Focus On: Arlene Yolles

Arlene Yolles has lived in Westport since 1979. A retired math teacher, Arlene writes a blog of amusing anecdotes called (A)musings by Arlene at A long-time supporter and volunteer at the Westport Museum, Arlene is also an avid walker and bicyclist who works part time as a math tutor.

“It’s hard to believe we are more than a year into this pandemic. In February, 2020, my husband and I were on a cruise ship from Florida, and I don’t remember hearing anything about Covid-19. A week later, the very same cruise ship was quarantined for 2 weeks with passengers since many of them were infected! A couple of days after we returned we started hearing about it, but it wasn’t critical. Then, of course the whole town began to isolate from March 13, following the schools.   

The biggest change for me, like for most people, is that I’m used to seeing people every day. I am not one to stay in my house. I’m not an early riser but I used to be out of the house by one o’clock and didn’t come back until five. I used to spend a lot of time at the Y—not just for exercise and yoga classes but because there were so many people I spoke to: my Y friends. You get a lot of good advice in the women’s locker room, just standing and talking! I miss the camaraderie.   

I still go out every day for a walk around the neighborhood or I will take my car to Compo and walk around the beach. People are very considerate. When this began, you know, back in March, 2020, if somebody was coming towards me on the sidewalk, I would cross over to the other side. Or if I couldn’t, I would go six feet out into the road where no car was coming. And now I find people are doing that as a matter of course as well as wearing masks. I am grateful for the help and friendliness of our neighbors and people who live in Westport.  

Nothing in my life really prepared me for this because I’ve been fortunate — there have been no dreadful illnesses in my family. Plus, I am not a forward thinker. I like to mull over things in the past rather than think about the future. So, I couldn’t imagine something like this. Did my personal life prepare me for this? Not really, but I think I’m coping well considering that this is totally different from my usual life.   

Everything is a new experience. The good thing is that we’re in touch with everybody from everywhere, it doesn’t matter where the person is, you can be connected online. My background as Math teacher serves me well with computer literacy.  I’m 76 years old and I know a lot of people my age who have trouble with stuff like this but I’ve learned what I need to learn about Zoom, WhatsApp, etc.  

My husband, Marty, knows so much about technology and electronics as an electronics engineer that we’re never at a loss.  We enjoy many cultural activities online from places we used to buy tickets from like the 92nd Street Y and The Music Theater of Connecticut. Lifetime Learners offers us classes. We also take advantage of local theater productions, library programs, and of course the Westport Museum’s activities, all remotely. We’ve attended a virtual Bas Mitzvah, Thanksgiving, a Seder, Sabbath services and, sadly, a funeral.  My Thursday night poker game has gone virtual so that’s something I look forward to each week! 

I’m not tutoring online — it wouldn’t be the same experience and I feel sorry for teachers and parents of school children during the pandemic. Both my daughter and step-daughter are teachers and find this a very challenging time.  A friend of mine teaches pre-school and that’s a nightmare!  How do you teach little ones how to tie their shoes, take care of bathroom activities, etc. without getting close to them?  

I’m personally more afraid of getting sick with COVID than of dying from it.  I have a pretty good immune system. I’m very healthy.  I am a biker and a swimmer and look forward to going back to the Y when I feel it’s safe enough. Maybe after my second vaccination!  My other fear is that people I love may get sick. My hope is that we look at things a little bit differently in the future and realize how much we owe to neighbors, friends, relatives, loved ones. My hope is that we should learn from and keep some of the things we’ve adopted such as being considerate, caring, and helping people who are less fortunate, like elderly or sick people.

 I hear good stories about people helping others but I’m disappointed that the numbers are increasing, although it was predicted with colder weather and schools opening up.  I think Westport is doing well; I see people being responsible, wearing masks and socially distancing.  What I don’t see, however, is what happens in their homes. I fear that here, as well as in cities across our nation, people are exhausted from restrictions and yearn for company (as I do) and invite friends and family into their homes without sufficient caution to not spread the virus.  When I see large crowds on the news – many people not wearing masks – it’s worrisome.

If we are ever faced with another pandemic, I hope we’re better prepared. And I hope that our nation’s leaders prepare us earlier, not say it’s a hoax or it’s not happening. And take a real hard look at how we are set up in our hospitals. It’s easy to say eh we don’t need this, nothing like this has ever happened in 50 years. But when it happens, you need it. And so don’t be so fast to get rid of it. You know? Equipment or a committee or whatever.

We have to take care of ourselves and our planet.  This isn’t the first virus we have encountered and it won’t be the last.  We have to listen to the scientists and doctors who give us advice and procedures to follow. We all need to pull together to combat such devastating medical emergencies as this and those that will arise.” 

We have to listen to the scientists and doctors who give us advice and procedures to follow

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: Monique Hodges, President, Westport Young Woman’s League

Monique Hodges is the current President of the Westport Young Woman’s League which she joined in 2016. A Wethersfield native who works as a Dermatological Sales Representative, Hodges moved to Westport last Fall from Norwalk where she lived after graduating from the University of Connecticut, Storrs in 2009. She credits her experiences as a member of the WYWL with her love for Westport and choice to make the town home.   

I have been a member of WYWL since 2016, serving on the Board of Directors as PR Co-Chair and Vice President. The WYWL is a Member funded nonprofit organization which has been a pillar in Westport since 1956 and I am the first African American person to be President of the league—that’s very exciting to me but I hope more that it’s motivating to other persons of color. Westport is an amazing community for many different reasons but there is a lot of room to grow in terms of diversity. Being a part of a community that is open to inclusion is the first step. Westport residents understand that inclusion isn’t a pie with limited pieces. Opportunity should be looked at as unlimited. Having persons of color in leadership roles matters and representation matters.   

The WYWL has been greatly impacted by COVID-19. Neither of our 2020 Flagship fundraisers provided us with funds for our grants program. The Minute Man Race was canceled and CraftWestport was virtual to promote the artists; some who have participated in the show for decades. Historically, these have been the only sources of funds we pull from for our WYWL Grant Program.   

We see what people (and organizations) are made of in challenging times and this year will prove to be no different. Our Membership has rallied together, supporting each other, and creating new fundraisers throughout the year. We hope these events will uplift and unite our community in these uncertain and stressful times. Visit our website for more information and be sure to follow us on Instagram and Facebook to stay in the know about our events.   

COVID-19 has taught us all to be more flexible. It has shown us that in this day in age, transformation is necessary. I believe that nonprofits and cultural institutions should get used to becoming more innovative. Tradition is beautiful and should be honored, but it should go hand-in-hand with transformation—both can exist. As long as the people in charge of nonprofit groups keep the organization’s mission as its guide, there might be minor setbacks but longevity is about constant purpose. 

Personally, COVID-19 has greatly impacted my daily life. Working in Dermatology for a pharmaceutical company, I am responsible for supporting four prescription products and a consumer line for over 137 health care providers and their staff throughout CT, MA, and RI. By March, I went from logging over 4,500 miles a month for work in my car to zero. The day-to-day aspect of work became emails, virtual meetings and making sure my providers, who most had to temporarily close, were ok. Now things are more back to normal than not but there’s still a ways to go. 

My family, who I’m greatly close with, moved to Zoom only face to face contact. Both of my parents are high risk and worrying about them constantly was the hardest. I quarantined with my partner as he and I didn’t have family close.   

Work travel has been limited and sporadic. The impact to closures of Dermatology offices has been varied; some closed completely while others never closed. As the individual mandatory quarantines are lifted in the surrounding states, it takes a lot of pre-planning to rout my week and months across three states.  

Because I am a woman of color, gender and race relations is often top of mind for me. I have most definitely reflected on this moment in history with respect to both COVID-19 and racial inequality and injustice. I hope that all races and genders see value in dignifying all human life. I believe that confronting the United States’ tumultuous young history with Black people is key and understanding that history is the foundation of the biases and inequalities we see today. 

I hope that all races and genders see value in dignifying all human life.

Both COVID-19 and racial inequality and injustice have really highlighted the challenges we face as a nation. People need jobs, and they need those jobs to be able to pay for their cost of living no matter what economic class they’re in; that includes healthcare and education. I hope to see changes in how much people are paid for their time, and have access to healthcare, and education.    

I’d like to thank the WYWL Membership in these difficult times. As a member-funded nonprofit, our members are the gears behind the organization. They are like a second family to me and we lean on each other for more than just our nonprofit duties. We have many levels of Membership: Past Presidents who give me guidance and offer encouragement and invaluable advice to me, Sustainers who have been Members anywhere from 50 to seven years, who have seen the organization grow through many seasons, General Members and New Members who are looking for a new connection. We have a special group and I am very proud to be a part of the Westport Young Woman’s League.  

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: Will Haskell

Will Haskell made news in 2018 when he was elected in as Connecticut’s youngest state senator. Haskell represents District 26 of which Westport is a part. 

I grew up in Westport and graduated from the Westport Public Schools. As did my dad, actually! I think those of us who are fortunate enough to grow up in this town have a tremendous responsibility to give back. We benefited from a first-rate education, so now we need to roll up our sleeves and make sure every school in Connecticut has the resources to help students succeed. 

In school, I wasn’t involved in student government, but I was always interested in politics. I majored in Government in college, which has come in handy! And I minored in French, which… hasn’t yet.  

In high school, I used to knock doors for Senator Chris Murphy and Congressman Jim Himes before I was old enough to drive. Of course, I certainly didn’t expect to run for office right out of college. But I felt there was an urgency to many of the problems we were facing, and my generation often didn’t have a seat at the decision-making table. I disagreed with the incumbent state senator on a variety of issues, from gun violence prevention to Paid Family and Medical Leave. So, I decided to come home and start knocking on doors again –this time for my own campaign. 

I really love being a state senator, and in the face of everything that’s happening in Washington, DC, I believe state governments will play a critical role in defending access to healthcare, protecting our environment and promoting dignity and equality. There are so many pressing problems with the state of our state and, more broadly, the state of our politics that I haven’t given much thought to a long-term plan. 

I believe strongly that Connecticut needs workforce housing. Every year, tens of thousands of college students earn their degree in this state, and then they pick up and start their careers elsewhere. Connecticut, and Fairfield County in particular, isn’t affordable or appealing to the next generation of taxpayers. As a 24-year-old, I can tell you first-hand how challenging it can be to find a place to live in town. And this isn’t just a problem for recent graduates –it’s a problem for our local economy. Businesses, both small and large, often tell me that they can’t find a young, diverse, tech-savvy workforce to fill 21st century jobs. So, while I support local control of zoning decisions, I believe communities like ours can only benefit from creating more diversity in housing options. Teachers, firefighters and police officers who serve this community ought to be able to afford to live in this community. 

When I was growing up in Westport, my world extended from Exit 17 to Exit 19. I think a lot of folks who are lucky enough to grow up in town forget that a 10-minute drive on I-95 can carry you across a $100,000 difference in median income. Of course, income inequality is a problem across the country, but nowhere is it more acute than Fairfield County. That’s why I supported an increase in the minimum wage, which will give more than 300,000 Connecticut residents (the majority of whom are women) a raise this year. Representing this community in the State Capitol means spending a lot of time listening to and learning from my colleagues who represent communities that are very different from Westport. 

When it comes to major social issues like COVID preparedness and safety and to racial justice, Westport was hit early on by COVID-19, and I think that jarring experience left a lasting impression on our community. These days, we understand the importance of wearing a mask, heed the advice of public health officials and continue to wash our hands constantly. We all knew someone who was impacted, and we understand the stakes of this moment are simply too high to allow politics to get in the way of science. I give the team at Town Hall a lot of credit for their tireless work to contain the virus, and I think the state as a whole has done a pretty good job as well. Although we’re not out of the woods yet, Connecticut hasn’t shied away from making tough decisions. 

On racial justice, I will never forget the student-led demonstration on the Ruth Steinkraus Cohen bridge in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. I’ve been to a lot of demonstrations on that bridge; in support of the Paris Climate Accord, in opposition to Justice Kavanaugh’s confirmation, in disgust at children being put in cages at the border. I had never seen a crowd this large, and frankly, this young. Students from my alma mater spoke bravely and eloquently about the need for increased oversight in policing and increased diversity in town. Elected officials didn’t speak — we listened. Young people led the way. If that isn’t a metaphor for what we need in politics right now, I don’t know what is. 

Young people led the way. If that isn’t a metaphor for what we need in politics right now, I don’t know what is. 

There’s a ton of work to do in the months and years ahead. One issue that particularly interests me is increasing the number of teachers of color in Westport. Research indicates that having even one Black teacher in an elementary school increases the likelihood that a Black student will graduate by 39%. Having a more diverse faculty is beneficial to students of all races and ethnicities, but sadly less than 7% of Connecticut teachers are people of color. I don’t remember many people of color at the head of the classroom during my time in the Westport Public Schools, and I hope the state can play a role in changing that. 

I spend a lot of time talking with our campaign interns about how their lives have changed so dramatically, and my heart breaks for all the sacrifices they’ve made. I know it’s tempting to flout the rules and return to some sense of normalcy. All I can say is the decisions we make today will either save lives tomorrow or put them into jeopardy. Our generation tends to feel invincible to the threat of COVID-19, but keep in mind that the safety of our parents and grandparents’ rests on our shoulders. The more we adhere to the advice of public health officials, the sooner we can turn the page and begin a better chapter in life. 

This public health crisis has become an economic crisis, with too many small businesses struggling to keep their doors open. Take a walk down Main Street and you’ll see all the work that lies ahead to make this community more hospitable to entrepreneurs. If I have an opportunity to continue serving, I’ll be focused on extending a helping hand to small businesses and lowering the cost of healthcare. With the price of healthcare skyrocketing, more than 50% of small businesses in Connecticut can’t afford to provide their employees with healthcare coverage. I hope that Connecticut will enact a public option next year, introducing competition into the insurance marketplace and helping small businesses thrive. 

If I were to sum it up what keeps me up at night, it’s the fact that some people are so frustrated by what they see on TV, they are retreating from politics. Regardless of your political beliefs, this is a moment that calls for rolling up your sleeves, not throwing up your hands. We can’t sit back and wait for somebody else to restore decency, respect and reason to our government. As President Obama said, “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” I hope this terrible year inspires people to lean in, not step back.  

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: Rev. Dr. John T. Morehouse

Rev. Dr. John T. Morehouse, Senior Minister of the Unitarian Church in Westport has lived in Westport since 2015. 

The Morehouses have been living in Fairfield for centuries. Some are undoubtedly distant relatives. I am also a descendant of Noah Webster who has roots in this area. I find that fact especially ironic because I am such a terrible speller. My great grandfather the Rev. Daniel Webster Morehouse served as a Unitarian field secretary for Western MA and CT American Unitarian Association in the late 19th century. I grew up in Croton-on-Hudson NY.  

I see myself as a transformer and feel honored to be here now. 

Over the course of COVID, we quarantined with my daughter and her partner. With two very different generations in the house we all have learned a great deal.  As a father and husband, I want to do all I can to protect my family but as a minister that focus is much wider. I had to constantly balance my desire to protect the ones I love with the need to reach out to those I serve. This balance becomes harder to maintain as we begin to open up as a congregation at this important time in history.  

Social and racial justice is at the heart of our emerging faith as a progressive religious people. We have long stood behind the Black Lives Matter movement. We are committed to understanding our own white privilege and then acting our faith as allies for people of color. I’d like to see Westport keep opening to new perspectives and not be defensive. We all have something to learn. 

Social and racial justice is at the heart of our emerging faith as a progressive religious people.

When it comes to re-opening we must keep our options open. We will continue our on line worship and add small gatherings. We need to continually connect with one another in order to bring one another along. There is no normal here. It’s hard work and it will lead to a new community.

On September 23, 2020, Reverend Dr. Morehouse offered a letter to his Westport congregation reflecting upon the importance of the legacy of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg who died on Friday, September 18th. Read his letter 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: 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.