Heroes live quietly among us in Westport; here are some

I met Ben Pepper the other day. He has lived in Westport since 1958. I moved here as a small child with my parents two years earlier. Yet in almost 70 years I had never heard his name.

What a shame. He is a remarkable man. Five months shy of 100 years old, he still lives — alone — in the North Avenue house he and his wife, Frances, built when Eisenhower was president.

Pepper spent his professional career as a photographer. He also owned two liquor stores; his wife operated the Kiddy Closet children’s clothing store in Norwalk. The couple helped build Temple Israel on Coleytown Road.

In all my years here I have missed more than the name of Ben Pepper. I missed his stories too.

A paratrooper in World War II, he won a Purple Heart at the Battle of the Bulge. A soldier sharing a foxhole was killed next to him.

Pepper would have been part of D-Day – and might not have survived – but he had broken his back in a previous jump. And on his way to the Ardennes, he survived a plane crash in England.

I could be forgiven for not knowing anything about Pepper’s story because he hasn’t shared it publicly until now. Although Westport’s Memorial Day parade has long honored World War II veterans — and as their numbers dwindle, the ceremony becomes more poignant each year — he chose not to participate. He never marched or rode in a convertible. That’s just not Pepper’s style.

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Sitting in his son and daughter-in-law’s home, listening to him finally tell these tales—and seeing his purple heart and dog tags that he proudly keeps, along with other mementos from the war—I realized how important it was for Westport to acknowledges its heroes. Even if they avoid recognition.
We do it every year on Memorial Day. Now that Korean War veterans — even those who served in Vietnam — are reaching a certain age, it’s more important than ever for younger generations to see them. I remember my father describing the impact of watching Civil War veterans march in their own Memorial Day celebrations. This shows how young a country we really are. Yet it also reinforces the idea that we should never forget our past.

Young people today need to see and honor heroes of all kinds. Heroes are everywhere. However, we do not always direct them to the youth who should be inspired and uplifted by them.

The name of another Westporter I never knew also caught my attention recently. Martin Rosenfeld has died at the age of 95. He lived in Westport from 1998 until 2021. During that time, he and his wife, Martha, donated more than 16,000 volunteer hours to Norwalk Hospital. He helped patients, visitors and staff in the outpatient surgery waiting room – a stressful place for everyone, but one he made less stressful day after day and year after year.

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Martin and Martha found a home at The Conservative Synagogue. Surrounded by a young community with young children, they jumped right in.
The couple helped in the office. They sanctified silver on Torah scrolls and provided Passover seders for people without local families.

At the age of 70, Martin learned to read the Torah for the first time. Until the pandemic shifted synagogue services to Zoom, he was the synagogue’s most prolific reader. He and his wife were also avid participants in adult education programs, inspiring others in attendance.

These are the Westport facts about the life of Martin Rosenfeld. His story is also fascinating. Like Ben Pepper, a Bronx native (and also from DeWitt Clinton High), he served in World War II. He then attended Yale University, where he majored in Japanese.

How many other interesting people live and walk among us whose stories we don’t hear until it’s almost—or finally—too late? What about the men and women who grew up during the Depression, who fought for their country (and saved the world), then went on to lead quiet lives in the suburbs, finding time to raise families, build community, and never once seeking praise or even a pat on the back?

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My generation – the Baby Boomers – followed theirs. We were all to ourselves. We had numbers and strength and we used both. We thought we were doing good to the planet, but we also weren’t shy about the spotlight.

The generations after that were even more to themselves. Young adults – even teenagers – today are polishing their personal brands. They live their lives publicly, on multiple social media platforms. Smartphone and TV cameras are almost an extension of their bodies.

On TV and movie screens, on Facebook, Instagram and TikTok today, anyone can look like a hero. However, as Ben Pepper and Martin Rosenfeld demonstrate, heroes live quietly among us.

Even if we never know their names.

Dan Woog is a writer from Westport and his World of Woog appears every Friday. He can be reached at [email protected] His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.


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