WESTPORT — The big stone Frazier Peters house at 106 Compo Road was the site of an unusual Thanksgiving celebration 50 years ago.

“The house was filled to overflowing with people from the (United Nations), mostly from Africa, and we gave them a Thanksgiving meal,” former Westport resident Adap Stolpen said.

Organized by the late Ruth Steinkraus-Cohen and hosted at the former home of her parents, Herman and Gladys Tibbets, the first United Nations Association of Southwestern Connecticut Thanksgiving was a sight to behold, said Stolpen, who was friends with the Steinkraus family.

Steinkraus-Cohen, who died in 2002, had an eventful life. After attending Vassar College, she became a Juilliard School-trained pianist and teacher. In 1956, she attended the World Federation of the United Nations Association, where she acted as secretary to Eleanor Roosevelt.

Steinkraus-Cohen organized the UNA-CT and UNA of Southwestern Connecticut, founded the International Hospitality Committee of Fairfield County and created Westport’s jUNe Day celebration.

“They used to have people who worked for the UN who didn’t know anyone in America and she’d invite them up and her mother said, ‘Let’s have them for Thanksgiving,’” Stolpen said of the origins of the first UNA of Southwestern Connecticut Thanksgiving celebration.

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Want to help out?

If you would like to get involved in the UNA of Southwestern Conn. Thanksgiving program, contact event organizers Bill and Joan Hass at hassbj@aol.com or 203-454-7685.

Since that first celebration, volunteers in Westport and around Fairfield County have hosted UN staff and diplomats, State Department-sponsored visitors, Fulbright scholars, and other international students into their homes for Thanksgiving on behalf of the UNA of Southwestern Connecticut.

Stoplen, who said he is “the oldest surviving person related to this program,” has hosted international visitors for Thanksgiving many times and experienced several memorable holidays as a result.

“A few years ago, at the very last minute, it turned out it was just going to be Thanksgiving for my daughter and her best friend and me, so we invited someone in the home security force from Japan, a couple from Italy, and a student from Columbia University from China who brought her father along, who turned out to be a butcher and carved all the turkey and other food,” Stolpen said.

In the end, about a dozen people were invited for dinner.

“My daughter turned to me the morning we were going to do this and said, ‘This is such a stupid idea, Daddy. Why are we having people we don’t even know?’” Stoplen said.

“No one knew each other at the beginning of the Thanksgiving,” Stoplen said, but said by the end of the event, “everyone was chattering back and forth with each other.

“That evening when we finished putting everything away, (my daughter) said, ‘This is the best Thanksgiving we ever had,’” Stolpen said.

Easton resident Pat Smith said her 15 years of experience hosting international guests as part of the UNA of Southwestern Connecticut Thanksgiving program has been similarly memorable.

“One year we had a diplomat family at the UN from China,” Smith said. “We had such a good time with them. My daughter was in middle school at the time and she was becoming politically aware and started grilling this guy on Tibet and asking different questions, and then she went and wrote in her diary that she met this nice guy and this was what he was saying.”

“Two months later, we got a knock on the door and it was the FBI, and they grilled us about our conversation with this family and we said they were just a normal wonderful family,” Smith said. “My daughter pokes her head in and says to the FBI guy, ‘Oh, I wrote everything in my diary’ and she brought down the diary and gave them a copy of everything he said.”

Even the less-eventful Thanksgivings are special, Stolpen said.

“Getting involved and inviting people you don’t know to sit at your table for Thanksgiving, to me, is the quintessential American thing to do,” Stolpen said.

“A lot of people said this was the most significant American event for them because they had no way to get to know Americans in their normal course of affairs,” Stoplen said. “It’s really tough to dislike someone you know.”

Later on Thanksgiving Day, Stolpen said he usually takes his international guests across the illuminated Cribari Bridge and over to Compo Beach.

“All the things that Westporters take for granted are exciting new adventures for people who don’t have a comparable life at home,” Stolpen said. “It’s when privilege becomes mundane that it becomes sad.”


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