Civic Giant Leaves Loving Legacy in Arts Circles

February 15, 2002
Reprinted with permission from The New Haven Register, February 15, 2002, by Angela Carter

More than a half century of impassioned civic service came to an end Thursday when local arts legend Charles N. "Newt" Schenck III died on Valentines Day.

His love of family, philanthropy and the Elm City was evident in a pre-planned but final gesture to his wife, Anne, and five daughters.

"At 9:30 this morning, someone who used to care for dad brought flowers. We had this gift of love from dad even after he died," said Schenck’s daughter, Susan Schenck Izard.

"We feel dad waited until today. He wanted to be our Valentine," she said. "What I loved most about dad was his wisdom and sense of counsel, not just for us, but other people, too."

Schenck, 79, died at Yale-New Haven Hospital after a long illness. He was born in Englewood, N.J., and moved to New Haven with his wife in 1953.

He joined the Wiggin & Dana law firm that year as an associate and became a partner in 1957.

Friends and colleagues fondly recalled a wide array of arts and development projects he championed: the founding of Long Wharf Theatre; creation of the Audubon Arts Center over a span of 25 years; organization of the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam; and the restoration of the Shubert Performing Arts Center.

"He was a master builder. He didn’t just build structures, he built relationships," said Frances T. "Bitsie" Clark, executive director of the Arts Council of Greater New Haven. "He was in the saddle right up to the very end."

Robert Cavanagh, a Wiggin & Dana partner, said Schenck was "a total advocate" for every client and an avid squash and tennis player outside the office. He also strummed the mandolin and ukulele.

"This is the end of an era," said Maryann Ott, senior program associate for the Connecticut Commission on the Arts.

Ott was collaborating up until recent weeks with Schenck on developing artist housing. She said his spirit would live on in the hundreds of people he mentored.

"We don’t even know what our community would be like if this man didn’t live among us. Anything good that has evolved in New Haven in the last 50 years has Newt’s thumbprint on it," Ott said.

Mayor John DeStefano Jr. described Schenck as a gentleman "who was comfortable in his own shoes" and found a way to impact public interests without being an elected official.

"His biggest contribution was not a particular project," DeStefano said. "It was the model of the connection between one’s own private and public life."

During the administration of former Mayor Richard C. Lee, Schenck sat for three years as chairman of the Housing Authority starting in 1962, and later served four years as Board of Education chairman.

"Rarely does a man enter another man’s life and become so important, not just as a friend, but as an able and dedicated ally in the conduct of public affairs," Lee said. He created, with help from kindred souls, the whole arts movement."

The Greater New Haven Chamber of Commerce last year gave Schenck its Community Leadership Award for the second time and coordinated production of a video chronicling his life. "He was just a wonderful individual who gave of himself without looking for anything in return," said chamber President Anthony Rescigno.

The Association of Yale Alumni in 2000 presented in 1944 graduate with its highest honor, the Yale Medal.

After 25 years as chairman of the Long Wharf Theatre’s board of directors, the venue’s Mainstage was named after Schenck, also its founding chairman and chairman emeritus.

"He was the calm force that made things happen," said Managing Director Michael Ross.

Barbara Pearce, theater chairwoman, said Schenck was strong, competent and caring. He raised $100,000 for Long Wharf while lying in a hospital bed, she said.

"Newt is one of the few people I would describe as peerless. There was nobody like him. There never will be anybody like him."

Thursday night’s performances at the theater were dedicated to Schenck, Pearce said. "He would want nothing more than for us to carry on. That’s so Newt," she said.

As chairman of the Committee of Proprietors of the New Haven Green, Schenck also pushed for the formation of the Town Green Special Services District.

Some of his other civic endeavors included Yale-New Haven Hospital Health Services Corp. chairman, Connecticut United Way chairman, The New Haven Colony Historical Society secretary, and Friends of the New Haven Free Public Library.

"He really stood as an example to all of us about what it means to contribute to the community and that’s what the foundation is all about," said William Ginsberg, president and CEO of the Community Foundation of Greater New Haven, where Schenck served as Development Committee chairman.

While serving in the Army during World War II, Schenck was captured as a prisoner of war in the Battle of the Bulge. He also fought in 1952 during the Korean War.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Feb. 26 at Church of the Redeemer, 185 Cold Spring St.

"Peace, my dear friend, Newt. New Haven, I’m sure, joins in mourning your passing," Lee said.