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Woog's World / For Westport Historical Society, self-preservation a priority too

Published 7:43 am, Sunday, June 9, 2013
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The Westport Historical Society has a problem.

For 100 years or so, the organization puttered along. It did what historical societies do -- maintained archives, collected memorabilia, provided an opportunity for (mostly) old people to honor the legacies of even older people.

But a couple of decades ago, some energetic townspeople decided to bring the Westport Historical Society into the Westport of the late 20th century. Ann Sheffer, Mollie Donovan, Eve Potts and a number of others vowed to make the WHS more relevant.

They had big dreams. One was to renovate Wheeler House, the 1795 building in the heart of downtown, and open it to the public. Another was to restore the adjacent octagonal-roofed, cobblestone barn -- the only one of its kind in the state.

They had plenty of help. A series of fundraisers -- big events and small -- drew attention to the previously fusty organization. It didn't hurt that Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward lent their considerable cachet to the cause. Cool Hand Luke himself could be seen on the Wheeler House grounds, popping popcorn and pouring lemonade. (Newman's Own, of course.)

The result is one of the most active and important civic groups around. The Westport Historical Society mounts exhibits, offers tours, sponsors speakers, runs classes, maintains archives, and -- through it all -- plays a crucial role in a town that wants to honor its past while embracing the future.

But all that has come with a price. The handsome Italianate headquarters sits just down the hill from Town Hall. It's adjacent to the small but well-maintained Veterans Green.

The result, WHS officials say, is that many Westporters assume the organization is flush with members. And that the town supports it financially.

Both assumptions are wrong. There are approximately 500 members -- in a town of 26,000, far fewer than the WHS would like -- and it is entirely self-supporting.

Two weeks ago, the Westport Historical Society hosted an opening reception for its two newest exhibitions. One -- in the Betty and Ralph Sheffer Hall -- honors the Gault family's 150-year legacy in town. Photos and artifacts chronicle an amazing journey, from immigrant wood haulers to modern day energy experts. The Gault family's story encompasses everything "Westport," from a Little League field to the construction of I-95.

A few steps away, in a room named for Mollie Donovan, illustrator and social justice activist Tracy Sugarman is remembered.

Opening night was packed. But WHS officials knew that many of the exhibit-goers were not members. Leaders feel frustrated that the vast majority of Westporters love what the organization does -- but don't support it financially.

"In a town like this -- with well-educated people, interested in history and the arts -- we should have more members," says Ed Gerber, historical society executive vice president. Next January, he becomes president

Membership has its privileges. Members receive discounts on tours (the most recent, last weekend, revealed a treasure trove of "hidden gardens," tucked away behind local homes), lectures, youth activities and newsletters, and a 10 percent discount at the WHS store. (In a clever homage to a much-loved icon of Westport's relatively recent past, the store is named the Remarkable Gift Shop. The Miggs Burroughs-designed "Remarkable" character hangs outside the door. It's unclear how many new Westporters understand the references.)

Executive Director Susan Gold -- the only full-time staff member -- is very proud of the feedback she hears from members.

"I can't contain my excitement at becoming a member of your wonderful organization," one woman wrote. "Moving from Long Island over five years ago, and becoming a mother, I longed to set roots for my family. I have to say after one short meeting at WHS, I feel more at home in my community of Westport already. I am re-energized to wholeheartedly give of myself to your organization."

Membership dues start at $35 for individuals ($30 for students and seniors), and range upward to $1,000 for benefactors. Dues pay for salaries of the small staff (besides Gold, there are three part-timers: education director Elizabeth DeVoll, administrator Barbara Brauner and gift shop manager Olivia Yule). They also help fund exhibits, speakers, archives, oral histories, tours, and the very visible historical plaque program that cites the original owners and dates of construction of older homes.

So how does the WHS convince Westporters to move from event-goers to members? Officials are not sure.

"Perhaps the word `historical' has something to do with it," Vice President for Membership Jane Sherman says. "People really do like history, but they may not know it or think of it using that word."

"Our stories matter," insists Gold. "They're significant. If you live here and want to know about the past, you need the Westport Historical Society.

"How you feel about your community matters. People live here because they love Westport, and want to preserve it." She hopes they'll pay a little bit too, so the Westport Historical Society can play its part.

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 www.danwoog06880.