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The Y’s Doc Doubleday: The War Years in Westport

Note: Westporters have often heard the Doubleday name, as the town’s complex of athletic fields on Riverside Ave. is named in honor of the man who served the Y from 1923 to 1957, first as Physical Director and later as Membership Director.

Generations of kids, old timers now, knew Francis Edgar “Doc” Doubleday as the friendly face behind the front desk. But few today know Doc’s story, and none can tell it like his son, Edgar N. Doubleday II.

In Part I of “Remembering Doc Doubleday,” his son Ed recalled memories from his childhood in Westport during the 1930s – an eventful time, given the Depression, the Great Hurricane of 1938 and the looming specter of war. He also wrote of the early years of the Westport Y and the start of his father’s decades of service to our community.

In Part II, below, Ed takes us back to the 1940s and the impact World War II had on all who lived in that time. We hope you appreciate this personal recollection of one of the key figures in the history of our Y, and of a remarkable time in our local history.

Part II: The War Years in Westport

The World War II Honor Roll in Veterans Green.

The World War II Honor Roll in Veterans Green.

On Sunday, December 7, 1941, at about 2:30 pm, my Dad and I were listening to a pro football game on the radio when the game was interrupted with an announcement: “Pearl Harbor in Hawaii is under attack by the Japanese!”

Our world was changed forever.

Dad became very serious. He said, “There will be millions of lives lost because now Germany will jump in, too.” He was right.

The war was a very depressing time for all. The little town of Westport lost some 40 young, vibrant boys and men.

When my Dad stayed late to close the Y and it was quiet, he would be at the desk pecking away at the typewriter with one finger of each hand. I always wondered what he was doing and why he was typing every night.

I finally asked him about it and he said he was writing notes to all the young men he knew who were in the service all over the world. He had a 3×5 card file with the name, address of each serviceman, their likes and dislikes, friend’s names, hobbies and other things of their interest. His reasoning was that that they needed to know that we at home cared about them.

Every so often he would come home with a tear in his eye and a heavy heart, knowing another Westport boy had been killed.

Back on the Home Front

During the war years, Al Bresslin, who was then Physical Director, set up a “Commando” course in the gym. It consisted of the parallel bars with mats draped over them to climb over, a low balance beam (a footbridge), flying rings to swing over an imaginary river, large pipe to crawl through, Indian clubs set up to zigzag around, mats for tumbling and finally a straight dash to the finish line. We all were timed weekly. Our goal – complete the course faster than the last time. Bill Krause was always the fastest and we strived to equal or beat his time, but no such luck!

A Westport YMCA basketball team, circa 1940s.

A Westport YMCA basketball team, circa 1940s.

There were all kinds of clubs at the Y; chess, checkers, airplane model building, stamp collecting and even a boxing club. We had ping pong and pool tournaments, and the bowling alleys were always busy. Many of us worked in the alleys setting up pins to make a little change, but it was dangerous.

Dad was always asking me about one or another of my friends and why he didn’t see them at the Y anymore. Sometime it was because there wasn’t enough money and their parents didn’t have the $2 for the membership fee. He somehow would come up with the money, and a YMCA membership card would magically arrive in the mail at the boy’s home. It meant so much to those friends.

In the summertime, before Little League and other organized sports for kids, the YMCA helped us get our own league going up on the Westport Athletic Field (now Doubleday Field). We had no money and no equipment — except our beat-up gloves. The YMCA stepped up and gave us two game balls, a catcher’s mitt, mask, chest protector and shin guards. Dad got Bill Vornkahl to volunteer as umpire. We had four teams in our league in 1942-1945, made up of 11, 12 and 13 year olds. No hats or uniforms, spikes or helmets. We also coached ourselves – great fun!

Those were different times, to be sure. We fished in the Saugatuck River, often right next to the bridge downtown. This was before there was any municipal sewer system, of course, and whatever got washed into the drains or flushed down a sink or toilet, well, you’d see it floating by in the river. My Mom was always saying, “Now, Eddie, don’t you dare go swimming in that river!” But that didn’t stop us from fishing, or from eating whatever we caught – fluke, eels, and little “snapper” bluefish about five inches long that we’d eat as sandwiches.

A 1955 view across the Saugatuck toward what would become Parker Harding Plaza.

A 1955 view across the Saugatuck toward what would become Parker Harding Plaza.

Across the river from downtown was a formaldehyde factory, in the building that later became the Famous Artists School, and what’s now the Save the Children headquarters. You could see the barrels and other containers stacked up along the riverbank. Who knows what got dumped in the river back then. But one memory stands out: There was a yarn factory upstream by Lees Dam. You could tell what color yarn they were making that day by the color of the water coming downstream – blue, yellow, red …

Sometimes we’d watch as men dragged long nets into the river, made a circle and then hauled out bushels of smelt. I’m afraid the herring runs are long gone from our local waters.

Legging It Around Town

Growing up, I used to hang out at the YMCA sometimes in the evenings, and when my Dad would close up the building at 10 pm we would walk home together across the bridge and down Riverside Avenue to our upstairs apartment at 31 Lincoln Street, where my Mom’s food awaited us.

An oil painting of Doc Doubleday in his later years.

An oil painting of Doc Doubleday in his later years.

Dad always walked to and from work, twice a day because he worked a split shift. People would drive by and honk their horns at him and yell, “Hey, Doc!”

In the winter he wore his trademark felt hat, ear muffs and scarf with an overcoat. He would always tell me how cold it was crossing over the bridge. Dad was constantly asked if he needed a ride, but he always refused. He would tell me, “Eddie, when you get older, walk at every chance you have because when your legs go, it’s all over!”

I enjoyed my own walks with my friends, especially past the ping pong ball factory on Riverside. It was next to a lumberyard near Assumption Church, and the factory used the cellulose the yard produced to make millions of ping pong balls and things like pinwheels.

I recall the young ladies who worked in the ping pong factory would sit by the windows, and, boys being boys, we’d shout up to them.

One time I was at the Y and at about 7 pm a friend of mine was leaving and wanted to know if I wanted to walk home together since he lived down Riverside past my street. I said, “No, I’m going to wait for my Dad to close up and then walk home with him.” He said, “OK, I’ll see you tomorrow.” He took a different route home, which I probably would have done as well.

As things turned out, that was the night of a huge truck wreck on Nash’s Corner. The truck exploded and burned a half dozen firemen and spectators. My friend was only slightly burned but some were severely burned and the Fire Chief was actually killed in the blast. I could have been there if I hadn’t waited for my Dad.

Down on the Farm in Westport

At the height of WWII, all able-bodied men were off fighting for our country. During the summers the farmers would call Doc at the Y for labor. He would round us up and we would get on our bikes and head out early mornings to hoe cabbage, pick tomatoes and corn, weed onions, etc. It was a regular employment service.

Margaret Rudkin with the local bread that would become world famous.

Margaret Rudkin with the local bread that would become world famous.

My friends and I were all 12-14 years old, and a 10-hour day for $2.50 a day was good money for us.

In the fall, Herb Baldwin would call Dad at the Y to round up the kids to pick apples from his orchards on Bayberry Lane. We only got $.03 a bushel picked, but it was a fun time for us. We’d pick and eat, then take a break and throw the bad apples at each other.

On the way home we would always take a little detour in the grape orchard of the Masiello’s – that is, until we got caught. No more grapes after that!

One day, Mr. Baldwin loaded us in a truck and told us a friend of his needed help. Off we went to a farm in Fairfield owned by the Rudkin family. At noon we went up to the big garage to eat our lunch. Mrs. Rudkin offered us some homemade bread, and we couldn’t resist it. The farm was named after a great big tupelo tree that grew on the property. They’re also known as Pepperidge trees. Yes, imagine that – I was there at the beginning of Pepperidge Farms.

Finding, and Founding, Camp Mahackeno

In the years running up to WWII, the Westport YMCA ran a day camp on the town athletic field on Riverside Ave. – which would later be named after my Dad. The summer camp cost about 30 cents a week, which included milk and a bus trip to Compo Beach once a week for swimming.

We would also travel by bus to Bridgeport, board a boat and sail to Rye Beach (Playland) for the day. Then it was back to Bridgeport on the boat. This happened once every summer and it was a great trip!

In 1942 the Y began looking for a camp site of its own. I know Y staff, my Dad included, and volunteers spent many an hour tramping both sides of the Saugatuck and Aspetuck Rivers through Westport and Weston looking for a good day camp site.

One day a janitor mentioned that he knew of a place that was less than 5 minutes from downtown that would make a wonderful camp site. Within 15 minutes, the present day Mahackeno Outdoor Center was discovered.

Swimming at Camp Mahackeno. Surplus rafts from WWII were a big hit for years.

Swimming at Camp Mahackeno. Surplus rafts from WWII were a big hit for years.

The property was owned by Mrs. Helen Smith, who lived in Stamford. Mrs. Smith offered the use of the site to the Westport YMCA on the condition that the YMCA pays the town taxes on the property. This was agreed upon and camp was moved from the athletic field to its new quarters in 1942.

The enrollment that summer was down to 60 boys, mainly because of gas rationing. Parents just could not get the boys to and from the camp or would not spend their gas stamps in that manner.

In 1944, Mrs. Smith sold the property. The buyer, Mr. Harry Richman, contacted the Y in July and offered the Y 30 acres of land, which included the camp site.

One night at the Y, I heard my Dad on the phone talking about the camp property; I think he was speaking with Mr. Frederick T. Bedford, the son of Edward T. Bedford, who founded the Y. They were talking about a purchase price of $20,000, which I could not comprehend at my age.

The YMCA Board of Directors and Board of Trustees organized a small committee to solicit funds for the purchase of the camp site. Mr. F. T. Bedford said that the Bedford Trust Fund would pay half the purchase price if the community would pay the other half. Within a few weeks the committee had collected $10,000 from the people of Westport and the Bedford Trust Fund gave the other half.

Doc, with banjo, jams with a group of young musicians at the Y during the 1940s.

Doc, with banjo, jams with a group of young musicians at the Y during the 1940s.

The next year, 1945, the camp was held at our new site and called Camp Bedford. By then, the former summer camp director, Jay VanZant, was back from the war and was rehired. I went as a camper and the next year as a C.I.T.

At the request of Mr. Bedford in 1946, the name of the camp was changed to Mahackeno, in honor of an Indian sachem named Mahackeno who used the property as a summer lodge for his tribe in the early 1600s. Mr. Bedford gave the camp $5,000 for capital improvements that summer, which included piping city water from Rices Lane and a septic system.

It was still a pretty rustic place.

The following year I was an assistant to Sports Director under Lou Dorsey. I remember having my picture taken with my Dad as a promotion for the camp. “Like Father, Like Son,” or similar. Little did I know that I would someday become a YMCA director for 31 years and retire from that career.

‘I’m Home, Doc!’

“Doc” had many talents and as his son I was always amazed at his abilities. He could play the banjo, guitar, mandolin, cello, drums; almost any instrument, but surprises still awaited me.

One day toward the end of the war, I walked up the Y steps and into the main lobby. To the left was our Teen Center, and I saw a big group of kids crowded around the piano with boogie woogie music pouring out. I looked over the crowd and there was my Dad banging it out. A shocker to me and everyone else!

Ed Doubleday with the Aug. 17, 1945 special edition of the Town Crier.

Ed Doubleday with the Aug. 17, 1945 special edition of the Town Crier.

On August 17, 1945, the town newspaper, the Westport Town Crier, headlined pictures and names of all the young men who didn’t come home. The paper came out once a week and covered Westport, Weston, Saugatuck, Georgetown and Greens Farms. My Dad gave me a copy with all the pictures of those who paid the ultimate sacrifice. He said, “Eddie, keep this paper and every Memorial Day I want you to take this out and look at it. Then, say a prayer and thank all those who served our country.

I have that newspaper today, and every Memorial Day I bring it out and re-read it. It still hurts, even almost 70 years later.

Finally the war ended – the town celebrated VJ Day with a big gathering on the front steps of the Y. And soon, the boys began to come home. Some would come to the Y first to see “Doc.” They would walk up to the front desk, throw their duffle bag down and reach over the desk and throw out their hand and say, “I’m home, Doc!” Tears formed in their eyes and his.

Playing the Ponies

Having grown up in the shadow of the Saratoga race track, Doc never lost his love of thoroughbred horses. He kept a desk at home completely devoted to race horses, jockeys and trainers. This, with his own intuition as a former jockey, made him a great source for his ability to pick winners. Every so often he would slip into Lampson’s News across the street on Colgan’s Corner next to the diner. It was a very well-kept secret, so we thought. He would go into the back of the store and place his bet with someone.

When Doc’s 25th anniversary dinner came around in 1948, there was a big surprise for him. He was presented with two round-trip tickets to Louisville, along with two tickets to the Kentucky Derby in May. He got one of his friends to go with him and they had a great time. The secret was out!

Several of his Saugatuck friends used to take him to Belmont or Narragansett on Wednesday in the summertime – his day off. It was an all-expense paid trip for him. The only requirement was that he gave up his picks in every race. The “crew” always came back with smiles on their faces!

Another big surprise came the next year, when the Town of Westport proclaimed Dec. 7, 1949 as “a Day for Doc Doubleday.”

The Town's Doc Doubleday proclamation.

The Town’s Doc Doubleday proclamation.

I still have the proclamation, which reads in part, “… We here in Westport are fortunate in possessing many find men who have proven their worth through the ability to teach a true American way of life.

“Of these men to whom we have entrusted the moral and physical training of our youth, one of the most effective has been Francis Edgar “Doc” Doubleday.

During the past twenty-five years he has become a beloved and integral part of the town. In this period he has served us well as physical director in the YMCA and as a friend to three generations of our young people…”

Moving On

When I was away during the Korean War my Dad wrote to me and told me Ernie Jacobson had left the Westport YMCA for a bigger and more responsible job at a YMCA in Alabama. I was disappointed, to say the least.

Dad then added a note to say that they had hired a great guy out of UConn named Matt Johnson. He said I’d be impressed when I met him.

Before I met Matt I knew that if “Doc” said he was a great guy that was good enough for me. My Dad was the best judge of character of anyone I’ve ever met. And, he was right!

Retired Y Exec Director Matt Johnson and Sally Silverstein, Sports & Rec Director, at the 2013 Ambassadors Luncheon at the Y.

Retired Y Exec Director Matt Johnson and Sally Silverstein, Sports & Rec Director, at the 2013 Ambassadors Luncheon at the Y.

Matt Johnson and his wife, Fran, became very good, personal friends of mine and my wife, Kathy. They were in our wedding party of July 12, 1957. Matt went on to do a fabulous job at the Westport YMCA, ending as executive director and retiring in 1989.

Dad retired from the Y in 1957, moving with my Mom down to Florida for some years. My own career with the YMCA took me to several Ys in the Northeast, including Niagara Falls, where my parents came to live as Mom’s health declined. She passed first, and we lost “Doc” in 1972, at age 87.

From Niagara Falls, I went on to head up the new YMCA in Wilton, from 1972 to 1979, then to Glen Falls, retiring from the Y in 1987. A widower now myself, I live in Florida, near my grandchildren, who often come to visit.

I’ve enjoyed telling my Dad’s story. Doc was a special person. I know he loved his years at the Y, and I hope he will be remembered as someone who did what he could to make Westport a better place to live and to raise a family.

Follow-up links:

Sept. 5, 1923: The Day Westport Got Its ‘Y’” (Sept. 5, 2013)

The Bedford Family and the Family Y” (Sept. 12)

Honoring 90 Years of Y Families” (Oct. 1)

Another Important Y Birthday” (Oct. 11)

Doc Doubleday, the Westport Y’s First Physical Director” (Oct. 22)