By Charles F. Bennett and Katie Landek
Turley Publications Staff Writers
Wilbraham and Hampden endured a difficult year in 2011, one storm after another. But through it all, neighbors helped neighbors and the towns’ well-trained first responders and Department of Public Works employees earned kudos by being there when disaster struck.
Both towns survived a tornado, microburst, hurricane, flooding – and like a cold slap in the face – the freak Halloween Weekend Nor’easter put our resolve to the test. Insurance companies and utilities like National Grid and Charter Communications didn’t fare so well making some enemies of those who they were supposed to serve.
Others, like the hometown-owned Northern Tree Service and the Hampden Board of Health’s Jane Budynkiewicz and Senior Center supporter Chrissy Cesan stood out in helping others.
This newspaper’s reporter sat in on what became regular emergency management meetings led by Wilbraham Selectmen, Patrick Brady, James Thompson and Robert Boilard and saw first-hand how vulnerable people and property were being helped with recovery efforts.
Wilbraham’s emergency managers Fire Chief Fran Nothe and Capt. David Bourcier went without sleep. Off duty firefighters flocked to the fire station on their days off. And after the October storm Hampden Selectman Richard Green said, “This storm was an issue for everybody.” In a sign of optimism, the new Minnechaug Regional High School, under construction only yards from ground zero of the tornado and the microburst, escaped damage.
In other news James Thompson was re-elected selectmen, a murderer of a Hampden women received life in prison, Minnechaug alumni held a 50-year reunion; Gazebo Park was purchased by the town of Wilbraham, Friendly’s filed bankruptcy, Hampden got new street signs, Wilbraham formed a 250th Anniversary Celebration Committee and selectmen heard a proposal for a new senior center.
Here is the Times news staff’s selective list of the news making events of 2011:
The first thing you noticed 24 hours after the June 1 tornado hit Wilbraham and Hampden with 90 mile- per-hour winds, besides the destructive landscape and damage done to homes, was the smell of pine from ripped-apart evergreens on Tinkham Road across from Minnechaug Regional High School.
It seemed that a line in the sand had been drawn at the Minnechaug-Mile Tree School Driveway. Beyond that invisible line homes and trees suffered spots of major damage and changed the landscape in the area. The new high school under construction had minimal damage said Building Inspector Lance Trevallion.
That late afternoon Minnechaug students on their way to the Prom at the MassMutual Center in Springfield found that the tornado hit Court Square at the same time the students were headed there for their prom. Times photographer David Miles, there to cover the prom, was swept up in the storm. The storm blew in from Westfield, crossed the Connecticut River, through the center of Springfield and took a path to Southbridge causing a line of damage all along the way.
Hampden Selectman Vinnie Villamaino was driving in his truck on Bradley Road in Springfield, one of the hardest hit areas of the city. “A (hot) wire hit me pretty good, and in split seconds I knew I was in trouble so I took the wheel, said, ‘I’m not dying here,’ put the hammer down and just left.”
If one were to walk the entire length of Wilbraham Road in Hampden to the end of Main Street in Wilbraham that Wednesday night, all you would have seen in the darkened towns were tiny flickers of candlelight through the windows and flickers of hope that things would get better.
The Wilbraham Fire Department was at the center of the damage at the corner of Main Street and Tinkham Road, doing well being checks and cutting downed trees to free people trapped in their homes.
Mutual aid arrived from many towns outside the area including National Guardsmen with chain saws. For months to come there were many stories of tornado recovery and of people of good will who helped those who were affected.
The second biggest story of 2011 was the October Halloween Nor’easter that shocked both towns. Mother Nature unleashed its fury in Wilbraham Oct. 29 when a freak nor’easter hit the entire East Coast dumping over a foot of snow in Wilbraham and in Hampden.
The weight of the wind-driven snow, piling up on trees with their leaves still on, was so heavy that virtually every street in Wilbraham had limbs down, some tearing down utility lines according to Selectmen Chairman Brady.
Typical of many in Wilbraham, resident Mike Drumheller, who has a home off Boston Road, was helping relatives clear a path to their house on Lance Lane, which had downed trees all over the lawn. “This looks like a tornado hit,” said Drumheller.
He said their family was waiting it out until the power comes back on, sleeping in front of the fireplace together.
“After the storm was over, it was pretty scary hearing the ‘pop’ of tree limbs breaking. A tree hit the house, destroying our grill and hot tub. On Saturday night we slept in the basement but it got down to 53 degrees, so the next night we huddled around the fireplace to keep warm. But we are keeping our spirits up,” said Drumheller at the time.
Once again emergency management officials and selectmen held meetings to coordinate restoration of power, which went out all over town, for some, as long as a week. Unlike the tornado which kept to a narrow swath through town, the October storm affected almost everyone in both towns. Just like after the tornado and microburst tree debris had to be picked up at the tree belt in many neighborhoods.
With widespread power outages plaguing the two towns, the Hampden Senior Center became an emergency shelter where residents from both towns could come to warm up and have a hot meal no questions asked.
“Our door was open,” said Board of Health Coordinator Jane Budynkiewicz, who helped to run the shelter.
Despite the mess of power lines and stress outside, things were pretty relaxed inside the shelter.
“Everybody’s working together to help everybody else,” said Budynkiewicz while the shelter was still operating. “”We’re having fun. We’re trying to make it a party.”
In fact, it was a party on Monday, Oct. 31. Plans had already been in the works to throw a surprise part for Art and Audrey Bulger, who were celebrating their 70th wedding anniversary. Since everyone was already at the Senior Center, the party organizers saw no reason to not go ahead with the celebration.
Like a recurring bad dream, which the Times called “Strike 2”, a severe storm hit Wilbraham July 27 with high winds, rain and large hail, eight weeks and a half-mile away from where the June 1 tornado had plowed through town.
The storm was unexpected; it came from Ludlow into Wilbraham around 4:30 p.m. on a northwest to southeast track and headed for the same general area struck on June 1.
About a half-mile away from the Tinkham and Stony Hill Road areas just recovering from the first tornado, Hunting Lane (off Main Street near United Church) suffered wind damage with trees and wires down.
Hunting Lane resident Susan Hintze said anonymous good Samaritans cleared the lane of downed trees. “They worked on the street during the night,” she said. Later they were identified as landscapers Brian Sullivan, Mark Theocles and their friend Rob Kokosvyna. Sullivan said people were trapped in their houses. They worked through the night using the headlights of their trucks to illuminate the scene. Other neighbors armed with flashlights offered help.
Again first responders and DPW staff helped people recover. Again, the new Minnechaug was spared damage. This time the storm struck an area bordered by Springfield Street, Stony Hill Road, Tinkham Road and Main Street. Hard hit areas included Federal and Bittersweet lanes, Winterberry and Ripley streets. Again selectmen and emergency managers held meetings to coordinate rescue and recovery efforts. Nothe remarked, “Unfortunately, we are getting good at handling these weather disasters.”
Although Wilbraham no longer needed Memorial School other towns and school communities did.
History was made at the Feb. 8 Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School Committee as a landmark decision made by school officials gave a whole new meaning to the idea that it takes a village to raise a child.
Following a winter of historic snowfall causing structural damage to the roof of the Mapleshade Elementary School in East Longmeadow, the Wilbraham Board of Selectmen and the School Committee voted unanimously to extend an offer to lease Memorial Elementary School in Wilbraham as a temporary replacement for the Mapleshade students for the remainder of that academic year. Mapleshade School had to be closed because of its unsafe roof conditions.
The tornado did extensive damage to Cathedral High School in Springfield. An outdoor ceremony held Sept. 18 by the Hampden-Wilbraham School District formally welcomed Cathedral High School to its temporary home at Memorial School. Cathedral is leasing the school this year and probably for the next.
All through the summer and for the rest of the year repercussions from the June 1 tornado affected Wilbraham. The President declared a federal disaster area. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) set up a temporary office at Wilbraham & Monson Academy. The DPW used the Times and the town website to publish schedules for picking up tree debris, some of it huge logs and stumps. They were stored in a vacant field at Post Office Park with a camera recording each truck load for FEMA so there could be a visual record that the town could use to ask for reimbursements from FEMA at 75 percent.
A Tornado relief fund was set up, and a committee chaired by former selectman David Barry directed donated funds in the amount of $93,000. Wilbraham resident Bill Lyons gave $25,000 himself and banks, businesses and individuals chipped in large amounts.
There were many complaints from both tornado and microburst victims about nitpicking and poor customer service by insurance companies. But, some victims received checks right away. Others were still fighting it out at year’s end. The Rotary Club and the Trees Bring Hope program set up funds to replace trees on the town tree belt to be planted in the spring.
Sen. Gale Candaras and Rep. Angelo Puppolo asked the Legislature and the governor to come up with a supplemental budget to aid cities and towns hit by the storm. The governor signed it in the fall and released $1.75 million to Wilbraham for recovery by the end of the year.
Gazebo Park Purchased
Selectmen Thompson, Brady and Boilard, after meeting with the town counsel, and a member of the Planning Board, the DPW director and a church official unanimously decided to support a move that would have the town buy Gazebo Park from Wilbraham United Church for $125,000. The price was determined by an independent real estate appraisal of the 1 ½-acre plot, which is mostly zoned “residential” according to town Planning Director John Pearsall. The Annual Town Meeting in May approved the purchase. Two large homes could have been built on the property in the center of town. Now it remains open space for all to use.
Tucker Takes Over From Stratton
The Wilbraham Board of Selectmen unanimously voted to offer the police chief position to Capt. Roger Tucker of the town’s own police department to replace Chief Allen Stratton who retires at the end of the year. After 70 candidates applied for the job, a grueling assessment center was held Dec. 10.
Selectman Robert Boilard said he voted for Tucker because he felt that the straightforward, no nonsense, well respected Tucker could work with the selectmen and the Finance Committee. A man of few words Tucker admitted he kept his mouth shut and his ears open. “That’s my style,” he said.
Unlike the Wilbraham Town Election the year before when Boilard and David Barry were involved in a tie for selectmen with Boilard winning in a runoff, James Thompson was re-elected unopposed in the May 21 elections.
He was nominated by the Democratic Caucus April 13. Town Clerk Beverly Litchfield, herself re-elected, was disappointed by a low turnout of 3 percent.
The Springfield man charged with murdering Hampden woman Valerie Girouard was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole in October.
The murderer, Jesus Gilberto Garcia, had been dating Girouard’s daughter, Mariah, for a little over a year until nine days before the murder. Angered by the break up, he had allegedly broken into the house at 90 Main St. with intent to rape Mariah. Girouard, who Garcia reportedly viewed as a second mother, died protecting her daughter. Garcia stabbed her eight times with a kitchen knife. He was sentence to eight additional years for the attempted rape of Mariah.
Readers were warned about it by The Wall Street Journal that week. Friendly’s Ice Cream Corp., the town’s biggest employer and taxpayer, filed for Chapter 11 federal bankruptcy in Delaware Oct. 5. But its chairman and CEO Harsha V. Agadi told the Times, Wilbraham will see “minimal changes.”
“There is no doubt we are in business and will remain in business,” he said. “We will continue to be the largest employer in Wilbraham.” Agadi said the home office will continue to support Wilbraham nonprofit organizations and fundraisers. “We will absolutely continue,” he promised.
Minnechaug 50th Reunion
While a new school was being constructed next door, the Minnechaug Classes of 1961, 62 and 63, dubbed “The Return of the Original Falcons”, celebrated their 50th Reunion at the Sept. 16 homecoming football game on Friday night where they presented a plaque to be mounted at the new school.
They held a reunion banquet at Hampden Country Club on Saturday night and a brunch Sunday morning at the Country Club of Wilbraham. Facebook was used to contact all classmates still living. A memorial wall was erected at the banquet noting deceased class members.
Prior to the reunion, at a School Committee meeting, members of the 50th Reunion Committee, co-chaired by Judi McDonald Theocles and Roberta Marco Albano and aided by former Selectman John Lovejoy, helped open the Minnechaug Time Capsule sealed in the wall of the old building in 1958.
The capsule revealed a 1957 Annual town report for Hampden and one for Wilbraham, a report of the Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School District Planning Committee, a local daily newspaper article touting the plans of the Minnechaug campus and in a clean manila envelope. There was a carefully handwritten essay by Minnechaug graduate Jean Soderberg who had suggested the name “Minnechaug”. Albano read the essay out loud.
Band Gets a Marimba
As a gift of sorts for the Minnechaug Marching Band’s annual performance at the Hampden Memorial Day Parade, the Hampden Lions Club with some help from the Hampden Selectmen, purchased an $8,000 marimba for the band.
A marimba is a mallet instrument with a 4.3 octave range, basically an oversized xylophone. However, the South African instrument uses rosewood bars giving it a very different sound according to band director Margaret Reidy.
“It is mellow and warm, very different from the shrill bell set or piercing xylophone,” said Reidy. The instrument made its grand premier at the May 17 Spring Concert with a performance of “Afro Blue” played by Nick Falcetti.
250 Committee Formed
The Board of Selectmen appointed a committee to help celebrate the town’s 250th Anniversary in 2013, co-chaired by former selectman Kevin Moriarty and Peach Pageant Coordinator Patti Diotalevi.
But first the committee needed a logo to put its brand on anniversary events so a subcommittee chaired by Roberta Albano and Charlie Bennett of the Times held a contest to pick a logo.
The winner is Jennifer Guidara, 28.
When Guidara saw a notice in the Times this summer for the logo contest, she cut it out, but given her busy schedule, forgot about it. It wasn’t until friend and former boss, Amy Scott of Wild Apple Design and a board member of the Boston Road Business Association, reminded her about it this fall and encouraged her to apply that Guidara went to work on it and submitted her design just before the contest deadline of Oct. 15.
The contest was judged by a committee which included professional graphic designer Katherine Cardinale of Hampden.
New Street Signs in Hampden
Hampden gave its streets a facelift this year when they replaced their dinky four inch lettered street sign, with new ones that featured six-inch letters, a reflective surface that made the signs easier to read at night and town logo.
The project, which was started in 2004 when Highway Superintendent Dana Pixley first approached the Board of Selectman, responded to changes in federal regulations requiring all street name signs to be increased in size and to be made of a highly reflective material by 2012.
As it turned out, Hampden did not actually have to replace the signs as only towns with posted speed limits greater than 40 miles per hour were mandated to replace the signs, but Hampden replaced the 155 signs anyways.
Pixley said many of the existing signs were in disrepair so “it made sense to replace them all.” The old signs were sold as scrap aluminum.
Hampden Road Repairs
Hampden smoothed over some of the holes and bumps on Main Street, South Road, Mountain Road and even the Highway Department’s parking lot when the town received $410,747 for roadwork from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation Highway Division’s Chapter 90 program.
“I was in awe when he got that much (in Chapter 90 Funding).” Selectman Vinnie Villamaino said.
Some residents were not as impressed when reconstruction on Main Street from Somers Road to White Birch Apartment slowed down traffic for about a week.
However, the project did make substantial improvements to the 4,480-foot stretch of road including replacing the catch basins and cross culverts, installing sub-drainage along the northwest side to collect runoff, reclaiming and repaving the road, installing a new guardrail along Gerrish Parish, repainting traffic markings and stabilizing the road’s shoulder.
Minnechaug Football Season
The Falcon football team battled their way to the playoffs this year only to fall to Central 22-14 in the semi finals on Tuesday, Nov. 29. The team was led by senior quarterback Gregory Heineman who had been a starter since his sophomore year.
Historical, broken graves in Adams Cemetery were repaired by Oct. 3 as a part of efforts to restore the historic cemetery after the June 1 tornado tore through it.
The cemetery was listed among Massachusetts Most Endangered Resources for 2011 by Preservation Massachusetts based in Boston after the storm broke several headstones.
A typical 911 call led to an atypical day for Hampden Police Sgt. Joseph Henry who delivered 7 –pound, 7-ounce Veralynn Freya Estes at noon on Sunday, Nov. 13 with the help of Officer Scott Trombly.
When responding to the call, Henry quickly realized the mother, Mandy Este, was not going to make it to the hospital in time, so he delivered a healthy baby girl in the mother’s own bed.
State Rep. Angelo Puppolo (D-Springfield) moved up in the House this year with two committee appointments: Ways and Means Committee in February and into a leadership position as vice chairman of the House Committee on Personnel and Administration in December.
Demonstrating their Irish heritage, Kayla Peloquin, 20 of Wilbraham was crowned this year’s Springfield Colleen and Gabrielle A. Moriarty, 17, also of Wilbraham was named to the Colleen’s Court. The girls rode in the Holyoke St. Patrick’s Day Parade and formally attended various activities throughout the year including a visit to Green Meadows School in Hampden.
A sizzling presentation of “Gypsy” produced by the Hampden Theater Guild graced the stage of the Hampden Country Club March 18. “Gypsy,” directed by Mark Giza told the story of famed burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee, played by Kiernan Rushford who starred in last year’s “Chicago.”
A quick glance at the 2010 U. S. Census figures show Wilbraham is a growing well-educated town with a 5.54 percent growth rate dominated by females with a racial breakdown of 96 percent calling themselves “white” with a median family income of $102,557. The average age of a Wilbraham resident is 48 1/2.
Hampden is not all that different according to the census which shows well-educated town dominated by females with a racial breakdown of 99.5 percent calling themselves “white” and a median family income of $90,789. The only major difference is instead of being a growing town, Hampden lost 32 people since the 2000 census bringing the town’s population down to 5,139 people.
Five teachers were standouts in New Teacher and Outstanding Teacher of Excellence categories at the Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School District this year.Last year’s winners included: Danielle Dugre, a school adjustment counselor at Soule Road School who won the “new teacher” category. The Outstanding Teachers of Excellence award winners are: Kathleen Disa, a first grade teacher from Green Meadows Elementary School, Jessica Paris, a second grade teacher from Stony Hill Elementary School, Lianne Pennington, a special education teacher at the Wilbraham Middle School, and Patricia Regan, a reading specialist at Mile Tree Elementary School.
Public Health Nurse
Lee Giglietti replaced Claudia Considine, RN, who held the position for 10 years and retired last March, as Wilbraham’s new public health nurse. “It’s like taking over for a rock star,” is how she described replacing the highly-regarded Considine.
After a one year hiatus, the Wilbraham Peach Queen Pageant returned this summer to name Olivia Bones the new queen on June 25. Her court consisted of Nicole Asselin, first runner up Marissa Halpin, Brieann Bateson and Charlotte Lawson.
The Big Top popped up in Post Office Park July 22 and July 23, for two days of high flying acrobatics and wacky clowns. The annual event, which took place next to a scarred landscape of tree debris from the tornado, benefitted the Wilbraham Hampden Academic Trust.
Dr. Moriarty Named
Dr. Kevin Moriarty, of Wilbraham, was named president of the Hampden District Medical Society at the May 3 meeting at the Springfield Country Club.
Moriarty is the chief of Baystate Medical Center Pediatric Surgery and medical director of Pediatric Trauma and Associate Clinical Professor of Surgery.
Residents of Hampden and Wilbraham were treated to a sneak peek of the new Minnechaug when Public Access (WPA) Channel 19 aired a narrated tour of the new building on Nov. 8. The building is scheduled to open next year.
Senior Center Proposed
The Friends of Wilbraham Seniors have raised over $40,000 for the construction of a new senior center, which they say is too small to accommodate the needs of seniors. Their proposal was listened to by the Wilbraham Board of Selectman Nov. 21.
Business of the Year
Countryside Auto Body of Wilbraham was chosen as the Best Business of the Year by the Boston Road Business Association. The auto body repair shop is owned by Troy Hamel who was congratulated by Sen. Gale Candaras.
Wilbraham Hometown Heroes Kathleen Barry and Davin Robinson were honored by the Pioneer Valley Red Cross at ceremonies March 17 for responding in a lifesaving situation.
Janet Wise, Joan Paris, Courtney Llewellyn, Tyler Witkop, Dave Miles contributed to this compilation.
Charles F. Bennett can be reached at email@example.com.