Joe Sweeney, 30-year public servant
Joseph F. Sweeney, an independent thinker who served the town and school system as an administrator, board member, and as a dogged battler against what he saw as foolish, faddish or wasteful, died Monday, Jan. 8, at home on Barry Avenue. He was 71, had served the Town of Ridgefield for 30 years, and had fought cancer for the last three years.
“It was very peaceful,” said Hope Wise, one of a handful of friends — Joan Plock, Tom Kramer, Glenn Cordelli — who with Dorette Marks of the Visiting Nurse Association cared for him in the last months, in effect granting his wish to meet his end at home. “He went at 5:15. He went into a coma early Sunday morning and about 5:15 Monday morning he died.”
Mr. Sweeney served Ridgefield as assistant school business manager for 14 years, retired, ran for the Board of Education and served on it for 12 years — winning election as both a Democrat and a Republican. He was on the Municipal Building Committee for some 20 years, many as chairman, and also served on the board of directors of the Ridgefield Library, which for years he frequented almost daily.
“As a public servant he was a fighter, he believed very strongly in everything he believed in,” said Mrs. Plock, who was chairwoman of the school board during some of Mr. Sweeney’s tenure. “He was a fiscal conservative, but he wasn’t an educational conservative.”
On the board Mr. Sweeney was a common-sense pragmatist and a doubting Thomas; he joyed in challenging the conventional wisdom and debunking experts.
“I think it annoyed him to have to abide by rules,” Mrs. Plock said. “I think it was difficult for him to abide by a structure ... He marched to his own drummer, he did his own thing, and he always did it because he felt it was the right thing to be doing. Even if you disagreed with him, you always had to respect his guts — he had plenty of that.”
In 1989 the school board was embroiled in the ‘Lodestar controversy’ — fighting in court with editors of the high school literary magazine over censorship. While other members vigorously defended the board’s legal stand, Mr. Sweeney in one of his many letters to the editors skipped over the high-flown constitutional issues and got the practical effect of the battle.
“It is a year now that the Lodestar controversy has been in the hands of lawyers,” he began, “and the results are: 1. Over $100,000 has been paid to lawyers. Since only $6,000 was budgeted the bills are paid by taking funds from instructional, operational and maintenance accounts; 2. A divided board, growing tensions between the board and some of our staff members, and a ‘civil war’ among school supporters.
“The issues are many and complex,” he wrote. “I have yet to find a parent or taxpayer who understands the entire case. Neither side has a monopoly on truth or virtue...”
School Personnel Director Paul Hazel worked with Mr. Sweeney as a fellow administrator and a board member. “He was a man of very strong opinions and a delightful sense of humor, and willing to work very hard,” Mr. Hazel said.
“He never took anything on faith. He always wanted to go back to the beginning, take it apart, see how it worked, and then he’d come up with his own study or plan. He’d do a colossal amount of work.”
“When I used to sit next to him in board meetings,” Mr. Hazel recalled, “he would take various Shakespeare plays and he would fill the parts with various board and staff members — he was a very witty man.”
Former First Selectman Sue Manning recalled Mr. Sweeney as chairman of the standing Municipal Building Committee and as head of many special building committees for various projects. “Joe worked like a full-time project engineer, even though he was a volunteer,” she said. “And he saved the town a lot of money.”
In recent years Mr. Sweeney and Mrs. Wise, who had been an ally on the school board, maintained a Web site — Ridgefieldfocus.org — which kept up on local politics and town affairs. “Considering that the bulk of Joe’s voluminous memos were sent out on his old manual typewriter, the leap into cyberspace was quantum but demonstrated Joe’s intellectual curiosity and range of interests,” Mrs. Wise said.
Mrs. Plock said, “To Joe, all these things that he did — Municipal Building Committee, Board of Education and the board of the library and all of the things he did, many many things, were just real fun, great serious fun. He took it seriously, but he obviously loved doing these things — they meant everything to him, I believe.”
Besides his public work, Mr. Sweeney a man of wide-ranging tastes and interests. He was a sports fan with season tickets for many years to the New York Giants football, Rangers hockey and Cosmos soccer teams. He went regularly to baseball games, too, said Dr. Fred Agre of Westchester, N.Y., a friend for 40 years. “He was a very good fan of the Mets — couldn’t stand the Yankees.”
Mr. Sweeney also pursued interests in architecture, history, music, film, radio drama — not merely enjoying them, but learning about them, researching, collecting. “He was very interested in music, early baroque and pre-baroque music, and was quite knowledgeable,” Dr. Agre said. “And in his later life Joe was very interested in American music, theatrical music. He became very knowledgeable in George Gershwin and that whole era. He loved comedy enormously. He was very fond of Buster Keaton and W.C. Fields — they were his heroes.”
Mr. Sweeney frequently conducted informal walking tours of New York City for friends, drawing on his knowledge of architecture and design, building history, and the history of the city.
Mr. Sweeney was also a lover of food and wine, who was a weekly regular for many years at Pierre Au Tunnel restaurant in New York. “One of his great lines was there was only one kind of wine, and that was red,” Dr. Agre recalled. “White wine was mouthwash and shouldn’t be consumed.”
Mr. Sweeney’s broad-ranging interests were symbolized for Mrs. Plock by the extensive file system he had in his apartment. “Joe kept a file on everything on earth,” she said. “He had a little file cabinet that had these little drawers and every single day he’d cut out articles from the New York Times, every newspaper and every news magazine that he got, and he would cut these articles out and put them in these little cardboard boxes by category and eventually he’d file them into the file cabinet with all the names on the drawers — everything you can think of.”
He was born and grew up in Manhattan, the son of the late Joseph D. and Lucy Kuhlke Sweeney. He received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the State Teachers College of New York at Albany. He studied almost to the point of getting his Ph.D., Dr. Agre said, and then “one day he was sitting in the classroom and suddenly realized the people who were teaching him, he probably knew more than they did, and it was a waste of time, so even though he was well into it, he quit and never went back.”
He served in the U.S. Army during the Korean conflict.
Before coming to Ridgefield he taught junior high school math in Elmont, L.I., and worked in administration in the Port Jervis and Ardsley, N.Y., schools.
Survivors include a sister, Therese S. Portyrata of North Haven, and her husband, Raymond.
The Rev. Patrick Mooney will celebrate a Mass of Christian Burial Thursday (today) at 1 p.m. at St. Mary’s Church. Friends will be received from 11 to 1 at the Kane Funeral Home, 41 Catoonah Street.
Burial will be at the convenience of the family.
Contributions in Mr. Sweeney’s memory may be made to the Ridgefield Visiting Nurse Association, 90 East Ridge, or to Ridgefield Meals on Wheels, 25 Gilbert Street.—M.K.R.
John Symon, 72, Ridgefield builder
John Symon of Fort Pierce, Fla., who lived in Ridgefield for 35 years and was a well-known builder here, died Dec. 6 at his home in Fort Pierce. He was 72 years old, the same age as his twin sister Alice McGuiness, who died in October.
Mr. Symon was born and grew up in Old Greenwich and Stamford, raised in a family of nine by parents who had emigrated from what today is the Czech Republic. They were a close family of five boys and four girls, all of whom raised families in New England.
In 1959 he and his wife Nancy moved to Ridgefield and started a construction business with two of his five brothers, Frank and Bob. Together they built homes in such areas of Ridgefield as Windy Ridge, Olmstead Lane, Cranberry Lane, Seymour Lane, Acre Lane, and many other neighborhoods. He also built homes with Rick Rudolph, a longtime Ridgefielder, who was a lifelong friend and together they also built many of the Ridgefield Little League dugouts.
Mr. Symon had many friends old and young within the Ridgefield community and was active in the “Bar Stool Open” golf tournament with Jack Peto, David Long and Ray Lyons, among many others. He enjoyed golf every day while in Florida and was a member of the Spanish Lakes Golf Club. Though retired, he continued to help neighbors with advice and carpentry needs. “He worked with many folks in the trades business while living in Ridgefield and he was well liked and admired within the town,” said his son, Gregory Symon.
The Symons retired to Florida in 1993, enjoying the warm weather, golf, fishing and meeting new friends from the Northeast. During the summer they would visit Ridgefield every year to see the changes that were occurring and to visit with their family and old friends, many of whom had visited them in Florida.
Mr. Symon is survived by Nancy Symon, his wife of 51 years, who since his death has moved to Hughesville, Md., to live with her daughter and son-in-law, Linda and Chuck Rudolph. Other survivors include three sons: Gary Symon of Brookfield, Gregory Symon of Ridgefield, and John Symon of Bethel; 11 grandchildren throughout the Eastern Seaboard and five great-grandchildren. Of his nine siblings, only three remain: a brother, Charlie, of Brookline, Mass., and two sisters, Lillian O’Neil of Stamford and Ann McAndrews of Bridgeport. He also is survived by a sister-in-law, Gloria Murphy Symon of Stamford, and well over 20 nieces and nephews, scattered all over the United States.
A memorial service was held in Fort Pierce for his friends in Florida. A graveside service will take in the Long Ridge Cemetery at a date to be announced in early spring.
Contributions in Mr. Symon’s memory may be made to the Hospice of Martin and St. Lucie Inc. 2030 S.E. Ocean Boulevard. Stuart, FL 34996.
Johanna Szigeti, 65, popular upholsterer, native of Germany
Johanna D. Szigeti of 67 Ramapoo Road, a former nurse who became a popular upholsterer and worked with many of the area’s interior decorators, died unexpectedly at her home on Thursday, Nov. 2. She was 65 years old and the wife of the late Michael Szigeti.
Mrs. Szigeti operated Szigeti Interiors, which her husband had started 35 years ago. “She was a very, very good seamstress,” said her daughter, Judy Legan of New Milford. “The quality of her work was extremely important to her.”
A native of Germany who came to this country in 1955, Mrs. Szigeti was born on Nov. 21, 1934, a daughter of Lydia Vogel Dase of Stratford and the late Gustav Dase. Mrs. Szigeti, trained as a nurse in Germany, worked for about five years as an emergency room nurse at Norwalk Hospital.
Her husband established Szigeti Upholstery in Vista, N.Y., around 1965 and as the business grew, Mrs. Szigeti gradually moved from nursing to upholstery. In the 1970s, the Szigetis moved the business to their home on Ramapoo Road. When Mr. Szigeti became ill about 15 years ago, Mrs. Szigeti took over the business. Mr. Szigeti died in 1996 at the age of 63.
“She had a group of very loyal customers over the years,” Mrs. Legan said. “She worked for many interior decorators in the area.”
A Ridgefielder since 1962, Mrs. Szigeti first lived on Clearview Drive at the Ridgefield Lakes and around 1975 the family moved to Ramapoo Road.
Mrs. Szigeti belonged to the Ridgefield AARP chapter and the Ridgefield Senior Center. “She enjoyed traveling and, most of all, her grandchildren,” said Mrs. Legan.
Besides her mother and Mrs. Legan, her survivors include another daughter, Suzanne L. Smith of Avon; three sisters, Helga Steinhuebel of Port Chester, N.Y., Traudi Motylenski of Woodland Park, Colo., and Gisela Coyne of Stratford; and by four grandchildren. A sister, Hedwig Izzo, died before her.
Services were Monday at Kane Funeral Home. Burial was in Riverside Cemetery, Shelton.
Contributions in Mrs. Szigeti’s memory may be made to the Ridgefield Boys & Girls Club, Box 294, Ridgefield or to the Ridgefield Senior Citizens Center, 25 Gilbert Street, Ridgefield, 06877.
Sophia Testa, Westport native
Sophia Testa of Old Pierce Road, wife of the late Joseph Testa, died Thursday, Dec. 28, in St. Raphael’s Hospital in New Haven. She was 83 years old.
Born in Westport on Aug. 4, 1917 she was the daughter of the late Michael and Mary Gaitkowski Morris. She was a former Westport and Norwalk resident.
Survivors include a son Richard Testa of Tamarac, Fla., one sister Josephine Szotak of Ridgefield, one brother Joseph Morris of Hanford, Calif., two grandchildren, one great-grandchild and two nieces.
A mass of Christian Burial was celebrated Wednesday in St. Mary’s Church in Norwalk. Burial was in St. John’s Cemetery, Norwalk.
The Collins Funeral Home, 92 East Avenue, Norwalk was in charge of arrangements.
Margaret McGlynn Towne, 84, secretary and native
Margaret McGlynn Towne, of Ballard Green, who was born in Ridgefield and returned to live her last years here, died on Wednesday, Jan. 10, at Laurelwood Rehabilitation Center. She was 84 years old.
Mrs. Towne was born in Ridgefield on June 12, 1916, a daughter of the late Thomas and Margaret (McCauley) McGlynn. She grew up on Catoonah Street in a house, recently torn down, that stood across from the firehouse where her brother was later chief.
She attended Titicus School and graduated from Ridgefield High School in 1934.
After working as a secretary in New York City for a while, she returned to Connecticut, married a policeman, and moved to the town of Morris, where she raised a family of five. She latered worked for the Paparazzo Management Company of Southbury, developers of Heritage Village and Heritage Crest of Southbury, and lived at Heritage Village for a while.
About 15 years ago, Mrs. Towne returned to Ridgefield, living at Ballard Green and helping care for her mother.
She is survived by a son, Gary Towne of Goshen; three daughters; Judy Van Horne of North Carolina, Wendy Harvey of Sheffield, Mass., and Marguerite Towne of Kent; a brother, retired Fire Chief Richard T. McGlynn of Ridgefield; a sister, Ethel Stegner of Ohio; 10 grandchildren, 12 great-grandchildren, nieces, nephews, grandnieces and grandnephews.
A son, Peter Towne, died in the Vietnam War.
Graveside services will take place in West Cemetery in Litchfield in the spring.
There will be no calling hours.
Contributions in Mrs. Towne’s memory may be made to the Salvation Army, 15 Foster Street, Danbury, CT 06810.
The Jowdy-Kane Funeral Home, 9-11 Granville Avenue, Danbury is in charge of arrangements.
Nancy Vitti, 48, Ridgefield pharmacy clerk
Nancy DiPietro Vitti of 89 West Lane, who worked many years at Ridgefield Pharmacy, died at Bethel Healthcare on Sunday, Jan. 28. She was 48 years old.
Ms. Vitti was born in Norwalk on Nov. 16, 1952, a daughter of Andrew and Filomena Schettino DiPietro, both of Ridgefield. She grew up in New Canaan, where she attended school and graduated from New Canaan High School Class of 1970. She was also a 1972 graduate of Newbury College in Boston, Mass., where she majored in design.
A resident of Ridgefield since 1978, Ms. Vitti was a clerk at the Ridgefield Pharmacy for 18 years and she was also a member of St. Mary’s Church.
Ms. Vitti had many interests including animals — she had four dogs — and flower gardening. She enjoyed cooking and was a student of astrology for many years.
Besides her parents, she is survived by two daughters, Alexis Vitti and Adrienne Vitti, both of Ridgefield; a sister, MaryAnn Enamait of Waterford; two nephews, Drew Enamait of Middletown, and Ross Enamait of Waterford; as well as her former husband, Thomas V. Vitti, of New Canaan.
A Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated today, Thursday, at 10:30 a.m. in St. Mary’s Church.
Burial will take place at the convenience of the family.
Contributions in her memory may be made to the Danbury Hospital Development Fund for Oncology Nursing Services, 24 Hospital Avenue, Danbury, CT 06810.
The Kane Funeral Home is in charge of arrangements.
Roger Akerman, 1990 RHS graduate
Roger Edward Akerman, a 1990 Ridgefield High School graduate with a gift for making people smile, died from a sudden illness last Thursday, March 15, in Culver City, Calif. He was 28, lived in Los Angeles, Calif., and was the son of former Ridgefielder Martha Hoglund and the late Sigel Akerman.
“He was always happy,” said his mother. “He lived to make you look at life from the bright side, and he’d make jokes on himself so he could make you smile.”
“Roger had an uncanny ability to make people smile,” said his brother, Marc Akerman.
Born in Yonkers, N.Y., in 1972, he moved to Ridgefield with his family in 1981. They lived on Hillcrest Court. He went to Scotland Elementary School, East Ridge Middle School and then Ridgefield High School, where he played football and lacrosse for four years, and was on the ski team.
He and his brothers, Glenn and Marc Akerman, often worked in construction with their stepfather, Bengt Hoglund.
He attended the University of Rhode Island, Western Connecticut State University, and Santa Monica College in California.
The family moved from Ridgefield to Brookfield last November, but Roger had earlier moved to California.
He worked for the president of marketing for Time/Warner, and had previously been in production for Bel-Air Entertainment, a Time/Warner subsidiary.
He enjoyed all types of sports and had picked up surfing in California. He enjoyed travel and spending time with friends and family. He retained many friends in Ridgefield, and they were proud that he’d gone to California, gotten a good job that he enjoyed, and become engaged to marry, his mother said.
Beside his mother, stepfather and brother Marc, all of Brookfield, he is survived by another brother, Glenn Akerman of Suffern, N.Y., and his uncle and aunt Henry and Saima West, who are his godparents, and his fiancée, Christina Cooley of Los Angeles.
His father and one cousin, John West, died before he did.
Services will be Saturday at 10 a.m. at the Emanuel Lutheran Church, Manville Road, Pleasantville, and burial will be at Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, N.Y.
Calling hours are from 5 to 9 on Friday, March 23, at the Maher Funeral Home, 117 Washington Avenue, Pleasantville.
Contributions in his memory may be made to the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation or the American Cancer Society.