In Memoriam: Richard Harris Orenstein

We were incredibly saddened to learn of the death of our good friend Richard Orenstein last week. As Trustee of the Daniel E. Offutt III Charitable Trust, Dick was a benefactor to Westport Museum For History & Culture but more than his fiscal philanthropy, Dick was our trusted advisor and stalwart guide toward important social change. As our most loyal supporter, Dick had a strong ethic toward equity and inclusion. He will be sorely missed as one of our truest friends. The many tributes that Dick has rightly received only scratches the surfaces of what an incredibly human being he was.

His loss is incalculable.

Born March 31, 1941, in Lawrence, Long Island, Richard Harris Orenstein passed away suddenly on March 20, 2024, in Sarasota, Florida. He was 82. He is survived by his lovely wife, Diana Vytell of 30 years, two beautiful children, his daughter Beth Franklin of Boston Massachusetts, and his son Gary Orenstein and his wife Ching-Yee Hu of San Francisco, four wonderful grandchildren, Emma and Jake Franklin, and Elie and Zoe Orenstein, and his sister Sondra Schlesinger of Berkeley California.

Photograph portrait of Richard Harris Orenstein

Dick graduated from the University of Michigan in 1962, with a degree in mathematics. There he discovered computers, which at that time took up an entire room. He was hooked, and never looked back. His professors convinced him to take a job at The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T) where he was a co-author of a seminal paper on The Compatible Time-Sharing System.

In 1967, Dick, co-founded the National Computer Software Systems, National CSS, one of the first companies to commercialize time sharing, the earliest version of cloud computing. The company was later sold to Dun and Bradstreet. 

Dick settled in Westport, Connecticut, where he was active in and chairman of the Board of Clasp Homes, for adults with autism, and other developmental special needs. He continued volunteering when moving to Sarasota. As an avid pilot, he was involved in the Angel Flight program, which provides free flights to patients and veterans needing life saving medical appointments. He often said I get to do what I want, fly, and help someone in need. 

Five years ago, he became the executor of his dear friend’s estate, Dan Offut, and formed the Dan Offut Charitable Trust. This was a life changing event for Dick. He became known as the “Jewish Santa Claus.” He distributed Dan’s funds to Ringling College, Resilient Retreat, Embracing Our Differences, Mote Marine, Temple Emanu-el, to name a few. Locally, thanks to Dick, the Trust was a benefactor to Westport Museum For History & Culture and many others locally including the Weston History & Culture Center, La Chat Farm, Wilton Historical Society, Silvermine Arts Center, Cultural Alliance of Fairfield County, Greater Connecticut Youth Orchestra, The Carver Foundation of Norwalk, cARTie, and so many more. With this task, he always said he got more than he gave. 

Dick enjoyed engaging with everyone, and everything. He lived every minute of his day, and packed it with many activities, like bicycling, sport shooting, working out with a trainer, flying, and Angel flights. Folks often said that he lived life 100%. Dick was brave, a risk taker, who knew how to check the odds, full of self-confidence. His quick wit and humor will be sorely missed. 

One of the last experiences the family had with Dick was their December 2023 trip to South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana, a spectacular safari adventure that provided the family with a lasting and heartfelt memory. 

Donations may be made to Temple Emanu-El, Sarasota, Florida, Clasp Homes, Westport, Connecticut, University of Michigan, in honor of Richard Orenstein, class of 1962.

Black History Month in Connecticut: Lessons About Race

The fight for equality of education—and for respect in the classroom for children and teachers of color—in Connecticut towns can be traced back nearly two hundred years. Entrenched social biases had long created de-facto segregation within the state’s education system. In 1831, the citizens of New Haven successfully fought the opening a mechanical college for Black men and in 1833 Prudence Crandall, a Quaker teacher was arrested in Canterbury, Connecticut for opening a school for young Black Girls. In 1868, in response to a state Educational Law requiring open enrollment in public schools despite students’ race or color, the Hartford School system voted for “separate but equal” schools for non-White children. 

By the twentieth century, negative attitudes toward Black students in largely White public schools—particularly in affluent neighborhoods—remained entrenched. While the active years of the Civil Rights Movement brought the legal fight against school segregation to the South, Northern communities were often overlooked for their de facto segregation of children of color from public schools.  

Project Concern

In July of 1970 a group called “Westporters for Equality in Schooling” sent a letter to Joan Schine, Westport Board of Education chair. The group asked for Project Concern, a national school integration plan which brought elementary age children of color from under-resourced areas of Bridgeport into Westport schools, to be placed on the board’s agenda. A bitter fight ensued. 

The program was overseen by Cliff Barton, a ground-breaking Black educator who was a former teacher and administrator with passion for looking after students with special needs—including those disenfranchised by racial inequality. Barton had joined the town school system in 1958—the same year former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt made public remarks about the need for human rights and human dignity to begin in “small spaces” including schools.  ”Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination,” she wrote.

Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination.

Eleanor Roosevelt, American political leader and activist

By December, the discussion to participate in Project Concern had moved to a vote. On the 7th the Board of Education passed the resolution to bus 25 African American students from grades 1 through 3 to Westport, with the final vote to pass being cast by chair Joan Schine herself.

The vote created community upheaval, and many protested the move, sparking the creation of the “Recall Committee”: a parent group formed to remove Mrs. Schine. On New Year’s Eve an article in the Bridgeport Post reported a petition with nearly 4,000 signatures was delivered to Town hall to request such a recall after Schine refused to hold a referendum. Local attitudes toward Project Concern can be viewed in the documentary film below. 

The City of Hartford had already opted into the program in 1966, with its own share of push back and criticism. Opponents of the vote feared that the program would lead to a “dangerous opening wedge in an undeclared campaign to bring more and more ghetto children into Westport with consequent dilution of the quality of education.”

Today in Westport, we are engaged in a situation in which the forces and agents with the most power reign temporarily in an eternal “king of the hill” struggle.

Joan Schine, Westport Board of Education Chair, 1971

Subsequently, the Westport Board of Selectman called for a special election to remove Ms. Schine. The case went to the Connecticut Superior Court and resulted in the dismissal of the proposed recall vote entirely. Schine continued in her role as Chair and remained active in the town government. In June of 1971 Joan was quoted saying, “Today in Westport, we are engaged in a situation in which the forces and agents with the most power reign temporarily in an eternal “king of the hill” struggle.”  

Where Are We Today?

Project Concern continued and expanded, evolving into Project Choice, and paved the way for programs like Open Choice and A Better Chance which continue today. Despite hard-won gains, the fight for true equity in schools continued leading one scholar to note in his article “Nineteenth Century De Jure School Segregation in Connecticut”: 

“It becomes increasingly evident that Connecticut’s response to the problem of racial isolation in its public schools has been in the past and is now characterized by flashes of decisiveness and statesmanship, interspersed with periods of anguished vacillation.” 

Today, Connecticut student body is almost equally divided between White and BIPOC students. Yet the state’s school districts remain highly segregated. White children largely attend schools with 75% other white children and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) children attend schools with 75% other BIPOC children. In 1996 the state Supreme Court ruled on Sheff Vs. O’Neill, finding that the Hartford School District was violating the state’s anti-segregation clauses. However, with little guidance or benchmarks toward achieving desegregation by 2003, little progress had been made.  

To learn more about artists, activists, and educators who impacted Westport and our African American community visit our Remembered exhibition with the button below.

Nell Dorr: Only Beauty Remains

Context Matters 

Social events do not occur in a vacuum nor should they be interpreted as such. To try and understand a person of historical import, we must first explore the time in which they lived and the situations that shaped them. In order to provide historical context this exhibit is produced in “layers”.

The catalogue offers greater detail about Nell Dorr’s life and work and the online exhibition shares details about the world in which the photographer lived and how events may have influenced or shaped her artistic view. In each section of the exhibit and throughout the catalogue, you will find a QR code that will allow you to learn more. 

The online exhibit is a compliment to the full exhibition at the museum. All of the materials here are exclusive to the online version. Select a topic area to see associated objects, explore resources and learn about Nell Dorr.

Explore resources and other readings to get a better understanding of the world Dorr was apart of.

Focus On: Ellis Freeman Family

Trey Ellis and Dr. Amanda Freeman and their blended family have lived in Westport for almost a decade. Mr. Ellis is an award-winning screenwriter, novelist, essayist and producer whose work ranges from the 1995 film Tuskegee Airmen, featuring Lawrence Fishburn to the HBO documentary King in the Wilderness. Dr. Freeman is a sociology professor at the University of Hartford who focuses on poverty and policy. She is also a contributor to the Atlantic. In 2019, their son Chet, now a Harvard University sophomore, was the first-place winner of TEAM Westport’s Diversity Essay Contest. 

We moved to Westport 9 years ago from the Upper West Side [of Manhattan]. Our daughter, Maia who is now 14 was entering kindergarten and we weren’t happy with our zoned options. We wound up getting off the waiting list at the public school we wanted on the same day we actually moved to Westport. We were looking for a suburb with great schools, the beach and the arts that was roughly in between Hartford and NYC.

We are a blended family. Maia lives at home with Pamela who is three and a half. Our son, Chet, 19, [Staples, 2019] lived here until he headed off to Harvard where he is now a sophomore and Ava, 22, recently graduated from Columbia and moved to Boston to take a job in data analytics with Wayfair. We all lived together back in Westport for the first six months of the pandemic.

We live in a small house and we were intensely bonding during the first six months home altogether. In September, Chet decided to live with some friends in Boston even though his classes were online. Ava had signed a lease on an apartment in Boston with a friend back when she was assuming she’d be working (somewhat) in person, so she also moved to Boston in September. We didn’t see the kids again until the holidays and had them quarantine for a few days and test before coming home.

Taking covid precautions with someone immune-compromised in our household somewhat hampered us taking part in Black Lives Matter protests and demonstrations, but this movement has drawn attention to many of the issues that are important to us and hopefully will lead to real and lasting social change.  

Trey: I have been teaching online at Columbia’s graduate film school but also working on various projects inspired by this tumultuous year. I’m currently writing a fictional podcast about social justice for Futuro Media and the Kellogg Foundation that I’m very proud of.

Amanda: As a sociology professor and someone who writes about social issues impacting low- and middle-income families, the pandemic has called attention to many issues of inequality and in many ways created more work for me.

…the pandemic has called attention to many issues of inequality…

In terms of social issues, we feel that the town has dealt with the pandemic extremely well. We were a famous early hotspot but the town government has been extremely cautious and communicative.  The issue of inclusion in a super wealthy town or really any town built around single-family home ownership is problematic.  We need to do much, much, much better.

The public discourse [around social issues] thanks to Team Westport and frankly the WMHC [Westport Museum] has been excellent. However, we wish we could all figure out a way for more action and real change for Fairfield County. We worry a great deal about the lack of racial and economic diversity in Westport. We worry about the loss of the artistic community that can no longer afford to live here. 

Explore More of “Westport In Focus”

To read more of the museums long lens oral histories please visit the Westport In Focus page.

Focus On: Minnie Lee Seo

Korean-American Westporter Minnie Seo graduated from Laurelton Hall in Milford in 2020. She majors in Music Education at UCLA College and spoke at the #StopAsianHate rally that took place in downtown Westport in April.

I believe that racism is the biggest crisis we are facing today. It is a huge topic and I would never want to dilute the seriousness of it, but it is a multi-faceted beast that lives within all problems of our lives today. Climate change, sexism, ageism, etc. are all intertwined with racism. It’s the root of many problems, but goes unchallenged a lot of the time. 

I believe that the world is changing, but it is changing very slowly. I believe we are finally seeing other points of view that can dissolve our ignorance, but this is happening on an individual basis. My world is always changing, I am always learning new things, but sometimes I see Westport, and I see the structures of supremacy that reign [here and all] over this world. I am reminded that some have chosen to uphold hurtful traditions rather than to break the cycle, and stick up for those from under-represented communities. Westport, I feel, will be the most difficult place to change because it is resistant to change. It allows little room for those who don’t fit its narrow standards.

I think that Westport is doing extremely poorly on these issues. There doesn’t need to be investigations to show that a school with a student body population that is more than 80% white is non-inclusive.  I do not know how to describe it very eloquently, but for most people of color, when we enter a room, state, town, etc. that is mostly white, our guard has to be up. 

I feel like the community is coping with the major events in the nation very superficially but the issue we are specifically dealing with Westport is not just respecting people of color, but also breaking the notion that somehow racism doesn’t exist in Westport. I have often seen people view themselves as “above” racism or “seeing no color,”–basically viewing themselves as separate from the issue, even claiming at times that racism does not exist. If our first hill to climb is getting the community to accept that racism exists within Westport, we have a long way to go if we want to be directly supporting ethnic minority communities. 

Page BreakI think that my life in Westport has been filled with isolation, exclusion, and violence, which is something I think myself and other members of my family have always known, but always kept to ourselves. Now it seems like that exclusion and violence is very much public, and there is no way to really avoid it. From the time immigrants step foot into this country, there is a kind of generational trauma that is handed down. This stems from the various times the large (white) majority have painted immigrants as dangerous. For my family, this can be seen in the new wave of “Yellow Peril“ that has consumed this nation. It’s brought out our survival skills, where we must rely on each other, keep our heads down, protect our elders, and hope for the best. 

My biggest hope is that we learn that loving or taking care of others requires more than just holding affection in our hearts for people: I love you, and so I will wear a mask so that you will hopefully not get sick. I love you, and I care for you, so I will learn and make sure that the actions I make will not hurt you or others like you. I fear that many people will become complicit if they do not take time to analyze their own fears, passions, and flaws. Racial equity and other topics are not just buzzwords, they are human rights and that should never be a trend, but continuously analyzed and improved upon.

Racial equity and other topics are not just buzzwords, they are human rights and that should never be a trend

Westport Museum encourages donations to Stop AAPI Hate as well as following them on social media as they continue to address anti-Asian hate amid the pandemic.

Explore More of “Westport In Focus”

To read more of the museums long lens oral histories please visit the Westport In Focus page.