Focus On: Diane Sembrot, Editor, Westport Magazine

Diane Sembrot has many centuries of roots in Westport through her Wakeman ancestors. Today she is the editor of Westport Magazine, which shares all aspects of town life, from arts and culture to business and more.

“Over the years, I’ve worked in academic books, medical journals, children’s book packaging, health and business newsletters and, now, magazines and digital content. I got into this during college—I was looking for an internship, and I wanted only Westport. I had spent a lot of time in town as a teen. At that time, summer internships were hard to come by, so I just started introducing myself to local publishing and marketing companies—just walked in the front door and asked. Then, downtown, I ran into a paper sales rep who told me to go Greenwood Publishing Company, just a short walk up the hill. I did. They were a bit surprised, but said yes. I was their first intern. I stayed, doing freelance work at school, and, after graduation, went fulltime. I stayed for years because they were wonderful—and I enjoyed every minute in Westport.

I’ve worked in Westport since back when since Klein’s [Department Store] was here.  I did laps in what is now Anthropologie when it was the YMCA. I’ve worked here since Ship’s was a popular Chinese restaurant [located at 23 Jesup Rd opposite the library]. I was living here when I met my husband. We were rowers at Saugatuck Rowing Club, and I met him at the Commadore’s Ball. Actually, I saw him across the room. Sounds romantic, but he’s six-foot, three, so it’s hard to miss him. We had our wedding reception in Westport to celebrate where we met.

I’ve worked at three Westport companies: one on the Post Road, one on Riverside and one on Main Street.  The Post Road one felt like I was in a neighborhood, because I often ran a quiet loop on the backroads. Riverside was all about creative daydreaming because I had a river view (yes, I was very lucky). Main Street is about people-watching and trying to keep up with the comings and goings of downtown—it’s always changing. There are big stores and small ones, but you can always find a bit of the history if you look. Literally, look up at the top of the buildings—you’ll see some history. I enjoy the mix of current life and the long view of the town’s story. In a way, my industry and Westport changed alongside each other.

With COVID we were hit with a shock, like everyone. I certainly was. It felt like one day we were steaming along and the next I’m packing up my desk and throwing my computer in the back of my car. The team realized and accepted quickly that we would have to change how we were doing things. We knew it was a crisis—our ability to produce pages depends on the health of the town and its restaurants, shops and service businesses. We also knew the people who live here were in shock, just like us.

When the town closed down in March, the more practical matter for the creative team was what to do about the next upcoming issue. Would we publish it? We talked and agreed to go forward— we wanted to act as a connection point for our readers and we wanted to support our advertisers, who are mostly small businesses like us.

The entire staff started working remotely with no notice but set up remarkably fast. Part of the reason it worked is because we’ve worked together for so many years—we know what needs to get done. We picked up the pieces and just figured things out. Everyone was proactive and focused.

I had to alter some of the content to make sense for COVID-19 and for the general mind-set of a pandemic. What do you tell people when their whole world has changed? I tried to be authentic. We published our story on women who took the risk of becoming fulltime bloggers—and what they learned from it. That seemed helpful, because we were all connecting digitally now. The story made sense. And we tried to produce a cover that felt authentic to the time. We chose an iconic image of the town. We thought it would be reassuring, anchoring, a comfort, in a time when the way we saw the world was just spinning.

Anyway, our team found new ways of working…and we owe a lot to Zoom and Slack.

As for re-opening, we’re not in any great rush to open the offices. We want it to be safe and for everyone to feel comfortable. Because we’re not a store or a restaurant, we’ve learned that we can do business remotely. We can call and email people or set up small meetings when needed.

Next to getting out our next issues, the first question we asked ourselves was: How can we be useful? We knew we wanted to help connect people and to tell stories. We also wanted the magazines to be a break from the alarming news hitting everyone’s newsfeeds constantly. We aren’t trying to be a newspaper. We take a longer view. Being a local magazine means knowing our readers and honestly caring about them. That’s why we try to do a mix of issue pieces and celebratory stories. Of course, a big part of it is photography and design—the way the pages are presented is part of the pleasure. Of course, we had to halt photo shoots. We’re just starting to do very small ones. And our staff is doing more writing, though I hope to make assignments again.

Also, we are more than a magazine. We also run events and digital properties. We postponed big events, including a new Women in Business forum, which I had helped re-launch. I was deep into it and very excited about what it meant for us. We had great speakers and workshops lined up; I hope it comes back. And we’re postponing our Best of the Gold Coast party, which we’ve always had. That, too, was getting a fresh re-boot when COVID-19 took us all by surprise. We’re hoping to do them; we’re creative, we’ll work with the times.

As for our digital properties, I started immediately posting more web articles and collected and shared Instagram posts about local businesses that were trying to get the word out about their curbside or delivery options. This for everyone, not just our partners, to send the message that we understood, as a small, local business. We face challenges, too, and we know we are a community and need one another. Now, more than ever, we celebrate every win that comes our way, and we hit the jackpot when the talented Dave Briggs stepped up to do an Instagram Live series for us—it’s been amazing.

In general, I find that Westporters want to be engaged. They are politically and culturally aware and enjoy a good debate or cause—they will show up, they will speak out. I think it comes from being well educated and affluent, generally, but also from an arts identity or history or mind-set to think and express. Also, they can and do use their connections and privilege. Personally, I think Westport looks its best when it uses its strengths and advantages to address issues, especially complicated, painful ones like racial justice. My roots go back to Samuel Wakeman and other local families, and I am digging into what that means—their stories. And I want the real stories. Direct. That’s how you start to learn.

I like people who face challenges, and you don’t have to be loud about it; it can be behind the scenes or creative. Time and time again I’ve seen people here do extraordinary things for others facing crises, including homelessness, poverty, health, and the environment—just amazing dedication and generosity to help move obstacles, provide for immediate needs or talk about things. For me, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward are role models for this way of living—honest goodness. This needs to get done, let’s do it. I see it in the people making the farmers’ market run, Wakeman Town Farm, Aspetuck Land Trust, our beautiful Westport Country Playhouse, the library, the Levitt, this museum, town events and on and on. Look at this year’s outdoor movies.

Westport likes to look quiet, but it attracts people with an inner fire to get things done. They don’t call it power, but it is. Maybe they don’t even see it that way—they just see a way to help and do. I have seen too many examples of the heart behind that strength to not believe in it.

When someone tells me about discrimination or feeling excluded or even threatened, I believe that, too. It’s painful, because I have to reconcile that with my own lifetime of experiences here. Westporters have always, and literally, thrown their arms around me, and I want that for everyone.

As for Covid, the town did what it does—it got to work, as realists will do. We wore masks. We stopped the parties. The roads emptied out. I know Westport hit the national news, but I’m grateful to see a great deal of sensible people acting responsibly for one another.

I want Westport to keep being self-aware and self-critical. An issue that doesn’t ring true for you, can still be true. Keep bravely facing and digging for what’s real, no matter how complicated, and then decide if you want to make a difference. Our world is undergoing a lot of change and home can and should be a comfort, but you have a role to play. Also, protect what you love, including our “Main Street” small businesses. These are all part of what we love about living and working here.

I want Westport to keep being self-aware and self-critical.

I think talking is important. We don’t all come to every issue with the same knowledge and experiences. Allowing for an open discussion is hard, but I think in that space is where we grow. I hope Westport Magazine serves as a space to do that.

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: Peggy Henkel

Mrs. Margaret “Peggy” Henkel moved to Westport in 1965 and was part of a group of locals who revived the largely-defunct Westport Historical Society (now Westport Museum for History & Culture). Created in 1889, the Society changed names and iterations several times, petering out and restarting over the course of the century meeting in members’ homes. By 1965, it was largely a memory. Peggy was instrumental in helping the Society obtain its current headquarters, the Bradley-Wheeler House on Avery Place. Today the vibrant 93-year-old lives in Stratford. 

“I was born in China, but didn’t live there long. My parents met in Peking—now it’s Beijing of course. My father was working for an American company and my mother was taken there on what was to be an around the world trip by two aunts and an uncle. Before she left her mother told her “No smoking, no drinking cocktails, and no getting married.” Well she got married in a town called Titzen (sp) and then moved to WuHu, on Yangtze river, where I was born. 

I grew up in Marietta, Ohio, where my mother’s family was from. Marietta was the first settlement in the Northwest Territory. I spent my first 12 years in my grandmother’s house there and then moved to Columbus. After college, I worked in Columbus as a fashion coordinator with Lazarus Department Store where I did displays, hired models and put on fashion shows.  I even met my husband at Lazarus. He came there to do publicity. Later we had our baby in Columbus—Elizabeth. 

We traveled a lot with my husband’s job and eventually we moved to Pittsburgh and then to Connecticut when he joined a big ad agency in New York City. After a lot of house hunting, we chose Westport. When I got to Westport, I thought, “This is a very interesting town, it must have a lot of history but where is the historical society…?” 

On Reviving the Society & Buying Wheeler House 

When we moved to Westport in 1965, I became part of a group that revived the historical society. One thing led to another and lo and behold I ended up being put on the board and then eventually I was elected president. I began to start putting together ideas to make us more well-known and one thing led to another. 

At one point, before my time, the Society met at Adam’s Academy because we had no building. Eventually, we were able to meet in the house across the street from the current headquarters—the McClury House. For the first time we had someplace to have activities and, it was in that house that I asked Martha Stewart to do exhibits. It was a riot. 

One of the things that Martha did was contribute a square to our bicentennial quilt, which was my baby. We publicized the idea and got signups. A teacher taught volunteers to make appliquéd and quilted squares and the lessons were taught in the basement of Christ & Holy Trinity Church, where I attended. We organized the group of people who did the squares. We publicized that we would do it. It was done in time for the bicentennial and we had a huge part at the McClury house and invited the town. I think that was when people came to really know that we were there and we were doing things. The funny thing was we couldn’t keep quilt there at the house because the ceilings weren’t high enough! That’s when they decided to put it in town hall.  

The whole time we were at that little house across the street a group of us kept looking longingly at Wheeler House [the Museum’s current headquarters.] How we eventually were able to get the house is a funny story: 

At the time, Charlotte D’Arby owned the house. She had been the Houskeeper for Dr. Wheeler and he left it to her. I became friendly with Mrs. D’Arby and used to make her cherry pies which were her favorite. She often said “everyone will be very happy when they see whom I left the house to”. At that point, I was too shy to come right out ask and for the house for the Society. Well, in the end she left the house Christy & Holy Trinity—my church. 

I wasn’t president then, but a group of us got together and met with the Church. Mr. Kennedy was the rector and I knew him very well. We presented to them our proposal that we would like to buy the house from them if they would let us use it as a headquarters while we were fundraising. We had this big fundraising committee-Eve Potts was involved, Dottie Fincher was there and I was heading up the committee. We met in our “meetings room” which then was turned into a gift shop, [and is today, again, a meetings/programs room]. We realized we had a big job ahead of us, so that’s when we decided we’d create a newsletter to let people know about the Society and what we do for the town. 

When we bought that house, there was only one piece of furniture left by the previous owners—a cabinet. Everything else that was in those rooms was acquired later. We had decided to create period rooms to the best of our ability because we visited a lot of historical societies and learned that, in those days, that’s what historical societies did.  

I think that as a society we are too impatient, that’s why we need functional historical societies and museums to remind us. That’s why I got involved [with Westport Historical Society] way back when and spent a lot of time and money when I should have been working–because I felt it was important. I mean that I’m proud of the Westport Historical Society and what it does today. I think that’s good they changed the name– we always wanted to be a Museum first. I think that the things they are doing now are of the moment and that’s as it should be. 

On COVID-19  

There has never been a period of time that felt like this. I think this pandemic is a very, very unusual occurrence.   I think about living through World War II versus this pandemic: I was in high school during the war, so of course I remember Pearl Harbor and what a shock that was–and everyone wondering where in the world was Pearl Harbor? I lived in Ohio, far from the coast, but I did take a course in plane-spotting.  It was something we had to do, so that was interesting.  

My mother had a victory garden, I remember the rationing and my mother grew a lot of foods and that’s how we got along. I don’t recall hoarding but I may not have known, I knew there were shortages and we had to curtail certain foods. I do remember rationing books. When we graduated in 1944 the yearbook said some of the boys were going to the army and that seemed so foreign– to me at least. 

Even during the War, it was more possible to feel like life was somewhat normal. There wasn’t a constant feeling of danger at least where I lived, like we have now with the virus. You could almost forget there was a war on. 

We would get news about what was happening in war, but it seemed so far away, it really didn’t hit America. Since I lived in the Mid-West although there wasn’t too much danger. I did see planes fly over that I did recognize from my plane-spotting. We did have a sense that feeling that we would win and eventually the war would end because the whole country was converted to war time status. We worked together and we kept getting news of victories–wherever they were–and the American spirit prevailed.  

With COVID I get that feeling that it is never ending. There isn’t that same feeling of working together and that we were all converted to the value of science. If we had a leader to bring everyone together the way Roosevelt did, we could get through this. I actually wasn’t a great fan of Roosevelt but he was a terrific leader. Even if you didn’t agree with him and his policies the leadership was there and you could recognize it. It was definitely a different time but this pandemic is absolutely colossal. I hope we can get past it soon but it will take cooperation of a lot of people and there isn’t that cooperation yet. 

I hope we can get past it soon but it will take cooperation of a lot of people…

 We can only pray that things will get better and I’m trying to be hopeful and positive. 

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: Michael Friedman, Senior Rabbi, Temple Israel

Michael Friedman is originally from Great Neck, NY.  He attended Yale University as an undergraduate where he studied history. After school Rabbi Friedman, spent fifteen years in Israel and New York before coming back to Connecticut to take a position six years ago at Westport/Weston’s Reformed Jewish Temple, Temple Israel.  He and wife, costume designer, Hayley Lieberman are parents to 2-year-old twins George and Goldie. 

“Our community is based around face to face interaction and because of COVID so much of our world these days is digital, interacting through screens. We view our role as providing an antidote to that because that’s what people crave. If you ask our congregation  what’s most important, “community” is the term you hear most often. When something comes along that limits that interaction, it’s difficult. 

As public institutions, we’re already used to being charge of people’s health and safety. Safety is particularly important especially in this day and age in in the Jewish community. We are used putting that first so in that first week of March when it became clear we couldn’t do biz as usual and make sure people are safe, we had to start limiting programming.  

This year, the Purim carnival was scheduled for march 8—the  2nd Sunday in march,. It’s our largest event of the year, other than the high holidays. The largest number of people gather for Purim. At first, we scheduled a delay but then it became clear to us early on that it was just not a responsible thing to go forward with the event and we cancelled on the Wednesday prior. At the time a lot of synagogues were talking about limiting their celebrations for the same date and we were among the first to cancel—not just in Westport but throughout the Metro area. People were surprised and called and asked “what are you doing?” To us, it was the obvious decision. To us, it was the right thing to do. As the days passed that week, Wednesday into Thursday Into Friday and Saturday others temples and organizations canceled their events. I’m proud we were ahead of the curve there in a number of ways.  

By the 2nd week of march we seriously limiting a lot of meetings and events. We follow the schedule of the public school so it was a question of watching the schools and seeing what they did. As soon as schools closed, we closed the synagogue. We had a contingency plan to do it. I’m really proud of our community here in that there wasn’t push back because they understood it was for everyone’s safety. 

The first stage in this new situation was triage: Figuring out how to move as much as we could online and pastoring to  everyone’s sense of crisis.. During that first month we were trying to figure to what degree could we run a nursery school online>. How are the schools getting online?  Our religious schools for older kids  started providing a supplement. Our worship services had to get online. Then as I said, there was the dealing with trauma: We quickly set up a system where every member in congregation, got a check in from our board or clergy o ra  volunteer to say “We are here thinking about you.” In that process, we got a lot of good feedback. 

That lasted to Passover, during which a lot of families had ZOOM seders and congregational seders. That was hard because Passover is a big family gathering on Jewish calendar. Then after Passover it was a new state of being, it was no longer about crisis, and it occurred to us all that this will be new normal for long time to come. We shifted from triaging crisis to figuring how to we help congregants deal with long term. 

We know people are yearning to come back to their Jewish home and with respect to reopening,  we have a task force of lay leaders and professionals creating those plans for us. Health and safety is still the top priority that will never change.  

The milestones that people are looking at are beginning of school year for the nursery school and then the high holidays. There’s a range of contingencies we are planning based on this. We have no particular date to open het , we are looking at different factors to guide us including the successes of other businesses, the state guidelines and how similar institutions are proceeding. We are lucky in many respects in that we do not have the same pressure to reopen the building because of the revenue model of synagogues versus many other religious institutions.  

So, our priority lies not in re-opening, our priority lies in how do we serve our congregation in very best way even if we can’t be in the same room. How can we use wisdom of Jewish tradition and ritual to guide people through this unprecedented time? How do we help human beings thrive in a time of unprecedented dislocation and isolation? Our building doesn’t need to be open to give people the things they want from synagogue. 

I often hear people making comparisons to circumstances of isolation or separation in Jewish history but I don’t think it helps others to think, say, “Anne Frank made it through four years in an attic,  so you should tough it out.”  What I’ve learned as a rabbis  that each person’s struggle is their own struggle—it has nothing to do with comparison. The tsouris [trouble]each person has is real and valid. I think, psychologically, it’s not helpful for that person to draw a comparison to others in worse circumstances but I absolutely believe that the resilience and creativity of the Jewish people thorough history in times way, way worse than this is one  is one hundred percent an inspiration. 

It’s helpful to remind ourselves we are strong and we know how to deal and the most difficult situations 

There’s a specificity for Jews that we have a strong connection to our ancestors and our people and we think of the Jewish community through time as our family, our community, our tribe who have done great things in the face of much greater struggles. 

Some small things that we’ve done that I believe fall within that tradition of creativity out of adversity is that  

We’ve been wanting to reshape elementary school age Hebrew learning, when everything was moved online it forced us to experiment with online learning, which were considering but we wouldn’t have been forced to experiment with. Now we are seeing which teachers are effective in this medium and  who it benefits. It was a forced learning lab for us.  

COVID is going to force us to rethink high holidays: When and how we celebrate them. We knew we wanted to live streaming in general but we weren’t ready and didn’t have infrastructure. Now, there’s no going back because we are going to live-stream going forward. This is cutting edge right now for synagogues– the crisis forces us to take steps that we would have taken our time doing. 

We’ve also, traditionally, really thought of our programming in terms of people showing up in person at the synagogue. Who is going to show up when for what? This new-normal helps normalize participating without necessarily being in room, even if others are. We envision a community where some are in room and others aren’t. You don’t have to be in room and you shouldn’t feel “less than” for not being there. In the past, we’d accommodate a couple of people who couldn’t make it using propped up iPhone. It wasn’t a regular accommodation but that will change. 

Right now, all services are on Zoom including Family Shabbat, our Friday evening service. Tora study and Saturday morning services are on zoom as well as Saturday evening service. None of us have been back in building to date. 

I’ve conducted Bar Mitzvah’s and funerals as well as baby naming ceremonies on zoom. I’ve given a lot of thought about how do you conduct life cycle rituals if you cannot be together? Particularly mourning rituals—and I was inspired to write a piece about that for our blog.

I used to assume, that if people wanted to hear what we had to say they’d come Friday night—that’s our primetime. In winter,  we started to podcast our sermons and make available to download and listening to make it available for those who might not be able to come. And I realize in this time, even that’s not enough. I’ve been writing a weekly message to the congregations—lots of rabbis do this—but I realized there is a need for inspiration from Jewish tradition on a weekly basis. We are seeing greater numbers, engaging in this way. Even in the future, many are not going to come, it needs to be a push more than a pull. Getting the message in your inbox is part of that. 

In many ways, people have nothing else to do, so they are coming to more virtual events—, of course, I’m aware that not all this engagement will continue once the world gets back going 

Rahm Emmanuel, the former Mayor of Chicago and President Obama’s chief of staff said  “Never let good crisis go to waste. It provides an opportunity to do things that were not possible before.”  

I love this quote. It describes how we are thinking and planning differently. We are planning multiple high holiday contingencies, different scenarios, because I don’t feel comfortable making decisions for three months out,. But what we start now gives us opportunities to even rethink what does a new schedule of services look like—even if things are re-opened? Not everyone will want to just come back. This part is what’s most exciting. IT forces me to say how would you do a 2 hour Rosh Hashana service in 1 hour? Now I think down the line…maybe next hear if, god willing, we can do in person services maybe we can do an alternative 1 hour service. So if you want to come 1 hour or 2 you have options.  . We’d never have thought that before. 

I think about a traditional Jewish phrase said at Passover “Next year in Jerusalem” Here’s the amazing and crazy thing: Next year in Jerusalem was said by for millennia by people who could never ever hope to ever really go there. It was a statement of hope: Next year, the world will be better, we’ll be able to be home. And then all of a sudden we could go to Jerusalem, it was actually possible. This dream was kept alive until that it became a reality. Whatever your “next year in Jerusalem” i it’s a flame of hope to be kept alive and I think people are tapping into that feeling with respect to a post-COVID future. 

For me, for example,  it’s a devastating possibility that school wont’ be in session because of what that does to the economy and how people are struggling, and balancing childcare and earning a living. So, I need to believe and hope that school will be session. 

Personally, I have realized how much I thrived on the in person and interaction of other human beings and responding with body language and emotion and proximity. I am not as good on zoom, it is not the same. We are doing the best we can and having some success but I am not the same rabbi on zoom. I wonder if any teacher or doctor regarding telemedicine would say they are same practitioner. We are doing the best we can, but I’m not same. I deal with a total life cycle– I can have a morning funeral and an afternoon meeting with bar mitzvah students.  We are really missing the celebrations: The bar and bat mitzvah’s are being put off, all of the weddings are postponed, the baby namings postponed. Funerals can’t be postponed because of the Jewish tradition so now I’m largely dealing with that single aspect of the lifecycle. And we dealing with a community dealing with loss, hardship and sadness, no one is celebrating–there is nothing to celebrate. I think that I desperately miss the balance of joyful and difficult that is generally part of a rabbi’s life. There is still joy to be found but the balance is different. 

My fear is that life will never return to what it once was and the fear is based so much that the idea that life before was so great. It’s the fear of the unknown and we human beings have such difficulty dealing with change and the world will change but we don’t know how. That’s what’s different from every other crisis in our lifetimes in near memory: We don’t know how life will go one because we don’t know the path virus will take, how to solve it. What are temporary adjustments or permanent changes? We don’t know if this is a significant event that will not change the course of human history or will it. I think that unknown is a fear.  

…the fear is based so much that the idea that life before was so great

In terms of hope, as a rabbi I would hope that people really appreciate, see and understand how Judaism and how Jewish community can provide hope and comfort in a tumultuous world on the one hand. On the other hand, I would hope that people really value the joy and wisdom that tradition can bring to their lives even when things go back to normal or a new normal is reached.” 

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: Patton Family

The Patton family moved to Westport eight years ago from Simsbury. Rev. Alison J. Buttrick Patton is the Pastor of Saugatuck Congregational Church, UCC. Founded in 1832 by former members of Green’s Farms Congregational Church to service those living in “Saugatuck Village” (today’s downtown Westport) the church  is an important historical site. It has been closed since early March with worship services and other gatherings moved on line. Craig D. B. Patton is a freelance social media consultant and trainer focused on LinkedIn. He is part of the team at Post Road Consulting, which is owned by Westport resident Sandra Long. Son Tobey is a 2020 graduate of Staples High School and son Ian a rising sophomore at the school. 

“Being a pastor is all about people. Walking with them. Sharing with them. Supporting them. Teaching them. Learning from them. Worshiping with them. Praying with them. Identifying and executing mission work to do together. On and on. So, on the one hand, it’s challenging not to be able to gather in-person to worship, learn, grow, and work together. On the other hand, the building is not the church and never has been. The early Christian church gathered in homes and also public spaces when it was safe to do so. We find echoes of that all around us today. It’s also worth noting that Saugatuck Church has recent experience with being a displaced faith community. The fire in November 2011 forced us to improvise and live differently for several years. 

There is also a creative streak in this congregation that serves us well in times like this. New and different ways of doing things are embraced or acknowledged as worthy experiments. Living through the pandemic compelled us to be creative, learn new skill sets, and reengage with how we live out our mission as the church. But Zoom meetings and inventive video productions only get you so far. It’s still hard. It’s hard not to see each other. It’s hard not to sing together. It’s hard not to pray in the same space. We miss our friends. We miss watching the children growing up. We spend too much time apart. One interesting upside is that moving so much of the church’s life online has allowed people with physical and health limitations to participate more frequently. It has also allowed people in other parts of the state and country to reconnect with or discover us. Online Bible Study draws more people than the in-person version did. The weekly Online Worship services reach more people.   

For Craig, the primary impact has been the cancellation of in-person seminars and trade show events. A major event in Philadelphia was an early casualty. However, because we work online in the world of social media, much of our business has not been severely disrupted. Most of Craig’s work over the phone or the Internet, pre-pandemic and now. I’m grateful to be working in an area that has an easier time continuing than so many other industries.

We continue to feel very grateful to be at low risk in many ways. None of us have underlying health issues or are in other risk categories. Alison’s job is not at risk. Craig’s is in a sector that has reduced impact. We live in a parsonage, so we don’t have mortgage payments or rental fees. We often remind ourselves that we have advantages that others do not. We feel more settled, more balanced now. Looking back, we can see the waves of energy, fatigue, positivity, and grief that were hard to understand while they were tossing us. We’re much more adept at using Zoom and video editing tools we’ve had to learn. We feel apprehensive about the reopening efforts, both locally and nationally. Alison also feels energized by the new possibilities for ministry and the creative conversations that we’re having. 

Professionally, Alison has had to learn to run a virtual church. Ministry is all about the people, and she’s never with the people, so using other methods to reach out, nurture community, and even expand community has been a significant change. She quickly became the Zoom expert in the house. Tech support is now part of her pastoral care ministry to congregation members as she equips them to use various online platforms. In some ways, she feels like she has more regular contact with many members than before the pandemic. She’s also pastoring a community in grief over the separation from one another, canceled events, altered lives, lost opportunities, lost jobs, and more. 

 Meanwhile, Craig has poured much of his time and energy into helping the church create its weekly Online Worship services, which is basically like creating a short film every week. In our daily lives, the most significant change is that our teenagers have been home every day since mid-March with no break for any of us. Thankfully, we get along very well. We play a lot of board games, and all-family basketball games in the driveway have recently started. 

We both come from grounded, humble families. None of our parents are ostentatious, extravagant, wasteful, etc. Alison’s parents are clergy and engaged with social justice issues nationally and globally all their lives. Craig’s parents, while comfortably middle class, have always been frugal and carefully plan for every eventuality they can imagine. So we both grew up in households where we understood that we have more than many others and that we shouldn’t take anything for granted. We have some perspective. That helps. Our family also values adaptability, flexibility, and a sense of humor. That helps.  

We’re all campers, and campers don’t mind a little adversity, and they don’t worry if they look a little unkempt. That helps. The fact that both of us, but particularly Craig, have a great deal of life experience with information technology and video production has helped us quickly adapt and make a positive contribution to our community. We are both comfortable talking about our feelings and are intuitive by nature, so we have generally been able to process with each other how we’re doing. It was harder early in this period when we went from what we thought would be a 2-week shutdown to a process that would take many months and alter the complexion of our lives for a long time. Depression and grief impacted us more then. 

Generally, we feel that the community has coped quite positively with the pandemic. I Early in the shutdown, Alison wrote an article reflecting on all the positive energy, acts of kindness, and creative thinking taking place here. Communication from the schools and the town officials has been excellent. Grocery stores have adapted as our understanding of what was needed to evolve. People embraced social distancing and the sacrifices involved for weeks on end. We have a lot of creative, hard-working neighbors who have worked hard to move much of our lives online.  

We do think this next part is harder for our community. Fatigue has settled in with this whole social distancing lifestyle. The direst predictions of what might happen haven’t come to pass, so there’s a temptation to think the risk was overblown or has ended. Craig has observed much more cavalier behavior by people in stores and elsewhere than a week ago. Some people are ignoring instructions. Doing what they want, when they want, and waving off corrections. Others are genuinely fearful, convinced the virus is lurking in every inch of the town, waiting for a chance to infect them, their family, or their neighbors. So, like the rest of the country, Westport appears torn about what the appropriate balance is between public health concerns and economic or personal liberty concerns. Every layer of our society seems to be in confusion, overruling what other parts have said is the “right” thing to be doing. 

We hope that people have learned from the pandemic that changes in human behavior can have a measurable, positive impact on the environment. Skies cleared worldwide as businesses figured out how to drive their companies without driving to an office. The pandemic also highlighted structural inequities that continue to plague this country. The United States has suffered a disproportionate number of casualties from the Coronavirus compared to other countries, and a disproportionate percentage of our dead are people of color. It’s not their fault. It’s our society’s fault. 

We hope this experience will inspire our country to confront and change racist policies and recommit to caring for the environment. We also hope that we will carry this community-building creativity forward. We hope there will be more appreciation for service workers, many of whom we never see, who work for little pay but were designated “essential” because they are and have been at risk while the rest of us hung out at home baking and streaming Netflix. Our greatest fear is that there will be a severe relapse, or second wave of infection and hospitalizations before treatment or a vaccine is available, sending us back into shutdown for months. But another fear is that the pandemic will continue as a slow burn. Life may look “normal,” while tens of thousands of additional people die over the coming months, tacitly written off as expendable because we couldn’t accept any other path forward.

We hope this experience will inspire our country to confront and change racist policies and recommit to caring for the environment

We want everyone who has been working on the front lines during this time to know we sincerely appreciate their work on our behalf. Their stress level far exceeds ours. So, thank you to the service workers, delivery people, sanitation workers, hospital staff, and anyone else who has endured weeks of heightened exposure, often for low wages. Thanks also to educators of all kinds and the administrative teams who support them as they have worked so hard to keep school going online for our sons. And we’d like all of you to know we’re glad to be here with you in Westport. We’re fine, and we’re looking forward to seeing everyone in person once it’s safe to do so. 

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: David Adam Waldman

A life-long Westporter who has lived in town for fifty years, having moved here at age one, David Waldman owns David Adam Realty, a commercial real estate brokerage, management and development company , founded in 1991.   

I and my wife and three kids (15, 17 and 23) were quarantined at my home down by the beach from early March . As a developer: I spent the last 30 years developing projects which were designed to be interactive with the community–to be active and crowded. For example,  I always loved driving by the Spotted Horse and no matter when I did, it was always crowded with people enjoying each other and living life.  To see our world shut down and realizing very quickly that this “invisible enemy” was not going away any time soon, I began to really worry about my business and quickly began to feel the pain of how Covid-19 was going to change my immediate future and potentially long term future.  National tenants stopped paying rent, restaurants and stores which were thriving are now struggling to stay afloat.  [At the time of this interview] It is now [late] June and things have begun to get better in terms of my business.  Of the 150 tenants I have across my portfolio, I made deals with over 100 of them to date, which has collectively cost me over $3 million in lost revenue. And while rent has been paid and I can again pay my obligations, I am afraid the entertainment aspect of our very social lives is going to take some vaccine to bring back what we have now all lost.  

As a father, I was petrified from the first 30 days.  I am a Type 1 diabetic, as is one of my children so we locked down our household and tried to limit our potential exposure:  No people inside the house; grocery shopping in masks (horrible) and gloves and then wipe it all down.  This went on for 30-40 days. As my wife and I watched the hospitalizations and deaths continue to decrease, we began to allow our kids to see their friend groups, allowed them see one another outside, at the beach etc.  The biggest change in my mind, and in particular my fear,  came after the protests began (and still go on).  While I understand the circumstances which prompted these protests, I was pissed that after shutting down mine and my family’s life for 45+ days and following the guidelines put forth by our leaders,  thousands of people decided they were done and this was a worthy cause to go out into the world, not socially distant and paying little to no attention to the reasons we stayed home for so long.   

[As downtown opens up again] my fear is that it comes back and our government tries to shut our lives, stores and restaurants down again.  With that said, I am so pleased with the initiatives and creative ways businesses are trying to make a go of it.  Having tables and chairs spread out on sidewalks is great and makes people feel safer.  My favorite new “creative” outlet for social gathering is the Remarkable Theater Group’s Drive in theater on Imperial.  It opened to a sold-out crowd (67 cars) and again the next Saturday. It was full of families and adults seeking social interaction in a safe and controlled manner. I pray these initiatives continue after COVID. 

I would like to see the state of CT “capitalize” COVID.  What I mean is, COVID has accelerated Millennials’ desire to leave big cities for the suburbs to raise families. In the past 60 days over 10,000 people have migrated INTO Connecticut and Westport. Prior to COVID we were losing people and corporations on a daily basis. CT needs to become a more business-friendly State. The exodus from big cities is going to continue (unlike 9-11 where it was short lived).  As for our town, my wish is that we stop creating “plans” which never get off the shelf and start doing things.  We need a theater downtown.  We need a public playground, we need our streets and landscape beds to look full of life and color and not just weeds.  I really hope that people begin to realize how nice it is to be able to live in a place like Westport, where the community cares about one another and where the Town supports (financially) the catalytic things needed to allow Westport and Downtown to thrive.

I guess what I would like to share is that my vision of our downtown has been at the forefront of my business career for over 25 years.  Unlike most developers who build outside their own communities, I have been blessed to be able to help shape our community.  I have tried to create attractive, well-built projects that make people stop, look and enjoy.  I may have rubbed some people the wrong way but in the end, I stuck to my beliefs and followed through on my promises.  In the end I wish we were a world of “and” not “or”.  Rich and poor, Black and White, Democrat and Republican.  Growing up I remember our world being more understanding of the opposite opinion’s and beliefs. Today I only hear hatred, disgust when it comes to our individual beliefs. We need to all understand that each and everyone one of us on this planet can make a difference in the world we live in and will leave our children. Our planet needs us to take better care of it.  In my mind, in a post-COVID environment, we need to unite all humans under a simply but steadfast premise, “treat others (and our planet) like you would want to be treated”.   

We need to all understand that each and everyone one of us on this planet can make a difference in the world we live in and will leave our children

Explore More of “Westport In Focus”

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