Woog’s World / Three that made a special mark on Westport
Ted Simons. Denny Davidoff. Bill Steinkraus.
That may be the first time those three names appear in the same paragraph. But they are inextricably linked. All three died in the past few days. All lived here for decades. All contributed to making Westport a special place.
The loss of one leaves a large hole. The loss of all three makes us think about all the men and women who — in whatever and how many ways they could — gave our town class, character and compassion.
Ted Simons was a Broadway, television, film and cabaret musical director, composer and arranger. He created shows and films for more than 100 companies, including IBM, GE, Ford and Procter & Gamble. He worked on “Bye Bye Birdie,” the Miss America Pageant and “Hullabaloo,” and with Bob Hope, the Four Seasons, Leslie Uggams and Mel Brooks.
But he was as ardent about Westport as he was about Broadway or Hollywood. He volunteered as musical director and conductor for many school shows, at Greens Farms Academy, and with the Y’s Men’s Hoot Owls.
He touched us in individual ways too. When Suzanne Sheridan had a birthday, her wife, Rozanne Gates, planned a large party. A snowstorm limited guests to only a few. But Ted was there, and played piano all night. Rozanne said it was the best gift Suzanne ever got.
Deb Alderson remembers Ted — a Hoot Owl, along with her dad — playing piano her wedding. She will never forget dancing with her father and new husband, as the world-famous musician tickled the ivories.
He played at other private gatherings too, with grace, humility and plenty of talent. Ted shared his gift for music freely and liberally. He brightened and enlivened Westport’s arts scene in countless ways. He was a master in our midst, but he made us feel like we were all just singing songs together. Which — thanks to him — we were.
Denny Davidoff was most closely associated with the Unitarian Church. As moderator — the highest lay position in national leadership — from 1993 to 2001, she wielded the gavel in what the church itself calls “sometimes unruly” debates. She preached in more than 100 congregations, and mentored generations of ministers and lay leaders.
She was particularly involved in two social justice issues: advancing gender equity and fighting racism. In 1973 she became president of Unitarian Universalism’s Women’s Federation. Her work helped lead to pioneering gender-inclusive language.
In 1992, Denny helped write a resolution directing congregations to pursue anti-racism and multiculturalism, cornerstones of the religion that endure today.
Denny joined Westport’s Unitarian Church in 1960, five years before it moved into its soaring structure on Lyons Plains Road. She was the young wife of Jerry Davidoff, a lawyer and civil liberties advocate. She soon made a name for herself as the owner of a marketing and advertising agency at a time when few women had their own firms.
Denny was a long and steady voice in town for social justice. Her religion was important to her, but so was her work with many organizations. In the turbulent 1960s, and for a number of years after, Westport was galvanized by a group of political activists. Many were women. Some were stay-at-home mothers; others had full-time jobs. All spent countless hours working on a variety of causes: protesting the Vietnam War and a power plant planned for Cockenoe Island; bringing inner-city students to Westport schools; encouraging economic and demographic diversity. They did not win all of their fights. But by proposing solutions, sparking debates and encouraging participation, they made their town a better place for all.
Westport native Bill Steinkraus earned international recognition as a sportsman. He was the first American to win an Olympic individual medal in an equestrian sport. Considered one of the greatest riders ever, he was on all six Olympic teams from 1952 through 1972. He earned gold, silver and bronze medals. He captained the United States national team for 17 years.
But Bill was much more than an athlete. A Yale University graduate and noted violinist, he was an editor in New York. He wrote several books. He was an expert on old books and antique furniture, a television commentator and Olympic judge.
In World War II, while riding with the U.S. Army’s last mounted regiment, he helped reopen the Burma Road.
He grew up in Westport, in a noted family. The Ruth Steinkraus Cohen Bridge, spanning the Saugatuck River downtown, is named for his sister, a longtime philanthropist and activist.
There are many ways to be part of this community. In their combined 261 years on earth, Ted Simons, Denny Davidoff and Bill Steinkraus all made their own special marks here.
Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog's World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.