Your neighbors, your news, your town. Get informed, get involved.

Talking of Orange: Bicentennial Interviews Now Online

April 4, 2024
Time to read:
Talking of Orange: Bicentennial Interviews Now Online

Storytelling, it seems, is a very trendy art form, used sometimes to build connection between people.  Selectwoman Judy Williams last year conducted a series of interviews with treasured citizens as part of the town’s Bicentennial celebration.  Those videotaped interviews - 37 of them - are now available on the OGAT channel on YouTube.

Most of the participants grew up in Orange, and many had family histories that had deep roots.  All were willing to dig deep into their memories to portray the life they lived and the people that made the town special to them.

What shone through all of them, Williams said, was that this was a town that worked together, and people helped each other.  “Community was huge.”

It is touching to see some who have since passed away, such as Walter Bespuda and Town Historian Priscilla Searles.  In all, there are some 37 videos posted, each one lasting about an hour.  As a whole, this collection of stories provides an insight into personal recollections, and ultimately, the soul of the community.

Jacks of all trades:  Robert Hiza, the town’s long-time engineer, recalled people that he found notable or memorable.  Among them was George Smith – a “Jack of all trades, “who was a farmer, served as fire marshal, ran a lawn service, drove a school bus, and served as zoning enforcement officer and, oh yes, he also was a supernumerary, a part-time policeman.  “He was not complaining about all the jobs, he did them all,” Hiza said.

Similarly, John VanArman, born 1942 on Grassy Hill Road, as a youngster started helping out at Hine’s Farm.  By the time he was 12 he could drive a tractor, he said.  After his military service he plowed for the town and the state.  Then he started hauling oil.  Several septic installations led to a job as sewer inspector for the town.  Eventually they also made him the building inspector.  “I really enjoyed working like that,” he remembered.

Carmen Ana Rodriguez, a member of the Orange Board of Education, told the story of how her father came here from Puerto Rico, working as a farm hand for the Cuzzocreo family in the early 1950s.  Eventually, it was Joe Cuzzocreo who suggested the whole family come and even provided a farmhouse.  “The Cuzzocreo’s were the gateway of my father achieving the American dream,” she said.

Frank C Rogers, a descendent of Matthew Woodruff, one of the earliest settlers in this area, remembered a life without cell phones.  At age 6, he invited himself to Walter Bespuda’s house, but forgot to tell his parents.  When Walter’s father finally walked him home at dinner time, his family was out, looking all over for him, searching the ponds and any other area they thought he could have gotten lost.

His great-grandfather joined the Union Army in the Civil War – a New Haven regiment consisting of some 800 people – but when he returned, he was only one of three survivors, Rogers said.  Subsequently, his great grandfather started the Woodruff seed company, which sold local seeds far and wide.  He even showed a framed seed bag from that time.

Bev McClure, the aunt of Bethany veterinarian Kim McClure, grew up in Orange, where her parents bought a house on Dogburn Road.  It was rural, she said, no street lights, no stores, houses had no numbers; some streets were not paved – Dogburn, for example, turned into a dirt road.

With an Italian mother and a French-Canadian Scottish Father, it was a catholic household, and they eventually ended up at Holy Infant church.  You’d run into the same people at school, in church or in social situations.

“We played outside, riding our bikes, playing baseball in the street, ice skating on a neighbor’s pond.  The teachers often lived in town.  When you went to the parade, you knew everybody in the parade.  “People helped each other out,” she said.  “Growing up in Orange was a privilege,” she said.  It was a WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) community, but not in a discriminatory way, she insisted.  At this point, she lives in New Haven, but “I belong in Orange.”

Special events:  Robert Hiza also remembered the town’s sesquicentennial in 1972, for which he served on the special events committee.  One of the special events was a hot air balloon – that was tethered to the grounds at the fairgrounds.  But he and a friend got a chance to take a balloon ride, an unforgettable experience.

“We were gliding over Orange – probably 400 feet up in the air.  That’s when I realized how many dogs there were – because the dogs would start barking at the strange thing flying above.  The balloon finally came down in New Haven, where an audience of city children gaped at their unusual vehicle.

John O’Sullivan, the brother of Pat and David O’Sullivan, now lives in North Carolina, but he grew up in Orange.  He joined the Peace Corps in 1968 and was sent to Cote d’Ivoire in Africa, where he met his future wife, Rita Goldfarb.  He got a Doctorate in African history, and for his thesis he recorded villagers’ stories about what they remembered.

“I heard some fascinating stories about what had happened to their villages,” he said.  He found that what matters most to villagers in Africa is not much different from what matters to us – kids, education, family connection.  “What matters is family and place,” he said.

The interviews were conducted by Judy Williams; the videographers were Chris Kelly and Laura Kelly.  It was quite a logistical challenge to get all the interviews lined up, Williams said.  She is still hoping to do two more, namely with Eloise Clark and with Walt Hine.

Some participants were initially reluctant to participate, but she gave them three questions to prepare for the conversation:  Tell us about your family history and how you got to Orange – tell us your involvement in the town – and tell us some interesting story.

“Tell your story for your family, get it recorded, she would encourage them.

Walt Bespuda for example passed away two and a half months after the interview.  They uploaded the recording to a flash drive and presented it to the family.  “They played it during the wake,” she said.

First Selectman Jim Zeoli talked about the history of farming in Orange.  After World War II, demand for housing was exploding, and many sold their land.  “Orange changed,” he said, adding that as a youngster he would watch land disappear.  “That’s when I developed strong feelings about preserving open space,” he said.  “If I don't step up, when the children of this town are my age there will be nothing left.”

These are the interviews posted on OGAT:  Walter Bespuda, Robert Hiza, Kevin Gilbert, Ginny Reinhard, Walter E. Clark, III; July Williams, Gloria Capecelatro, Rowland Hine and Doris Knight; Dorothy Berger, Pat Sorensen, Marjorie Schenk, John VanArman, Thomas and Gary Salemme; Lynn Plaskowitz, Frederick Knight; Donald Foyer, Laurie Jane and Craig Winkle, Charles Treat Gagle, Fred Palmer, Neil Hathaway; Beverly Treat Bettencourt, Emma Cuzzocreo, Jeffery Treat Wilson; Anne Greco, James Zeoli, Carman Ana Rodriguez, Frank Rogers, John O’Sullivan, Beverly McClure, Charlotte Clark Turner, Priscilla Searles, Eleanor and Frank Pucillo, Albert M. Clark III, Joe Tirollo, and Suzanne Anderson.

Related articles