Out of the Woods: The loss of a valued friend, an important voice
For years, I met with John J. Simon regularly in the dining room at Tavern on Main to discuss just about everything that was going on in town — from zoning controversies, to the arts center, to civil liberties, to education, to local personalities in the news.
I have known John's lovely wife, Laura Lee, from a camp we attended together one summer in the 1940s. We go back a long way. Simon, a man with a friendly smile and easy manner, instantly recognized by his bushy white eyebrows and pleasant personality, was long active in Westport educational, political and cultural affairs. I had been meaning to get back in touch with him for many months.
Unfortunately, I missed my chance. Last week, I found out that he died on Dec. 8 at age 86.
Perhaps the most significant experience John and I shared together as friends and colleagues on the Westport Representative Town Meeting occurred one night in July 1969, when the legislative body was discussing whether or not to take a vote on the U.S. war in Vietnam. I decided to bite the bullet and made a motion, which John and several other members from the floor supported, for Westport to go on record against Lyndon Johnson's and Richard Nixon's catastrophic war. To my surprise, the unorthodox measure passed by a razor-thin margin, 17-15!
As a new member of the body, originally from New York, my motion made such a splash that the New York Times carried a story the next morning on Page 1 headlined: "Westport Calls for War Pullout." That, in essence, was the highlight of my "political career" in town.
It was, in fact, so unusual that Alan Parsell, the crusty old Republican New England farmer, and RTM member, came over to me after the vote, put his arm around my shoulder, looked down on me condescendingly, and barked: "Well done, son, even though I disagree with you. You're a Yankee from New York who speaks his mind!"
Simon later recalled: “The New York Times covered the event. I ended up in one of their photographs that appeared in the paper. Our town had a big battle with the American Legion, which declared war on us ‘peaceniks.' "
He was born on Feb. 25, 1929, in Manhattan, where he grew up and went to the New Lincoln School. He graduated from DePauw University in 1950 with majors in philosophy and French. Following graduation, he entered a family business, Ace Paper Co., a paper and packaging merchant and converter, where he served as president until his retirement in 1984.
A Westport resident since 1956, Simon served on the RTM from 1963 to 1965 and from 1966 to 1971. “It was an extremely pleasant experience for the most part,” he recalled in an interview for the RTM’s 50th anniversary celebration publication in 1999.
Simon also commented on the expedient purchase of the Longshore Club by the town: “It had been a privately owned club, and the owner was involved in a deal with someone who was going to develop the property into housing,” he said. “Everyone got scared that it would mean even more schools … It was a very wise thing for the town to have done.”
Another major item on the RTM agenda during the ’60s was the effort to save Cockenoe Island from a utility company, which wanted to build a nuclear power plant there. After its success, Simon had a poster which to this day is hanging on the wall of his home, that says, “Save Cockenoe Island.”
As chairman of the Westport Arts Center, he was at its helm during the epic battle between the town and the center in the late 1990s when the town reclaimed Greens Farms Elementary School, then home to the arts center, for education purposes. The town ended up paying the center a $625,000 buyout for the move. This was a bitter battle in which the Westport News, which I edited at the time, supported Simon's efforts to save the arts center.
He was also a founding member of the Westport Arts Awards Advisory Committee and took part in its activities until last month. A man with cosmopolitan interests, he enjoyed classical music and opera. He sang for 15 years with the Westport Madrigal Singers.
In 2003, he joined the board of the Center for First Amendment Rights, and served as its president until 2006. In that role, he traveled throughout the state speaking to many organizations about civil liberties. He also wrote frequently in newspapers throughout the state, including a "Civil Liberties Matters" column in the Westport News. He was honored in 2007 with the Center for First Amendment's Freedom Award.
I rank John Simon as one of my most valued and simpatico friends in all of the nearly 50 years I have had the pleasure of living here. I will miss him dearly.
Woody Klein is a Westport writer. His "Out of the Woods" column appears every other Friday in the Westport News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.