A History of the New Canaan Field Club
by George Brakeley
How This History Came About
This project began in mid-2019 in a casual conversation between long-time Tennis Director Len Simard and a long-time member named King Chapin, whose family has been involved with the Club since the very early days. Len said something like, “Hey, the Field Club is more than 60 years old. Shouldn’t we have some sort of history of the Club?” and King responded with something like “Great idea!”
I got wind of the conversation not long thereafter and, having been a member since 1972 and having been a History major in college, I volunteered to take the project on. My children grew up at the Club and it has been an important part of my life for almost 50 years.
What follows, then, reflects not only the documentation that we have been able to uncover but also a lot of anecdotal material, plus some of my own recollections. .
The story of the founding of the New Canaan Field Club is, to a large extent, ”shrouded in the mists of time,” in that some important aspects of it are only anecdotal, and all of the persons involved are long deceased. Only recently were records found of the early years and they are incomplete, moldy and dusty. Thus the story is, in large measure, anecdotal and memory-driven, but we have resisted over-imagination and hyperbole
The property on which the Club started and still resides comprised some XX acres (now a bit more with the addition in 20XX of the Louis Armstrong House) and was originally owned by a man named Charles Dana. His residence at 32 Brookwood Lane,, which covered some 32 acres and included a pool, formal gardens, open fields and more, is now owned and occupied by Paul Simon and Edie Brickell. (It is now on the market for $13.9 million.).
Mr. Dana was a wealthy man and a Wall Streeter of some repute, and much of his personal wealth was managed by the New Canaan office of Merrill Lynch, in the person of Edward L. “Ted” Winpenny, who lived in New Canaan until his death about ten years ago. Ted was a nationally prominent tennis and paddle player who, we think, was one of a group of New Canaanites who belonged to Roton Point but had wearied of the trek to Rowayton and back, but did not care for golf enough to join the New Canaan Country Club and wanted some place handier.
So it appears that one day Ted approached Charlie Dana about making several acres at the southern end of his property available for a family-oriented recreational club, and Charlie agreed. Whether he sold the property or donated it is not known, but in any case it was transferred to an entity known as Ridgelands of New Canaan, Inc., which ultimately was subsumed by the New Canaan Field Club, Inc.in, it appears, 1956.
The first interim governing body were known as the “Subscribers,” and they were Herbert West. Gilbert White and Erik K. Petschek (Erik lived until 2018 and could have provided a good deal of clarification, had this history project been begun earlier). They met on September 6, 1956, with Gilbert White serving as Chairman and Erik Petschek as Secretary, both pro tem, and that group approved the first set of Bylaws (see Appendix I). That meeting was followed immediately by the “First Annual Meeting of the Membership (Incorporators),” wherein a Board of Governors was duly elected comprising Robert L. Jordan, Russell Ford, Erik K. Petschek, Gilbert Whit and Edward L. Winpenny, Jr. for two-year terms, and Thomas Tausig, Hunter Bowman, Mrs. Samuel L. Sipe, Mrs. Phyllis Babb and Herbert West for one-year terms.
Interestingly, it appears that the founders had been actively recruiting memberships in anticipation of incorporating, and the Incorporators were given a list of some 146 member families and individuals (see Appendix II), so the Club was off to a good start even before it became it became a functioning entity.
For us old-timers in the Club, it had always been assumed that a resident named Dorothy “Dottie” Chapin was a founder of the Club, but, interestingly, her name does not appear in any of the early documents. Nonetheless, it‘s clear that she was a moving force in the Club’s early history, and her son King Chapin is alive and well and has been a contributor to the story. Anyone who knew Dottie will enjoy King’s observation that she “inserted herself” into the Club’s affairs, as only Dottie could.
List of Presidents:
2014-18 Gary Merjian
2012 Mike Donnelly
2010 Eric Glerum
2008 Bruce Berger
2006 Frank Palmer
2004 Dale Carbonier
2002 Andy Barfuss
2000 Gray Fadden
1998 Jim Fox
1996 Liz Walters
1994 Camm Morton
1992 John Gildea
1990 Gary Bisbee
1988 Steve Gamble
1986 Jim Barton
1984 Gray Castle
1982 Dan Jones
1980 Joseph Jalbert
1978 Eugene Diserio
1976 Frederick Eydt
1975 Gordon Jones
1973 Robert Salmon
1971 Nathaniel Becker
1970 Thomas Hewson
1968 Fred Gardner
1966 Frederick Nelson
1964 George Griffin
1962 Malcolm Andresen
1961 Howard Smith
1960 Tully Shelley
1959 Elmer Shumaker
1957 Robert Jordan
Governance structure – presidential term of office, size of Board, terms limits, committees
When the Club opened it had two tennis courts (the current courts #9 and 10) and a tennis shack that really was a shack; a pool the configurations of which remain today, and a shower/locker facility next to the pool where the Field House currently stands. 1n 1984 the shack was significantly upgraded under Gray Castle’s presidency (so it was known affectionately as “Castle’s Castle”) and then again in 19?? when ???? was president. In 2019, when Mike Simko was president, the upper deck was renovated.
The original pool had a three-meter diving board and two one-meter boards, but the three-meter board was removed in 19?? for safety reasons, depriving long-time members Ellen Warden Brakeley and Gail Overbeck of their annual fully-clothed leap into the pool from the three-meter board at the annual summer parties (late in the a party, if you get our drift).
The Louis Armstrong House, adjacent to the Club entrance, was a private residence owned by the LaPolla family until 2006 when the Board, under the leadership of Frank Palmer, acquired it to provide housing for a number of our single tennis professionals. A mortgage was taken out which is being serviced via membership assessments.
The Arthur Ashe House, near the paddle courts, was Len Simard’s summer home for all 22 of his years as Tennis Director. Before that groundskeeper Rune Redin lived there for years.
In 19??, the Club installed six paddle courts – two on the far side of the stream than now runs next to court 4. These courts were made of wood, and by the 1980’s a lot of wood had rotted in the flooring and the superstructure, and the staples holding the screens to the wood had a tendency to pull out whenever someone banged into the screens going after a shot. (Former member Randy Roorbach was legendary for creating a lot of concave screens.) When George and Barbara Brakeley were co-chairs of paddle in 19??-?? (and when paddle was generally on the wane), they told the Board they would rather have four state-of-the-art courts than six dangerous ones. The result was today’s courts, which have been well maintained and upgraded since then and which have had new lights installed.
The paddle hut was built in 19?? The fireplace then was right in the middle of the room so that even the smallest fire made the hut uncomfortable and smoky (today you can see the window in the ceiling, which is where the chimney stood). In 19?? the fireplace was moved to its present location and much of today’s paddle hut was installed. In 20??, member Harry DeMott led the effort to upgrade the hut to the facility that exists today. In 19??, the hut was named the Paul Fowler Paddle Hut in recognition of Paul’s long and steady leadership of the paddle program at the Club and in the County, and a plaque was place above the entrance door.
The new Field House – during Gary Merjian’s presidency?
Pool pavilion/snack bar
Social areas – picnic spaces, pavilion – picnic decks built during Frank Palmer’s presidency?
Efforts to acquire more land
(When was the paved area that has the basketball net built?)
The Tennis Program
List of tennis directors – Bob Calloway, Brent ?????, Tom Wright 1984-5, Steve Hardin, Len Simard 1997-2019
List of tennis chairs
Len Simard’s remarkable 22–year tenure – the culture change he brought us
Naming the tennis pavilion for Len in 2019
1984 – tennis hut refurbished under Gray Castle as president – “Castle’s Castle”
Tennis pavilion rebuilt – what year?
Men’s and women’s team track records
The perpetual issue of lighted courts vs. the curfew and the neighbors
Notable players over the years – Winpenny – we should get credit for whatever the County Club has done in tennis since we provide most of their players.
Pickleball progam – very recent
The Paddle Program
Some people think paddle started at NCFC!
List of paddle chairs
List of professionals – Brad Easterbrook, J.P.McConnell
Paul Fowler’s long and pivotal leadership
Men’s and women’s team track records
Notable players over the years – Winpenny
1984 new paddle hut, Gray Castle, president
2014 – paddle hut reconstructed – Harry DeMott
The FCPTL Paul Fowler Tournament and the Charlie Scott Division
Stories: Bruce Beresford and foot faulting; the Randy Roorbach nets (Wendy Fog: “Randy never came off the paddle court unbloodied.”
Weren’t the national APTA championships once held here?
Racquet Sports Generally
As a relative old-timer at the Field Club, I have noted an interesting transformation over the years:
- From 8-10 tournaments per season in each sport to today’s four or five.
- From having 20-40 entries in each tournament to maybe a dozen now.
- From tournaments going all weekend (elimination rounds on Saturday and semi’s and finals on Sunday) to “tournaments” of maybe half a day’s duration.
- From all matches being best of three sets to today’s pro sets in the early rounds.
I’m not sure what this says about how times have changed, but they sure have.
The Swimming Program
List of coaches – Jeff Bramaier, Joe Somma et al
List of swimming and diving chairs
Notable swimmers and divers over the years (My daughter Kristin Brakeley Fox still holds no fewer than seven Club records 36 years after she swam her last stroke for the Field Club.)
Water polo program
The Counties – when did that stop? They were at NCFC every year for years. Talk about a parking problem!
List of social chairs
50th anniversary in 2007 – dedication ceremony at flagpole
Winter and summer parties
Memorial Day, July 4th and Labor Day parties – when did each start? Attendance numbers?
The salutary effect of the new Field House – year-round use
The Grounds and Administration
List of Club managers – Tom Brown – how long?
List of secretaries – Karen Stewart – started in 1984, 35 years of service; her predecessor was Lydia Batterson.
List of head groundskeepers – Rune Redin, Don Sweeney, Danny Dooley
The web site: In 2006, Ellen Brakeley was Board Secretary and they were looking for a webmaster. Ellen knew of Len Berton’s work as a Princeton class webmaster since he was a classmate of her husband, George. So Len was hired.
The website was then hosted on LeagueAthletics. It was used for everything electronic: not only the web pages for all of the areas of the Club, but also newsletters, event registration, input forms, and membership records (including spouses and children). Later new web software was introduced for paddle court reservations, better forms functionality, and event registration (SignUp Genius).
In 2011, President Mike Donnelly decided to invest in a more-modern web appearance, to assist in attracting new prospective members. He and an experienced member reviewed the sites of other clubs in the area, and wound up hiring Cynergy Networks to implement a new site for us. After about six months of conversion and building all the pages, the new site came “on the air”.
Again, early in 2019, President Mike Simko felt that the website needed refreshing. This time one of the leading motivations was to make it “responsive”, that is, to work perfectly on all devices, especially smart phones which had become ubiquitous. The renamed company, Synergy Innovative Systems was retained, and a new site built using the popular WordPress software. A professional photographer was hired to take all-new beautiful pictures around the Club to feature on the new site. This project was completed, and the new site went live in October, 2019.
Another improvement was the email blast system. We are now using the MailChimp professional service, which has many years’ experience providing highly reliable email service, including the ability to view opens and clicks.
Newsletters: Prior to about 2010, the Club Secretary would gather newsworthy items from the various Board chairs usually monthly, type up comprehensive newsletters including all the areas on paper, and copy and send them out to all the members by postal mail!
As Len Berton evolved the web site, he started putting similar newsletters together electronically and “blasting” them to all members via email. Of course this also entailed keeping email addresses current, when “bounces” occurred.
Over the next few years, members started to find these large newsletters rather cumbersome, and didn’t actually read all the information. They seemed to prefer short – single topic blasts instead, so they could just delete those that didn’t concern them.
In 2019, the tool used to do the blasts changed from the integral technology within the web servers to the nationally popular tool called “MailChimp”. Not only was it more reliable, but provided the ability to view Opens and Clicks on hyperlinks in the content.
Size of membership – 250 families
Paddle and summer membership programs
1957 budget vs. today
Progression of entry and membership fees
History of special assessments
What are the current Board’s aspirations, if any?
Lights on tennis courts 5 and 6?
Some Presidential Reminiscences
From Bruce Berger (2008-09)
For overall context of my two years as President, I succeeded Frank Palmer. The only substantial capital projects completed on my watch were started by Frank. The two most prominent ones were making sure the Club’s pool was compliant with the Virginia Graeme Baker Act and the purchase of the house immediately south of the Club to house the Club’s tennis professionals.
I had the pleasure, and it was a pleasure for the most part, of serving as President during the Great Recession or Great Financial Crisis or whatever it ought to be called. I am a cautious person by nature and the economic conditions back then further reinforced my inclination not to begin any significant capital projects until we had a good grasp on how stable our membership numbers would be. I was most concerned that we would enter a negative feedback loop where we would lose members, forcing us to raise dues on the remaining members, thereby leading to more resignations and so on and so forth. Fortunately, that did not happen and I guess that is what I would consider my legacy. It is not that exciting to say of one’s legacy, “It could have been a lot worse”, but given the information available to us at the time I believe we took the right path.
I will now pass along a few recollections from my time as President.
As we did the work on the pool in the late spring to make it compliant with the Virginia Graeme Baker Act, other issues regarding the pool surfaced as often happens in a construction project. I was on the phone with Tom Brown multiple times a day as issues arose, all of which required an authorization to spend money fixing this, that and the other thing. I remember thinking “Here I am the new President and the damn pool won’t be open by Memorial Day weekend. What a disaster.” So we said yes to everything and the pool was ready to open on time. However, the inevitable happened and the weather sucked that whole weekend, so not a single soul would have cared if the pool had not been ready for opening weekend.
Emad, from the Apple Cart, ran the snack bar. There was a significant contingent of the membership that wanted him replaced. I had the pleasure, and it was decidedly not a pleasure, to sit down with him and try to get him to change his business practices, menu items, pricing etc. That did not go very well. Frankly, I should have directed the people on the Board who wanted him replaced to have that conversation with Emad, but as a new President I wanted to show everyone that I could handle unpleasant tasks so I took it upon myself. In the end, we replaced him with Fabulous Feasts, which I think was best for the Club in the long run anyhow.
There were a couple of disciplinary issues that I had to deal with while President, one of which became fairly nasty. I won’t go into any details here because it isn’t applicable to what you are writing and would be inappropriate for me to disclose to anyone, even including my wife. I bring this up simply because I, like probably every President before or since, thought the job was about projects, programs, etc. No one thinks about the prospect of dealing with members who step outside the explicit and implicit rules of behavior of the Club. If even 1% of the membership feels rules don’t apply to them it becomes a time-consuming and very unpleasant aspect of the President’s job to bring wayward members back in line.
Finally, the most important job of a President may be to find an excellent person to succeed him or her. I believe I did that when suggesting that Eric Glerum be the next President of the Club.
From Eric Glerum (2010-11)
I would distill my NCFC presidential accomplishments down to two items: one overtly visible and the other more back office (and sure to date me).
- The stone patio just below Courts 1 and 2 was designed, started and completed on my watch. Prior to its construction you’re sure to remember events with tables precariously lined up on the grass/dirt slope and a general lack of group space. Someone did point out the irony of adding a couple thousand square feet of fieldstone to The Field Club, but I still think it was a great addition.
- This may actually have overlapped with Alison and my running membership for the five years prior to me being prez, but I did move the entire application process from paper to digital (with great help from Len B).
Thus goes my legacy.
From Mike Donnelly (2012-13)
Being President was largely an administrative role, but it did have its high points. I think the most notable moment for me was the establishment of the Long Range Planning Committee (“LRPC”) segue into the reconstruction of the Pool House.
The first major action of the LRPC was to run a member survey, and the results showed that by far the most desirable change to the club was the renovation of the pool house. It has fallen into disarray and was simply unusable. The Board members agreed to take on the project and we set our on our plan. We developed an RFP, hired a great architectural firm by the name of PH Architects, and things began falling into place. PH was able to create an architectural plan that met the needs of all factions of the club – youth programs, various pool activities and most importantly social. Ultimately, the renovation turned into a complete rebuild, and the end result was just fantastic. We are very proud how it came out.
From Gary Merjian (2016-19)
With my background in the hospitality business and from my years as VP of the NCFC, I took my 3 years as President from what traditionally an administrative role to a much more hands-on role. I spent many hours at the Club, working with the staff to increase the member experiences and always challenging all staff to think out of the box and wow our members with service. I spearheaded a major landscape renovation of the property with new trees and shrubs around the courts and pool area and sourced and replaced all the lounge chairs and pool chairs after 20 years. I worked closely with the snack bar team, again challenging them to redefine the menu and bring the offerings to a new level. I made sure to have a presence at all major club events and seek members’ thoughts and ideas on what they would like to see the future of the club services grow into. I brought on Mike Simko as our VP of Operations. We worked as a team pushing the limits of how the club should look and feel, at the same time, grooming Mike to be the great President that he is today. The ultimate reward as President for me was taking over all the detailed planning work of the LRPC regarding the pool house and bringing the building to life. It was bitter sweet being the main point of contact for over 1 year during the actual construction period. We dealt with more obstacles then you can imagine but ultimately it turned out beautiful and game changing for the club. (Editor’s note: Gary was president for four years, rather than the usual two.)
From Dale Carbonier (2004-5)
I had the pleasure to be president of the New Canaan Field Club for the term 2004-2006 having served as treasurer for two previous terms.
*. Tom Brown was and continues to be club manager. He was invaluable to the running of the Field Club. Karen Stewart ran the office in a friendly and warm manner. Presidents and board members come and go but Tom and Karen are the staple that held the club together. Everyone should think what it would be like to have a new boss every two years. That is what Tom and Karen handle. They were the two who kept my term to running so smoothly.
*. The new tennis facility was constructed during my term. Sally Sweeney and Lauren Bromberg were the two board members who took on the task of working with the architect, John Black Lee, and the construction company to make sure this wonderful building was completed as promised and stayed on schedule. They deserve the credit.
*. Membership was very strong with a one to two year waiting period.
*. Sport and social activities were always very successful.
*. My Board members were extremely conscientious and for the risk of leaving someone out, you know who you are.
*. My love of the Field Club cannot be stronger. I have been a member for forty-two years and hope for another forty-two.
Coming: Palmer, Bisbee, Barton