Whitty looks forward to retirement after 47 years of service to Norwich

Norwich Housing Authority Executive Director Charlie Whitty is seen Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017.  (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Norwich Housing Authority Executive Director Charlie Whitty is seen Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

Norwich — When Housing Authority Executive Director Charles Whitty retires this spring, he will leave behind a nearly uninterrupted record of city service that dates back to 1970, including 13 years as city manager during the transformative time when downtown was dying and city leaders felt powerless to stop it.

Whitty, 74, has been executive director of the Housing Authority since May 22, 2000. That position amounts to his third career associated with the city, but every position has had at least some relation to the city Housing Authority.

“Forty-seven years,” Whitty said recently at the Housing Authority administrative office at 10 Westwood Park. “That’s a number that’s hard to get your head around.”

Whitty, who grew up in Norwich and worked as a local attorney, was hired as assistant city manager in 1970. He rose to the city manager position in 1973 and remained in that job until 1986, when he returned to private practice with the local firm Berberick, Murphy, Devine & Whitty PC.

As a youth, Whitty participated in the Thursday night downtown shopping festivities, a time when Sears, Woolworth and Reid & Hughes were hopping destinations.

As city manager, he saw major changes come to the city, including construction of the Marina at American Wharf and the exodus of retail shopping from downtown to malls built along highways and even in Norwich outside downtown. While the city established the industrial park to provide jobs and a tax base in response to losing mills in the 1950s, there was no easy answer for downtown.

“Kids didn’t want to come downtown on Thursday night, when they could go to the malls on Friday or Saturday night,” Whitty said.

Norwich Hospital also had a policy of giving discharged mental illness patients bus tickets to Norwich, Whitty recalled. “They were on their own to find their way to Hartford or wherever,” he said. Many, however, remained in Norwich in desperate straits.

Whitty said one day, two officials from the state Department of Social Services came to Norwich and walked through the downtown before coming to his office. The agency’s position was that Norwich Hospital was not having a negative effect on downtown, he said.

“They came to my office and said they took a walk downtown and didn’t see anything wrong,” Whitty said. “I said, ‘We’re going to take another walk.’”

Even during his 14 years out of direct city government, Whitty served as legal counsel to the then-town Housing Authority — Norwich had separate town and city housing authorities before a contentious merger in 1989. He served on the Norwich Community Development Corp. from 1970 to 2013, saying industrial park founder Stanley Israelite “is ahead of me by a few years.” He currently serves on the Norwich Golf Course Authority and plans to keep that post after he retires. He also is a corporator at the William W. Backus Hospital and at Dime Bank.

During his time in private law practice, Whitty also assisted the city with collective bargaining issues during his hiatus from City Hall and then was hired as Housing Authority executive director in 2000.

Whitty has overseen a continuous effort to modernize, maintain and upgrade the city’s 177 federally funded and 509 state-funded public housing units. Whitty said the authority has done $10 million in upgrades to the state properties and another $2 million to the federal units.

“We’ve been able to do a significant amount of that in-house,” Whitty said.

He praised the 23 full-time and four part-time Housing Authority staff that just lost one major contributor. Former longtime city Engineer Stephen Garstka, who has worked as a Housing Authority engineer after retiring from his position as city engineer for the Public Works Department, died unexpectedly Dec. 6 at age 68. Whitty called Garstka his right-hand man.

“You’re only as good as the people working for you, and the Housing Authority has been very fortunate to have an excellent staff,” Whitty said.

Whitty told the Housing Authority board of directors in fall that he would like to retire, but offered to stay until a new executive director is appointed. The position was advertised and the city received about 15 applicants. Whitty is helping with the review process, as well.

Then he will start to curtail his activities, staying on the Golf Course Authority, however.

“I look forward to having some unplanned activities for a while,” he said.

c.bessette@theday.com

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