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Activist David Royce recalled as a gadfly who never stopped dreaming

Updated 5:52 pm, Wednesday, April 9, 2014

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  • Despite illness, longtime Westport activist David Royce last year stood on the Ruth Steinkraus Cohen Bridge for the weekly vigil amid flags from around the world, which were installed for the local observance of jUNe Day. Photo: File Photo / Westport News

    Despite illness, longtime Westport activist David Royce last year stood on the Ruth Steinkraus Cohen Bridge for the weekly vigil amid flags from around the world, which were installed for the local observance of jUNe Day.

    Photo: File Photo

 

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David Royce knew how to push buttons. He was actually pretty good at that, his son Zachary said of the inveterate activist -- and gadfly. "He was notoriously outspoken and proud of the role he played in the community," he said.

David Royce died last Friday after battling cancer for nearly two years. He was 82.

Zachary Royce compared his father to Socrates. "He really was a Socratic figure -- very obsessive with a duty to help the public," he said Tuesday. "Both were called gadflies and my father took a certain pride in being called that."

On Wednesday, Royce and his long record of activism were recalled at a memorial service in a place he knew well -- Town Hall.

"It was kind of his house -- where he did his thing," Zachary Royce said about the Town Hall setting. In fact, his father was among the advocates for converting the former Bedford Middle School into Town Hall as opposed to initial plans to build a new building.

Several dozen people attended the Wednesday service.

Zachary Royce, who sat in a front row seat next to his brother Peter and mother Nina, began the program with recollections about his father, who he described as a "complex man" who, in some ways, never got beyond being "a child." He said he didn't always accept his father's behavior, but, "I can't escape him -- he's in my coding. But then, he couldn't escape himself."

He said his father lived his life as a great adventure. He told of his father's days at Harvard, about a book on "dating and sex" that he wrote but never had published.

But then, his son said, many of David Royce's projects "never got off the ground."

He also recounted his father's last days and how he took charge of his own destiny, deciding to be taken off oxygen, knowing he would have only a short time to live. "The last half-hour of his life, he stared into my mother's eyes," he said. Then he was gone.

A number of other people spoke during the service.

One neighbor, Janet Amadio, said she first encountered Royce when he appeared at her door one day years ago asking her for a $150 check. "He said it was needed for something to do with the cemetery" nearby, she said. "I was a young woman and it seemed like a lot of money, but I gave it to him anyway," Amadio said. She later found out it was used to keep a company from taking over the cemetery and building a crematorium there. "I applauded him for his initiative," she said.

Longtime friend and former police chief, Ron Malone, said that Royce actually had to get the names of everyone buried at the cemetery and contact their families in his efforts to keep that company from taking over. He needed those names for a petition, Malone said.

Malone also talked about Royce's role in getting the old Bedford Middle School transformed into the current Town Hall. Malone said his own father, who had a disability, asked how that could be done since the town offices would need a handicap ramp and elevator to pass code. Malone said he mentioned this to Royce. When plans for the conversion were unveiled there was a ramp and elevator included, he said.

Another neighbor David L. Meth said he only to know Royce only recently, after avoiding him for 30 years. "I just didn't want to have much to do with him," Meth said.

But one day his wife made him a cake and before he knew it Royce was at his door to thank her. Meth reluctantly let him into his house since it was raining. "Within five minutes David Royce who I had tried to avoid for 30 years was in my house -- how does that happen?" Meth asked. The men settled down to talk over tea and discovered they were both cancer victims. In a short time, Meth said, they were "laughing together."

Two hours passed quickly, Meth said. "I realized that I got to see a man many people never saw," he said. "How did I miss this for 30 years?"

At one time, Royce wrote a column for the Westport News called "Little Big Mouth," his son said. And, on June 16, 1982, unhappy because the publisher of the paper at that time refused to print a "Letter to the Editor" he wrote, Royce picketed several hours in front of the newspaper's office, which was then located in downtown Westport, according to an article in the Norwalk Hour.

It was the senior Royce's refusal to leave the podium at a session of the Representative Town Meeting in late 1980s that resulted in his arrest, his son recalled Tuesday.

"He was carried out of the building by police officers who had to hold up his feet," he said. "I don't remember the exact issue, but it had something to do with closed-door meetings and my father felt that the public had a right to know what was happening behind closed doors."

Besides his activism, Zachary Royce said his father as a dreamer. "He always wanted to accomplish big things," he said. But that didn't always pan out, he added.

"He wanted to be the youngest person to cross the Atlantic in a hot-air balloon," he said. "He constructed a gondola and spent years preparing for it, but it never got off the ground," he said. "That idea was put aside about the same time he married my mother."

Another big plan was to convert a 150-year old house on Main Street into the house of his dreams. "Some work was done," his son said. But after working at it for 44 years, the project remains incomplete.

Two years ago, in the summer of 2012, Royce was diagnosed with cancer, and since that time , had undergone four rounds of chemotherapy, his son said. "He was quite ill for some time, but didn't want people to know."

Despite the illness, however, Royce still participated in weekly anti-war peace vigils downtown and continued to write "Letters to the Editor" regularly, his son said.

His last submission to the Westport News -- a characteristically blunt letter published March 19 -- proposed a theory on the Malaysian airliner that disappeared from the sky earlier that month.

In the letter, Royce said the plane could be found "at longitude 102 east, latitude 17 south, west of Sumatra and deep beneath the Indian Ocean," where it landed after being sunk by hijackers.

"The bad guys dove it in to save themselves a few moments of pain," he wrote. "This means the Flight 370 wreckage is in small pieces that sank straight. Easy to find."

He theorized the hijackers blew the cockpit door with plastic explosive. "The flight crew allowed them to take over expecting to stay alive. (Wrong)."

David Royce will be buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Mass.