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Talking to Phil Bassett is like talking with a walking history book. The longtime Westbrook resident, best known on the shoreline for having been the shop teacher at Old Saybrook High School for 32 years, has called Westbrook his home since 1945. It was even before then that this coastal oasis called to his ancestors-in 1890 his great-grandmother built the very first beach cottage on Stannard Hill, a property more commonly known as Water's Edge Resort.
Phil, with his pleasant smile and kind manner, can also trace his lineage back to a famous landmark in Guilford, once known as Falcon Island, now known as Faulkner's Island. Phil is related to the Stone family, which owned the island for nearly 100 years.
With an inborn love for the ocean, Phil has been drawn to the water his whole life, which is part of why he has cherished his life in Westbrook. He's made good use of the coastal inlet, enjoying his more than 25 boats, which he used for saltwater fishing, catching sharks, stripers, bluefish, and other creatures. He loves fishing so much that when it was time for Old Saybrook teachers to share things they liked with the students, he served up some mako shark to the kids-and asked if they liked it.
Phil's wife, Gail, to whom he refers as a "beach girl" since her family vacationed in Westbrook during summers, has been by his side for the past 52 years. The two have been very happy on their perfectly manicured, 14-acre homestead in Westbrook, which overlooks the Westbrook cemetery. Taking pride in everything he does, Phil has served as the president of the Westbrook Cemetery Association for the past 35 years, and even now in his retirement, he can still be found in the woods of the cemetery, working on cold winter days in his cotton flannel shirt and jeans-and no gloves.
"Hard work keeps me warm," Phil says with a smile.
He has been an integral part of Westbrook's landscape, both literally by helping to cut down and plane fallen trees into wood planks using his own backyard sawmill and figuratively through his many volunteer positions on boards and commissions in town, including serving as a member of the Planning Commission and on the Harbor Commission for 18 years. He is also a member of the Historical Society and the Congregational Church in Westbrook.
In his life away from Westbrook, he was an officer in the Army and a successful entrepreneur during his college years at East Tennessee State University, at which he and his college friends renovated an old warehouse across the street from the college, made a place to live, and started a restaurant business that they ran while going to school.
A life as a restaurateur wasn't for him, however-Phil knew since high school that he wanted to be a shop teacher.
"I always knew I was good with my hands, and I had two shop teachers that I adored. In addition, I know it sounds crazy, but I wanted a job that I would come home from and it would still be light out and you know here in New England there are not many jobs that fit the bill, so my guidance counselor suggested shop teacher," explains Phil, who says he loved his job for all 32 years before retiring in 1999.
"When I started teaching, I taught with the two shop teachers I had as a student, so it was great, then later, I became the head of the department. I loved working with the students. Most of them were really good kids and I still see them at the store or around town. It's fun to see the kids, see what they are doing now and how their families are. My first class of students is now in their 60s," says Phil, thinking back. "I can't believe it."
Getting his students involved in the web of Connecticut history was always a goal-one of Phil's fondest memories is when he and his class had the opportunity to work on the ship Amistad at the Mystic Seaport.
"We were involved with building the boat and getting the wood planks ready for the vessel. It was really an honor to be part of such a huge thing," says Phil, who took pride in the success of his students.
During his teaching career, Phil's entrepreneurial spirit also shined through once again and he became business partners with Peter Anderson, who is now the tech ed teacher at Westbrook High School. The two worked together for nine years, building more than 300 decks throughout the shoreline, as well as sun rooms, garages, small additions, and more. They also had a sugar shack at Phil's house, in which they used to make real maple sugar. Now, Phil still donates wood to Anderson's class when he has extra from his sawmill.
There's never a dull moment for this man of many talents, who still greets every stranger with a firm handshake and a pleasant smile. He says he likes to keep busy, which he does in his heated workshop, which he built himself, complete with skylights, a motor lift, and more. When he's not tending his own land, making wood planks from fallen trees, or watching over the cemetery, Phil likes to spend time with family and friends, especially his two children, son Wes and daughter Brooke. Are their names coincidence or a call to his family roots that run deep? Phil says coincidence.