The Good Old Days in Darien / Ed Chrostowski
Women always played leading roles in town
Way back in the dark ages of the 1950s, it was often said that women's place was in the kitchen, but if that was really so in Darien, they certainly cooked up the right recipes for community vitality.
Their daily presence beyond home and hearth became apparent right from the very morning when Lottie Frate sold you your newspaper at the Darien News Store or Irene Ohrn served you coffee at the Noroton Heights diner and it continued well into the night when they took leadership roles at town hall meetings.
Irene Winter ran the Post Road hardware store with some help from her husband, Joe, and Hilda Nielsen made her flower shop bloom before her son, Gerry, took over.
When a new shopping center was being developed by Sam Grasso and John Nastasi out in the hinterlands off Old King's Highway, Liz Lucas pioneered retail expansion from the traditional Post Road center. Her "Land and Sea" women's boutique was among the first stores at what is now the thriving Goodwives Shopping Center.
And could the old Darien Review ever have managed to publish every Thursday if Mae Cahill wasn't there morning, noon and night to correct all the mistakes and to help manager Charlie Mitchell find his daily chocolate bar? Nor could publisher Alfred Phillips function without Jean Wylie.
There were lots of others, of course. When a huge elm at the corner of the Post Road had to be cut down and a big old house there was razed, front page news in 1950, Ellen Harrell's gift shop and Margo Moore's women's wear were the trail-blazers in a row of new stores built there.
Bertha Mather McPherson was one of the community's "leading ladies" in that era. She was the unofficial town historian and one of the founders of the Darien Historical Society (along with Bob Fatherley and Dick King).
The role came to her naturally. She was descended from the famous Mather brothers of colonial times -- Cotton (who was yanked from the pulpit by Tory raiders as he preached at the Darien Congregational Church more than 250 years ago), Increase and Moses.
Her great-grandfather was Stephen T. Mather, founder of the national parks system. It's no coincidence that there's a Stephen Mather Road in Darien and that she lived there with her husband, Ted, who was the town's attorney.
Women were key figures in all the local churches and perhaps the most notable were Mrs. Michael DeLeonardis at St. John's and Mrs. John Henrichs, who led development of the Methodist parish from its small quarters on the Post Road (now serving a Baptist congregation) to a new and larger edifice on Middlesex Road.
Still among the town's greatest assets, the Darien Community Association began quietly as a women's social group meeting in various homes. Then it acquired its own building, "Meadowlands," on Middlesex Road where programs include academic courses and leading speakers.
The business acumen and perseverance that led the way was provided by many energetic women, but the names that spring most readily to mind are Kay Esquerre, Mrs. P. Hurley Bogardus, Mrs. Don Buell, Mrs. Harrison Henry and Mrs. Alan Fort.
Other women, like Jean Massengale and Edith Pierrepont, wore many community hats, but focused their attention primarily on public school matters. Their husbands, Jack Massengale and John Pierrepont, had served as moderators of the Representative Town Meeting and so they were naturally active also in civic affairs.
Women were among the most outstanding teachers as well. Memorable particularly are Dr. Helen Merritt and Miss Elsa Petterson at Darien High. In addition to teaching English, the latter also was the drama coach and is well remembered for the long handwritten releases she brought to the newspaper to publicize student productions.
Those were the days, too, of the Darien Showcase, precursor of the Darien Arts Council, with Esther Tyler as the driving force. The Troupers Light Opera Company, still going strong, was just beginning to gain acclaim then for its Gilbert and Sullivan productions. Betty Day and her husband, Lloyd, led the way with all their work behind the scenes. Lloyd always dreamed of actually going on stage and finally got his chance as a walk-on (and off) spear-carrier.
And there was that great lady, a Tokeneke resident with a shining smile that reflected her name, Colgate. Beatrice, "Aunt Bea" to the local kids, wrote children's stories and personality sketches for the local paper. There were many other women authors in town too, including Mrs. Milton Glick and Mrs. Louise Hall Tharpe and, of course, Anne Morrow Lindbergh.
Then as now, politics was a favored activity for women. Mrs. Gordon (Betty) Lamont hobnobbed at the upper levels of Republican ranks and dinner guests at her Tokeneke home routinely included the likes of John Davis Lodge, then governor. She also was the founder of the Darien Book Aid Plan.
Eleanor (Mrs. George) Champion dabbled in the national GOP hierarchy while several others were active locally -- Emily Shultheiss and then Terese Fromholz on the Board of Selectmen, Gertrude Dugdale of the DAR as registrar of voters and Marjorie Farmer as a leader in the State Senate. And this was in an era when women in elective offices was still a rarity.
Emma Sandmeyer, Mary Selas, Ruth Scofield, Winifred Avery, Marie Frate and Eleanor Pratt were invaluable town hall aides while Mrs. Gordon Aymar was a staunch leader in social justice and civil rights movements.
Betty Flaherty and Myrtle McIntyre practically ran the Noroton Water Company (with some help from Steve Gannon and Walter Brunner) and Felicia Townsend barked out the orders at Ox Ridge horse shows in her cultured British accent.
So, even far from complete, it's a long list covering almost all aspects of community life and just a hint of the role women played in shaping Darien and its values more than half a century ago.
Ed Chrostowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org