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The People Parade: A Willimantic Snapshot – 1978

Posted by on December 11, 2012

This article about the mural in the Willimantic Town Hall was published in March 2010.  The article was originally published in Neighbors, a monthly newspaper in Eastern Connecticut.  I found it on this site.  I have reproduced it (with permission) here so we don’t lose the information.  Here is it:

The People Parade:

A Willimantic Snapshot – 1978

By Mark Svetz

Parades have put Willimantic on the map.

The whole world seems to chuckle every Fourth of July when this little city hosts the Boom Box Parade. This event was conceived in a barroom after the Memorial Day Parade had been cancelled because there were no marching bands available.

The truly wonderful thing about the Boom Box Parade is that it puts the people first. Anybody can march.

Another great parade was born a decade or so earlier. This one is of a different sort and gets a lot less attention, but I happened to notice it the other day when I stopped by Town Hall. One thing it shares with the Boom Box Parade is the people part of it. It is a celebration of the people in this community

The People Parade is a painting by Colette Butterick, Bob Epperson and Elizabeth Shafnacker. It hangs in the front lobby of Windham Town Hall. It is an oil painting of Main Street, Willimantic, and includes portraits of many people who hung out around town at the time. Some of them still do.

I remember when it was painted. I think public funding was provided through the Comprehensive Employment Training Act (CETA), which was the 1970s version of the Civilian Conservation Corps from the era of the Great Depression.

I recall viewing it with delight, identifying many of my friends and acquaintances, like Mike and Mark Zeising, who used to run the wonderful, three-story Ziesing Brothers’ Book Emporium in Willimantic. People still confuse me with Mike Zeising sometimes. The bookstore is long closed and they have moved away. Except in the People Parade.

Jim Sullivan is in the painting. He used to run Jim’s Coffee Spot, where I would go for a cup of coffee and sometimes bum a Pall Mall from Jim. I can still see Jim, standing there behind the hot dogs that rolled perpetually on the rotisserie in the front window. He always had a wave and a smile whenever I passed by.

My old friend Harold Hanka is in the painting. He was a photographer for the Chronicle back in the 70s when I worked there. We spent many hours on assignments. He is the best photojournalist I have ever worked with.

Louis Osso, better known as “The Count,” is also pictured in the Parade. Louis was a cranky man who walked around town, smoking a cigar that you could smell long before you saw him.

Sam Gordon, who ran the Surplus Center, is one of the people in the Parade. Sam later ran the Office Furniture Warehouse and donated the building to the Windham Area Interfaith Ministries. George Butterick, a poet and librarian at UCONN is also pictured.  Jim Ross, a reporter with the Hartford Courant in Willimantic, is in the Parade too.

There was an older woman, whom I knew simply as “Ma.” I had forgotten all about Ma, but there she is, wearing her old winter coat and wool cap. She lived in “Zeising Towers,” as we used to lovingly call the huge building that was home to many people in addition to the extraordinary bookstore.

Frank Seaforth (Anchor Pharmacy), Bev Berard (Bev’s News), Charlie Sanborn (Camera Center), Al Saba and his brother Phosey (Saba’s Cleaners and Saba’s Package Store), John Monahan (Sweeney’s Stationery) and Sandy Peters (With A Wink and a Smile) are all part of the People Parade.

Jim and Arlene Scully are in the parade. Jim is a poet and was an English teacher at UCONN. Arlene was the director of the Adult Basic Education program for Windham Public Schools. They have since moved to San Francisco, but they still hang out on Main Street in the People Parade.

Kathy Warpinski is in the painting too. She moved away years ago, but still comes back for a visit occasionally.

Jimmy Bilts (I hope I have his last name right!) was a fixture on Main Street. Jimmy also lived in “Zeising Towers.” He is shown in the painting with his bicycle. I can still hear him calling out as he rode past, “Hey, Man! How ya doin’?”

Howard Schiller, who still practices law in Willimantic, is one of the people on parade in the painting. I believe Sebastian “Mickey” Ternullo, once the Mayor of Willimantic, is also in the painting. I once rode around Willimantic with Mickey, as the former stonemason pointed out some of the jobs he had done over the years. He made some beautiful walls and house foundations.

The list goes on and on. It is, for me, like a class reunion. Standing in front of the People Parade for a few minutes brings to mind people who were once a huge part of my life. Wherever they are now, in this world or beyond, they continue to stroll, stumble, swagger and stagger up and down Main Street in the People Parade.

In addition to being a parade of wonderful characters, this painting also brings back to life some of the businesses that once welcomed us on Main Street. The Camera Center, Zeising Brothers Book Emporium, Gingras Shoes, Nassiff Arms (later Nassiff’s for Sports, now closed), Sweeney’s Stationery, Ben’s Eagle Shoes, Discount Health and Beauty Aids and Hobby Land all grace the painting, though they are long gone. Rajeans, The Bench Shop and Attorney Joan Sinder’s office are in the painting, and are still in business on Main Street.

The WILI Building, next to the Footbridge, wasn’t even built yet, but the footbridge is there in the painting. Do you remember the little park that was in that spot before the building went up?

The People Parade is a kind of Old Home Week for me and anyone else who has lived in Willimantic any time during the last 30 years. It gets me thinking about people I haven’t thought about in years. It warms my heart, bumping into these old friends again.

I also feel a little nostalgic for this community, which has, over the years, found so many ways to celebrate its people. I love that we spent our public resources to create this lasting tribute to the people of Willimantic. I remember those days when you never knew what you were going to see downtown. And we loved it!

Stop by the Town Hall sometime and check it out. It’s just inside the High Street entrance. See if you recognize anybody. I’ll bet most of us can find a few old friends. Maybe you’ll even find yourself!

 Mark Svetz and Sarah Winter
live, work and walk in Willimantic
where they are part of
the continuing People Parade.

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