A Hero for a New Age
THE LOCAL ARTICLES describing the life of George L. Sherwood, who passed away at age 82 on July 28, were accurate and kind but could not do justice to this remarkable resident of Winchester, Conn., for his profound contributions to local democracy.
The civic fiber of local communities has always relied on a small number of active citizens who speak out, participate, and contribute in ways that are silently supported by larger numbers of their neighbors. If you had to make a checklist of civic contributions, the activities of this retired aeronautical engineer, this consummate public citizen, George Sherwood, would provide quite a comprehensive guide. After his service as a glider pilot in World War II, Mr. Sherwood worked for 30 years on airport planning and design for the state of Connecticut. That was his day job. His other hours were devoted to his wife and seven children and to his public responsibilities to make his town a better place to live.
The Town of Winchester is nestled in the Litchfield Hills. Around 12,000 live there in a heavily forested area the size of Manhattan. Within a short walk from their homes the residents can find schools, stores, libraries, the town hall, the movie theater, the fire and police departments, ball fields, rivers, lakes, parks, and trails. This is my hometown, and I knew Mr. Sherwood for many years.
He was funny and blunt and creative and brought people together. He coordinated neighbors to establish a land trust for conservation. With my brother in the ’60s, he helped establish a community college. With his wife, he started the Winchester Center Kerosene Lamp Museum, the only place in the country that featured these lamps that were made between 1856 and 1880. Some of these fine products were donated to the Smithsonian by the Sherwoods.
Mr. Sherwood was the designated town historian. He gave us a context and background about how our community came to be.
For conversation, he and his wife ran the little post office that served more communication purposes than just the collecting and sending of the mail. He had a tradition for several years of inviting townspeople to a Friday “salon” in his pretty 18th-century captain’s house, where all shared in good food, drink, conversation, and friendship. At his home he experimented with energy efficient ways of heating.
When mismanagement collapsed the town’s nearly 100-year-old hospital, Mr. Sherwood volunteered his time and knowledge on the Code Blue Committee to oppose its closing and restart a health care center. He traveled to various parts of the world, bringing back an enriched perspective and an impressive collection of photos. He offered his home to foreign students, and year after year he learned from them and taught them how to be part of a community. One, now an international economist at Case Western Reserve University, drove from Ohio to his memorial service and wept openly at the loss of the man he he thought of as his second father.
This citizen of Winchester was about more than civic highlights. He embodied the principle that daily democracy requires daily citizenship. No shirker of his civic duties, Mr. Sherwood was always there at town meetings, at the town hall, on the zoning board of appeals, in the Winchester Grange, with the Winchester Volunteer Fire Department, wherever there was a little or big proposal or project to make life better and fairer and more pleasant.
A man from the pretelevision era, he believed in personal interaction. He loved to show youngsters what he thought they should know about their community, their past, their world.
There are not many young George Sherwoods coming around as public citizens in local communities and staying for 50 years or more. We live in increasingly rootless, mall-filled, withdrawn communities, whether large or small. We stare at electronic screens of virtual realities instead of making our own realities, in our own communities.
One of my recollections of Mr. Sherwood, not long ago, was his almost plaintive question: Where are the young people?
Refusing to be discouraged, George Sherwood and his civic life recall the words of the famed scholar Max Weber, who decades ago wrote that anyone working for change requires “the steadfastness of heart which can brave even the crumbling of all hopes.”