Michael Pontello dies at 72,
was tireless village volunteer
Michael R. Pontello, a barber whose open heart, buoyant spirit and tireless public service made him symbol for many of the old-fashioned virtues, died Monday, Sept. 22, at Danbury Hospital. He was 72, the husband of the late Agatha Mugavero Pontello, and lived on Bennett’s Farm Road.
“I’m going to miss this town when I go,” he had said this summer.
Mr. Pontello died of cancer and in the final months of illness, when the path ahead was clear, he achieved a kind of celebrity status in town. The seeds of good will that he’d sown over decades of helping people, doing projects for the town, and just plain being friendly came back to him. Friends and business neighbors of his Main Street barbershop organized a ‘We Like Mike’ benefit dinner that drew so many people it ran out of chicken. Even as he was in chemotherapy he could be seen out weeding and watering flowers on the Main Street that for years he’d cared for as if it were his own garden.
“Main Street, I can’t get over it. It’s gorgeous! I’m glad to be up here,” he said as he spruced things up for the sidewalk sale in July.
He stood out on Main Street, rake in hand, greeting people who stopped by to say hello, ask how he was doing, or just to kid him. And did people known him! Friendly, talkative, he knew people from his years of work on Main Street, his decades of cutting hair, from using his woodworking skills to make toys for children, or just having coffee and being friendly at The Early Bird.
He confessed to being a little amazed by the phenomenon. “People are wonderful,” he told a reporter. “I never realized how much I was liked, what an impact I had.”
Mr. Pontello, who was born in West Hartford on March 8, 1931, never really knew his own mother and father.
“My mother’s unknown — my mother’s name was Jenny. I lived with foster-people. I was in a children’s home for three years,” he told an interviewer in July 2003.
He grew up in Norwalk in foster homes, living for many years with the Tirella family there and attending local schools.
He was a U.S. Army veteran of the Korean War and when he got out of the service began coming “up the river” from Norwalk to Ridgefield after he was introduced to Agatha Mugavero, from Branchville, whose father Jerry Mugavero owned Jerry’s Barbershop on an alley off Main Street. He met her in April 1955, and in 1956 they were married and he was working in Jerry’s. He graduated form Central Barber College in New York City.
For decades now, that shop has been Michael’s Barbershop and Geppetto’s Workshop, where he cut hair and did woodworking. Active in town, he was a member of the Ridgefield Downtown Council and was responsible in maintaining the floral and greenery within downtown Ridgefield.
He was a member of the Ridgefield Volunteer Fire Department and the Fire Police, a life member of the Ridgefield Veterans of Foreign Wars, and he was a member of the Italian American Mutual Aid Society, the Meals on Wheels program, the Jerusalem Lodge #49 Masons and of St. Mary’s Church, Ridgefield.
“Volunteering, it’s very important,” he said. “Without volunteers you’d have nothing.”
He received the Chamber of Commerce’s Public Service Award in 1986, was the Ridgefield Rotary Club’s Citizen of the Year in 1991, and was given The Old Timers Association’s Civic Award on the day he died.
“It was for all that he did around town — for being Mike,” said Jim Belote, who went up to the hospital with Andy Montanari to deliver the Old Timers award Monday.
“He was a real nice guy,” Mr. Belote said. “You had to get through the rough exterior, but once you got to know him, he was a prince...
“He gave of himself,” Mr. Belote said. “He made the Meals on Wheels savings banks, sold them, and the money went to the Meals on Wheels. He was out doing his town work at 6 o’clock in the morning, and then you’d see him 8 o’clock at night, watering the flowers on Main Street, blowing the sidewalks clean, shoveling up sand or picking up stuff.”
But for all his volunteering and public service work, it was one on one that Mike Pontello was most remarkable.
“You couldn’t ask for a better neighbor,” said Frank Barr, who lived next door to him on Bennett’s Farm Road for more than 30 years.
“He was most helpful. You couldn’t go out in your yard and do any yard work without him coming over and offering his tools, or help, or some assistance. He couldn’t give you enough. He was the type of person who loved to give, and very seldom asked for anything. Everybody that knows him would probably agree with that.”
“I won’t be able to look at that house without thinking of Mike,” Mr. Barr said. “He was an exceptional man, and we certainly are going to miss him.”
John Katz, the outspoken Planning and Zoning Commission member, was a friend of Mr. Pontello’s from their shared daily ritual of breakfast at The Early Bird.
“That morning coffee will be cooler at The Early Bird without Mike,” he said.
“I think as different as Michael’s and my backgrounds and outlooks on various things may have been — he’s pretty conservative and I guess I could be labeled moderately liberal — we agreed on how terrific Ridgefield is, how basically good the kids in town are, despite many allegations and some evidence to the contrary. And we sort of focused our relationship not only on moments of humor and good-natured kidding at the counter, but on fairly, I guess, significant discussions about where the town’s been, where it’s going, and how it’s treating the kids who are growing up in it.”
“He was very forthright,” Mr. Katz added. “Knowing Mike for five minutes meant you knew where Michael stood on damn near everything that’s important.”
An incident recounted by Dan Jowdy of the Kane Funeral Home captured both Mr. Pontello’s wit and his irrepressible spirit. Mr. Jowdy saw him by the post office a couple of weeks before he died, being driven around by a friend. Mr. Pontello kidded Mr. Jowdy about his efforts to build a new funeral home on Catoonah Street.
“He rolled down his window and said ‘Get that place ready. I want to be first!’ ” Mr. Jowdy said.
Mr. Pontello shared his thoughts freely and some among his many pronouncements took on the quality of a simple, unpretentious wisdom.
“You roll with the punches,” he said, reappearing on Main Street this summer after chemotherapy. “You know what? You’ve got to take what you’ve got.”
“You can’t feel sorry for yourself. You’ve got to get out of the house,” he said.
“The doctors are doctors — they’re not God.”
“The only time people hug is at funerals and weddings,” he said. “I like to take a kid and give him a hug.”
“Enjoy what’s above ground, because some day you’ll be under it.”
“We can always look under the rug and find dust. Let’s look on top of the rug — it looks pretty good.”
He is survived by a son, Michael J. Pontello of Danbury; a daughter, Cynthia Newett of Bakersfield, Vt.; a brother, Ralph Tirella of Oxford; his companion, Joyce Morrison of Bethel, and three grandsons, Christopher, Nicholas and Noah.
A Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated today, Thursday, at 10:30 a.m. in St. Mary’s Church, Ridgefield.
Burial will follow in St. Mary’s Cemetery.
Contributions in his memory may be made to the Ridgefield Volunteer Fire Department, 6 Catoonah Street, Ridgefield 06877.
The Kane Funeral Home is handling arrangements.
Catherine Reiley, author, dog expert
Catharine C. Reiley of 640 Danbury Road, an author who had been a national Girl Scout executive and later bred champion dogs and operated an obedience school, died on Saturday evening, Oct. 18, at her home.
Miss Reiley was born Feb. 23, 1917 in Rumson, N.J., the daughter of the late Robert J. and Amanda Chatillon Reiley She graduated from Manhattanville College and obtained her master of arts from Columbia University.
She moved from Bedford Village, N.Y., to Ridgefield in 1981.
Miss Reiley served as a professional worker for the Girls Scouts from 1940 to 1970. During that period she was the executive director of three local councils. From 1948 to 1960 she worked on the national staff of the Girl Scouts of the USA.
In 1951 she served as an exchange trainer in Denmark and in recognition of her work was awarded the Thanks Badge by the Danish Girl Scout Movement. As a member of the Program Department, she wrote many publications including the 1954 edition of the Girl Scout Handbook. Her book Group Fun was published by Dodd Mead in 1955.
As assistant director of the Girl Scouts’ Camping Division, she was active in the American Camping Association. From 1960 to 1970 she was the executive director of the Girls Scouts of Westchester-Putnam Counties in New York.
Miss Reiley was first introduced to dog obedience in 1954, when she and her Welsh terrier attended classes sponsored by the ASPCA in New York City and conducted by Miss Blanche Saunders.
In 1958 she purchased her first poodle, Mt. Louis Magie, a miniature, and in 1961 her first standard poodle, Carrion Regardez-Moi, which became owner handled — an American, Canadian and Bermudian Breed Champion and also gained obedience titles in those countries.
Carrion Regardez-Moi became the foundation bitch for her Kaeley Kennels on Silver Hill Road. Over the years dogs owned by her have obtained more than 15 breed championships and more than 50 obedience titles. Many other people have garnered AKC breed and obedience titles for the Kaeley-bred dogs, including a number that have earned tracking titles and two that obtained obedience trial championship titles.
Encouraged by Miss Saunders, Miss Reiley became an obedience instructor and in 1962 founded the Kaeley Dog Obedience School in Mount Kisco, N.Y. The school operated year-round, with a curriculum ranging from kindergarten puppy training through utility. From 1965 through 1980 all classes were held in Bedford Village. Since then classes have been held in a number of communities including Danbury, Ridgefield, and Bedford. Approximately 500 students were enrolled in these classes each year.
Miss Reiley was well known as a lecturer and has written dog obedience articles for many magazines and served as a consultant for a number of books. She was the co-author of The Story of Dog Obedience, published in 1972 by the Howell Book House.
In 1985, Miss Reiley was the recipient of the D’Ambrisi Award from the nationwide Association of Obedience Clubs and Judges. This award, in memory of the first director of obedience for the American Kennel Club, honors individuals “who have made significant and truly outstanding contributions to the Sport of Dog Obedience.”
Miss Reiley is survived by her nephew, Robert J. Reiley III of Annapolis, Md., and her niece, Mary Angela Vilord; two grandnephews and four grandnieces, and a great-grandniece.
A Mass of Christian Burial will take place on Friday at 10:15 a.m. in St. Mary’s Church.
Burial will be in Calvary Cemetery, Woodside, N.Y.
Friends will be received in the new Kane Funeral Home, 25 Catoonah Street on Thursday from 5 to 8 p.m.
Memorial contributions may be made to Girl Scouts of the USA, 830 Third Avenue., New York, NY or the Ridgefield District Nursing Association, 90 East Ridge, Ridgefield, CT 06877, or St. Mary’s Catholic Church, 55 Catoonah Street, Ridgefield, CT 06877.
Madeleine Schwoerer, 98, gardener
Madeleine Schwoerer, who had been a longtime Ridgefielder, died Tuesday, Oct. 21, in Sanford, Maine, at Greenwood Center where she had lived since 1998. She was 98 years old and had earlier lived at Parkview in Springvale, Maine.
Mrs. Schwoerer was born June 19, 1905 in Markt Rettenbach, Germany, the daughter of Wendelin and Marie Fiener. She was educated by the Dominican Sisters at Wettenhausen in the Black Forest. She came to the United States in 1930, and lived in New York City where her last employment was with Putnam Publishers.
Mrs. Schwoerer began coming to Ridgefield in 1950 when she and her husband bought a cottage on Cedar Lane, then a dirt road. She moved here full time in 1962, and for a while worked at the town tax office.
She was an avid gardener and during the 1980s helped establish gardens around the Ballard Green senior housing, transplanting perennials from her own garden on Cedar Lane. She was also a birder, and skilled at needlework.
Mrs. Schwoerer had belonged to the OWLS and was a member of St. Mary’s Church.
She moved to Maine in 1991 to be closer to her daughter.
Mrs. Schwoerer was predeceased by her first husband, William Laengst, and her second husband Herman Schwoerer. She is survived by her daughter Isabel Lewando of Ogunquit, Maine; and her grandson, Benjamin Lewando of Lowell, Mass.
Arrangements were by Heald Funeral Home in Springvale, Maine, where services were conducted by Father Timothy Nadeau of Holy Family Parish.
Memorial gifts may be made to Holy Family Catholic Church, 66 North Avenue, Sanford, ME 04073.
Robert Simard, loved boats and horses
Robert Lee Simard of Rowayton, a former Ridgefielder who had been a Coca-Cola sales executive and an equine dentist, died Sunday morning, Nov. 9, of congestive heart failure. He was 70 years old.
The son of Leon and Elizabeth Simard, he was born in Manchester, N.H., where he spent his childhood with his sister, Carol.
At 18, after graduating from high school, Mr. Simard left Manchester to join the Air Force and serve in the Korean War. In Alaska he was a flight engineer on cold-weather aircraft testing.
Leaving the service as a sergeant, he went to New Hampshire College where he graduated with a degree in business. He joined Coca-Cola and became a sales manager covering the northeast region.
In 1972, Mr. Simard and his family moved to an early 1800s house, called Peaceable Farm, on Peaceable Street. He and his wife, Lynn, had earlier restored a 1772 house in Falmouth, Maine, a 1920 house in Manchester, N.H., and an 1850 house in Northbridge, Mass., and they set about restoring the Ridgefield house and its huge barn.
In 1979, the family moved to Rowayton to be closer to the sea. On summer weekends he could often be found with family and friends on his trawler, the Mary A. “A great listener and storyteller, he was fondly known in ports from Maine to Manhattan,” a friend said.
Mr. Simard was a member of the Norwalk Yacht Club, Ischoda Yacht Club, The Corinthians, and the Darien Sail and Power Squadron. He ran the frostbite races at the Norwalk Yacht Club on chilly winter weekends. He served for years on the race committee of The Corinthians and was awarded, among many other honors, the Cook Trophy for distinguished services. He mastered courses offered by the Darien Sail and Power Squadron, and taught seamanship and navigation.
Based on his love and rapport with horses, and with training by veterinarians, he became a full-time equine dentist. Among his clients was Anheuser-Busch, for which he handled all of its Clydesdale horses nationwide.
Besides his wife of 47 years, Mr. Simard is survived by four children: Jay Simard of Holden, Mass., Jonathan Simard of Rowayton, Truda Weaver of Matthews, N.C., and Elizabeth Richardson of Roswell, Ga.; a sister, Carol Houghton of Manchester, N.H.; four grandchildren: Katherine Weaver, Mark Weaver, Meredith Richardson, and Margot Richardson.
A memorial service will be at the United Church of Rowayton at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, Nov. 15, with a reception to follow at the Norwalk Yacht Club.
In lieu of flowers the family requests donations be sent to the PKD (Polycystic Kidney Disease) Foundation, 9221 Ward Parkway, Suite 400, Kansas City, MO 64114-3367.
The McHugh Funeral Home in Manchester, N.H., is in charge of arrangements.
Robert Sweet, award manufacturer
Robert Henry Sweet of New York City, Ridgefield, and Palm Beach, Fla., whose company made the commemorative medals that the Apollo astronauts carried to the moon, died Monday, Nov. 10. He was 78 years old.
Mr. Sweet served in the 10th Mountain Infantry and in the Army Air Corps, Pacific Theater, during WWII.
A business graduate of Bryant College, Mr. Sweet was chairman emeritus and former owner of The Robbins Company, a 110-year-old award manufacturing and recognition company. Its executive offices were headquartered in New York during his 34 years of ownership and its clients have included Avon, IBM, PaineWebber, Prudential, AT&T, American Airlines, and the New York Yankees, among other national firms. He was a member of several corporate boards and a long-serving treasurer of the Humane Society of New York.
An active member of the Municipal Art Society of New York, his interest in art and architecture led to a position on the Photography Committee of the Whitney Museum. He restored a 1932 residential property designed by Edward Durrell Stone in Connecticut, maintained executive offices in the General Motors Building (also designed by Stone) for over 20 years and served as a director of 400 Ocean, a landmarked Stone property in Palm Beach.
Homes he commissioned — including his place on Mamanasco Road — have been profiled in both the New York Times Magazine and the “room” books of Chris Casson Madden. He was a close friend of former Knoll president Bob Cadwallader as well as a friend of architects Philip Johnson and Luis Barragan, furniture designer Niels Diffrient, and artisan Helena Hernmarck.
A member of Doubles, the New York Athletic Club, Wee Burn Country Club in Darien, and the Governor’s Club in Palm Beach, Mr. Sweet participated in an active life in New York, Connecticut and Palm Beach. He was also an avid tennis player and built the Four Seasons Tennis Complex in Wilton in 1976. At the time Four Seasons was New England’s largest indoor/outdoor tennis facility and was profiled in the New York Times Sports section.
Mr. Sweet is survived by his former wife, Audrey M. Smith Sweet; two daughters, Robin Sweet Wagner of Newport, R.I., and Palm Beach, and Margery “Boo” Grace of Manhattan; two sons, Christopher L. Sweet of North Attleboro, Mass., and Jonathan W. Sweet of Telluride, Colo., and Los Angeles; and six grandchildren.
A memorial service took place Monday, Nov. 17, at St. Bartholomew’s Church, Park Avenue, New York City
Contributions in his memory may be made to The Humane Society of New York, 306 East 59th Street, New York, NY 10022; Bryant College, 1150 Douglas Pike, Smithfield, RI 02917; St. Mary-Sacred Heart School, 57 Richards Avenue, N. Attleboro, MA 02760; or Telluride Educational Foundation, PO Box 3548, Telluride, CO 81435.