The following is a brief recap of some of the top stories that made headlines in Stratford in 2012. The year began without the slightest hint of what was to come.
Lt. Thomas McCabe
Led by his brothers in the Stratford Fire Department, and firefighters and police from Stratford and neighboring towns, Lt. Thomas McCabe was laid to rest on Saturday, Jan. 28.
McCabe, 54, had died unexpectedly on Jan. 24.
Part of Huntington Road was closed to traffic as most of the Stratford Fire Department assembled near Company 2, located at Bulldog Boulevard.
When the funeral procession from downtown neared the firehouse, two Trumbull police officers on motorcycles escorted the procession, led by the color guards from the Stratford fire and police departments, then columns of Stratford’s bravest.
At the firehouse, the procession passed below a large American flag hanging from Stratford’s ladder truck and a tower ladder from Echo Hose Co. in Shelton.
A second group of Stratford firefighters walked between the columns and more apparatus. One fireman carried McCabe’s helmet.
Fire apparatus slowly rolled behind the marchers. Engine 3, based in Lordship, carried McCabe’s turnout gear and a memorial wreath.
From Company 2, the procession turned on Wigwam Lane for a Mass at St. Mark Church. Interment followed at Union Cemetery.
New police chief in town
When former police Chief John Buturla left for a job in Richmond, Va., in April 2011, Deputy Chief Patrick Ridenhour was appointed acting chief.
In February 2012, Mayor John A. Harkins removed the term “acting” from his title, giving Ridenhour the helm of a police department in transition.
“Chief Ridenhour has done a fine job leading the department during his time as the acting police chief,” Harkins said in February. “I have every expectation that he will continue to work with community leaders, his command staff, and officers to serve the residents of Stratford well.”
Prior to joining the Stratford Police Department in 2009, Ridenhour had most recently been an assistant deputy chief of police in Waterbury.
Retiring in May 2008 after more than 20 years with the force there, Ridenhour started as a patrol officer in 1988 before rising to sergeant, lieutenant, captain, then assistant deputy chief in February 2005.
Ridenhour commanded Waterbury’s patrol, communications, community policing, and animal control divisions.
When he was hired as Stratford’s deputy chief, those who worked with Ridenhour in Waterbury saluted his skills in the community.
“He was doing a fantastic job up there,” former Stratford fire Chief James Cavanaugh, who also led the Waterbury Fire Department, said at the introduction of Ridenhour in 2009. “He took neighborhoods nobody wanted, and he and the neighborhood really cleaned up Waterbury.”
Shakespeare Theatre March
In June, there was some movement involving Benjamin House on Elm Street and regarding the Shakespeare Theatre’s Summer Arts Festival.
Mayor Harkins had announced that previously planned structural maintenance on the Benjamin House (white house) on Elm Street would begin.
Work on the house was to include shoring up the foundation and replacing the leaking roof, according to Chief of Staff Marc Dillon.
Bids for the work to protect this piece of town property went out in February 2012. The repairs were to cost approximately $150,000, and be financed out of funds bonded by the town in 2007.
Also in June, advocates of repairs to the white house and the reopening of the Shakespeare Theatre carried through with their march to Town Hall to deliver a petition.
About 60 people marched, and more than 120 people attended the public forum that preceded a regular Town Council meeting, some saying the town had been “derelict in its duty” to maintain the theater and the white house.
After private funds were raised, the Town Council approved a contract with Connecticut Free Shakespeare to stage five shows of Romeo and Juliet on the grounds of the Shakespeare Theatre from Aug. 1 to 5.
Progress on Benjamin House is ongoing.
George “Doc” Gunther
On Aug. 26, Sen. George “Doc” Gunther died in hospice after a lengthy battle with cancer.
Serving the 21st Connecticut Senate District, Gunther held the distinction of being the longest-serving legislator in Connecticut history, serving from 1966 until he retired in 2006.
A naturopath before entering politics, Gunther served on the Stratford Board of Education and the Stratford Town Council before seeking statewide office.
Gunther was noted for his advocacy of the environment and conservation efforts. As a member of the Stratford Town Council, Gunther helped create the first municipal conservation commission in the state.
Later, in the state Senate, he co-authored the first law regulating activities in tidal wetlands.
He worked to revive the Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, and aided the purchase of the HMS Rose by Kaye Williams in Bridgeport.
Although Gunther was a Republican, he garnered significant praise from both sides of the political divide.
“Doc Gunther served the citizens of Stratford and the state with an unwavering passion and commitment to public service,” Gov. Dannell Malloy said in a statement. “Even if you didn’t agree with him, Sen. Gunther was an independent thinker respected by his colleagues and constituents for fighting to protect our environment and preserve open space. His advocacy and service to our state will be remembered and will continue to benefit future generations.”
Gunther was 92 at the time of his death.
As Hurricane Sandy bore down on Connecticut, a mandatory evacuation was called for Stratford’s low-lying areas prone to flooding on the night of Sunday, Oct. 28.
Schools were closed in advance for Monday and Tuesday, and Stratford residents were taking to Bunnell High School for safety. By 2 p.m. on Monday, Oct., 29, the shelter had already exceeded the tally of sheltered residents and pets accrued during Hurricane Irene.
The worst had yet to come.
By the time Sandy passed, more than half the town of Stratford had been left without power. Halloween was postponed and schools remained closed for the week.
At a press conference at the seawall off Jefferson Street on Oct. 31, Harkins told those assembled that more than 120 trees were down and that Sikorsky Memorial Airport had suffered serious damage. Runways and hangars were flooded and planes were totaled.
Homes and businesses were heavily damaged, some by tidal surge, others by falling trees.
A week after the storm passed, the body of a missing 21-year-old kayaker was found floating in the Housatonic River and recovered by Stratford police. The man had been reported missing off the waters of Milford the Sunday before the storm.
FEMA eventually set up offices in Stratford and neighboring towns to assist victims of the storm. Food and bottled water were dispensed and assistance given to those seeking shelter. The federal agency promised a continued presence in the state for the foreseeable future.
Recovery efforts in Stratford and around the Northeast are ongoing.
Victoria Soto, a native of Stratford and a 2003 graduate of Stratford High School, was among the victims of the Dec. 14 school massacre in Newtown.
Hailed as a hero for her actions, Soto was reported to have died while protecting students at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
On Saturday, Dec. 15, hundreds gathered at Town Hall to pay honor to Soto and to offer their support to her mourning family. During a candlelight vigil, members of the Soto family spoke of their loss to the gathered community.
“We definitely lost an amazing person who died doing what she loved, protecting the kids that meant the world to her,” Jillian Soto said of her older sister.
After a funeral Mass at Lordship Community Church attracted large crowds, and she was remembered as a kind and compassionate woman, Victoria Soto was laid to rest at Union Cemetery.
This story was compiled from news items that appeared in The Stratford Star in 2012. Those who contributed the stories were John Kovach, Joe Cole and Ralph Petitti.