The Bridges of West Warwick

 bridge                                                                                                                                                                          If the 19 original Bridges of Madison County, Iowa (immortalized in a book by the same name by Robert James Waller and its subsequent movie,) were covered, wooden affairs, those that spanned rivers in West Warwick, in an earlier era, were red or green metal, with wooden slats across the roadway. I know that fact, for my street, Pulaski, had one such metal bridge, linking the Crompton center with my neighborhood further up the road that stretched to Coventry.

On a lazy summer evening, I’d walk down the half mile to Red Bridge and hang over the edge, gazing at the water below. It was purple-blue, iridescent in nature, swirling and eddying, in the currents, resembling the bottled liquid children blow to make bubbles.

Sometimes the current created a foam that rose up out of the river and bubbles drifted in the air.

I’d daydream and get lost in the colors, thinking them beautiful. After all, I couldn’t know the substance was dye waste, spewed out into the river by the mill that dyed the cloths and sent them all over the world, to be admired.

After all, I was only a child..a mill town child at that.

Colored water in our streams was a regular happenstance in my town.

Sometimes I’d scamper down the hill from that bridge, to the bank and swirl my stick in the water, interrupting its usual current, fascinated by the rainbow of colors released right above those waters.

In that day, adults never hovered, lest a child fall in the river.

Sometimes drowning occurred as in the Windsor Park neighborhood in 1960, where a mother and her 3-year-old child fell through the ice, in the mill trench behind their home. The entire town came out for the memorial service, aware this could happen to any of us.

Town officials argued for days about the wisdom of building a wall for these trenches, to prevent accidents in future. But no real change came about as the town sank back into life-as- usual, following the immediate shock.

Sometimes, on my walks in summer evenings, I’d hear the crack of baseball bats as the boys played, in Little League, at the ball field aside the Polish Club where neighborhood men gathered, nightly. And sometimes, out of boredom, I’d stroll over to the field and sit on the wooden benches to watch a game that held my attention only briefly.

Both in the church and in organized sports, there were few outlets for girls, in my growing-up years. Quite simply, those of my gender were being raised to take our places as wives and homemakers….

Except homemaking as sole occupation didn’t happen for many of my generation.

Instead, we became the inadvertent “bridge” to a whole new era whose slogans like “We can bring home the bacon and fry it up in the pan,” promised we could work full time, while we still did the lion’s share of domestic duties.

In reality, we groaned under the weight.

Yes, my generation, women in the early 60’s, were the first en masse to get college educations and take on outside-the-home jobs, full-time.  We became the nurses…the teachers…the social workers…the secretaries.

If some of us did enter the business world, to compete against men, we were assigned gender-specific accounts (marketing women were assigned the Pampers or Huggies account because, after all, women knew diapers, while ad men were given the more important, Coca-Cola client.)

The television show “Mad Men” readily depicts the dichotomy of roles and the pecking order that showed women lower on the chain.

That hierarchy would change, too, but that change would come slowly, indeed.

***The bridge above, one of the remaining metal bridges spanning West Warwick’s rivers, is located in Phenix, but it’s closed to traffic.

______________________________________

West Warwick native, Colleen Kelly Mellor (ckmellor@cox.net), is a motivational speaker and freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Wall St. Journal, Scripps-Howard, and many regional newspapers. She is author to the children’s books Grandpa and the Truck (grandpaandthetruck.com) and is regular commentator in the Providence Journal. She currently completes “The Asheville Experiment,” the story of her and her husband’s nine year life in one of America’s trendiest little retirement towns—a cautionary tale for all those who consider a move.  In this book, she tells what went wrong and why they returned to live, full time in Rhode Island. Her website is colleenkellymellor.com

 

 

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A Note to Readers….

leg art--ashevilleDoes Asheville as Retirement Town deserve its star billing? In short, does it really have a leg up on its competition?

I know…all the talk about West Warwick on this site might almost get you to think I’m not writing about my husband’s and my experience, living in Asheville for past nine years.

But I am.

At present, I complete “The Asheville Experiment,” the book about us–a couple from Rhode Island, living five months of every year in a sweet Southern town chuck full of promise.

That’s what we thought…

It didn’t quite work out that way, however. And I write why.

In this book, I write about out-of-state home-buying; what you need watch out for; the pitfalls of condo ownership, anywhere (they call them townhomes there), lawyers… I tell you how to make good selection, what you need watch out for…Toxic dumps sites….But I lace my accounts with humor. In short, I tell you all the stuff you won’t think of….all the stuff I know is really important.

Remember, I was successful realtor.

Why else will this book be important? I’ve talked to several others who had a similar experience–They loved their new community in the beginning, but ultimately they got disenchanted, sold, and moved “home.”

No one talks about this….so I feel pretty confident I’ll be the first.

But make no mistake:  This book is not just for those moving to Asheville. It just helps that Asheville is ALWAYS one of the top 10 retirement towns in America (no. 1 or 2.)

Some of you have already told me to reserve a copy of “The Asheville Experiment,” and I greatly appreciate.

For all–I will post updates, periodically, to let you know how close I am to completion.

across the steet on Hamburg Mtn rd.Below is a pastoral scene across the street from our townhome community. Of course, this property could be sold and a Walmart could move in at any time.

Just something you should know…..

If you don’t need what I talk about in this book, consider getting it for somebody who might–It’ll help them make good decisions in home buying– anywhere– and much of it is just good fun.

It’s the story about how Paul and I searched up and down the East coast of America, for many years, finally settled on Asheville, NC, and found out, ultimately, it wasn’t for us.

The why’s are important–as are the why not’s.

Perhaps our story is yours, too.

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Poliomyelitis and ‘the Gun:’ a West Warwick Girl’s Memories of Life in the 50’a and 60’s

It’s street name? Polio.

It’s what scared us to death in my growing up years of the 50’s. Its advent and its conquering was what got vaccination its well-deserved recognition as life-saver…at least in that time period.

Polio was as feared in its day as AIDS would be decades later. Or the zika virus which threatens a pandemic, today, considering the Olympics will be held in Brazil, a country ravaged by the mosquito-borne disease.

In my era, all around us were young people succumbing to polio—a terrible crippling disease that cut down many in childhood. The most frightening of all?  Those whose breathing apparatus was affected. The iron lung was devised for those most severely affected, the ones who couldn’t breathe on their own.

They were tethered to a machine that would inhale and exhale for them, imprisoned forever to that metal coffin-like affair.

In my family, my Mom always told us that Uncle Harold was a polio survivor. He lived but his legs were useless as transportation contrivances. He was permanently affixed to crutches encircling his wrists.

Then Dr. Jonas Salk developed his miraculous vaccine that promised to stop the disease’s ravages.

With that, we townspeople all lined up to get it, with parents bringing their children to polio clinics at the granite stone Visiting Nurse building, in Arctic.

Lines snaked around the building as whole families stood together, anxious for the inoculation they hoped would spare them from this horror.

On one occasion, my Mom stood with us in the sweltering heat, about 50 people back in the line. This was a special day, indeed, for the experts had devised a whole new way of getting the serum into us, rather than our quaffing a small plastic capful of the liquid or getting the shot.

I kept fooling around, doing somersaults, straying from the rest, knowing my place in line was kept by family members. Why did I do this?  To assuage my fears.

You see, lining up for the vaccine in the day was a lot like waiting in pews to enter the wooden, boxed-off, Catholic Confessional.

No one knew what really transpired inside. We all just waited our turn.

All  we’d been told in advance was that once inside the Visiting Nurse building, white-uniformed public health nurses took information and oversaw folks filling out forms.

Then the nurses would bring out “the gun,” the latest device to deliver the life-saving serum. To me, even the name sounded threatening. The serum was supposedly shot through the skin at a blistering clip—a clip that was allegedly not felt.

But that last part of the message apparently eluded me…or I didn’t believe it.

And because I didn’t hear “It didn’t hurt at all” from anyone ahead of me (once they were ‘shot’ they left the building via an opposite door,) I did what any self-respecting kid would do:  I conjured up my own thoughts.

With fears running wild (would they call this an anxiety attack, today?), I fainted.

My poor Mom who was all of 5’2” struggled to hold upright a daughter who was already 5’6.” She hoped I’d regain consciousness, but when that didn’t happen, a policeman hurried over to help, carrying me to the shade of a nearby tree where he placed me down. There, I slowly recovered.

They all believed my fainting was due to the heat but I knew the real reason: I expected to be shot dead with Jonas Salk’s famous serum in a “kill the messenger” scenario.

I was assured I was going to be the lone victim of a salk vaccine gone astray whose medicine was far worse than the affliction.

How about you? Do you remember standing in long lines for the vaccine at the Visiting Nurse building (or other facility)? Remember “the Gun”? (a really stupid name, in retrospect).

West Warwick native, Colleen Kelly Mellor (ckmellor@cox.net), is a motivational speaker and freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Wall St. Journal, Scripps-Howard, and many regional newspapers. She is author to the children’s books Grandpa and the Truck (grandpaandthetruck.com) and is regular commentator in the Providence Journal. She currently completes “The Asheville Experiment,” the story of her and her husband’s nine year life in one of America’s trendiest little retirement towns—a cautionary tale for all those who consider a move.  In this book, she tells what went wrong and why they returned to live, full time in Rhode Island. Her website is colleenkellymellor.com

Picture of former Visiting Assoc. Nurse Building, one of centers where polio shots given out.VNA

 

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‘Screwing Around’ at the Donut Kettle

 

trestleOr….Youthful Hijinx…Charity Collecting…The Donut Kettle….Mruk’s…and when I learn the WORST swear word in the English language….   

“Screw the lid on the top of the sugar shaker just like this, so it appears as if it’s on,” Joe whispered as he prepared the glass sugar shaker for an unsuspecting customer who’d doubtless upend the container to find a rush of that granular sweetener into his coffee.

We high school kids crouched low in the booth so the counter waitress couldn’t see what we were about.  We’d learned early in our lives that adults usually look the other way, regarding adolescent antics, unless they suspect serious misadventure—the kind that burns down buildings.

As it was, we watched and admired our friend Joe’s willingness to wreak havoc on another.  His was typical youthful misadventure.

We kids often went to the Donut Kettle, on Main St., in Arctic, where, if we did it right, we’d arrive just as a batch of fresh donuts came out of the fry-o-lator, ready for the chocolate drizzle that went on top…all the more heavenly if the freshly-fried donut made the chocolate topping warm and melty.

It was a once-in-a-while treat we afforded ourselves, usually after collecting for charities in the raw weather, outside some of Arctic’s more visited shops—Seena’s, Maxine’s, St. Onge’s. We’d all be out in force during the holidays when the townspeople were all the more amenable to giving to those less fortunate. We’d hold our cardboard containers with the cut in the lid, so people could fold up their dollars (if we were lucky) or press through their quarters.

The Chronicle (John F. Deering High School yearbook) signifies all sorts of charity-collecting as a graduate’s activities in the 60’s and 70’s. I don’t know when charity-collecting in front of stores ceased (maybe when the Malls arrived), but it was an activity many of us engaged in, during our era.

We’d be on the streets for hours and then turn our containers in, at American Legion Post #2, where an adult collected and counted the results of our work.

We girls opted to stand outside the ladies’ and girl shops while the boys took on St. Onge’s.

I hated accompanying Mom to the latter store, when she was bent on a mission for either or both of my brothers, for I felt the store a colorless place. Even the names “olive drab,” or “charcoal grey” for suits suggested dull and were a far cry from the oranges, pinks, and yellows one sees in men’s and boys’ clothes today.

In our era, boys’ and men’s clothes were supposed to suggest seriousness of purpose.

No such color constraints operated for girls’ and women’s clothes.

If the Donut Kettle were a daytime gathering spot for West Warwick High School kids, in our day, Mruk’s in Coventry attracted a nighttime contingent. In retrospect, it was an odd choice since it was in the next town whose high school was a rival of ours. Mruk’s was positioned in the center of the village of Anthony, next to a wall, running alongside the mill river, where several yards away the ominous train trestle spanned the river. We kids had heard stories about that trestle, such as how two kids got stuck walking across it one day when a train came through.

My distinct memory of that trestle and the wall (see pic above) that supported it? On the wall is where I first saw the word “F..k” scrawled, in big, black letter, graffiti-style. I noted it as I walked back from my Girl Scout meeting held in a small building up the street.

After walking the mile home, I came in and called out, loudly, “Mom, what does F..k mean?” Her immediate reaction?  “Shhhhh…..your brothers are in there” (the living room.) She never did tell me the word’s meaning but I learned: It’s not a word we use.

In retrospect, it seems odd she would be in such protective mode of not wanting my brothers to hear a word they were probably all too familiar with by that point.

After all, they were 16 and 14, respectively, while I was only 12.

West Warwick native, Colleen Kelly Mellor (ckmellor@cox.net), is a motivational speaker and freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Wall St. Journal, Scripps-Howard, and many regional newspapers. She is author to the children’s books Grandpa and the Truck (grandpaandthetruck.com) and is regular commentator in the Providence Journal. She currently completes “The Asheville Experiment,” the story of her and her husband’s nine year life in one of America’s trendiest little retirement towns—a cautionary tale for all those who consider a move.  In this book, she tells what went wrong and why they returned to live, full time in Rhode Island. Her website is colleenkellymellor.com

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Ode to Miss Gladys Evelyn McCormick

scylla and charybdisSometimes, upon an older person’s extending his hand, in greeting, I inwardly hear Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner:

“He holds him with his skinny hand/’There was a ship,’ quoth he./’Hold off! unhand me, grey-beard loon!’/Eftsoons his hand dropt he.”

Little do these people know I associate such high drama with mere extension of a hand.

My association comes unbidden, arising from long-ago memory of being in the class of a remarkable teacher.

To her students, Miss Gladys E. McCormick was ever “Corky,” a term we never used with her directly.

As teacher, she was both quirky and brilliant.

And since she taught college-prep English classes at West Warwick Junior High, no fewer than 60 years, her legacy is profound.

How’d she teach so long? The town could never verify her age, since her birth certificate was destroyed in a fire at Town Hall years earlier. I suspect “Corky” never facilitated them in discovery.

And in the same manner as ‘vintage’ anything, her reputation improves with the years.  That’s why, whenever we Baby Boomers share memories at class reunions, we sing her praises. Our only regret?  We never told her how much we valued her.

She was about 5’ 2,” matronly, with corkscrew, blue/grey hair that never bowed to control. Oh, she tried, as when she ducked into her walk-in, supply closet, at the front of the room, where she’d quickly run a comb through the thatch. She’d come back out, looking the same.

While there, she’d reach into her blouse and hoist up a bra strap charged with holding up her ample bosom. Then, she’d make a final check of her appearance in the little mirror hanging on the door and end with a spritz of “Evening in Paris” from its cobalt-blue glass atomizer.

We students committed her rituals to memory.

One recalled her lunging out of that same supply closet, brandishing the janitor’s wet mop she’d accidentally released from its pail, uttering the Shakespearean: “Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well.”

“Corky” loved high drama.

On occasion, she’d shake her head, mumbling “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing,” whenever we’d fail at something we should have known.

Each day we’d be charged with solving a brain teaser she’d written on her blackboard, such as “What does ‘Between Scylla and Charybdis’ mean?” Since it was before Google answered everything, we students searched encyclopedic texts for answers.

She became our portal to literary greats like Shakespeare, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Longfellow, and a host of others.  That was important for we were milltown urchins who never enjoyed automatic exposure to culture. But many of us would go on to become our generation’s doctors, scientists, church leaders, teachers.

Miss McCormick was a fervent believer in something educators would sadly disavow in later years:  rote memorization of important literary works. As such, she had us internalize whole passages of great works.

That’s why today, I never witness Memorial Day services, without silently quoting “In Flanders Field:” “We are the dead, short days ago we lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow./Now we lie in Flanders Field.”

As a parent reading stories to my own children, at bedtime, I’d recall Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s: “Between the dark and the daylight/ When the night is beginning to lower/ Comes a pause in the day’s occupation/ That is known as the Children’s Hour.”

And in times of dissidence and national conflict, I hearken to words in President Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” “Four score and seven years ago, our forefathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty and  dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal…”

We former students note that we can still deliver, verbatim, whole passages we internalized.

And, in the process, we internalized our teacher.

Today, “Corky” rests in a modest gravesite in Coventry, aside her parents, with the simple identification on her marker: “GEM.”

We who had her as teacher are not surprised.

To all who teach, today:  Be the “Corky” for your students.

Your legacy will be assured as your students carry you with them, forever.

West Warwick native, Colleen Kelly Mellor (ckmellor@cox.net), is a motivational speaker and freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Wall St. Journal, Scripps-Howard, and many regional newspapers. She is author to the children’s books Grandpa and the Truck (grandpaandthetruck.com) and is regular commentator in the Providence Journal. Her website is colleenkellymellor.com.

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How West Warwick Kids ‘Did’ Summer:

 

camp ayoho now a campgroundCrompton ‘Free’ Library…Camp Ayoho…Vacation Bible School

She’d been really sweet—the reader, that is. Telling me I ‘made her smile,’ with my accounts appearing here, each Saturday

She said I stoked her own memories.

We chatted back and forth on one of West Warwick’s Facebook pages where I post these articles and she mentioned the Crompton Free Library (libraries are never ‘free’ to me; I always owe money for late books.)crompton library

But I digress.

Donnalee Garofalo is a woman who grew up in the same time period and part of town as I. That makes us kindred spirits.  And when she told me how she used to sit in a corner of the old library in Crompton (did it really have only 2 small rooms?), reading Nancy Drew Mysteries, she transported me back in time.

I was probably in another corner reading “Little Women” or “Five Little Peppers.”

I remember the pleasant smell of books in that library.

Now, psychologists say smell is the one sense of five that stays with us longest. A sudden whiff of a flower, perfume, or after-shave can blip us back to a familiar scene/person from long ago. How do I know? The men’s cologne, English Leather, transports me back to a Paul Newman look-alike guy I dated but never married, when I was in my 20’s (don’t tell my husband.)

Pungent day lilies remind me of too many funerals in my younger years.

Donna’s memory of the library prompted other recollections.

For instance, we kids all gathered, on summer mornings, in the small field outside the library, awaiting the bus to Camp Ayoho, in Coventry.

My two older brothers and I walked the mile from home to that field, to get the bus.

When we arrived at camp, girls and boys separated and went to two big tents where we stashed our towels, lunches, and changed into bathing suits.

Periodically, a few boys bent on mischief would sneak over to the girls’ tent, and lift up the canvas flaps, in hopes of catching us, unaware…and naked.

We’d howl our protests, until an adult intervened.

Recovering shattered dignity, we went down to the water where lifeguards taught us to swim. I learned wrong and continued to contort my neck from side to side, while swimming, all through life.  I hated burying my face in the water.

On rainy days, we sat on the floor of the big recreation hall and watched movies.

Or we girls went to the crafts tent where we made countless gimp bracelets (do kids still do this?) or scores of multi-colored pot-holders.

I don’t recall my brothers making any crafts while they were at camp.  Maybe crafts was considered a less-than-masculine activity in the day.

We kids brought bagged lunches and bought candy or ice cream on rare occasions Mom gave us spending money.

When Camp Ayoho wasn’t our destination, my sister and I went to St. Mary’s Vacation Bible School which was run by my church, supervised by parish nuns, and held where the old Crompton Elementary School used to be, before it was demolished and built anew as an apartment building.

At these two-hour morning sessions, the nuns gave us tear-out’s of “Moses and the Bullrushes,” “Joseph and His Many-Colored Cloak,” or “Noah and the Arc,” to name a few, from coloring books, and we happily colored them in (today, adult coloring books are considered a serious de-stressor.)

Then we discussed the morals of each story.

Whenever I see Vacation Bible School on church marquees, today, I smile, for it evokes fond memories.

Except for the day an older driver almost killed my younger sister. She alighted from the bus at our stop, following the day’s session, and raced across the road to our driveway, without looking. He was coming from the opposite direction, did not stop for the bus (as the law requires,) and ran over my sister’s foot.

I followed her up the driveway, screaming to all:  “Sharon’s been hit.”

I considered her survival a true miracle, most probably owing to our being in a state of grace…

After all, we’d just come from Vacation Bible School.

Now, what are your childhood memories of summers in West Warwick? Did you go to Vacation Bible School…Camp Ayoho? Another Camp? Or fashion your own recreation?

Post answers on the Kent County Daily Times website or to the several West Warwick sites aligned with Facebook or right under my column here.

West Warwick native, Colleen Kelly Mellor (ckmellor@cox.net), is a motivational speaker, freelance writer, and author to children’s books “Grandpa and the Truck” (grandpaandthetruck.com). She is also a regular commentator in the Providence Journal,  Wall St. Journal, etc. 

P.S. Today, Camp Ayoho on Johnson’s Pond, in Coventry, is a campground for RV’s; Crompton Free Library is Pawtuxet Valley Preservation and Historical Society museum.

 

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The Day of Yellow Rain

hoechst chemical“My cats came in covered in yellow,” one person stated. Another said her mother saw barrels of the Crayola-yellow stuff positioned against the fence that separated the neighborhood of Windsor Park from the Hoechst chemical facility.

I posted a shorter version of this story to several Facebook pages dedicated to West Warwick, and I got a ton of reaction, for most of us remember the day(s) when a yellow dust fell from the sky and coated everything, at least in my neighborhood of Crompton.

Something went woefully wrong, for we recall waking up to neon yellow all over hedges, cars, yards. It mimicked an eerie scene from “The Twilight Zone.”

My father who had chemistry/physics background did some checking the next day and told us  “nothing harmful happened”—the company had assured him.

Of course, that was before all of us of a certain age recall Love Canal in New York where the Hooker Chemical Company gave similar assurances to its neighbors.

In the summer, during a dry spell, kids playing on the athletic fields were suddenly ankle-deep in sludge rising from below, wicking its way up through the ground, a chemical wash that was toxic indeed. Next it was found coming through basement walls, all owing to the way Hooker was indiscriminately disposing of its toxic waste, sending it out, onto the land where it filtered down, creating an underground plume that knew no bounds.

As a result of the suspected poisoning, there was a virtual abandonment of the community and inability for homeowners to sell but a greater toll remained:  cancer cluster groups developed and people succumbed at a far more alarming rate than was average.

It was a lesson for all of us in mill towns across America.

Nine years ago, my husband and I zeroed in on the idyllic community of Asheville, North Carolina, a town set in the Blue Ridge Mountains, on everyone’s short list of preferred retirement communities. With that, we went on a shopping spree, with a buyer broker realtor, to identify our home.

There, sitting at the top of a gorgeous expanse of mountains, was a home we could love…if not for the two factories below. One sprawling building was defunct and I knew that would predict dire consequences in future when upkeep would become non-existent. It would crumble and decay and become an eyesore on the otherwise pristine horizon.

The other factory was still active, suggesting worse problems. A pond nearby had signs posted “No swimming…no fishing.”

My husband, a good ol’ boy from rural Arkansas (where there were no factories or industrial waste), suspected the admonition was due to the fact there was no lifeguard and the company didn’t wish to be liable, while I believed otherwise. Then again, he’s the one who asked if the trout on the menu at a North Carolina restaurant in a small local town was ‘from a nearby stream’ to which the waitress answered “No, it’s farm trout. You wouldn’t want fish from a nearby stream.” She knew what he didn’t know.

Outside the town of Asheville sits an upscale housing community of homes priced at $500,000+, which has painfully learned the lessons mill town residents know for, at present, a toxic underground plume grows and creeps towards them, affecting a nearby stream, air, and well water. It comes from an abandoned former metal plating factory nearby.

Their home value has plummeted; they cannot sell; they cannot leave.

Their retirement dream has turned to a nightmare.

In my book, “The Asheville Experiment” I show how I protected us against the possibility of buying in an out-of-state community whose toxic dump sites we couldn’t know.

But it is my heritage as a mill town girl, coupled with my training as a professional realtor, that taught me such.

For that, I am grateful.

West Warwick native, Colleen Kelly Mellor (ckmellor@cox.net), is a motivational speaker, freelance writer, and author to children’s books Grandpa and the Truck (grandpaandthetruck.com). She is also a regular commentator in the Providence Journal and the Kent County Daily Times.  She currently completes “The Asheville Experiment,” about her husband’s and her nine years in the trendy retirement town of Asheville, NC.

She’ll also tell why they returned to live in Rhode Island (This book’s a manual for all those who contemplate a move–anywhere– but who like their non-fiction laced with humor.)

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West Warwick Produces Champions

newspaper photo of us kellys on dockWe got the news in the winter of 1960, that our family from West Warwick would represent Rhode Island in a national contest to be held in the spring.

We were Rhode Island’s candidate for “All-American Family.”

This was no small honor, for families all over Rhode Island competed to represent our state.

It was 1960, when Wheaties ‘Breakfast of Champions’ sat on tables across the land,  a time when America boomed along,  post World War II; President Dwight D. Eisenhower  (Ike) was in the White House.

My generation of kids was the product of renewed faith.

My father had entered the statewide contest. It made sense, for he loved contests of all sorts. That’s how I got my first roller skates, the ones with the key. He’d solved the jingle leg lampand won.  Instead of the crazy leg lamp the Dad won in “The Christmas Story,” my Dad won a pair of girl’s roller skates. Now, I skated up and down the sidewalks in our neighborhood, one of the few girls with skates, skurr…skurr…skurring  for hours.

But since the All-American Family contest was big, we’d get far more than skates if we won.  We’d be semi-famous and we’d become owners of a brand new, modern ranch home in the recently-built development of Lehigh Acres, Florida.

The contest sponsors flew us to that southernmost state, where we checked in, met others, and began the week long elimination process.  There was interviewing and a talent contest.  Here, we Kelly’s had the advantage, since my family was used to on-the-spot questioning, for Dad had us kids compete, in yearly science fairs, from a young age.

Each morning, we fifty families filed into a big auditorium where we breakfasted with Don McNeil of “The Breakfast Club” radio show.  He was joined by former beauty queen/TV star, Anita Bryant,  who sang “Come to the Florida sunshine tree,” in TV commercials seen all over the United States. An outspoken Christian, she’d get in trouble, years later, for her homophobic commentary. But during the period we met her she was one of America’s darlings.

Our disadvantage in this contest (according to Mom) was the fact we lacked an important family member.  West Point wouldn’t allow my older brother to join us, for he was in his first (Plebe) year and the Army didn’t think vying for America’s top family spot was valid enough reason to release him.

On one occasion, each of the “Fab Fifty” ( a name I gave) families  stood aside a water hole, pretend-fishing, dangling poles at the same spot over the side of the dock, smiling for the camera. It was a silly photo-op in that Mom wore a dress and heels (who does that while fishing, except maybe Barbara Billigsley of “Leave It to Beaver” fame?)

Those photos were sent to all state and hometown newspapers for publication (copy of newspaper photo is above.)

For one solid week we were on our best behavior which meant that on Sunday, we Catholic families traveled by bus, over a hundred miles, to church, since none were in our area. What do I recall of this journey? Passing miles of palm trees, barrenness and Seminole Indian villages alongside muddy canals in  a seemingly-blighted territory.

Finally, at the end of the week, it was announced:  Our neighbor to the north– the Massachusetts family– took top prize and the house in Lehigh Acres.

Ten years later, another West Warwick-ite’s family would win. Andrea Peterson had married Michael Mucha and they’d go on to have four children. They lived in Coventry but Andrea had been raised in West Warwick. Now, in 1970, her family was crowned Rhode Island’s All- American Family. They, too, went off to a week-long competition in Lehigh Acres, Florida.

Apparently, our little town produced champions in more areas than sports.

West Warwick native, Colleen Kelly Mellor (ckmellor@cox.net), is a motivational speaker and freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Wall St. Journal, Scripps-Howard, and many regional newspapers. She is author to the children’s books Grandpa and the Truck (grandpaandthetruck.com) and is regular commentator in the Providence Journal. Her website is colleenkellymellor.com.

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Guest-speaking: To Be Compared to Her is ‘Heaven,’ Indeed

“Colleen, you’re like the Erma Bombeck of Rhode Island education.” That’s what one person said who reads my regular educational Op-Ed’s in the Providence Journal.bombeck_in

I loved the fact he compared me to a witty lady who had a wonderful, common-sense approach to things. Like Erma, I like to use humor to get my message across.

In that vein, I’m happy to report that I’ll be guest-speaking at a number of times in the months ahead. Some folks who read my columns in West Warwick’s Kent County Daily Times (where I revisit my childhood) have asked me to speak before a large East Greenwich group in the fall and a smaller church group has extended an invitation, too (they don’t know yet that they’re the parish where my father grew up!!) Before these groups, I’ll talk about the importance of shared memories. In that regard, I’m a memoirist, encouraging others to share their stories.

Then, too, I’ll be providing a significant element to PBS’s “Our Town” for their Sept. 7, 2016 focus on West Warwick.

This year, I hope to go before teacher groups to encourage those in the field. That’s been my calling for many years. As such, I write the monthly column about students/teaching/education that appears on the second Thursday of each month in the Providence Journal Op-Ed section.To date, I’ve written 50 of these.

In presentations, I am lively, spirited, and engaged with my audience.

With that, I want to encourage those in the field who set up educational/teacher workshops or in-service programs to contact me as guest speaker, for I’m one who’s actually “walked the walk,” as 30 year, highly-successful veteran of the classroom who knows how very important a teacher’s job is.

I’ll get that importance across to those in the classroom, today.

And I’ll do it with humor.

Today’s teachers need a champion who knows how important their job is.

I can do that and I welcome the opportunity.

Email Colleen Kelly Mellor at ckmellor@cox.net

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Even Milltown Kids Dance

horgan-elementary-school

With Brylcream-slicked hair and Mom-pressed shirts, the boys stood against the auditorium wall, as if they were about to be shot by a firing squad.

In a metaphorical way, they were.

Soldiers each, they were about to embark on the most damnable mission of their young lives…crossing the auditorium’s wide oak floor, to ask one of us girls at the opposite wall to dance.

We girls stood together, pretend-chatting, trying to appear blasé, hoping we’d be asked by some boy, not left the lone girl unworthy of invitation.

If we slow-danced with a boy, we’d sheepishly extend hands, hoping damp palms didn’t give away too much the fact we were terrified at such proximity to the opposite sex.

We needn’t have worried:  the boys were just as terrified. After all, they were supposed to lead.

If a girl rejected some brave boy’s request (and many did,) the boy would have to slink back in retreat across that floor or risk a second “No,” from another.

No 12-14 year-old boy had that kind of intestinal fortitude.

Because of the format, Al Angelone‘s School of Dance Night at West Warwick Jr. High became a sort of Maginot Line for young men. It would ready them for life contests to come.

But those important nights came much later than my introduction to dance, for I’d had my own personal dance lessons earlier in life, when Mom brought me, weekly, to Mrs. Helen King Walthers’ Dance Studio, held on the second floor of the brick J. Flanagan building in Clyde, the Phenix section of town. I was probably around eight years old.

The lady who ran the school was typical of ballerinas everywhere, in that she was lithe, slim, and flexible, with her blonde-ish, silver hair tied up in a neat little bun, allowing her to do the low bends and sweeps she’d doubtless spent a lifetime perfecting.

As a young girl, I was fascinated not so much by her agile movements as the black, diamond-patterned, net stocking tights she wore with her form-fitting mini-leotard and short-stacked heels. To me, she was the quintessence of glamour. No other mothers looked like her.

From her, I’d come away with the belief that dancers who no longer graced the stages of New York for fine performances such as “Nutcracker” and “Swan Lake” came back to their hometowns to open their own dance studios when they got older.

In class, we students lined up at the bar, before the mirror, limbering up, while the musical cadence helped us through the moves.

I’m sure each of us imagined dance shows where we believed we’d dazzle in those lovely, netted tutus, adorned with sequins. We’d pirouette on one leg, like the dancer on those music box covers. Oh, we’d be magical….

But my career as ballerina was cut short due to circumstances beyond my control, when Mom got a look at 16-year-old ballerina, Betsy Marshall’s (made up name) sinewy, over-developed calves. Just as I was to advance to “toe,” and balance on the front part of the ballet shoe designed to allow such, Mom whipped me out of ballet classes, saying “No daughter of mine will have legs like Betsy’s.”

Despite my protests I’d seen no other girls who suffered that particular affliction, Mom’s decision was final. My career as ballerina was over.

I wouldn’t dance, with real partners, until years later, when Al Angelone’s Dance Night came each Wednesday to West Warwick Junior High….

Even then, those ‘real partners’ were questionable.

Now, my question:  Were you a dancer? Do you remember Al Angelone’s Dance Night at West Warwick Jr. High? Comment below, or to the Facebook pages to which I post these articles, or to the Kent County Daily Times’ website under my column.

 

West Warwick native, Colleen Kelly Mellor (ckmellor@cox.net), is a motivational speaker and freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Wall St. Journal, Scripps-Howard, and many regional newspapers. She is author to the children’s books Grandpa and the Truck (grandpaandthetruck.com) and is regular commentator in the Providence Journal. Her website is colleenkellymellor.com.

P.S. I may have missed the chance to dazzle, but I made sure my own daughter had that opportunity. Here is daughter Kerry Mellor in proper sequined tutu, doing what I’d hoped….dazzle in a show.ballerina kerry

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