Letter: Gunntown heroes separated by two centuries

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To the editor,

Gunntown. The name conjures up the old west with its cattle rustlers and gunslingers. It’s where the good guys had a rough edge and the bad guys weren’t, well, all bad. The women were tough and young people had to grow up fast. Ironically, much of this description fits the real Gunntown. The only other thing west about Gunntown is that the neighborhood resides on the west side of Naugatuck.

In March of 1780, on one of those full moon nights that casts strong nocturnal shadows, a heinous robbery took place in Bethany. Tory thugs responsible for ransacking and terrorizing a family there made their way to Gunntown. Kidnapping a young boy along the way, there was an attempt to kill him along a bend in the Long Meadow Brook.

Simultaneously, colonial trackers, along with some of the boy’s family, were feverishly tracking down the marauders.

What followed had the chase qualities of a James Bond movie and the intensity of a Michael Crichton thriller. Two men and a woman stepped forward to save the young boy. One was a house slave. The other two were Tories. Why would any of them risk their lives in those times when a civil war atmosphere ruled the land? The answers can be complex for sure but one quality has to be part of the mix. Their basic humanity burst forth.

So Naugatuck’s history bristles with everyday heroes. It’s one of the many reasons that the proclaiming of the Gunntown Passive Park and Nature Preserve in 2010 by the town was such a singular achievement.

It’s forty acres, bookended by the old Gunn property and the Gunntown cemetery, contains a treasure of both natural and peoples’ history. How the passive open space, that is land with no impervious surfaces, was rescued had its own brand of everyday heroes. With personal gain minimal or nonexistent, they stepped up and took a stand. They put community first. Who were some of these everyday people?

Wayne Twerian was a chemistry and biology teacher at Watertown High School. He especially enjoyed conveying conservation ideas to his students. Wayne lived in Gunntown. He took the initiative to speak at town meetings on behalf of the passive open space there. He saw its biological richness. He particularly saw it as a living laboratory to benefit young people. I got to know Wayne better as we measured old growth forests together in the Terra del Fuego archipelago of Chile. Fittingly, he brought two of his students with him.

Maria Folsom was a Girl Scout den mother. The development of young women was integral to her razon de entre. When two of her brood became interested in preservation efforts at Gunntown, she had the common sense to move with them and the skills to guide them. I can still see her on the day she helped plant a birch tree from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond at Gunntown. She attained high honors upon graduating from the nursing program at Mattatuck Community College. Maria was basically a shy person. She moved out of her comfort zone for her “girls” and for the community with her leadership.

At the first stirrings for passive open space at Gunntown, Ed Coelho was there. In retrospect, this was hardly surprising. Ed was a member of the Portuguese Political Action Committee and Friends of the Library in Naugatuck. This Vietnam veteran wrote poetry. He had a broad view of ethnic pride and culture. In fact, he made sure the latter word was incorporated in Committee For A Cultural/Environmental Center – Gunntown Road. We joined the Greater Western Connecticut Labor Council together, bringing our environmental concerns with us. Coffee after meetings was a must with Ed. There we discussed everything from politics, to family and literature. Family was everything to Ed. He saw his contributions to the community as an extension of helping his family and all families.

What Wayne Twerian, Maria Folsom, and Ed Coelho had in common was a dedication to community, particularly young people. While it took time and much discussion, over the last few years in particular, many recognize these latter attributes are shared with sports advocates as well. There is room for all of us. Wayne, Maria, and Ed have passed from this world. Their contribution to the community that resulted in the Gunntown Passive Park and Nature Preserve remains a fitting monument to their efforts.

Walking the trails and meadows at the Gunntown Passive Park and Nature Preserve, we amble with some special people. They were from our deep history and from the last century into the new millennium. None wanted the limelight. They wanted what became a fight, in one sense, for justice and fairness. They represented the everyday humanity and hero in our valley people. They earned the moniker that Paul Revere summed up in one word—citizen.

Len Yannielli

Community Outreach Director

Committee for a Cultural/Environmental Center–Gunntown Road