Woog's World: Walt Melillo's Westport Life
As Westport roars inexorably toward the future -- we're already two months into the second decade of the 21st century -- it's easy to forget our past. Fortunately, folks still around link us to the days when Westporters slaughtered pigs, made homemade wine and attended the same schools as their parents.
Folks like Walt Melillo.
Born in 1924, he grew up on Franklin Street in Saugatuck. During the Depression the house -- which stills stands -- was filled with 25 extended family members. Melillos, Romanos, Reales, Espositos, Carreras -- all lived and grew up together.
They grew vegetables in a back-yard garden; they baked their own bread, and made Prohibition-era wine. Each October, a neighbor butchered a pig; every family got a part.
Melillo attended Saugatuck Elementary School on Bridge Street -- where his parents had gone -- and then Bedford Junior High (now Kings Highway Elementary) and Staples High School (the current Saugatuck El).
Staples was small. "We knew everyone," Melillo recalls. "There weren't a lot of course options, like today. But it was an excellent school." He was influenced by such legendary teachers as Gladys Mansir (English) and Eli Burton (social studies). He played baseball well enough to earn a tryout with the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds (in 1941), and football well enough to earn a spot on the Staples Wall of Honor (in 2004).
Right after graduation in 1942, Melillo joined the Navy. He was on active duty in the Atlantic Ocean and North Africa campaign. His destroyer escort sailed to the Pacific, patrolling through invasions of Okinawa and the Philippines.
A kamikaze plane crashed into his ship. Melillo was blown from the signal bridge to the forecastle. His unit shot down four Japanese planes, and received a Presidential Unit Citation. Seventy years later, he chokes up recalling those events.
The dropping of two atom bombs saved Melillo from participating in the invasion of Japan. His ship survived another hazard: a typhoon in the shark-infested North China Sea.
"I was a lucky sailor," Melillo says. He appreciates his chance to serve -- and to see the world. "I met all kinds of people. Before I enlisted, the furthest from Westport I traveled was New Haven."
The GI Bill sent Melillo to college. He majored in physical education at Arnold College (now the University of Bridgeport), then earned a master's degree from Columbia University and a sixth-year from Bridgeport.
In 1951 he was hired as a teacher by the Westport Board of Education. His salary was $2,800 a year -- $300 more than usual, thanks to a $100 bonus for each year of military service. "That was a lot of money in those days," Melillo notes. His first assignment was Saugatuck Elementary School -- his alma mater, across the street from where his brother lived.
After seven years, Melillo moved to the brand new Burr Farms Elementary School. There was tremendous camaraderie between students, staff, parents -- even custodians. Principal Lenny Metelits was an ex-Marine; the talented, lively staff included Matt Rudd, Sam Judell, Ed Morrison, Lou Dorsey and Ace Mahakian. "The number of male teachers was extraordinary," Melillo recalls.
"The parents were just fantastic," he adds. "They were so kind to us. They understood that teaching was a tough job for everyone."
(Full disclosure: "Mr. Melillo" was my third grade teacher. He taught me how to write -- creatively, and cursive -- and square dance. I remember his class well.)
After nearly two decades at Burr Farms Melillo moved to Green's Farms Elementary School, then Long Lots. He retired in 1986, after 35 years in education.
He has kept busy since, attending Senior Center functions and playing tennis (he and partner Paul Lane won tournaments in the Over-40 and Over-60 age groups). Sports have always been an important part of Melillo's life: He was a semi-pro baseball player for 15 years, and a YMCA basketball player, too.
But teaching and athletics are only part of Melillo's story. In 1947 he organized Westport's first summer Beach School, at Compo Beach. He was still in college, without a degree, so football coach Frank Dornfeld ran the first year. But Melillo soon took over, and for 29 years he and Bedford Junior High instructor Carol Bieling Digisi were in charge of a popular program involving thousands of children.
"It gave me another chance to meet great parents," he says. "And the entire staff was teachers."
Two boys in that initial beach school group were Jack and Bill Mitchell. Several years later their parents, Ed and Norma, opened a small men's clothing store. Melillo was the first non-family member they hired.
"You couldn't find any better people in Westport," he says of the Mitchells -- including Ed's mother, who did alterations at her North Compo Road home, not far from the shop.
Melillo stayed there -- working Friday nights and Saturdays -- for 13 years. He had quite an impact on customers -- and vice versa. Reminiscing last week about that time, he recalled my father's exact suit measurements.
Melillo's life has been full. He and Ann -- his wife of 60 years -- have four children. Their daughter, and two of their sons, live in Florida. The youngest son, Brett, lives -- this is how small a town Westport was, and still is -- opposite the original Saugatuck Elementary School, which Melillo (and his parents) attended, and where he taught his first class.
Walt and Ann live on Hogan Trail. When they moved there in 1960, it was the first house on the road; now there are 40. As a child, Melillo hunted there.
"This is my town," he says. "As Paul Newman said, `Living in Westport is a privilege.' I love it here."