DAY NEWSROOM: REPORTERS
Claire Bessette fell in love with the City of Norwich and its people when she moved there more than 30 years ago, and she still gets excited when she learns something new about the Rose City.
"The history is just amazing," she said. "Everybody knows about Benedict Arnold, but there are all these other really important people that nobody knows about."
One of her favorite notable but little-known Norwich natives is David Ruggles. He moved to NYC in the 19th century and helped more than 500 escaped slaves to safety, including Frederick Douglass. A portion of City Hall plaza, where the bell tower is located, is named for him.
A more recent lesser-known historical figure who Bessette wrote about is Sidney Frank, a member of Norwich Free Academy's Class of 1938, who made billions promoting booze, including Grey Goose vodka and Jagermeister liqueur. He donated $12 million to NFA in 2004 and the school built a performing arts center in his name.
Since joining The Day in October 1994, Bessette has been writing about Norwich's native sons and daughters and its newcomers. She's shared her admiration of the city's unique architechure — How about that gorgeous City Hall, built in French Second Empire style? — and chronicled the city's efforts to revitalize the once-thriving mill community. (Did you know that chocolate was one of the products made here? Just ask Bessette, and she'll tell you all about it.)
Bessette said the ever-changing nature of the city keeps her interested. There's always news about business efforts and developments, and she keeps mining "gems of pieces of history that you never heard of before."
She's followed the progress of the Haitian and Cape Verdean communities that came to the city for work or refuge. She's walked to the Mohegan Sun with members of the Asian community who came to work at the region's casinos and traipsed through their vegetable gardens and markets.
Like all the best beat reporters, Bessette takes part in the community she covers.
She doesn't miss the annual festivals put on by the Greek, Italian and African-American communities or the Lenten fish fries at local churches. She's quick to buy tickets for new exhibits at the Slater Museum or Leffingwell House. If there's a show at the Chestnut Street playhouse, Bessette is in the audience and, chances are, she's on a first-name basis with the cast members.
She can tell you where dogs are welcome in the city, and on a weekend morning you'll likely find her there with her German shepherd, Luna.
During the warmer months, she's a season ticket holder at Dodd Stadium, Norwich's baseball venue. She tries to make every game, fitting in a few innings even on nights she has to cover late meetings.
And if the women Huskies are playing basketball at Gampel Pavilion, look for Bessette and husband Dane in the bleachers. They don't miss a home game, and attend the Final Four tournament every year, whether the Huskies are playing or not. (They usually are.)
Bessette was destined to be a Day Staff Writer. She lived in New London until she was 12 years old. Her older brothers delivered The Day when it was still published in the afternoon, and as a young girl she discovered newspapers from the 1950s had been stuffed into the walls of the family's Howard Street home as insulation. She pulled them out and read them.
"It was our paper," she said. "It was New London. It was us."
After graduating from the University of Connecticut, Bessette worked briefly for the Willimantic Chronicle and the Bulletin. On a Sunday night in 1994, just after she returned from her honeymoon, Bessette got a phone call from The Day city editor Tim Cotter, who asked her, "How would you like to cover Norwich for The Day?"
She has been on a roll ever since, writing about every aspect of her community. She tells the hard stories, too, and looks their subjects in the eye the next day, knowing she was fair and accurate.
"I still like daily news. I still think it's magical that the paper comes out every day," she said.
Bessette returned to her alma mater and taught a news writing class for aspiring journalists. She continues to share her knowledge with young reporters at The Day, and regularly treats the entire newsroom to delectable homemade pies and cookies. Every Christmas, she organizes a collection of gifts for a Norwich family in need.
By Claire Bessette