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Friday, April 20 Opinion

Out of the Woods / Allen Raymond Jr.: A town father who knew history -- and made it

When Allen A. Raymond Jr., popularly known as "Mr. Westport," died last week at age 91, my first thought was that he deserves a section of his own in a history book about Westport that I wrote.

He was the municipal historian -- among many other things -- and was without a doubt one of the most influential pillars of the community since it was founded in 1835.

A Buffalo native, Raymond as a boy spent summers at a cottage his family built on Old Mill Beach and fulfilled a dream, he said, by moving here in 1928. He played multiple key roles in Westport -- president of the Westport Historical Society, RTM moderator, chairman of the Board of Education, chairman of the Republican Town Committee.

He, along with the late First Selectman Herb Baldwin, arranged for the town to purchase the Longshore Club Park from a private owner in 1960. It was so innovative, The New York Times reported the acquisition as national news at the top of page 1.

As president of the Westport Library, he was the chief fundraiser for construction in 1986 of its present building on Jesup Green. He also was president of the Westport-Weston Family Y, and in 2012 donated $500,000 toward building its new complex at Camp Mahackeno. He was board chairman of Earthplace and the Norwalk Symphony Orchestra.

After graduating from the University of Michigan, Raymond spent his professional life as an educational consultant, known best for the publication, "K-8," a leading magazine distributed to teachers throughout the nation. He was named to the EdPress Hall of Fame by President Bill Clinton in 1998.

It is both ironic and fitting that this splendid man who became a New England Yankee laid the groundwork for my book, "Westport, Connecticut, The Story of a New England Town's Rise to Prominence."

I was happy that Allen shared with me his own carefully researched time line of people and events, as well as his sage advice on how to approach the task.

He had a huge, hand-written time line of events and names so detailed it had to be rolled up as a scroll. Unfurled, it was about 15-feet wide. He and his late, devoted wife Barbara would display it during his anecdote-rich lectures, and it literally was the road map for my book.

Allen's insightful perspective on Westport's past enabled me to bring history to life.

"Talk to as many people as you can," he advised me, "read everything, and report whatever you find, no matter where the chips fall."

That was wonderful advice, and I followed it.

He urged me to write the book objectively -- and to include every aspect of life here, no matter how inconvenient the truth may be in hindsight -- to cover subjects such as the initial treatment of our immigrants from Europe and other parts of the world, the initial anti-Semitism that Westport displayed along with other Gold Coast towns, and the continuous bickering and political infighting of a litany of special-interest groups -- each determined to have its way.

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"We are a litigious group of people unafraid to express ourselves," he reminded me. "Dig that stuff up from the newspapers in town and tell it like it happened."

When I began my research in the late 1990s, Allen's supportive advice gave me the license and the intellectual freedom I needed. I took on the challenge from the Historical Society's Book Committee, chaired by Roy Dickinson and Pete Wolgast, with some trepidation that the society might want a book simply praising Westport's institutions and people.

Quite the contrary. They gave me the confidence to tell the whole story -- warts and all. I was delighted.

It could have been a frustrating process, but it was not. Other members of the book committee asked to read my manuscript, and that, too, was a great help. I was glad to get input from people so knowledgeable about Westport -- such as Eve Potts, Mollie Donovan (who collaborated on a previous history of Westport, illustrated by Howard Munce), Ann Sheffer, Sheila O'Neill and Miggs Burroughs, who illustrated and designed the book and jacket.

In addition, Gordon Joseloff, a lifetime Westporter, outstanding professional journalist, and local history buff, shared his constructive thoughts. I also was assisted by many Westport volunteers. Overall, it was one of the most creative and satisfying journalistic adventures I have experienced.

Woody Klein is a Westport writer, and his "Out of the Woods" appears every other Friday. He can be reached at wklein11@aol.com