roof damage was so severe that water was just running down to the ground-floor walls, and all those were mildewing and falling apart. It was a beautiful building. Those of us that ever were inside could see architecturally how interesting it was.”

Sue never forgot her time there and her regard for the historic building. In 2004 Sue and others concerned with the state of the building founded the Greenwich Point Conservancy in hopes of saving the building that, as fate would have it, had been put on the docket for demolition. The preservationists set out immediately to raise funds to save the old Queen Anne Building of Greenwich Point.

In her interview, Sue shares the history:

“…this Cottage was built right at the periphery of the property for a member of the family. His [the owner, J. Kennedy Tod’s] sister-in-law had become a young widow with three children....[It] was built for her and her young daughters to occupy and to be close, because she had lost her husband, a very young man, and she was, I think, forty, with three young daughters, or maybe not even forty, and that’s when it was built, and she occupied it. Then when she moved on in her life and remarried, that became a dedicated R&R summer resort for the nurses.”

The nurses were from Presbyterian Hospital of New York City. Sue’s account continues, with the history of the nurses:

“…there was one that was very famous. Her name was Anna Maxwell, who is kind of the Florence Nightingale of the United States with Clara Barton, you know, started the whole concept of nursing as such a career, with so much special education, special training, and military adjunct, military army nurses.
So it has a very rich history, in those summers—and most of those were maiden ladies. I mean, the ones that showed up, most of the nurses were maiden ladies with no place to go to escape the heat of New York City, and so when they had their two weeks or maybe even more vacation, they came out to the shore at Greenwich and were the guests of J. Kennedy Tod and his wife.”

Sue and the Greenwich Point preservationists were able to save the building from the bulldozers.

The restoration incorporated the best materials, “roofing, shingles, cedar shake.” The project restored the building to its original condition. The preservationists did their research and according to Sue, “tons” of it.

Today the new building, renamed the Innis Arden Cottage is “totally green,” a LEED certified building providing education and resources to the entire community. The Bruce Museum operates the Seaside Museum there. The Cottage provides space for the Shellfish Commission and for other civic organizations.

Through her work with the Conservation Commission, the Shellfish Commission, the Greenwich Point Conservancy, and other organizations, Sue has never truly left her role as an educator behind. She continues to teach and to guide her community into the future.

She ends her interview with this quote from Baba Dioum, a Senegalese ecologist, a quote she used to teach her students at Greenwich High School:

“In the end we conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.”

The Greenwich Oral History Project interview, “Sue Hout Baker: Teacher, Conservationist, Preservationist,” March 2011, can be found in the reference area on the first floor of the Greenwich Library or through the Oral History Project office, located on the lower level of the library.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Remembering Our Veterans and the Work of Interviewer, Janet Klion

As we remember our war veterans this Memorial Day, we at the Greenwich Oral History Project also remember interviewer and photographer, Janet Klion, who died on April 18 of this year, and who over the years contributed many veteran interviews to the project’s archives.
Oral History Project Interviewer
Janet Klion

Twenty-one of Janet’s interviews reside in the Veterans History Project of the American Folklife Center (http://www.loc.gov/vets/about.html). The project’s mission is to collect, preserve, and to make accessible “the personal accounts of American war veterans so that future generations may hear directly from veterans and better understand the realities of war.”

Of the interviews Janet conducted for the veterans project, fifteen have also been contributed to the Greenwich Oral History Project. Last year’s Memorial Day blog post was dedicated to our Greenwich World War II veterans. (http://glohistory.blogspot.com/search?updated-min=2015-01-01T00:00:00-05:00&updated-max=2016-01-01T00:00:00-05:00&max-results=6)

This year we turn to the war in Vietnam. Only one of Janet’s interviews in the veterans project database pertains to that war, the interview of Patrick Michael McDermott, U.S. Navy, lieutenant, junior grade. (Interview #2871, “Vietnam War Experiences,” 2013, in the Greenwich Oral History Project listing.) In his interview, McDermott, as a Navy man, notes that when two of our destroyers came under attack by North Vietnamese patrol boats in the Tonkin Gulf and when Congress passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, “that immediately led to expanded combat operations....So I think,” he adds, “there was justification for our being in it,” meaning the war. 

McDermott recollects difficult losses and sacrifices and reflects on moments of dismay when after his honorable discharge in 1970, he returned to co-workers who refused to shake his hand because of his participation in the war. He is delighted that today returning men and women in uniform are greeted with expressions of gratitude for their service. While attesting that he does not “hold a grudge,” he also notes that there are no Jane Fonda videos in his home.

An interview Janet conducted for the Greenwich project not appearing in the veterans’ database is that of Joseph Kantorski who served as a field medic from 1968 to 1970 (Interview #2753, “Conscientious Objector in Vietnam Era,” 2007). Opposed to the war, Mr. Kantorski was granted conscientious objector status as a result of having been in seminary for five and a half years, studying for the priesthood. He knew that if he were to be drafted, he would most likely be a non-combatant in the medical core. Soon after leaving school at the Pratt Institute in New York, he was indeed drafted and would go on to be trained as a medic.

He was sent to Fort Gordon, Georgia, for training and was told by a sergeant there that he would never be able to make a living in America because he was “a traitor to the country.” He was next sent to Fort Sam Houston in Texas for further training. He was ultimately stationed near Frankfurt, Germany in the 31st Surgical Hospital as a result of his status as a conscientious objector. Mr. Kantorski notes that he was passionate about his objections to carrying a weapon and participating in combat. He also reflects on the fate of many other conscientious objectors trained as medics who were stationed in combat zones and who, unarmed, lost their lives aiding the wounded.
Panel from the Vietnam Veterans
Memorial Wall

Any recollection of the war in Vietnam will eventually include its controversy, including the fraught domestic “battle” concerning those who served and those who, because of moral objections, did not. The news of the period abounds with reports of objectors fleeing to Canada to avoid the draft and of those labeled as “draft dodgers,” fairly or not, who used various exclusions to avoid serving.

To lend a local perspective, there are among our interviews, two, not conducted by Janet Klion, that comment on the attitudes and opinions toward conscientious objectors, including how over the years public opinion changed as the war became increasingly unpopular.

The first, conducted in July of 1975 is with Leatrice Fountain, 1924-2015 (Interview #970, “Teenagers in the 1960s in Greenwich”), who worked as a draft counselor during the war. She is better known as the daughter of John Gilbert and Leatrice Joy, actors, but her role as a counselor cannot be undermined. 
Leatrice Fountain

As a result of her involvement with the Quaker Friends, she was instrumental in helping young dissenters who sought her counsel to become conscientious objectors. She notes the hostility she faced during this time as a result of her role, but also comments on changing attitudes as the war continued. Eventually, she notes, many who had been critical of her actions came to understand and to regret their behavior.

The second interview, January 1977, is with Emile Jacques, Greenwich attorney, who was on the draft board during the war and who openly expressed his anti-war views from the start. As a member of the board, he was responsible for reviewing the applications for conscientious objector status that came before him. (Interview #2136, “The Draft Board.”) He notes that it was customary before his time on the board to reject applications out of hand and to pass them along to appeals. He drew fire objecting to the percentage of denials as he fought to ensure that those with legitimate claims would be granted conscientious objector status. The conflict and hostility he originally encountered changed during his tenure and as attitudes toward the war grew increasingly negative.

Taken together, these Vietnam era interviews in the Greenwich Oral History Project collection contributed by Janet Klion and others weave a telling story of our community during this period, one rife with conflict, heartache, and passionate emotions on all sides. It is a story worthy of a Memorial Day tribute to our veterans and to those who out of conscience objected. It is also a time to pay tribute to our narrators and interviewers, and this year especially to Janet, who through her work has bequeathed us an enduring legacy.

The interviews referenced here are available in the reference area on the first floor of the Greenwich Library or through the Oral History Project office, located on the lower level of the library.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Celebrating Reading, Greenwich Style: The Book Shed at the Recycling Center

April is THE month to celebrate reading. First, it’s DEAR, Drop Everything and Read Month. April is also National Poetry Month and School Library Month. Other dates this month to  consider include:

April 02 – International Children’s Book Day
April 12 – National Drop Everything and Read Day
April 12 – National Library Workers Day
April 13 – National Bookmobile Day
April 30 – Independent Book Store Day

In addition to these dates on the calendar encouraging reading, there are many places that support the wonders of the written word, most obviously libraries and bookstores—whether brick and mortar, on wheels, or online.

In Greenwich, though, we have another option, not as obvious, perhaps, but just as significant, the Book Shed at the Greenwich Recycling Center.

Last year Greenwich Oral History Project interviewer, Sally McHale, interviewed Douglas Francefort, founder of the Greenwich Book Shed at the recycling center.
Douglas Francefort at his post in front of the Greenwich Recycling Center Book Shed
(photo courtesy of Leslie Yager, Greenwich Free Press)

Francefort, a longtime recycler, began recycling books in the 1980s, before the shed was in existence. In those days the books, packed in boxes, had to be placed out on tables for viewing and then packed up again at the end of the day. Eventually the shed, designed by Francefort, was built by carpenters assigned by Maurice (Zip) Roddy, head of Public Works.

The book shed opened officially in September 1995, a success from the start—but not without its share of challenges, too many books donated to handle, vandalism when the shed was unattended. That was the time Francefort had to take action by temporarily shutting the shed down. But help was on the way, from members of the Retired Men’s Association who came down and pitched in as volunteers. Not only were they there to help monitor the overeager, they helped with the overflow. The shed’s ongoing issue is one of inventory, a lot of it.

Today overflow books deemed salvageable and of interest are donated to places such as the Mews, hospital cancer wards, and to the senior center. Children’s books are donated and set up on shelves at Neighbor-to-Neighbor and given to neighboring school districts in need as well. In the summer, Francefort takes books to the Island Beach dock and another volunteer is responsible for books at Tod’s Point.

The books are never displayed at the shed or at other locations without thought given to placement on the shelves or to genres. In summers thought is given to likely themes of interest, such as romance, mystery. Year round there are cross-referenced lists, by theme and by author, for example.

Handling a large inventory is always a challenge. And publicity may very well magnify the issue. The book shed has been featured in the New York Times, as well as in local newspapers and magazines. Howard Fast used the book shed as the vehicle for a “meet cute” scene in his novel, Greenwich, published in 2000, three years before his death. In the book, a character Christina, a lovely dark-haired young woman, meets Dickie, a blond-haired, blue-eyed young chap, at the “book shack” at the Greenwich “dump,” (a word Francefort eschews in favor of the term, recycling center). The pair’s first date goes awry pretty quickly, but that’s a topic for another time.
Young readers checking out the wide selection of children's books at the Book Shed
(photo courtesy of Leslie Yager, Greenwich Free Press)

Asked if he needed more books, Francefort said what he really needed was more help. But not the “accidental” kind, rather, the committed kind. He and his stalwart helper, Lorrie Stapleton, need the assistance of volunteers who can commit to a regular schedule.

Running the book shed is a labor of love—requiring a lot of labor.

What does the future hold for the Greenwich book shed? The answer is still uncertain. Douglas Francefort may actually wish to surrender his role as the “town bookie,” as he calls it, someday in the not too distant future. Will his trusty helper, Lorrie Stapleton, take over? Will the book shed continue to exist at the recycling center? (There have been rumors of its demise, untrue its fans hope.)

Inquiring minds, the ones attracted to reading, want to know, but answers are not forthcoming. One thing is certain, though. If you enjoy book browsing, if you like a bargain, then the Greenwich book shed at the recycling center is the place for you.

Spring is in the air—and April is DEAR!

The Greenwich Oral History Project interview, “Book Shed at the Recycling Center,” (April 2015) narrated by Douglas Francefort, is available in the reference area on the first floor of the Greenwich Library or through the Oral History Project office, located on the lower level of the library.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Olga Zatorsky Hirshhorn, Her Life in Greenwich… and in the Arts

Olga Zatorsky Hirshhorn
If you were to pick up the Greenwich Oral History Project interview conducted July 17, 1975, entitled, “My Life in Greenwich,” you would be fascinated. Here is the story of a woman, born in Greenwich in 1920, the daughter of immigrant parents who lived a good part of her early life on LeGrande Avenue, who went to public schools, who married young, had three children, and who, in order “to make ends meet,” started her own small business in town that would blossom into a successful employment agency called Services Unlimited. An American success story, you would say. The story of an independent woman, who made it on her own, and these assessments would, of course, be true.

But keep reading, because that is just the beginning…

This is the story of Olga Zatorsky Hirshhorn, famous art patron, philanthropist, and art
Olga Hirshhorn posing next to Abel Chretien's sculpture fo her.

collector, who died October 3, 2015. She was the widow of Joseph Hirshhorn, the founder of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Their marriage lasted from 1964 until his death in 1981. He would introduce her to a life she never would have envisioned for herself, and yet all the while, she maintained her down-to-earth attitude, never forgetting her humble roots. Those same qualities that must have attracted him to her from the beginning sustained them, and their story reads like a movie script.

As Mrs. Hirshhorn told the interviewer in 1975, their first interaction, a telephone call to her agency did not hold much promise. She happened to pick up the office phone herself on this particular day when a voice on the other end snapped, “This is Mr. Hirshhorn. I’ve just bought the Sinclair-Robinson house on John Street, and I’m looking for a chauffeur.” One or two sentences more, and he hung up. She then said aloud, within earshot of her office staff, “Imagine, the nerve of this man.”

And yet he kept calling, admitting much later in their relationship, which was to grow over the next few years, that her voice had intrigued him. She too was intrigued, as she tried to find him a driver, as requested.

Eventually, she found herself on his doorstep delivering a message from a would-be chauffeur who had been held up. She was led to the garden where the artist and sculptor Laura Ziegler was creating a bust of her famous client. Until then, Olga had no idea who Joseph Hirshhorn was. As she was about to leave, saying she was on her way to Tod’s Point for a swim, her host invited her instead to take a swim in his pool. And so she did, and that was the beginning of what ostensibly was a professional relationship—she would help with his transition to his Greenwich home—but which instead turned into something much more meaningful.

Olga was divorced from her first husband, John Cunningham, in 1962, and married Joseph Hirshhorn in 1964. It was a small wedding, in the garden of their Greenwich home, under a Henry Moore sculpture, the Glenkiln Cross.

From the beginning, she immersed herself in art, particularly in the art of collecting, and before long, she began to acquire a collection of her own. One of the first art pieces she acquired was a Joseph Albers, and then another, proving from the beginning her own fine

Pablo Picasso, Untitled, 1968. Sketch the artist gave to Olga Hirshhorn

At the time of her death, Olga Hirshhorn had acquired a collection valued at approximately ten million dollars.

When asked by the Greenwich Oral History interviewer to tell about the “most important and influential circumstances” of her life, she replied, “having the great opportunity of having been born in Greenwich, having had three sons born in Greenwich, and raised in Greenwich….I think living in Greenwich with the opportunities that were here for development of a person would be the first.”

(Photos, Smithsonian Libraries Blog, "Remembering Olga Hirshhorn.)

Olga Zatorsky Hirshhorn’s interview, “ My Life in Greenwich,” conducted by volunteer, Penny Bott, July 17 and 25, 1975, is available in book form, A First Generation in Greenwich, 1976, through the Greenwich Oral History Project office located on the lower level of the Greenwich library. The interview transcript is located in the Greenwich Oral History files of the reference area on the first floor of the library. To see Olga Zatorsky Hirshhorn commemorated, drop by the office to see her photo and other information pertaining to her interview on the Greenwich Oral History office “Greenwich Wall of Fame.”