The Wakeman Way
A Century of Fostering Youth at the Wakeman Boys & Girls Club
It was Christmas 1913 when fifty boys in Southport got a lasting gift from cousins Frances and Cornelia Wakeman Crapo. Their $40,000 present, given in honor of their grandfather, the land investor Jesup Wakeman, financed a small clubhouse, located above a bar in a former onion warehouse on Pequot Avenue.
Humble beginnings, for sure, but that modest clubhouse became a home away from home, a place to hang out, play pool, shoot hoops and make friends for life.
That clubhouse marked the beginning of a sporty, community-minded kinship for multiple generations of Fairfield kids—boys and, later, lots of girls, too—who often dubbed themselves “Wakeman rats.” Get some of those old-timers together and they’ll start telling stories— about the six-ounce Coke bottles that dropped from the old machine in the lobby of the current Wakeman Boys & Girls Club on Center Street, or the boxing ring where childhood disputes sometimes got settled (first with gloves, then a handshake).
“I lived in the place,” says George Martin, who is now a baseball scout for the Atlanta Braves. He recalls tales spending his 1950s’ Southport youth grabbing pick-up basketball games at Wakeman. “It was like a second home. You couldn’t wait to get there and be part of whatever was going on,” he says, fondly.
Today Martin is one of several present and former Fairfield and Southport residents who are focused on celebrating Wakeman’s centennial with a series of ongoing events meant to highlight the milestone, including this particularly noteworthy first: the establishment of the Wakeman Hall of Fame, which will reveal its first class at an October 19 celebration. The ceremony will be followed by a related exhibition at the Fairfield Museum and History Center. The impressive honorees range from founding families to past and present notables who went onto enduring careers in professional sports.
“What’s incredible is the people who have excelled not just in sports, but in all walks of life,” says Martin, who was part of a committee that researched and identified potential honorees. “I think the amazing thing was how many names we came up with when we really started to look at Wakeman’s influence. It was so hard to choose. The good news is we’ll have incredible classes for years to come.”
The honorees are also a reflection of what Wakeman seems to do best: encouraging good sportsmanship with a focus on personal integrity and community service. Indeed a commitment to service—near or far—was a criteria for choosing the Hall of Fame’s first class, explains Wakeman’s longtime current Executive Director David Blagys. “Sports are sometimes what draw kids in, but they often lead them to the much more diverse program we offer today. And a commitment to helping others is a big part of that,” explains Blagys, who notes that the modern club offers nearly 150 programs, including the award-winning academic mentorship that is provided by Wakeman teen volunteers to scores of students at Fairfield’s McKinley Elementary School.
The centennial celebration is also the perfect time to reflect on how far Wakeman Boys & Girls Club has come, says Blagys. Consider these other contemporary milestones: Today’s Wakeman now boasts some 4,200 members, including boys and girls who congregate at its flagship Southport clubhouse as well as its satellite campuses at Stratfield’s First Presbyterian Church and the two-year-old Smilow-Burroughs Clubhouse in the West End of Bridgeport. That clubhouse, supported by philanthropist Joel Smilow, has already served more than a thousand Bridgeport children.
Wakeman’s modern work impresses alumni who will assemble in October for the Hall of Fame ceremonies. Among them is Brian Murphy, a fifty-year veteran of Major League Baseball who spent the late 1950s riding his bike from St. Thomas School to play sports with his buddies at the Southport clubhouse. “It’s amazing what they do today from computers to homework club,” says Murphy, who quips that if he’d had the advantage of that extra help, “maybe my grades at Fairfield Prep would have been a little better.” Yet, he adds, “I did get pretty good at Ping-Pong and pool.”