The Good Old Days in Darien / Ed Chrostowski
Old memories shed new light on turnpike woes
Whoever first said that it was an ill wind indeed that didn't blow some good could very well have been talking about the upheaval during construction of the Connecticut Turnpike in Darien during the '50s.
Those were the days of "thruway DPs," about 80 families and businesses uprooted as the bulldozers and trucks carved their way through Noroton Heights. It was a time when an entire section of town was marred by gaping excavations and the foundations of buildings that had been torn down or moved. Gone forever was the shopping area and the "village green," a triangular patch of lawn where Hecker, Linden (entirely eliminated) and Noroton avenues once merged and where neighbors gathered around a lighted tree to sing carols and greet Santa Claus on Christmas Eve.
Confronted by those community losses, residents found small solace in promises that the new highway would mean the end of huge trailer trucks barreling through the Post Road (or West Avenue if they couldn't squeeze under the railroad bridge in the center of town). Ultimately, of course, the promises were fulfilled and now the town is reminded of those tumultuous days only when there's a long tie-up on the Turnpike and traffic is diverted to the old route.
There also were some more immediate benefits in the chaos of Turnpike construction, however, according to Toby Smith of Albuquerqe, N.M., who grew up in Darien during that hectic era.
He recalls riding his bicycle through the turmoil, "weaving in and out of long queues of loaded dump trucks." With his pals in a bicycle brigade, he would ride over to the site of what became the rest stop area near Exit 9 at the Stamford line, but was then just a series of huge mounds of dirt. Darien kids found a "home" among those mounds and the "fort" they built there provided endless hours of fun and games.
Also high on the youngsters' entertainment list in those years was the Captain Video adventure series on television. And when the star himself came to Darien for a promotional visit, his fans were beside themselves.
Willy Demms, who was a teen band-leader when he was mentioned in this column recently, recalled his excitement when Captain Video's helicopter landed on the field in back of the old high school on Renshaw Road. Demms actually got to shake his hero's hand and hasn't ever forgotten it.
Smith was in the crowd there that Saturday afternoon too and has a somewhat less pleasant memory. What he remembers most, he says now, is that there was "great restlessness" and "several angry parents" in the crowd as "we fans had to sit and wait for more than two hours for the good captain to arrive." But Smith was a faithful "Video Ranger" and found it all worthwhile.
"Captain Video" was telecast live on the Dumont Network, which, Smith says, was so "frugal" that the production sets were made of cardboard. The series ran for several years and even after it ended, actor Al Hodge continued his personal appearances at various commercial promotions and to act in menial TV roles. Reduced to poverty, he died alone in a shabby New York hotel room in 1979. He was 67 years old.
Recent mention here of Ralph Branca, brother-in-law of Mike DeLeonardis, who had succeeded Chan Tyler as Darien's building inspector of the late 1950s, also jogged Smith's memory of the famed Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher. Branca was an ace, of course, but is remembered best for serving up the pitch that Bobby Thomson hit for a home run to win the 1951 National League pennant for the New York Giants.
Years after that game, Branca spoke at a meeting of Cub Scouts at Holmes School and "fumed visibly" when he was asked about that pitch, answering in a "snappish way and said he didn't want to talk about it."
Fans could hardly blame him. He was a first-rate pitcher, but is remembered in baseball lore for that pitch to Thomson. Actually, as time eased the pain, Branca talked about the pitch often and he and Thomson became friends, even touring together at times in promotional events. Thomson died recently. Branca is still a regular at sports dinners in Stamford, appearing often with his son-in-law, Bobby Valentine, former manager of the New York Mets.
Several readers have reacted also to a recent column about Johnny Maher, the revered Darien High School football coach whose major claim to fame seemed to be that none of his teams ever had lost to arch-rival New Canaan.
Yet, it was Maher who steered one of New Canaan's all-time brightest stars to a successful college football career. It was 1962 and college recruiters seemed to be bypassing New Canaan's bruising fullback, Pete DiVenere, until Darien's coach stepped in. Maher called an old friend of his, Marvin Bass, who had just been named head coach at the University of South Carolina, and told him DiVenere was "definitely worth a look." Bass invited DiVenere to the campus and liked what he saw. DiVenere went on to play in the South Carolina backfield that was led by quarterback Dan Reeves who later played in two Super Bowls and coached teams in four others.
Other stories focused on the time Darien beat New Canaan, 70-0. It was 1962 and the score led to suspension of the rivalry for nine years.
As the story goes, Maher had a habit of keeping his team in the locker-room until the very last minute to give the waiting opponent the jitters. That afternoon, however, he kept them in too long; they were almost 15 minutes late for the kick-off at Mead Park in New Canaan. The refs assessed a 15-yard penalty, but Maher objected, claiming the team had been locked in, New Canaan Coach Joe Sikorski relented and, in the interest of sportsmanship, waived the penalty, but Maher remained angry and turned his team loose, running the score up to 70-0. One version said the student manager had neglected to unlock the door. Others claimed that Maher simply had lost track of time and then decided to take advantage of Sikorski's good nature. Asked about it later at the Piedmont Club, Maher would only grin.
Ed Chrostowski was editor of the Darien Review in the '50s. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.