Shelton school becomes Belden Cultural Center
Updated 12:42 pm, Saturday, September 23, 2017
SHELTON — The gavel that once opened legislative sessions lies quietly on the desk.
The wooden, red leather cushioned chair from his Hartford office now sits empty.
Maybe, in the opinion of some, there’s been no one big enough to fill it since Richard O. Belden, who served Shelton for 32 years as its state representative, died in 2007.
“Politics has become a different world, and not a better one, since he passed,” Mayor Mark Lauretti said. “When he gave his word, you could count on it. If he couldn’t do something, he’d tell you. He wouldn’t go around blaming others.”
On Sunday, the former Lafayette School on 54 Grove Street officially becomes the Richard O. Belden Cultural Center.
A 2 p.m. dedication ceremony is scheduled to feature remarks from Lauretti, State Rep. Jason Perillo, R-Shelton, who succeeded Belden and State Rep. Themis Klarides, D-Derby, as well as David Morgan of TEAM and George Johnson of Sikorsky Aircraft, where Belden worked for 38 years.
“The plan now is to fill the center with nonprofits,” said John F. Anglace, the president of the city’s Board of Aldermen.
Nonprofits and their ability to help people in need were Belden’s love, both Anglace and Lauretti said.
“He was a guy who believed in offering a helping hand up, rather than a handout,” Lauretti said.
Already inside the renovated 106-year-old school are TEAM, which runs a day care and elderly services program, the Valley United Way, Living Hope Church and Center Stage, a community theater group.
Francesa Scarpa, who runs theater group with her husband, Gary Scarpa, enjoys telling the classic story of Belden’s near arrest.
“Dick liked to ride his bike on the weekends, and he’d hang plastic bags off the handle for the cans and bottles he’d pick up,” she said. “Well one day a woman saw him going through her trash and called the police. The police show up and she asks them, ‘who’s that bum?’ The officer tells her, ‘that’s no bum, that’s your state representative.’ ”
The story elicits a guffaw from Anglace.
“That was Dick. He’d go around picking up cans and bottles, bringing them home and washing them out,” Anglace said. “He’d fill his garage with them and that’d drive Bertha (Belden’s wife) nuts.”
At some point, Belden would find the time to run them through some store’s redemption machine, take the cash and bring it to a group like the Boys & Girls Club, Anglace said.
And the flattened cans? You know, the ones that have been stepped on, hand-crushed or driven over so they won’t go through a machine? Belden cut a deal with Dichello Distributors in Orange. They’d take them and donate the money to one of his favorite charities.
And it didn’t stop there. Belden would pull the tabs off the aluminum cans, drop them into a huge bottle at St. Margaret Mary church which then donated them to the Ronald McDonald House.
All of that is documented in photographs and an Oct. 3, 2001, Huntington Herald story in which a little girl witnessed Belden in actions near a doughnut shop and called him a “bum.” Her mother quickly corrected her by saying he was “mentally ill.”
Belden said the comments opened his eyes.
“It raises awareness about appearances,” he told Marty Bodwicz, who authored the story. “It was an awakening how people treat other people who are not quite the same.”
Belden began his public service as a member of the city’s Board of Apportionment and Taxation in 1967, was elected to the Board of Aldermen in 1972, and two years later began his 32-year run as the state representative from the 113th District. At the time, that run was the longest in state history. There he served as deputy speaker, deputy minority leader and deputy Republican House leader.
The story, photographs and mementos of Belden’s legislative career, his days in the Air Force and at Sikorsky — are preserved in a mahogany display case at the Cultural Center. Inside the care are his Shelton High School diploma, cufflinks given him by President Ronald Reagan, photographs with former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole, Vice President Dan Quayle and Gov. M. Jodi Rell.
“Dick and Bertha were childless,” Anglace said. “He was devoted to nonprofits like the Boys & Girls Club, the Boy Scouts.”
The center’s walls are filled with plaques attesting to that. Perhaps the two that best describe Belden’s life came before and after his August 2007 death.
One from the Boys & Girls Club dated April 11, 1991, is to Dick and Bertha Belden. It reads “On behalf of all our children THANKS for being there when we needed you the most.”
The other comes from the Birmingham Group Health Service’s Umbrella Program’s 19th Annual Candlelight Vigil on Oct. 9, 2007—two months after Belden died.
It reads: “His compassion for victims of domestic violence will always be remembered.”