Saturday, May 16, 2020


On Memorial Day we honor those who have given their lives in the service of our country and all who fought to defend our freedoms. Greenwich Library Oral Project blogger Joseph Campbell offers highlights of an interview with Robert Wylie that was conducted by project volunteer Connie Gibb in 2019. Mr. Wylie, longtime Greenwich resident who recently moved to Redding, CT, fought admirably in World War II as a tail gunner on a B-17 Flying Fortress and shares his experiences.

Bob Wylie and a B-17 Flying Fortress
courtesy of James P. Wylie
Admiral William “Bull” Halsey once said, “There are no extraordinary men, just extraordinary circumstances that ordinary men are forced to deal with.” To read the interview of Bob Wylie, one would hardly consider him to be an ordinary man. Bob came of age in a world that was to be plunged into a global war with destruction on a scale unprecedented in human history. Bob, and millions of other men and women, joined the military without hesitation to defeat the Axis powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan.

Bob was in high school in Stony Brook, New York, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. In the aftermath of the attack and in their zeal to se

rve, Bob and two of his friends initially decided they would join the Marine Corps. Bob’s father was an intelligence officer in the New York National Guard and eventually served in the United States Army Air Corps. He quickly disillusioned Bob from serving in the Marines and, instead, Bob entered the Army Air Corps pilot cadet program. However, since he was dyslexic, he trained in gunnery school in Denver, Colorado. Although Bob enlisted at 17 years of age, he did not leave for training until 1943 and was not sent to Europe until 1944.

It is hard to imagine today the circumstances that existed during World War II. By 1943, the British and the Americans were constantly bombing occupied Europe. Every day, thousands of young men would climb into planes to attack Hitler’s Fortress Europa. There was a steep and deadly learning curve when it came to fighting the Germans. The Luftwaffe, the Nazi air force, was a tough and determined foe and, even as it was being defeated, the Allies lost a staggering number of air crews on missions over Europe. At times, the Allies put 1,000 planes into the air on a single mission—a feat that is hard to imagine even today.

Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress
When you read Bob’s story, you meet a man who is humble. While discussing his missions over Europe, he talks about how much worse it was for the airmen in 1943 and early 1944 since the Luftwaffe had not yet been worn down by the Allied forces. However, that humility belies the danger that Bob and his fellow airmen faced every day. The war was far from over when Bob arrived in England in 1944. His story is both amazing and tragic as he speaks about the experience of flying in freezing temperatures with open windows at high altitudes facing German fighter and anti-aircraft fire. (Do not miss his description of the clothing he wore on these missions.). Bob lost friends from school, including one on the same mission in which he was flying.

Bob tells about the time his father, a Colonel in the Army Air Corps, visited him in England. In this segment of the interview, he gives a snippet of his father’s time in WWII as well. Bob also talks about what life was like at home for his mother. It is easy to forget that those left behind were often forced to deal with not knowing the fate of loved ones. Most communication was through letters and mail took a long time to arrive from overseas. In addition, lifestyles were altered by the war as Army pay was often not the equivalent of civilian pay.

In his interview, Bob describes the men with whom he served and their missions as well as what occurred if they were shot down and captured. Bob flew missions over occupied Western Europe, Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia. Although his story is a fascinating one on its own, it is made even more so when one realizes that it is the story of so many of his generation—a story of lives interrupted in order to defeat true evil in the world.

Bob’s interview also delves into other aspects of his life. He discusses the discrimination and segregationist policies of the US military at the time and how these experiences led him later into his involvement in the civil rights movement. He describes in detail coming home after the war and becoming involved in his church and Democratic politics in Greenwich and the state.

Bob’s interview is a wonderful story of an amazing life. It should be read, not just by residents of Greenwich, but by everyone. It is a fascinating insight into the experience of an American man who came of age in a life-altering time and carries the lessons of his experiences with him.

As with all our interview transcripts, the Robert Wylie transcript may be read at Greenwich Library and is available for purchase at the Oral History Project office. The Oral History Project is sponsored by the Friends of the Greenwich Library. Visit the OHP website at glohistory.org. —Mary Jacobson, OHP blog editor



Monday, May 11, 2020


In recognition of the fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day, Greenwich Library Oral History Project student blogger Noor Rekhi offers highlights of an interview with Ted Gilman by project volunteer Laurie Heiss.

Ted Gilman retired at the end of January after forty-three years with the Greenwich Audubon Center, where he served as Senior Naturalist and Education Specialist. His love for flora and fauna was kindled as a young child in Montclair, New Jersey, where he grew up playing outdoors, and developed a love for ornithology. He continued this passion at Earlham College, where he studied natural history, and at Cornell University, where he participated in a graduate program in the Department of Natural Resources.

Ted Gilman leading a nature walk 
at Greenwich Audubon Center
Mr. Gilman first honed his skills as an educator in the 1970s when he worked for a Toledo-based program that sought to give fifth graders in Ohio a chance to experience the great outdoors. His experience with Audubon began in 1974 when he became a bird life instructor at an Audubon camp in Maine. Gilman continued to spend two more summers at the camp before coming to Greenwich in 1977 to work for Greenwich Audubon as an education specialist and naturalist. During that summer, he worked in the Audubon Ecology Workshop for Educators; he was named director of the program the following year. The workshop taught teachers from across America and overseas how to embrace and connect with natural surroundings so that they could bring those same lessons to their students. Mr. Gilman greatly enjoyed many aspects of teaching in that program, noting that it “was the opportunity to help adults have child-like experiences.” Through this workshop he gave an invaluable experience to the teachers involved and their future students; everyone should have the opportunity to embrace nature and hone the ability to connect with it.

Ted Gilman teaching children about 
birds at the Greenwich Audubon Center
While in the summer he worked at the Audubon Ecology Workshop for Educators, during the other seasons he worked in the Volunteer Teacher-Naturalist program, which allows children to explore nature and wildlife in small group settings. Through this program, Gilman reached thousands of students, many of whom have gone on to pursue natural history studies themselves. He fondly expressed his enthusiasm towards helping children get in touch with the outdoors, saying, “It’s that fun of seeing the kids have the opportunity to get out and explore outside the four walls of the school. And whether it is peering at a tiny little nymph of the spittlebug on a stem of a plant in spring, or tadpoles and frogs, or seeing hawks soaring overhead, I think it’s trying to help children have that ‘oh, wow’ experience of the new—the new discovery, the new awareness and exploring and discovering of the natural world, hopefully widening their horizons.”

Through his work, Gilman has taught many children and adults to cherish the environment and realize the need for conservation not only in protected wildlife sanctuaries, but also in our own backyards. Although in this modern world many of us find ourselves more connected to our screens than the environment, Mr. Gilman works to preserve our Earth for all its future children. The next time you gaze upon the foliage and fauna that grace Greenwich or experience an “oh, wow,” moment while watching nature, note Ted Gilman’s contributions in sustaining our communal home. None of us is alone; we are connected to every person, animal, plant, and mineral in the universe. By connecting children and adults with feathered and finned friends alike, Mr. Gilman allows us to return to a child’s awareness of the interdependence of everyone and every living thing.

Mary Jacobson, OHP blog editor

As with all our interview transcripts, the Ted Gilman transcript may be read at Greenwich Library and is available for purchase at the Oral History Project office. The Oral History Project is sponsored by the Friends of the Greenwich Library. Visit the OHP website at glohistory.org.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Meredith Sampson, Wildlife Rehabilitator

To mark World Wildlife Day, celebrated in March, and its 2020 theme “Sustaining all life on Earth,” we feature Meredith Sampson, wildlife rehabilitator, who was interviewed by Project volunteer Sally McHale on June 5, 2018.

           Meredith Sampson is a wildlife rehabilitator and environmental educator. She oversees the non-profit Wild Wings, LLC and is often the person called upon to help when someone encounters a lost, injured, or orphaned baby bird, squirrel, or owl. It is not unusual for her to find small animals left at her door by a well-meaning person who is uncertain of what to do to help them.

            With birds, Ms. Sampson advises people to first determine the baby bird’s condition and age. If it is uninjured and not too young, it can be placed near the nest area so that the bird’s parents may do their job of caring for it. Excessive handling, feeding, or moving of the bird can put it in a more precarious position. If, however, the animal is in need of care, Ms. Sampson suggests “If you’ve found injured or orphaned wildlife, or wildlife that you think might need help, get it into a secure container that’s well ventilated and put it somewhere in a quiet, warm place, and keep it away from people and pets. Then call me.” After rehabilitating the bird, Ms. Sampson would then release it into its habitat.

            Ms. Sampson also initiated the First Sunday Bird Walks at Greenwich Point Park in 2005 under the original co-sponsorship of Wild Wings, the Bruce Museum, and Greenwich Audubon Center. As of 2019, Friends of Greenwich Point became co-sponsor with Wild Wings. These bird walks are free and open to the public of all ages. They provide an opportunity to experience the amazing biodiversity of Greenwich Point with its beach, meadows, woodlands, and marshes. “It’s an extraordinary place. It’s like nature’s classroom,” says Meredith Sampson. It provides an opportunity to appreciate the effects of climate change on various species and the migration patterns of birds, as well as many other aspects of nature that may be otherwise overlooked in our day-to-day busy lives. In addition to observing bird life, participants observe the seasonal changes of insects including butterflies, plants, and other animals.

            Ms. Sampson also works with Audubon Center to do annual Christmas and summer bird counts in our local area. She has been performing this valuable service for almost forty years and has counted as many as seventy species in one area alone. Over the years, she has observed how changes in our environment have affected native species. “Whatever is happening in the environment can affect bird populations and this is something we need to pay attention to.” For example, Ms. Sampson describes how the results of certain bird species counts may differ dramatically from year to year due to various causes—some understood, others not. For example, when the West Nile virus became prevalent in our area in 1999, there was a dramatic drop in the bird count of crows and a number were found that were unable to stand or fly and were having seizures before dying. After animal autopsies at University of Connecticut at Storrs and extensive research, it was determined that the crows had contracted a virus that had infected an exotic bird from Africa housed at the Bronx Zoo and was carried by mosquitoes to other bird species and, subsequently, to humans.

            Questions arise when the migration patterns of certain bird species changes. For example, why are wood thrushes no longer prevalent in our area? What happened to the population of yellow-throated warblers that used to be here in far greater number? Has their southern habitat been deforested? These are only some of the questions which can arise as one keenly observes the environment as Meredith Sampson does. She underscores the importance of understanding the relationship between what we do to our environment and how that affects the species that inhabit it.

            Ms. Sampson also is a proponent of replanting native plants, trees, and shrubs in order to continue to provide the food and shelter that our birds and animals need to survive. This includes planting milkweed which monarch butterflies depend on for food.  She supports the removal of invasive plant species like garlic mustard and porcelain berry that choke our native ones. “The key factors of a successful habitat is that it provides shelter, food, and opportunity to reproduce. If any one of these links is broken, we witness dramatic effects,” she tells us.

            In her interview, Ms. Sampson recounts many unusual and often humorous situations in her career as a wildlife rescuer and rehabilitator. One is the story of a creative rescue in Greenwich Point. It involved Ms. Sampson with a 60-foot-high crane, a wicker basket from McArdle’s Florist & Garden Center, and a hapless baby owl that had fallen from its ill-made nest. Find out additional details by reading the transcript of her interview.

            We have much to learn from the wealth of experience Meredith Sampson brings to our understanding of wildlife and its relationship to our environment. As she has said, “We need to seriously restore habitat and create new habitat. We’ve got to treat this earth with a lot more kindness... This is the only planet we have, the only home that we have. And this, all this, is what sustains us.”

Mary Jacobson, OHP blog writer and editor

As with all our interview transcripts, the Meredith Sampson transcript may be read at Greenwich Library and is available for purchase at the Oral History Project office. The Oral History Project is sponsored by the Friends of the Greenwich Library. Visit the OHP website at glohistory.org.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Celebrating Black History Month

 
February is Black History Month, a time to reflect on African American residents of our town who have made a difference. The Oral History Project has, over the years, interviewed a number of African American Greenwich residents whose struggles and accomplishments benefited those who followed them. One such person is Gertrude Johnson Steadwell, interviewed at the age of 81 in 1990. Gertrude was a determined, strong, capable woman who was not afraid to do something about racial discrimination when she encountered it.  A proud woman, she broke the color barrier in a number of areas. Her story is an admirable one to highlight for Black History Month.


In her interview of 1990, Gertrude Johnson Steadwell, born in 1909, says she is happy for the opportunity to tell of the struggles she encountered in Greenwich as an early activist in the civil rights movement. “It was tough going,” she says, but it was worth it. It was really worth it.”


Gertrude Johnson Steadwell
Gertrude Johnson Steadwell, was by nature, a gregarious, open young girl, a joiner. She has warm memories of all the girls in their pretty dresses and the boys all dressed up for the annual Maypole activities, once a Greenwich schools tradition. She played basketball and field hockey, was interested in art and had her work exhibited and began to show an early talent for design. As involved as she was in high school, she also knew that in athletics she had crossed the color line, being generally the only “woman of color” on her teams.


Longing to become a member of the Camp Fire Girls, she was disheartened to learn that she could not. “Because of my color I couldn’t get in. I was really very disgusted about it,” she says. She was determined from that time on to do something about racial discrimination. She seems to have been born with a gene enabling her to recognize injustice when she saw it, igniting in her a desire to work toward change.
The Maypoles of Greenwich, a favorite memory

As an adult she seized the opportunity to make a difference. In the late 1930s, she and her husband, Orville Steadwell, joined The Action Committee on Jobs for Negroes, an organization that became a part of the Greenwich chapter of the NAACP, of which Gertrude and her husband were founding members. She also formed the Southwestern Connecticut Committee on Fair Employment Practices. Her work led to a bill being passed in the state legislature ensuring fair employment for blacks. “This was the biggest thing I’ve ever done,” she says of this period in her life.

In the midst of all her work to enhance workplace opportunities, Ms. Steadwell found time to raise a family of four, to break another color line becoming an interior decorator in Greenwich, being a member of many civic organizations, an active member of her church, and a recognized community leader.


Looking back over the years and the changes that have occurred, Ms. Steadwell concludes in her interview that much has changed for the better. She cites improved employment opportunities and improved choices, much as a result of affirmative action. Her own children were able to see the fruits of these changes having achieved good educations and jobs. 

“I’m really glad that I could tell you,” she tells our interviewer. “I figured one day it would come in good. Not for me, for my children, I was thinking.”

And “good” for the many others who followed after her, in the path she helped to clear.

Gertrude Johnson Steadwell died in Greenwich, August 15, 2007, at the age of ninety-eight.


The Oral History Project book, A Civil Rights Activist: Gertrude Steadwell, is available for $10 in the Oral History Project office of the Greenwich Library.