Brien, Harold

Interviewer: Jean McMillen
Place of Interview: Scoville Library
Date of Interview:
File No: 75/87 Cycle:
Summary: Teacher at Sharon Center School, Special Education teacher at Housatonic Valley Regional High School, Salisbury Winter Sports Association, skiing

Interview Audio

Interview Transcript

Brien Interview:

This is file 75. This is Jean McMillen. I am interviewing Harold Brien from Prospect Mountain Road in Salisbury, Ct. Today’s date is May 23, 2014. We’ll start with the ordinary questions.

JM:Harold, what is your name?

HB:Harold J. Brien Jr.

JM:Your birthdate?

HB:Dec. 19, 1933

JM:And where were you born?

HB:Brooklyn, NY

JM:Your parents’ names?

HB:Harold and Genevieve Duffy Brien

JM:Do you or did you have siblings?

HB:One sister

JM:and she is deceased?


JM:Tell me about your educational background. Where did you get your Masters of Science?

HB:I went to Niagara University and got out in 1955. Then I took some classes at St. John’s University and Brooklyn for teaching. St. Joseph’s in West Hartford was for my Masters in Special Education. Then I took a 6th year program for Administration in Southern Connecticut University.

JM:How did you come to this area? Tell me the landlady story.

HB:Oh you mean the one…There were three strikes in a row in New York City and my landlady who happened to be a teacher came up to Falls Village to visit a friend. She couldn’t take the job for family reasons and so on. She told me about it. So I called up and made an appointment. We all drove up in my Volkswagen bus and went to Sharon. I didn’t know anything about the area at all. I had the interview.

JM:With whom?

HB:Tony Costa, as the interview wound down; he said, “When can you come?” I said, “How about Monday?”

JM:Perfect! What year was that?


JM:A year after I came. What did you teach at Sharon?

HB:The original job I had in Sharon was for 3rd grade. I did it for two years. Then I had worked in special Education in the city so I thought I could probably go back to that. So the first job I had in that was Language Development, I wasn’t a therapist, I sort of helped out.

JM:You have this wonderful story that I want you to tell.

HB:I traveled all around the school district which was very interesting. I got to meet all the principals and the teachers and kids. It was really a fun job. One thing that was really interesting was when I was working in Sharon, the speech therapist used to have a mirror on the wall so people could see themselves.

JM:To watch their tongue and teeth in language

HB:Right. These two little girls are sitting there. I am trying to get them engaged in something. They see themselves in the mirror and the y are looking and looking. One girl kept rubbing her head and I said, “What’s the matter?” She said, “I have a catholic.”

JM:I love that story. Now I think you were in Sharon about ten years, and then you went to the high school in 1978?

HB:Yeah, I was in Sharon and then I worked on that one job. Yes, I guess it was 1978 that I went to the high school.

JM:Who was the principal then?

HB:Ed Kirby

JM:Who was Kay McCann?

HB:She was the Supervisor of Special Education. The program was new and had just started I think the year before I got here (1967 Ed). Dr. Skelly was psychologist. He was a story in himself.

JM:Oh yes Clyde Skelly Oh yes! Every child had hidden potential. How about Carol McGuire, who was she?

HB:Carol McGuire was (I was sort of filling in in between) she was the speech therapist in the district many years before. I found out because one of her books was in the room and it had her name in it. It was her maiden name so I didn’t even know who it was. I used that book for my classes. She eventually became Supervisor. I met her while she was a supervisor in Canaan.

JM:How about Julia Segalla?



HB:Julia was sort of a coincidence when I first went to the high school. I shared a room with Julia Segalla. We had two groups; we got through it but it was a little hard.

JM:It is hard having 2 teachers in a room doing 2 different things. Do you have any good stories that you can remember from when you were doing Special Ed at the high school?

HB:I‘ve got a good one. There was this boy in my class, well there were two boys. In special Ed there are a lot of boys. One of the boys had a girlfriend. The other boy was jealous, and he had a thing about sex. He criticized this other guy; the other fellow used to go to study hall and he would cut class because he had a girlfriend. When she had a study hall, he would go to study hall to see her. He didn’t bother anybody. The first one says something of a sexual nature about this guy’s girlfriend. Well! We had a little altercation. What I did was… the assistant principal was Dick Alto. He wanted to see the boy; the two boys went down and I went with them. Naturally when a fight is going on, you want to accuse the one who started it so Dick started talking to the kids. He was criticizing the one guy for hitting the other. He started going after him, and I said, “Wait a minute. Let me explain what happened.” So I told the whole story. The first boy I knew him from grammar school when I had worked with his sister; he was astounded. “I don’t know how you did it; I was an office student. “ I said, “What’s an office student?” He said, “I was always in the office for doing something.” Anyhow we straightened that out. He was forever my friend. Many years later I was still traveling around the schools, and he happened to be with his friend to visit somebody in the school. It was lunchtime. “Hi Mr. Brien, how are you doing? Want a beer?” I said,” No I don’t think I had better have one right now.”

JM: But isn’t that great, when you make a relationship with a kid and then you see them later and they remember you in a positive way. That is an absolutely a wonderful thing.

HB:Oh yeah.

JM:I think you did some adult education courses later on?

HB:Yes, I did GED classes and then I liked art and I gave art lessons at the high school, mostly for beginning people. I wanted to get people to start and experiment and I loved that, too. That was fun. I did that, the two different things for about 10 years.

JM:You said you retired about 1995?


JM:Tell me about your art. How did you get interested in art?

HB: I always liked to draw. I had only one class in art in all my education. That was in high school, but it was mechanical drawing which helped me out quite a bit actually because I learned all about perspective and lines, elevations and all that. When I was still in the city, I did first oil painting. From



there I dabbled in it. I joined the Sheffield Art League when I came up here. I took lessons with Lois Van Clef.

JM:I have heard of her.

HB:She is in Sheffield on 7A.

JM:Over in Ashley Falls. I think Hope Mongeau took lessons with her, too.

HB:Yeah she was in my class. And I told her about…

JM:What medium do you use? Or do you use everything?

HB:I use everything. I tend to do pastels a lot.

JM:Alright tell me what is pastel? Is it chalk or watercolor?

HB:It’s chalk and it’s got pigment in it; it can be hard pastels or soft pastels. The way it usually works is use the hard pastel because you get sharper lines with it and it is good for drawing. Then you put the soft pastel over it and you can blend it.

JM:Does it smear?


JM:So you have to do a fixative to keep it.

HB:No, I don’t. Some people do; they’ll do some work and fixative and then do some more. But I don’t. I learned this trick from Lois. You take a piece of newsprint and put it over the work and then you take a cup or anything and just rub on the newsprint and it presses it down a little. It doesn’t make it permanent, but it sets it a bit.

JM:I used to take the kids out to do grave stone rubbing with charcoal.

HB:That’s sort of like pastel, it works like chalk.

JM:OK then we would use hair spray to fix it so it wouldn’t rub off all over the place.

HB:I would wait until I was all finished and then spray it.

JM:Are you in any other art leagues or art associations?

HB:Yes, we have a new one in Canaan in the Congregational Church. They let us use their room for once a week on Wednesday. It is an informal group; you can do whatever. It is really interesting because we have one lady actually brought in a small sewing machine and she was doing quilting. Another one had a cross stitch thing, but most of us do painting of some sort. That’s been really fun;


there is no instruction. We work together and help one another out. We have shows; we are going to have a show next month. I enjoy that. It is really fun because usually when I was teaching and throughout my career it was mostly working with women, I’m not a sexist, but there is one other guy in the class.

JM:But generally there are more women teachers in elementary school.

HB:Yeah, and he’s a lot of fun. He actually studied art in college.

JM: It wouldn’t be John Pirnak would it?

HB:No it is Ned Gow. Do you know him? He is a real nice guy. He is very active in that church, the Congo Church in Canaan. He does everything for everybody.

JM:Obviously you have been in art shows.

HB:Yeah, one of the first art shows I was in it was at the Sharon Woman’s Club. I got “Best in Show”.

JM: How about the 14th Colony- is that a new group?

HB:I am in that; it is sort of informal. You don’t have to know…They are very organized, but they don’t have dues or anything. I do participate in that. I haven’t done much with it, but that is another one that is very interesting. That is another one that has all different types of art, sculpture.

JM:Then you must know Joan Palmer from the Sheffield Art league?

HB:Sure, she and I had a show at the Academy Building.

JM:I just got a notice of her next show with John Pirnak. I went to the one at the Sharon Historical Society where she was showing with others in Sharon last year in January. She had art training. She went down to New Haven and had some formal training.

HB:She does beautiful work.

JM:Oh yeah but everybody that is an artist has their own gift and that is something that I can appreciate; I can’t do, but I can appreciate it. Now the art classes that you taught were at the high school for adults, weren’t they?


JM:Have you ever taught children art or did you include that with Special Ed.?

HB:We worked with that in some way. When I was teaching Special Ed. in North Canaan, I used art in relation to writing and have the kids write stories and illustrate them. We had this one girl who was, I used to say the poor thing in her family. She was way down in the pecking order, one step above the


\family dog in the way she was treated. She was great in art. I said to her, “Why don’t we do something about people?” “What do you mean, people?” “Let’s try something.” She started making just statements about people like– People are kind or whatever-whatever she wanted. I got her writing which she normally wouldn’t do; then we put all this information and all the other kids into a book. We had her art work on the cover of the book. She was proud of that. The other thing I made up a thing with Chinese cooking.

JM: I remember because it was your wife that got me into Chinese cooking.

HB:We did the whole thing, Chinese New Year, we made decorations, and we made a dragon. The principal asked me to do a bulletin board and decorate it. It was my turn, I came up with the idea and I called it an ”Imaginarium”. So that way it was what the kids thought up; it wasn’t something that I did. They made sea creatures; some of them we staples to the back and others we suspended from string so they moved with the wind. The principal liked it so much; he wanted me to leave it up for the rest of the year. It was right in the main part of the building when you come in. They are called special kids so I was making something special with them that they could do.

JM:They are special; they all have gifts, and if you can just tap into that gift that they have, and forget all the other stuff, it is wonderful for their self- esteem. They are proud of themselves; this is something that I can do. That is so important. I didn’t have the formal training that you did, but I had Special Ed. kids for 22 years out of the 24 I taught. In a different way this is what I tried to do with the kids to show that they that they were worthy, and that yes, they were different, but that they were different in a good way. That is what Special Ed. meant to me, anyway.

I think that you mentioned something about SWSA. Let’s start with the ski swaps.

HB:Every year SWSA (Salisbury Winter Sports Association) had a ski swap, and they held it in the Grove building in Lakeville. People could bring their skis & equipment etc. because kids grow out of stuff. It was very inexpensive as you didn’t have to pay anything. The Gallup family, Dr. Gallup’s family, the age wise was about the same as mine so we got their equipment. It was really good. Their skis were regular skis and we were doing cross country. Those skis are narrower. I spoke to this man, Birger Torrensen and he said, “I’ll cut them down.” OK, I didn’t know what he meant but he did it. He cut off an inch off each side and then you had a narrower ski. First we had leather bindings, then eventually we got kicks bindings. We used those for the whole family. My wife didn’t ski, but she was there. She was giving out oranges. That’s how we got started in that. I worked on the ski jumps as a marker.

JM:Now this is at Satre Hill? What does a marker do?

HB:Yeah, they are obsolete now because they have technical equipment. We used bamboo poles and there would be three guys, or maybe 20 guys standing on the slope on the side. You had to mark where the people’s feet hit; not where the tail or the tip of the skis, so you really had to concentrate. The reason they used three people to mark it was that among the 3 you could be pretty accurate. So


you actually put the poles down and they would intersect and that was where the mark was. That was fun but it was awful cold! You just stood there for hours. You were right in the middle of the action.

JM:Now I am assuming because you had to mark where their feet landed, this was to judge the distance that they had jumped.

HB:That’s exactly right.

JM:Did you ever work up on Selleck Hill or cross country ski there.

HBYes, we used to go up there a lot. That was fun. Just talking about Maureen, she is smart. She got orange watch caps for all of us, Bridget, Joe and Kevin, and me. Then you could always see them. We were in a race, and daddy was so slow that the kids would stop and wait for me. They wouldn’t say anything, but they were watching. We were in a race, but we were so slow that they sent somebody else out looking for us. The best part of that was at the end of the race, I got first prize. It went by age group, and I was the only one in that age group.

JM:Do you still ski or have you given it up?

HB:I have the skis and stuff but I haven’t done it in a few years. I am always thinking of doing it. It is fun; you can go out in your backyard which I have done. You make a track and then go around.

JM:Do the boys ski?

HB:Kevin got really into it. He got into downhill skiing, too. There was a guy that lived on our road who worked at Mohawk. So whenever there was a snow day, he’d take Kevin over and he would ski over there for free. Someone was telling me, “I saw your son; he’s pretty good. Yeah he skis without any poles.”

JM:That is scary!

HB:What was fun too when we went on trips; we went to Rosendale, NY and Mt. Snow. It was the year when we had no snow, but it was cold. The lake froze over; we went out skiing on the lake because there was just 4 inches of snow. We started driving up to Mt. Snow, no snow all the way. We got into the car with the kids and all; we had just about given up and all of a sudden we see snow. It was a little bit higher. When we got there the snow was perfect. We had fun and there were some rustic things when you are doing that. There wasn’t a regular ladies room, just a partition out in the woods.

JM:Been there done that, understand. I would think with cross country skiing there would have to be snow in a wide area, whereas if you are doing downhill, they can just pile it all in one spot.

HB:Yeah it is always natural snow.

JM:So you really have to have a wide area of snow for cross country skiing.


HB:What they usually do is once somebody goes to make tracks, once the first one goes; they are huffing and puffing because you have to break the trail. You follow and gradually it makes a nice track.

JM:Does it get icy?

HB: I remember one time, you were talking about a nice open area; it was up on Selleck Hill and was a gentle slope. I look for the gentle slopes. It was sunny but it was cold. It looked like virgin snow, beautiful. So I go over and it is not virgin snow but it’s got ice crystals on the top. Cross country skis don’t work on ice so I was sliding around. I finally fell down. That is the one thing with cross country skiing, if all else fails, just plop down. At least you will stop.

JM:If I did ski, it would be cross country; down-hill scares me. We had people in the area who were in the Olympic and they did down-hill like Roy Sherwood and there are others.

HB:Yeah Rick Parsons, he was big in that.

JM:is there anything else that you would like to add to this or that we haven’t talked about?

HB:Oh yeah with the skiing too. Bam and Audrey (Whitbeck Ed.) were very active. They were helpful and arranged a lot of the stuff, mainly Audrey. They stood up there in the snow and freezing but encouraging. She arranged the trips and all that stuff. We decided we were going up the mountain (Mt. Riga Ed.) There is a logging trail. We went up there we got there around 1:00 P.M. We had permission to sit on somebody’s porch up on Mt. Riga. We sat there and ate our lunch and it was glorious. So we did that once. That was great. Another time Bob Smithwick and Joe Pinkham were in the scouts and my kids were in the scouts. We all went up to Spaulding McCabe’s cabin, right on the top of Mt. Riga. There was a village up there. It was a log cabin; you know the chinks between the logs, a few leaks in that; freezing. We had a fire in the fireplace, but it didn’t make any difference. We had sleeping bags. I thought I was going to die of the cold. We got through it. The kids were out skiing all over the place; then we skied back down. Coming down Mt. Riga Road you can really get going because it gets packed down and slippery. One spot I don’t even like driving on it, like a curve in the road, I knew I was going to get to that. You know how you project the worst; I got to that spot and of course I fell down. It was good because it stopped me; I was really going. I made it all the way home. That was fun.

JM:I’ll bet. Well, I thank you so much for the interview, Harold. This has been fun.

HB:I enjoyed it too.