BHS '68 Leaves Its Mark  
Thursday, December 18, 2008


By Ed Patenaude

Walk through the main entrance to Bartlett High School and you'll probably conjure thoughts of the original Bartlett building, which closed as a high school in 1979 and was subsequently used as the Anthony J. Sitkowski Elementary School. The first Bartlett High School has come to the new BHS through a 10-by-14-foot mural of the original building. It was installed for the Bartlett class of 1968 by artist David J. Laabs. The class drew a curtain on its 40th anniversary reunion by taking up a collection, giving their committee a post-party task: Buy something that will make the '68 gang proud.

The committee - chairman Brian Bigelow, Linda L. Dixon, Jane Jeannette, John E. Lefebvre, Edith McCausland and Robert Pepka - investigated options, deciding to tie Bartlett history into something visual.

There was a quick realization: Getting this done with pick-up money wouldn't be easy. Professional commissions can carry a substantial price tag. Then, Mr. Lefebvre, president of the Boys & Girls Club of Webster and Dudley, had a suggestion: David Laabs is endowed with a talent they could observe in the new Boys & Girls Club on Oxford Avenue in Dudley. Wall murals depicting the club's move from their old quarters to the new building, have drawn general acclaim, Mr. Lefebvre told the committee.

"I was lucky that they included me in that project," said Mr. Laabs.

Employed 17 years at the former Ethan Allen Co. furniture factory in Dudley, Mr. Laabs drew on his experience, opening the Airbrush Shack next to his residence in nearby East Thompson, Conn., after the plant closed.

Some of the committee members went to the Boys & Girls Club and were impressed with Mr. Laabs' artistry, said Mr. Pepka. A meeting followed to set the parameters for the old Bartlett mural.

Committee people and Mr. Laabs set an outline of the view from Negus Street, next to the one-time Ben's Spa, a popular place with students during the 1960s.

Mr. Laabs developed the schematics, fading away the sides of the big three- and four-story building, and including lines of brickwork from the 1914 part to the school. This became his master print. He set up equipment inside Bartlett's main entrance after classes were dismissed on a recent Friday and worked some 22 hours through the weekend, said Patricia Munsch, secretary to Principal Michael Hackenson.

A Webster native, Mr. Laabs said he enjoyed the Bartlett assignment. "That's my alma mater, too."

The mural sits next to a portrait of Amos Bartlett, principal of Webster High School when the Civil War broke out. He organized the Slater Guards, made up mostly of Webster and Dudley residents, served in the Union Army after the company was federalized, and was discharged as a captain. He subsequently became chief operating officer of Slater Mills. The school's name was changed to Bartlett in his honor around 1918.

If there's a Santa Claus-like beard in Webster - full, nearly white, and with a hint of ringlets - Paul Welch has cultivated it.

Paul is a fairly young man, but there's something about his facial growth: It matures in every respect, but in length, he said more than a year ago when we crossed paths at the Webster transfer station.

The thought last Christmas was to mention guys with Santa Claus adornments. Paul was first in my mind, but he wasn't mentioned because I wasn't certain of his identity. This changed when I thrust a notebook onto his lap before a recent gathering and asked for his autograph.

We'll be off a couple of weeks because of holiday schedules, so let's opt for early rather than late in remembering a disaster.

The worst fire in Webster history raced through the North Village Mills, destroying the B-W Footwear Manufacturing Co., Bentley Shoe Co., and other businesses on Jan. 1, 1969, leaving 1,050 people temporarily jobless.

The 40th anniversary of the conflagration might be remembered by some people when the calendar turns to New Year's Day 2009. The first in a series of fire calls came in after midnight and the all-out alarm sounded four days later.

The companies persevered and reopened at other locations, but foreign competition proved more devastating than fire. Cheap labor ultimately forced the local shoe companies out of business and took the other town shoe plants with them, most notably Webster Shoe Co., and Bates Shoe Co.

It took months to calculate, but the fire loss shook out at around $10 million. The North Village complex had been developed by Samuel Slater & Sons Co. and was vacated in the mid-1930s, when Slater Corp. sold or liquidated its Webster manufacturing facilities.

A couple of buildings, detached from the main industrial cluster, still remain at North Village, but the location was never redeveloped.

Webster library trustees held a community workshop Nov. 15 to investigate new library possibilities while inviting public comment.

The emphasis seemed to be on an addition to the library at 2 Lake St. The session adjourned with a thought: Is the property large enough to accommodate a multistory building while leaving enough space for parking?

An answer is still in the making, says trustee James A. Chauvin. This seems to suggest a need for an alternate location.
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