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Notes from the Old Noank Jail: A fond farewell to three local characters

As the latest wave of city dwellers engages in bidding wars over local real estate, we at the Noank Jail want to honor three residents who relocated here from big city life and devoted their talents and time to enhance our communities for decades; sadly, their lives ended earlier this year.

The first two were a delightful couple who’d raised their family in West Hartford and moved here full time after retirement in 2009. James Fairfield English, president emeritus of Trinity College and a one-time interim president/director of Mystic Seaport Museum, died at home on June 2 at age 93.

Nine days later, his wife and partner of 65 years, Isabelle “Izzy” Cox English, a formally trained fine artist and an award-winning landscape gardener, also died at their home at age 88.

Both loved sailing and made everyone in their presence smile. They were active members of the Noank Historical Society, Groton Open Space Association, and the Community Foundation of Southeastern Connecticut.

Izzy was frequently spotted bike riding all over town. She’d traded in her car for a bicycle during the ‘60s when she was also active in the anti-war and civil rights movements.

Jim had developed an affinity for Japanese boat building when he served in the Army counter intelligence division in World War II during the occupation of Japan. This would result in him helping a protege publish a book on that subject in later years.

When Noank’s beloved Universal Food Store had to close its doors, the Englishes helped to lead a concerted effort to keep a grocery option in the village and helped to research similar local businesses. They believed heartily in bringing people together to solve problems, and their enthusiasm was contagious, as was their laughter and frequent hospitality. And they enjoyed being “victims” of our local “off-key” Christmas carol singing when our large group stopped at their door every year. We will miss those greetings.

Then, we were additionally saddened to learn that Bobby Schneider, a long-time Noank/Mystic fixture, passed away in July down in Florida, another victim of the coronavirus pandemic.

Schneider was born in 1931 in New York City, and his family moved to Willow Point in 1942. The next two decades included working at Davis-Standard, teaching fifth grade at Ledyard Elementary School, and serving as a construction supervisor for Safeway in Denver.

He moved to New York City to act and met his wife Renate in summer stock near Albany. When they moved to the west end of Main Street in 1961, local theater and storytelling were forever changed.

Bobby acted in and directed the Leonine and Seabury Player groups in the ‘60s and ‘70s but is perhaps best known as an interpreter and historical reenactor at Mystic Seaport. He and Renate formed the Tale-Spinners as a storytelling troupe, and if you went to any local public schools in the ‘80s, you saw them at least a few times on field trips.

They were captivating and engaging, characters who came to life so effectively that we were a bit surprised when they’d stroll by our jail at night. It took us a while to realize they weren’t acting but really lived up the street.

In his later years, Bobby joined Flock Theatre and was involved in more than 50 productions as a director, producer, and actor. With his love of outdoors, he was also an active participating member of Groton Open Space Association and his participation and positive attitude at meetings was always appreciated.

Overall, our local communities have been vastly enriched by these former city dwellers who fell in love with our quirky little village and all that surrounds it, especially the people. As these titans move on, we hope our younger generations will continue to create and enhance what they devoted their lives to give us.

An updated description of a “Renaissance Man” would be “a present-day person who has acquired profound knowledge or proficiency in more than one field.” And so, farewell to Jim, Tizzy and Bobby, and thank you for what you have given us.

Ed Johnson and his daughter Lacy live in Noank.

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