Former City Councilman and mayoral candidate Keith Rodgerson’s family history connects to a rarity in American politics. His grandfather William Rodgerson worked for the administration of Socialist Jasper McLevy who stood on street corners for 20 years assailing the corruption in the two major parties until the timing was right that the people would elect him mayor. And they kept him there from 1933-57, the longest serving mayor in city history. Who lives to be 99? We should all be so fortunate. Keith Rodgerson, a fierce political competitor, shares this poignant essay about his grandfather who passed away Thursday. Calling hours Monday from 4 to 8 p.m. at The Abriola Parkview Funeral Home, 419 White Plains Road, Trumbull.
My grandfather William Rodgerson lived in Bridgeport for all of his 99 years. He grew up in Whiskey Hill as a handsome, wiry kid doing odd errands and running rum down to Dutch Schultz and other “entrepreneurs” enjoying the hospitable climate Bridgeport had to offer during prohibition. He was the first in his family to attend college, graduating from Brown and returning to his hometown to serve as a civil engineer in the administration of Jasper McLevy–another earnest, self-made, pennywise Scot and quintessentially Bridgeport ‘character.’ Jasper was the subject of many of my grandfather’s stories. He was a mayor who ushered in a period of reform, meritocracy and honesty that was ultimately his undoing via the Wheeler Mansion debacle. It is a legacy of honesty and reform that has been thoroughly routed by his successors. As such, Jasper is the namesake of my only child and William’s one of his many, many grandchildren.
William (or ‘Vinny,’ or ‘Vin,’ as he was known) retired as head of the city’s redevelopment agency in the early ’80s with decades worth of stories and experiences seeing Connecticut’s largest city through generations of urban renewal and political upheaval. His Mandanici political campaign stories alone kept me enthralled as a young adult interested in the world of local politics. He ingrained in me a lifelong interest in real estate development and that political, all-too-human sphere that manipulates the built environment around us. He continued to maintain various small businesses including a Wood Avenue auto body founded with his brother Cliff that my father continues to this day despite the massive urban decay surrounding it.
Grandpa Rodgerson seemed alternately disappointed and enthralled when I came to Bridgeport after Harvard and became a City Councilman. Likewise as I left my two-term City Councilship, unsuccessfully pursued the mayoralty, and accepted a project management position under the new Finch economic development administration he maintained cautious and concerned engagement. He offered advice whether or not I wanted it and I never fully took advantage of it. He knew Mayor Elect Bill Finch, its second in a line of accidental mayors, as unimpressive and aloof. We both were hopeful that the city we held dear would improve under such a disinterested figure. There were still a lot of smart and seasoned functionaries in economic development like Mike Nidoh, Bill Coleman and Edward Lavernoich and neither of us foresaw the merry-go-round of directors, purge of personnel, and tone-deaf focus on things that didn’t actually benefit Bridgeporters viscerally (excepting downtown) that were to come.
He told me about the good (like Dottie and John Guman Sr.), the bad, the ugly, and the many mediocre whose names I’ll forego mentioning always with a generosity I never could master or muster. We spoke at length about the projects I was working on (no matter how inane), the projects he had worked on, and our collective disillusionment with the direction the city was continually headed. We had less to speak of as the things I worked on had less to do with critical infrastructure, or critical anything for that matter. Our conversations as they became more rife with complaint became ever more curt.
By 2014 I came to the conclusion that working underneath layers of patronage-evolved management and supplanting the folly of this management’s youthful inexperience and indiscretion wasn’t benefiting anyone, most especially in the neighborhoods or myself. It seems like, as many did before me, a decade passed in an instant, 5% of anything worthwhile I attempted had stuck, and the other 95% just evaporated into the ether. I was one in a long line of people burnt out in trying to steer a ship that was continually sinking.
Work in the Finch administration resembled a Kafka novel and those novels have never made for great small talk. Sometimes when one is engulfed by byzantine layers of management it’s hard to smell the smoke or get to hear Nero’s lute as Rome begins to burn (as if not to toss in the mix multiple literary metaphors here). My grandfather and I found ourselves less and less able to bridge those multi-generational gaps between us talking about brownfields, infrastructure, construction, planning and practical politics. We could talk about critical things that needed to be done but less about critical things being done. I resolved myself to leave and work in other communities and with a higher caliber of person and project. I left behind the position, the city and most importantly this central aspect of my last grandpaternal relationship.
It is impossible to foresee the future but we all can revisit decisions we’ve made with information now on hand and try to imagine them recast otherwise. I find myself like many doing this as the new year turns. As many, I regret some of the decisions I have made in life and pride myself in others. I truly believed in 2007 that the unimpressive and unwilling candidate of Bill Finch, with my help, was a better bet than what I knew to be of his competitors. I regret now not giving Chris Caruso my slot in that 2007 general election. I can’t help but think that maybe with the knowledge I have now that if I had done so maybe I would not have lost that connection with my grandfather. Maybe my birthplace and my grandfather’s labors wouldn’t be so rapidly capitulating to decay and decline. Maybe those years spent with my grandfather talking about Bridgeport would have been more hopeful and less critical.
This morning he followed that bright light that his wife Ellen and son Mark were called to follow before him. While I regret the last two years I find it hard to imagine a new one without his presence. I hope he is in a better place than the Bridgeport in which he stubbornly spent the last century.
I hope it is better place … and at least as lively and entertaining.
May he rest in peace, and may this new year be a hopeful one for the city he so dearly loved.