Marianne Leonard reflects on her family's life in Westport
Editor's note: Following is another installment in the "Resident Reflections" series, a periodic feature showcasing the observations of longtime Westport residents on the community as they knew it and how it has changed.
Marianne Leonard, the wife of Stew Leonard Sr., owner of the "World's Largest Dairy Store" in Norwalk.
Hometown: Norwalk; moved to Covelee Drive in Westport with Stew Leonard and children in 1957.
Summary: Marianne Leonard was born in Germany, but moved to Switzerland in 1936 because her father, Paul Guthman, a lawyer had the foresight, she said, to see what the impending Nazi control would mean. "He had prosecuted the Nazis and he sensed what was coming," she said. Leonard noted that her family was "lucky" not only to get out of Germany, but to be allowed to enter neutral Switzerland, where they lived with an aunt and uncle. Her father migrated to the United States and settled in Norwalk because his uncle lived there. Coincidentally, Guthman rented a room above a small grocery store whose milk was delivered by Stew Leonard's father.
The Guthmans meet the Leonards: When Stew's dad learned that store owner, Mrs. Toth, had a new tenant upstairs, he said, "Let me say, `Hi,' to him." "My father later said that this was the first person that he really talked to since moving to Norwalk. The two men remained friends, but the two families never came together."
Marianne and Stew (finally) meet: "We met at a basketball game where I was a majorette. He said, `Let's go get a bite to eat,' but I had promised my father that I would go straight home. He already didn't like the idea that I was twirling (a baton) in a short skirt. I told Stew that I absolutely had to go straight home. When we pulled up to my house, though, Stew turned to me and said, `This is where you live? I know your dad. Let me go in and talk to him.' My father was European. Oh, boy. I thought, now I'm going to be docked for a month. However, it felt like he was in there for an hour but it might have been 15 minutes -- and out Stew came and said, `He said you could go out for dinner.' And, that was the beginning of our courtship."
On Oct. 15, Marianne and Stew will celebrate their 58th wedding anniversary. They are the parents of four children, Stew Jr., Tom, Beth and Jill, and 13 grandchildren.
A love of the water: "I would go to the beach at Calf Pasture when I was growing up in Norwalk, but Stew spent all of his summers at his family's summer house on Westport's Grove Point Road, near Old Mill Beach, since he was 2 years old. In the 1930s, Stew liked to walk all the way to Compo Beach and spend the day there with his sister, Dorothy. He was an excellent swimmer and all of our children were, too. Stew Jr. swam competitively during high school. However, they all loved water skiing the best."
Waterskiing together: After we were married, Stew taught himself how to water ski. I can remember him standing on the water skis in the water, with the book in his hand. We had a little boat that we would take out. He taught all of the kids to ski and that's how they spent their days growing up on the water in Bermuda Lagoon (in the Saugatuck Shores section of Westport). Stew was a national waterskiing champion in 1959. I remember driving the boat around so he could do practice runs and I would put all four kids in the boat where they would take their naps."
More water play: "We had a deep-water dock and there was a slide for the kids out there. Everyone was also at our house. There was a big trampoline because Stew needed it to practice his water skiing tricks on. Remember, he was competing against people who were able to water ski all year long. He got up at 4 in the morning to deliver milk, then would come home around 11 or 12 noon and spend the afternoon skiing. Stew and the kids also did a lot of fishing, windsurfing and clamming."
Finding, and eating, little-neck clams: "The four kids would use their feet to find clams right in our backyard at low tide. Stew's mom was the best cook and by the time they brought the clams up to the house, she already had the vegetables cut and was ready to make delicious clam chowder. She also made the best stuffed clams."
More good food: "The kids were always hungry after water skiing and they would come in starving. I heard once that a good way to cook hot dogs was to put the hot dog in a roll, wrap it in a paper towel, and put it in the microwave. I always had a lot of hot dogs around for all of the kids that came over. Back in those days, we all fed each other's children. Wherever they would go, when it was lunchtime, the moms would feed all of the kids. Dinner was always at home, though. Afterwards, the kids went back outside to play kick the can until it got dark, but we weren't even worried when it got dark. Things were different then."
A scary adventure at Cockenoe Island: "One night that I did start to worry was when Stewie and Tommy went out fishing. They were gone all day and when they didn't come home from dinner, I was worried. Stew was calm. `Don't worry,' he said. `They probably just lost track of time and are going to bring home lots of fish.' As it got later, though, he took a boat out with a friend and started calling the boys' names. It was a calm, beautiful night and we knew that the boys how to handle the boats so well. It turned out that, though, that because of the low tide, their boat had gotten stuck on Cockenoe Island. They tried to swim back home, but then got worried about sharks so they went back to shore and, when it got dark, huddled together in the outhouse on the island. It was so disgusting there and filled with bugs and rats."
The flood of 1961: "Before Duck Pond Road was raised, when the tide came in, the road got flooded. I was nine months pregnant with Jill and had just dropped Stewie off at school. The police told me that I couldn't go through to my house and I said that I had to because my husband, who was watching the other two children, had to go to work. `Don't worry, I know where the potholes are. I will avoid them,' I told the police. However, there was a car stuck in front of me and the only way I could go was around her, but I got stuck right in a pothole. My car started filling up with water and the door wouldn't open. I was stuck. A neighbor came out to help me and he told me to go out the window. `I can't fit,' I told him. `I'm nine months pregnant.' He put on those big fishing boots and even though the winds were so strong, he helped me out of the car and into his house. I felt so bad because I was soaking wet and dripping all over his house. I called Stew and, using our boat, he rowed down the street and picked me up. It was hard rowing us back home, though, because he had to go uphill."
The Leonard family still enjoys the beach, swimming in their pool and water activities. The Westport News chose not to discuss a family tragedy that occurred Jan. 1, 1989, when Marianne Leonard's beloved 21-month-old grandson, Stew Leonard III, lost his life by accidental drowning. However, this "Reflections" account would not be complete without mentioning one result of that loss -- the Stew Leonard III Water Safety Foundation. Founded by Stew Jr. and Kim Leonard in 1990, the foundation has raised more than $1 million to promote water safety awareness and education.
After noting the proliferation of overweight children and the need to encourage healthy eating, the Leonards recently expanded the foundation's mission to include "promoting safe and responsible growth and development in kids through nutritional awareness and water safety" and changed the foundation's name to Stew Leonard III Children's Charities.