Chocolatespoon: Emily’s Musings

Woog’s World

Posted on: October 26, 2006

Dan Woog wrote a lovely piece about Grandpa for the 10/20 issue of the Westport News: Ralph Sheffer: A Man And His Town.

Here’s a copy of the column in case the other sites stop archiving it:

In the fall of 1953, Ralph and Betty Sheffer’s third child, Jonathan, was born. Ralph stayed up all night, then took the train to New York City to work all day as an advertising executive. That evening he attended a coffee for candidates for the upcoming Representative Town Meeting election.

“In those days, lots of people ran in every district,” his daughter, Ann Sheffer, recalled last week. “There were 15 candidates, and everyone spoke for two minutes. When my father got up to talk, he fainted. I think he got the sympathy vote from all the women.”

Ralph Sheffer won that election. He went on to serve 16 years on the RTM, 10 of them as moderator. He chaired the Nike Site Committee, which developed the North Avenue property where Staples High School and Bedford Middle School now sit. As moderator he also helped the town of Westport purchase Longshore Club Park.

Sheffer – who died last month at age 93 – did much, much more for his adopted hometown. He was a driving force behind the Westport Public Library, Westport Arts Center and the Westport Historical Society. He helped build Coleytown Elementary School. He even donated his talents to the “Coleytown Capers,” a PTA fundraiser starring enough entertainment professionals to stock a Broadway show.

All those accomplishments have been highlighted in the weeks following Sheffer’s death. But underlying his half century of devotion to Westport is the question: “Why?” What makes such a high-powered man – a Columbia University rower, Iwo Jima hero, Madison Avenue businessman and fundraiser extraordinaire for the United States Olympic Committee – devote so much time and energy to causes like local government and an elementary school?

“After World War II, a lot of our parents got married and decided they wanted a different type of suburb than where they grew up, in New York and Long Island,” Sheffer’s daughter Ann said. “Something about Westport attracted them. It had a bit of an edge. I can’t imagine what the old Yankees who were here for generations thought.”

Westport was not unfamiliar to the Sheffers. Betty’s parents, Aaron and Clara Rabinowitz, came here in 1928 to join their friend, social reformer Lillian Wald, whose South Compo Road home Eleanor Roosevelt often visited. When Ralph and Betty got married in 1947, the Rabinowitzes gave them a five-acre plot on Bayberry Lane (the site today of the Westport-Weston Health District). The Sheffers built a summer home there, and became full-time residents in 1951.

“As often happens with newcomers, the men got pulled into suburban life by their kids,” Ann said. “All week long, the town was filled with women and children. The men were in New York from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Family life was packed into the weekends.”

Despite their long hours at work, and aboard the less-than-glamorous New Haven Railroad, the men of Ralph Sheffer’s generation found time for civic involvement. For some, it was both an extension of their day jobs – a competitive, masculine environment – and a chance to make an immediate impact.

It was also a challenge. “When my father ran for moderator, the RTM was pretty partisan,” Ann said. “The Republicans – Herb Baldwin and his kitchen cabinet – ran the town. Then all the young Democratic liberals came in and tried to change things.” RTM meetings ran until 3 a.m. Members debated issues like saving Cockenoe Island from a nuclear power plant, recalling Board of Education chair Joan Schine, even whether the U.S. should withdraw from Vietnam.

“Westport has always been a contentious place,” Ann Sheffer said. “But out of that contentiousness comes amazing action.”

Her father, she said, “found something in Westport that motivated him. He loved selling, and succeeding. Raising $5 million to build the library was challenging. He didn’t care about the credit; he just wanted to get it done. The Olympics were rewarding, but he really liked using his skills to help the town. I think selling Westport meant more to him than selling cars or soda.”

Ralph Sheffer was not the only man who dedicated himself to this town, of course, and he did not work only with fellow Democrats. Ann Sheffer said that for years, her father and Republican town attorney Ed See worked together to set the RTM agenda. Allen Raymond, another Republican, was president of the library board when Sheffer ran its capital campaign. “They were very different people, but they worked together well. They each knew what they were good at, and appreciated other people’s skills.”

Ann Sheffer also credited “old, thrifty Yankee Republicans” like Herb Baldwin and John Boyd for their contributions to Westport. “They were used to getting their own way,” she said. “But they accepted anyone who wanted to work on projects to help the town.”

Ralph Sheffer’s generation – which includes women like Shirley Land – helped lay the foundation for the current crop of civic volunteers. “There are lots of wonderful people here who put enormous time and energy into Westport,” Ann Sheffer noted. However, she said, the RTM – one of her father’s passions, and a body on which she herself served – has seen a drop-off in interest. “A lot of members now are retired people. I understand – it can be draining. It’s tough if you’re out in the world all day, and have a couple of kids.

“Sometimes I think people’s motives are more personal today. But then I look at someone like Rick Benson. I disagree with him politically, but he does so much for the town. He’s involved in the Rotary Club, he helped build the Compo Beach playground – he’s doing what he’s good at, just like my father and all those other people did.”

Ann Sheffer sees parallels between the Westport her parents found in 1950, and the town she still lives in nearly 60 years later. “For years this has been a place that cares,” she said. “We tackle big causes and important projects. If people choose to live here, they ought to take advantage of Westport. For the new people here, we have to find a way to celebrate all the fun and the good things we’ve done in the past, and make it clear there’s a lot more for everyone to do. This is everyone’s town.”

Ralph Sheffer certainly made that clear, in his six long, productive and very important decades here in Westport.

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