Sometimes when doing research about local history for this column, I find myself pursuing paths that were totally unanticipated. These paths are often interesting, and a fortunate stroke of serendipity. Recently, I was seeking historical evidence about Samuel Huntington, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, who was born and raised in Windham, and his possible role in the 1745 conviction and execution of Elizabeth Shaw. Walking slowly down an aisle of bookcases full of carefully arranged books, as I searched for an important volume containing early Windham records, I unexpectedly discovered a fascinating book that was written and published in 2003 by Windham High students. It was tucked away among the other volumes at the Center for Connecticut Studies at Eastern Connecticut State University.
The book was titled “Hero in Town” which came about as a result of a project at the high school “to promote the pride that is inherent in our local culture by documenting the common acts of indiscriminate kindness that make Willimantic a romantic and caring community of compassion and benevolence.” The image of Willimantic had been tarnished by the Hartford Courant’s October 2002 front page five-part special report that named Willimantic “Heroin Town.” It had done a terrible disservice to the community which negatively affected its residents of all ages. However, the book “Hero in Town” contains the insights of our youth twenty-years ago, who took a penetrating look into the existing culture and spirit of people and the place called Willimantic. Windham High School students eagerly rose to the occasion by portraying and illuminating what was great about Willimantic, its people, and yes, its heroes.
“Disgusted and offended” by the misrepresentations of Willimantic contained in the articles and photos in the Courant, Destiny Raymond, one of the book’s contributors, said: “I see a caring community. I see people I know who are hard workers and have loving families… I will never hang my head when asked where I live. I will raise my head high and say, ‘I live in Willimantic’.”
Destiny Raymond’s contribution was one of 84 stories which represented many of the heroes in Willimantic.” All are about some of the most wonderful and caring people who each one was seen as a “Hero in Town.” Stacey Roberts wrote “My hero and heroine are my parents… My dad cares for me more than anyone I can imagine… My mom has lived in Willimantic her whole life. She taught me my way around Willimantic and how to live life. Most importantly, she has made me think about who I am and what I want to be. Willimantic is the home of my mom and dad… Willimantic is a fun-loving and safe town. It is the home of my heroes.” Kelsey Caliento’s hero, Michael Haggerty, “was born and raised in Willimantic” and as a coach and now a police officer, he is for young people a positive role model in town. “Willimantic is a good, old New England town where one can get a good education.”
For Kerin Jaros-Dressler it was said: “Those who volunteer to give blood are the real heroes. When I was two, I was very sick and lost a lot of blood. I needed about three pints of blood to keep me alive. I never knew the three people who gave me my life back. If I had, then they would be my lifetime heroes.” Kerin interviewed people involved with the 2002 Windham High November blood drive. It was an annual tradition of giving that had begun in 1979. Mrs. Gail Montalvo, a WHS teacher, coordinated the drive for many years. Mrs. Vivian Chaine, a job coach for special education, told Kerin: “I believe in the Red Cross and what they do. It’s a wonderful organization. It offers people an easy opportunity to help others.” Kerin “asked student Ryan Shea, a first-time donor, what it felt like. He said: ‘To give blood is to give life… It is a great feeling’.” Mrs. Torres, a para-educator at the school, “has given 16 or 17 times, is not the first or last one to say it was just a way to help people. She says she especially likes helping kids think about others. Chris Arnsten and others described giving blood as a random act of kindness.” Kerin Jaros-Dressler concluded by saying: “To give life is one gift never too big or too small. It is a silent heroic action, one that often goes unnoticed.” To her point, the stories portrayed in “Hero in Town” were typical of the people who called Willimantic home!