The Good Old Days in Darien / Ed Chrostowski
Probate court stays "home" after New Canaan mergers
There's something comforting that communities find in having their own Probate Court close by to tend to sensitive needs of local families with neighborly compassion.
Last week, after the state-ordered merger of the Darien and New Canaan probate districts, it was decided to house the new combined court in Darien's more commodious facilities. More than processing estates and reading wills, probate judges assign conservators and guardians and preside over myriad life-changing matters. That this delicate work will continue right here at home is re-assuring because this is where the standards were set so high by a distinguished gentleman, J. Walton Clark, in 1950.
With his shock of snow-white hair and a flowing handlebar mustache, Judge Clark looked tweedy and professorial as he walked daily in long, purposeful strides between his law office near the movie theatre and the old town hall at the corner of Mansfield Avenue.
Confidential files were kept in a vault there, which in the old days had been the police lock-up, and court hearings were held, when necessary, upstairs where two classrooms in the original Royle School had been combined. A wooden railing, equipped with a swinging gate, separated the "bench" from the people. The Board of Selectmen also sat beyond the railing for its meetings there.
Judge Clark was right out of central casting, a man of dignity and integrity. He was a staunch guardian of the privacy essential to matters before his court, but he was not above tipping off a young reporter when a will contained newsworthy provisions such as major bequests to local institutions.
Yet there was another unsuspected side to Judge Clark. He was a man of the sea, an adventure-seeker, and one summer day he set out to satisfy both passions. Early that morning, he shoved off from Pear Tree Point alone in an 18-foot sailboat and announced that his next port of call would be in England.
Alas, fitful winds wreaked havoc with his solo trans-Atlantic voyage. Less than a day later, his little boat ran aground on a reef off the Maine coast. Both, the sailor and his craft, made the return trip home to Darien in the conventional way.
Judge Clark wasn't the only man in Darien who surprised people with traits that were uncharacteristic of their public persona. For examples, take Vincent "Ole" Anderson and Walter Ponichtera, two burly police officers who looked like the toughest, strongest guys on the force.
It was unusual, then, to see Anderson mopping his sweaty brow and drying tearful eyes one day when he was on desk duty at the police station. He had just finished talking with a woman giving birth at home and it was imminent when she called headquarters for help. Anderson, a former football player, guided her, step by step, through the process and when the ambulance arrived, the crew was greeted by a bawling baby boy. It was a new and harrowing experience for all three -- mother, baby and policeman.
Ponichtera, who ultimately became a lieutenant, waded through waist-high water to reach a man who had suffered a heart attack when his car stalled in a flood under the Post Road railroad bridge. Wally carried him to dry land at George Brencher's gas station at the corner of Mechanic Street where an ambulance awaited. Ponichtera also was the photographer in the early years of the Darien Historical Society and for a big guy he had a soft touch with a putter on the golf course.
Dick Borneman, probably the tallest man on the force, came in handy in floods. He always was able to keep his head above water.
There were as many stories as there were policemen in Darien. Rookies like John Jordan, Angelo Toscano and Gerry Kennedy, began their careers with minimum training, learning on the job from the seasoned veterans. The department had a nice balance of new and old and there was plenty of experience for the newcomers to draw on.
Chief Ed Mugavero, called "Sam" when he was a motorcycle cop, had been a State Police veteran and had a gimpy arm to show for a gun battle he once had with a rum-runner. There also was Bill Foreit, one of the original officers, and Lt. Frank Standing, then Sgt. Harold Curtis, followed in the Detective Bureau by Sgt. Hugh McManus Sr., all fine investigators. And there was big tough Lt. Walt Berquist, who choked back sobs when two young women from Stamford were killed when their car was hit by a train at the Camp Avenue crossing as they left the cemetery after visiting their mother's grave.
Bowlegged Charlie Murphy, Tokeneke's own one-man police department, knew the intricate web of roads in that section of town better than anybody. And he taught it well to the "temps" he hired to help patrol those roads in the busy summers. One of those specials was Lenny Frate, who went on to become active in police associations throughout the state.
Frate was always joking and laughing at the Piedmont Club, but he was dead serious when it came to his awesome responsibilities as assistant principal at a middle school in Stamford. Lenny, called "The Namer" because he always had a nickname for everybody, also took side jobs officiating at area high school football games as did Police Officer Bill Richards. Frate's other summer job was at Pear Tree Point as gatekeeper.
They weren't the only policemen with unexpected talents. Cliff DeForest became a popular stand-up comedian at stag parties and retirement dinners and Charlie Slade, never seen without a smile, had been an accomplished musician with the St. John's marching band.
Joe Turturino, always breathless as he rushed from one moonlighting job to another, drove a truck hauling shipments of printed materials to the cargo planes at the airports for the Review Corporation.
But perhaps the most surprising of all was quiet, handsome Allan Cottrell. One summer he landed a part-time job in the security detail for actress Martha Raye while she was starring in a show at the Westport Country Playhouse. So taken was he by the glitz and glamour of show biz that he resigned from the police force and joined the full-time Raye entourage.
Someone once said that you can't tell a book by its cover. It was like that with many of the town characters, who had hidden talents and interests, in the good old days in Darien.
Ed Chrostowski was editor of the Darien Review during the '50s. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.