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Wednesday, August 21 News

Woog’s World / See you at the bridge

It was an important, intriguing confluence of events. But no one noticed.

Last Saturday morning, Westport welcomed dozens of guests. For the 55th straight year, we played host to men and women — ambassadors, diplomats, staff members — who work at the United Nations, and their spouses and children.

They come for a day of fun, getting out of New York City to experience a typical American town (ho ho). They play golf, tennis and soccer; they enjoy the beach and downtown. Speeches are minimized, hospitality maximized. It’s one of the best things Westport does, and we’ve been doing it — efficiently, comfortably and relatively low-key — since 1965. That was the height (or depth) of the Cold War.

jUNe Day — a hokey way of writing it, but it works — was the brainchild of Ruth Steinkraus Cohen. A Juilliard-trained pianist and teacher, she was also a singer, editor, radio host and a passionate activist for global peace.

In 1956, she worked with Eleanor Roosevelt on U.N. issues. Steinkraus Cohen returned to her Westport home, and organized the United Nations Associations of Connecticut and Southwestern Connecticut, and the International Hospitality Committee of Fairfield County. Westport’s jUNe Day is her enduring legacy.

Steinkraus Cohen died in 2002, after a long battle with cancer. The Post Road bridge over the Saugatuck River was renamed in her honor.

It’s more than just a nice gesture. The span was irrevocably linked with the global peace advocate. Every year on jUNe Day, flags of dozens of nations fly from permanent poles. It’s a wonderful sight. The colors and emblems of Russia, China, Vietnam, France, Belize, South Africa, Greece, Ecuador, Papua New Guinea, Turkey, Iceland, Bhutan, Israel, Sudan — countries that we know well and have barely heard of.

Those that are our friends and enemies (these days it can be hard to tell) stand side by side. The tableau is a vibrant, visual reminder that we’re all together here, on the only planet we’ve got.

For much of the rest of the year, those same flagpoles hold the United States’ red, white and blue. Citizens of other nations are often surprised at how much Americans wave our flag. But it’s a beautiful one. Outlined against the river and National Hall, it’s a wonderful sight. As you drive down the Post Road hill or head past Starbucks (another, less wonderful national icon), it’s one of our town’s best photo ops.

The American flags on the Ruth Steinkraus Cohen Bridge symbolize something crucial: our nation’s ideal of free speech.

For as long as Westport has celebrated jUNe Day, we’ve honored the right to speak up and out. Long before the bridge was renamed, it was the site of political protests. Weekly Saturday morning vigils against the Vietnam War began in front of the old Town Hall (now Jesup Hall and Rothbard Ale + Larder restaurants). But protesters soon migrated to the bridge.

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In the years that followed, the span became the de facto gathering place for protests of all types. Nuclear disarmament, Iraq and Afghanistan, climate change, President Donald Trump’s Muslim ban — if there was a cause, the call went out: “See you at the bridge!”

The Ruth Steinkraus Cohen Bridge is one of the most visible spots in town. It’s a place where traffic slows, and drivers honk their horns in solidarity (or give a middle finger, in disagreement). And one of the goals of any protest is to build a bridge, from what’s happened in the past to what one hopes will happen in the future.

So it was not unexpected that last Saturday’s protest on the Ruth Steinkraus Cohen Bridge coincided with jUNe Day. The latest gathering was hastily arranged by actor Jim Naughton and former state representative, House Republican minority leader and Syrian Fund activist Ken Bernhard.

The impetus was the conditions of migrant camps on America’s southwest border. Images of filth, overcrowding, children caring for infants impelled Naughton and Bernhard to act.

They were joined by Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal, and Westport’s three selectmen — two Republicans, one Democrat. Kelli O’Hara, Naughton’s daughter-in-law, sang the national anthem, before heading to New York to star in two performances of “Kiss Me, Kate.” An 8-year-old held a sign: “Kids should be treated with kindness.”

Drivers honked and gave thumbs-up signs. They marveled at the scene: a political protest, as the flags of dozens of nations flapped in the breeze.

I don’t know if any of our many U.N. guests saw it. But if they had, they would have gotten a better look at Westport — and America — than any beach, golf course or downtown shopping center could ever provide.

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog's World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.

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