Woog's World: Remembering former First Selectman John Kemish

Being First Selectman of Westport is a pretty big deal.

You don’t get a security detail or driver. Your office is pretty generic. You can’t use the position as a springboard to national politics, like Rudy Giuliani or even Pete Buttigieg did with their mayoral positions.

Still, you’ve got an out-sized impact on a place that 28,000 people call home, and care deeply about. Part of your day involves hauling giant scissors to ribbon-cuttings at restaurants, pet stores and yoga studios.

But the rest of the time you oversee finances, public safety, roads, waterways, health, communications and a whole lot more. It’s a tough, thankless task (and no matter what you do, you never please everybody).

So it was a bit surprising to see news of John Kemish’s death sink almost without a trace the other day. He served as first selectman from 1967 to 1973. Sure, he was a quiet man, and he had not lived in Westport for years. The town’s population has turned over many times; the world has changed, and so has the town.

Kemish was first selectman during a difficult time nationally and locally — and politically, socially and economically. Yet his three two-year terms were marked by a number of outstanding achievements. Much of what we know as “Westport” today was achieved during his tenure.

It took nearly a month for news of his passing to reach here. Current First Selectman Jim Marpe, who never met his predecessor, issued a gracious statement. And that was that.

John Kemish deserves another send-off. Here it is.

His first election coincided with United Illuminating’s plan to build a 14-story nuclear power plant on Cockenoe Island. The massive structure — connected to Norwalk by a causeway — would forever alter Westport, Long Island Sound and the surrounding area. There were immediate protests. But the proposal had powerful advocates. Nuclear power was the wave of the future, they said. Besides, the economic and tax benefits would be huge.

Westport News editor Jo Brosious was at the forefront of a campaign to “Save Cockenoe Now.” Wide-ranging and impressive, it gained national media attention. Behind the scenes, Kemish appointed a committee to solve the problem. They proposed that the town purchase the island. Kemish — who before his election as first selectman had been Westport’s first professional controller — engineered the financing that made the purchase possible.

The town paid $200,000 for Cockenoe. State and federal funds covered 75 percent of the cost. Westport now owns the island, in perpetuity. It’s impossible to imagine what Westport would look and feel like today if a nuclear power plant loomed offshore. A warmer Sound is the only good thing I can think of (and even that would have deleterious environmental effects).

In terms of the environment, Kemish was way ahead of his time. He spearheaded construction of the first solid waste transfer station in town (at the current Levitt Pavilion). The result was the end of sanitary land filling of garbage in Westport. It was a landmark for Connecticut, and led to the formation of the State Resource Recovery Authority.

Kemish also established Westport’s Beautification Commission. Under chair Claire Ford, and with the support of the Planning & Zoning Commission, the commission planted dozens of trees along the Post Road, from Southport to Norwalk. Many of them are now mature, looking beautiful as they shade workers waiting for buses. Others — for example, those at the Fresh Market shopping center — have been cut down, during “redevelopment.”

But the commission’s work, along with signage restriction up and down Route 1, was significant.

Kemish also helped preserve open space, at a time when it was disappearing rapidly.

A 38-acre Cross Highway Farm — now Wakeman Town Farm, and athletic fields — was acquired during his administration. So were two Nike missile sites. The one on North Avenue is the site of Bedford Middle School. The one on Bayberry Lane houses the Westport Weston Health District, Rolnick Observatory and yard waste station.

Kemish was also a pioneer in collaborative government. As president of the Metropolitan Regional Council, he helped improve rail service. It was a big job for a first selectman. His predecessor on the council was New York City Mayor John Lindsay.

Very few Westporters today remember John Kemish. We’ve forgotten other first selectmen and women too — Jackie Heneage, Marty Hauhuth, Bill Seiden, Doug Wood. The only reason we remember Herb Baldwin is because of his exit road at Longshore. (That’s fitting. He helped ensure the purchase of the property, saving it from a real estate developer in just 19 action-packed days.)

In the grand scheme of things, John Kemish was “only” a Westport first selectman. Without him though, Jim Marpe — and whoever succeeds him in November — would govern a vastly different town.

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 danwoog06880.com.