Historical Perspectives / Ed Chrostowski
YMCA gets a big boost from an unlikely source
Published 1:02 am, Thursday, April 1, 2010
In a strange quirk of fate 58 years ago, a gang of brawling teenagers inadvertently provided the YMCA's million dollar building fund drive with unexpected but much needed and appreciated impetus.
The arrest of seven boys after they had been treated for assorted cuts and bruises sustained in a fight added credence to the committee's contention that there was a critical need for some kind of community diversion to keep idle teenagers occupied and out of trouble.
According to police, a large crowd of teens, including some from Norwalk and Stamford, had attended an open-house party in New Canaan and although no alcoholic beverages were served there, some of the revelers kept going out to their cars where they sipped from bottles. Then the real trouble began.
About a year earlier, after a wave of vandalism, a New Canaan Woman's Club panel determined that local teens needed "somewhere to go and something to do" in their idle time. Police Chief Henry "Red" Keller, banker "Pete" Raymond, Judge Stanley P. Mead and several other civic leaders agreed and decided that a community YMCA would fill the bill. Now they could point to a specific incident to prove their point.
An extension of the Norwalk YMCA was already operating at various locations, including what is now the Historical Society Town House and the basement of a Main Street building since converted into the Plum Tree Restaurant. But it was without facilities of its own. Just a couple of months before the Saturday night brawl, the YMCA concluded a months-long search for a site by purchasing a 7-acre tract on South Avenue and launched a campaign for a million dollars to build there.
During that same March week in 1962, however, other teens were making New Canaan proud.
The 13 boys on the New Canaan High School basketball squad, along with their coaches, student managers and the local press, were guests of honor at the Exchange Club dinner at the Silvermine Tavern. It was a tribute they had earned by winning the state championship in a tournament at Yale's Payne-Whitney gym.
In addition, Headmaster Harold S. Kenney designated two more "senior leaders," Amy Cousins and Richard Bickford, at New Canaan High School on the basis of "exemplary" academic, extra-curricular and citizenship records.
At the same time, a large delegation from New Canaan participated in the YMCA's Connecticut State Youth and Government Program at the capitol in Hartford. Included was a mock session of the General Assembly with students drafting and debating legislative proposals.
Among measures considered were laws to lower the minimum age for voting eligibility to 18 and to raise the minimum age for legally dropping out of school from 16 to 18.
Back home, a panel discussed "the public school educator's role in an affluent suburb." Panelists included Board of Education Chairman Darwin DeLapp, Superintendent of Schools Albert P. Mathers, several teachers and a professor from New York University. Al Knaus of the Saxe Junior High School faculty was the moderator.
During the week also, Town officials were disappointed to learn of major delays in two long-awaited projects, a new grammar school and reconstruction of a highway.
First, the Board of Education told the East School Building Committee to discard architectural plans and "start all over." The decision came after a meeting with Civil Defense Director Charles P. Morton, who emphasized the advisability of including a nuclear fall-out shelter in plans for the new building, and engineers who said the location chosen on the 20-acre site off Route 123 was "swampy" and not suitable for the foundation of a building, especially if it was to be two stories as was now suggested.
Elmer P. Shumaker Jr., chairman of the building committee, estimated that the delay and the changes would add about $80,000 to the cost of the project and the Board of Finance was not happy about that.
At the same time, the State Highway Department said reconstruction of Route 123 would be delayed "indefinitely," though completion by mid-May had been promised. For more than a year, town and police officials had been urging the State to eliminate a "dangerous double S" curve near Forest Street, the scene of many accidents, and were pleased that there finally was some action. There was no explanation for the sudden delay.
At the Town Hall, First Selectman Charlie Kelley disclosed that the New Haven Railroad had suggested the possibility of leasing the Elm Street train station to the town. He said the idea would be explored in meetings with the court-appointed trustees of the bankrupt railroad.
Meanwhile, Ted Winpenny, chairman of an ad hoc railroad "study/action" committee, reported that the trustees had reassured his group at meetings that "they want to work with us" to ensure continued commuter service.
Also, David Kirkbride said his study committee has narrowed its search for more commuter parking to four small parcels in Talmadge Hill and three more in the center of town. He declined to be more specific at this time.
Elsewhere during the week, Police Sgt. Chet Lewis succeeded Dr. Carl Smith as president of the Rotary Club and Mrs. John E. (Margaret) Becker succeeded Mrs. W. Donald Brown as president of the New Canaan Democratic Women's Club. Mrs. Chase Going Woodhouse, Mrs. Becker's mother and a former member of Congress from Connecticut's Second District, was guest speaker at the Democrats' meeting.
Also during the same week, Acacia Chapter, Order of the Eastern Star, installed new leaders at a former dinner program in the Masonic Temple. Ethel Wood and Frederick Jacob became worthy matron and worthy patron, succeeding Jean Zinn and Pat Dascenzo.
But, with all else that was going on, there was little doubt that the community focus was on teenagers' behavior, good and somewhat less so, during that early spring week in 1962.
Ed Chrostowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.