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Spotlight on Joe Schachter, Westport’s Memorial Day Parade Grand Marshal

By Cindy Mindell

Joseph H. Schachter (Contributed photo)WESTPORT – Joseph H. “Joe” Schachter, a World War II United States Navy veteran, has been selected by the Westport Veterans Council to serve as Grand Marshal in the Westport Memorial Day Parade on Monday, May 30. According to Westport Veterans Council president William Vornkahl, Schachter was chosen for his dedicated service to both the military and to the town he has called home since the late ‘50s. Schachter, 90, is a member of Congregation Beth El-Norwalk.

Joseph H. “Joe” Schachter was born on March 17, 1926 in South Norwalk, the eldest of three children. His mother, Jennie Polley, was born in East Norwalk to Russian-Jewish immigrants who had settled there in the 1860s. Schachter’s maternal grandfather was one of the original members of the first synagogue in Norwalk, Beth Israel Congregation (now Beth Israel Synagogue of Westport/Norwalk). As a boy, Schachter remembers attending that Orthodox synagogue “until something new hit town, called ‘Conservative Judaism,’” he says – in the form of Temple Beth El (now Congregation Beth El-Norwalk), organized in 1934.

“It was quite a shock in that, as a youngster, I now could sit with my mother on one side, my father on the other, and my brother and sister alongside us,” he says. “For the first time, we sang songs in English.” Schachter and his siblings attended religious school there, “as long as we paid the dollar tuition a week, because it was the deep Depression, which hit many Norwalk families very hard,” he recalls.

Schachter celebrated his bar mitzvah at Beth El. “We didn’t have a big celebration because, in those days, you didn’t have a big celebration,” he says. “A bar mitzvah was a rite of passage and you brought bottles of pickled herring and similar things.”

Schachter graduated from Norwalk High School in 1943 and had already volunteered to serve in the U.S. Navy, a natural fit for the self-proclaimed “confirmed water rat.”

“I had been on the water with my father in rowboats from the time I was 7 or 8, and I had become a Sea Scout – an advanced division of the Boy Scouts of America,” he says. “We grew up in South Norwalk, which was next door to Long Island Sound. I recall my mother taking me down to the bridge over the Norwalk River and looking out over Norwalk Harbor and the water just intrigued me.

“I can truly say that, now that I’m in my 90s, I’ve been blessed to have been on all the oceans, many of the seas, and the waters of Alaska and Antarctica. If I had not joined the Navy, I likely would have been immediately drafted once I got out of high school, and the chances were that I would go into the Army. So this was my out, but in so doing, I had to sign up for a possible officers’ training program.”

schachter army

U.S. Navy Ensign Joe Schachter, age 19, aboard the USS Wilkes Barre light cruiser (1945).

Schachter entered the program on July 1, 1943 at Trinity College in Hartford. He was commissioned as an ensign in early 1945. That September, as the Japanese Instrument of Surrender was being signed, the American naval fleet was gathering in Tokyo Bay and Yokosuka, with Schachter’s light cruiser, the USS Wilkes-Barre, among the ships. “With the war over, the relationship between the United States and the Nationalist Chinese regime was no longer necessary and the Chinese regime was now being besieged by the Communists, who were coming out of Manchuria,” Schachter recalls. “The Nationalist regime requested assistance from the United States. The U.S., not wanting to make any commitment other than creating a presence – meaning, we did not want to send troops – sent my ship and a couple of destroyers to China to create a ‘presence,’ supposedly that would deter the Communists. Obviously, it didn’t work.”

Schachter was given an honorable discharge in 1946, having been promoted to lieutenant junior grade in the peacetime Navy. He returned to Trinity College in Hartford, earning a BS in 1948. He married Carol Kagan, a Hartford native, and the couple lived on Albany Avenue near Blue Hills Avenue for nearly two years, while Schachter got his start at an advertising firm. In 1951, they moved to New York City for four years, where Schachter began a 30-year career with the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency. Just before the second of their three sons was born, they relocated to Westport, a community that Schachter had gotten to know during his years in South Norwalk. The family rejoined Congregation Beth El.

Altogether, Schachter’s military record shows that he served a total of 17 years, although the last 14 years were on inactive reserve. “I finally resigned because I didn’t want to leave my family if called back,” he says.

Carol died in 1964. Two years later, Schachter married Hartford native Irma Klein.

During his 60 years in Westport, Schachter has been active in several water-related causes and improvements. He was part of the “Save Cockenoe Now” movement, led by then-Westport Now editor Jo Fox, that ultimately prevented the installation of a nuclear power plant on Cockenoe Island off Compo Beach in the late ‘60s. He was active in improving the Longshore Marina, spearheading a group that convinced the town to dredge the waters and repair the crumbling docks. He was a founder of the Minuteman Yacht Club, whose leadership spearheaded the construction of the Ned Dimes Marina at Compo Beach, using marine-grade concrete, a new material that Schachter had encountered on the West Coast and in Alaska.

Schachter became so involved in trying to improve Westport’s marinas that he resigned from what had become the world’s largest ad agency and formed Concrete Flotation Systems in Norwalk. His company designed and built some 400 projects over 20 years, including on the U.S. Air Force base in Thule, Greenland, at more than 20 Coast Guard stations, and at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London.

Schachter is also a founder of the Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk, where he served as a board member for more than 20 years. He is an active member of the Y’s Men of Westport/Weston.

He is still involved at Congregation Beth El “in a background capacity,” he says. He has contributed to improvements on the bimah and in the building’s signage, and recently drew on his extensive advertising experience to help redefine the synagogue’s name to Congregation Beth El-Norwalk. Of Rabbi Ita Paskind, who joined Beth El last summer as the congregation’s first female spiritual leader, Schachter says, “she is a very high-energy rabbi and she has brought a new momentum to the synagogue.” Beth El-Norwalk celebrated Schachter’s 90th birthday with a special aliyah earlier this month.

Of his selection as Grand Marshal of the Westport Memorial Day parade, Schachter says that he is “overwhelmed.”

“That is a pat word, I know, but it’s hard to put into words because of course we all have an ego, but I tried not to do any of things I did for ego,” he says. “Most everything I did in my life was to be useful in some way or another, and to find that others found that my endeavors were useful is hard to believe.

Underneath it all, I’m still a guy who just tried to do his best and work his way up from the other side of the tracks.”

The Westport Memorial Day Parade will begin at 9 a.m. on Monday, May 30, on Riverside Avenue, followed by memorial services on Veterans Green.

 

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