Gafney, Leo

Interviewer: Jean McMillen
Place of Interview: Scoville Library
Date of Interview:
File No: 1 Cycle: 4
Summary: Mt. Mary’s Church, Never Stop Praying, Syrian family, Salisbury Housing Trust, Salisbury Central School Board, Peer Learning

Interview Audio

Interview Transcript

Leo Gafney Interview

This is file #1, cycle 4. Today’s date is October 31, 2018. This is Jean McMillen. I am interviewing Leo Gafney who is going to talk about St. Mary’s Church, the Syrian immigrant family that live in the area, the Salisbury Housing Trust, the school board, and anything else he wants to talk about. But first we are going to start with the really difficult stuff.

JM:What is your name?

LG:Leo Gafney

JM:How did you come to the area?

LG:It was some years ago before we were married Judy and I looked at the area and then purchased a home as a vacation home. Then there were some changes and an opportunity came to work from home so we moved up full time in 1988. That was the time we started a family.

JM:Didn’t you say you had come up to a conference at the Interlaken?

LG:That’s right. I worked for McGraw-Hill at the time. We had several middle management conferences at the Interlaken so that is how I became familiar with the area. We bought the house in 1984 and moved here full time in 1988.

JM:We are going to start with St. Mary’s Church. Explain to me the difference between St. Mary’s and St. Martin of Tours, please.

LG:Within the last year or two there has been reorganization in the Hartford Archdiocese. Some churches were put together under a new parish. That is what happened here. St. Martin of Tours is the parish with three churches within it: St. Mary’s in Lakeville, St. Joseph in Canaan, and Immaculate Conception in Norfolk.

JM:You have a new priest.

LG:We have anew priest who just came a few months ago Father David Dawson.

JM:What is RCIA, please?

LG:The RCIA is the Right of Christian Initiation for adults which I directed off and on for about20 years. I say off and on because some years we had adults who wanted to enter the Catholic Church, and some years there weren’t. I was a Jesuit priest so I had background in theology and spirituality. Father O’Brien who was the pastor when we first moved up asked me to do that. I enjoyed that. Also for 8 years or so Judy and I directed the Religious Education Program for children.

JM:Catechism, when you were doing it, was it at St. Mary’s on Wednesday afternoons after school? Or was it another day and time?



LG:This program was on Sunday between the two masses. In those days we had Mass at 8:00 and another one at 10:15. The children’s religious education was between masses.

JM:Were you on the parish council?

LG: Reaching back, no I was not on the Parish Council, but I was on the planning committee for the church hall renovation and also on a committee for parish renewal. Stewardship it was called. I was on a committee to coordinate the development or starting of the new parish which met quite frequently during the 6 months or so of Father Ian’s term. He was first pastor of the three churches in the new parish St. Martin of tours. He left a few months ago to become a Benedictine monk in New Mexico at the Abbey of Christ in the Desert.

JM:Did Father Kurnath (See file #7, cycle 3, Father Joseph Kurnath) come between Father O’Brien and Father Ian?

LG:No after Father O’Brien was Father Kelly who was here for about 5 years. Then Father Kurnath was here for about 10 years. Then Father Iain Highet for about a year to a year and one half, and now we have Father David Dawson in 2018.

JM:How did St. Mary’s get involved with the Syrian family resettlement?

LG:in the spring of 2016 Shawn White, a parishioner an d a friend of mine, was looking for an opportunity with the Syrian and other immigrants coming into the country, refugees, for a group at the parish, initially from the parish, to do something. Looking around he then came in contact with a group called IRIS which is sponsored by the Episcopal Church. IRIS stands for International Refugee Immigrant Services. He and I went down there for a couple of hours in the early spring. We learned about it. They have a very workable model which includes a number of areas: housing, transportation, English, work, medicine and so on. It seemed very workable. They were a little wary about sponsoring us because of the distance. Most of their co-sponsors groups are in New Haven or close to it. They finally agreed.

We brought a group of 8 or 10 down for a full day of training later that spring or early summer. In that they explained this model. We moved along with that. We were very fortunate to have a house offered at a very good rent possibility. We told them that it was a good sized house. We were told about the family. When they came there were the parents and 6 children and one on the way. There was some discussion, wondering whether we were up to that large a family. We decided that we would do it. When they told us about the family, by their model and planning, we had 48 hours to let them know if we were agreeable to it. So we were.

The family arrived on August 20, 2016. They were taken to the house. They did not realize where they would live. It was very nicely furnished by the Episcopal Church in Lime Rock. Heide Truax (See file # 12, cycle 3, Rev. Heidi Truax) got a group together to furnish the house. They were ready to start. Wendy Hamilton, a local person, provided the house as a very reasonable rent. The areas we were concerned about were English as a second language, as the family spoke no English.



They had been in Jordan for about 1-2 years. They had left Aleppo before that. Having been about an hour away, the father wanted to go back after the bombing of the city. They were told that bombing had taken place near where they had lived. When the father went back, their house had been destroyed. After being in Jordan with all of the vetting they came to the top of the list. When the father Mahmud was told they were going to the United States, he thought it was some kind of a joke. They were very pleased to be here and settled in very nicely. ESL (English as a Second Language) worked very well for the children especially. (See file #11, cycle 3 Father David Sellery) The elementary school gave them extra help in ESL and tutoring. The children have made friends. They have been here more than 2 years.

Medical was another area that they needed shots and physicals and all of that. The mother was well along in her pregnancy. She delivered in November of 2016 making the seventh Mia, who is their little American, native born child. They all seemed to be healthy. The oldest girl had Lyme disease, but other than that and a few little things, they have done well.

Meanwhile I had volunteered for cover the transportation which was one of the areas. It was a big job: I did not do it all myself. I had a team of people willing to call on, but it gave me a good opportunity to meet them. I worked with Mahmud in driving. He had been driving for 15 or 20 years in Syria, but he had to learn enough English to pass the test. He failed it a number of times, and then passes it. A couple of very generous donors through the parish and Father Iain made it possible for them to buy a van. That gave them a kind of freedom that they needed for shopping, going to the lake, and so on.

Their green card came October, 2017. That was a bit of a celebration for their permanent green cards. Mahmud worked initially at a restaurant and then went to the Harney & Sons Fine Tea Company, a local tea company. (See file # 58, cycle 2, Michael Harney) They have been very good to him and he is a hard worker and gets good reviews from them. He is still there. There was another worker, Joe Mulligan, who lived practically across the street who drove him to work until he got his license. Now he drives himself.

Family Services have been very helpful with other funding, and emergency situations like big bills at the dentist and getting food stamps which are very helpful. Patrice McGrath (See file # 97, Patrice McGrath) the local social worker has been very helpful.

We have had a Lebanese speaker who has been both friend and interpreter along the way. Several people have helped including Mia Chase who lives in Kent and Zeina Mehio who lives nearby.

IRIS sponsored us, not legally, but with a signed agreement for a year. We have been gradually trying to have the family be more self-supporting and I think it is going well.

JM:Are there plans in the parish to sponsor another immigrant family?



LG:We have talked about it. It is far more than a parish can handle. It started with the parish but it took a few from St. Mary’s and a few energetic people form the Congregational Church. They have been generous with funding at certain times when it was needed. There was a supper to benefit them last year. They cooked Syrian food and it was held at the Congregational Church in the fall. At the end of that supper, and later at a recent supper at their house, the kids ended in singing “God Bless America”. There were a lot of people involved with the project. It is Salisbury community more that St. Mary’s. We do not have any on-going plans for another family.

JM:You have been very successful with this one which is an accolade.

LG:Thank you. We feel good about it. It certainly works both ways. It has been very rewarding. The kids and parents are doing well. The children have been in school plays and do participate in sports, soccer and basketball.

JM:Thank you very much for that. Now I would like to go on the Salisbury Housing Trust. Who started it?

LG:The Housing Trust was initiated by something called the Salisbury Forum in the year 2000. It was a discussion about the needs of the community and housing rose to the top as a very significant need. There were 7 or 8 people were interested and a leader among them was Richard Dunham (See file # 81, Inge Dunham). They formed the Housing Trust and a few years later it was incorporated as a 5013C. fund raising began. I joined in 2004 and have been on the board ever since and have been the chair for about 10 years. We have always been working at raising money, looking for sites or houses to renovate and applicants.

JM:What was the purpose of the Housing Trust?

LG:The purpose was to provide homes for people who could not afford homes in the area. Either through family history or work some people were hard up. They also had houses that would be deed restricted which is important to the state and the town. Going forward it is not just a low cost house, but one that will remain that way. We signed an agreement or contract with the owners that restrict the sale price to the Consumer Price Index over time. The housing trust retains ownership of the land: people own the house. They can do what they want with it as with any other home owner, but they need approval from the housing trust for any substantial renovations that might add value to the house. We now have 13 homes occupied and one more that is close to completion.

JM:How many locations do you have?

LG:We are at 5 locations. Dunham Drive off Route 44 has 8 houses: four renovations of older homes and 4 modular houses which were new when they were built. Indian Cave has a duplex modular home. Indian Mountain road has a home. Lincoln City Road has a home above the school. There is also one on route 41 up from the White Hart across from the Salisbury Cemetery.

JM:How are you funded?5.

LG:It is almost all private donations. We have two small grants from the town to cover certain situations and the rest was raised.

JM:You don’t get anything from Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation?

LG:No some money comes from family foundations that are under the umbrella of the BTCF.

JM:There are three basic areas: funding, housing and purchasing land, and applicants.

LG:Yes that is right.

JM:Who is eligible?

LG:We look primarily for people who live and /or work in the Salisbury area of a lower income. We follow more or less the HUD guidelines, but since we don’t take public money, we can show some flexibility. It is always people who can’t quite manage a mortgage without help. Very often there is a significant difference, especially now when mortgages are very tight. Perhaps you could afford a mortgage at $90,000 but not at $120,000 so we either lower the mortgage by subsidizing the house or we fix up the house as needed- such as repairs or adding a bathroom.

JM:Do you have a list of applicants?

LG:We have very few who are waiting. It is moving more slowly I would have imagined. We thought people would see that as an opportunity, but it seems that a lot of people don’t quite see themselves as home owners. Or we have not gotten the word out quite enough. We have had enough and we have always had some. When we have homes, or land on which we can build, we get applicants much more readily. We are hoping that the town’s acquisition of the Pope property which is quite a few acres, a portion of that will be dedicated to the housing trust. Then we will get more applicants. We are looking at houses that we might renovate; we can’t afford to buy them without an applicant. We need to have a house that they like, if they are buying the house. If we can afford it, but we might have to fix it up a bit. We must also get down to the right price. There are a lot of variables in it. It takes a lot of juggling

If we have land and can build a house, not exactly to specifications, but within the range of an applicant, it works much easier.

JM:Your modular homes are less expensive to build than a stick built house.

LG:By a lot.

JM:Is there a screening process for the applicants?

LG:Oh yeah, we check their finances, we interview them, and we have references and so on. It is pretty standard.



JM:If they purchase the house, live in it for a while, and then decide to sell it, do they have to give you first refusal?

LG:Yes. They must give us first refusal and we have to approve the new applicant for that house. The new applicant has to fit the needs of the affordable housing project. It could not be sold as a weekend home.

JM:Let’s back track to the Salisbury Central School board. You were on the school board when?

LG:I was on the board from 1992 to 2003. 12 years and I was chair for 6.

JM:How did you get on the school board, were you asked or did you volunteer?

LG:I had a background in education. I was a school principal a long time ago and a teacher so as I got to know people, I was asked. I did not really volunteer.

JM:Over the period of time that you were on the board, what were some of the changes?

LG:Just before I went on the board, they had done a major new (addition ED.) and renovation. (See file # 114 A & B, Gordon Johnson)

JM:That was the renovation of the lower building.

LG;Yes. That provided for a separation of the middle school and gave that a little more identity there. The K-8 was very beneficial to kids; there has been a lot of movement toward the middle school concept. We still had changes. They went to individual classes for the middle school, self- contained in the lower grades. The board does oversite and policy decisions. The administration is up to the principal. The main thing was to approve and support the decisions made by the administration, provide the budget, and work with the finance committee. They were always very good; they did not tell us what to do educationally, but some years they would say you are going to have to lower the budget by such a percent. We never argued. We would then decide where to make the cuts.

JM:Did you have a principal search while you were on the board?

LG:Yeah we had one. After Thomas Bradley left, we did a search for a new principal. (Thomas Bradley retired after 20 years in 1999. C. Zbynek Gold 1999-2002 followed. Ed.) It was led by the superintendent, but there were board members and community members on the search.

JM:You said that when you were on the board the negotiations split up into individual towns.

LG:We have 6 towns in our region which all feed into the regional high school. The region takes care of special education for the whole district. Each town takes care of its own elementary school. It works quite well. Renegotiations occur 2, 3, or 4 years apart depending on the previous agreement for contacts. It got quite prolonged and a little bit tense one year. One of the district schools settled on their own. Then they all did. It has been separate schools ever since. (When I came to the district in 1967, all


the region- 6 elementary schools and the high school negotiated as one contract. Ed.) It is a bit of extra burden, but that is the way it has been.

JM:Were there any controversies over curriculum changes?

LG:I don’t remember any big ones. I do remember an issue over Spanish. Everything was polite we had a good board meeting: a few parents came in and spoke about wanting more language. That is the way it ended up. Now there is a little bit of Spanish in some of the lower grades. I am not sure when it starts. We did have a major curriculum change because math became something controversial. We hired a retired superintendent from Farmington, an outstanding district. He led a “participatory evaluation”. There were only about 6 meetings, but it was what happened between the meetings that made the difference and the way he led it. We broke up into committees and we outlined 30 or 40 questions and then broke that into different categories. Next we went out and did our homework. Some of which was what are the better school districts doing with regard to math. What about remediation and materials. One thing we discovered was the better school districts which were more successful in math were spending an hour on math, and we were not. Time is very important. Educators say,” Time on task”. It is fairly obvious that if the kids spent more time they would do better. That made a big improvement.

JM:Do you have a math specialist, or someone who teaches math at the different levels? Or does every class do their own thing?

LG:In the middle school level it is one person who is better qualitied and certified in math. At the lower levels certification is not required by subject so the homeroom teacher teaches all the subjects. There is some question about that. A lot of elementary school teachers for whatever reason are not crazy about math. They are good in English, and they would rather do that. I think there are still issues to resolve.

One thing I was very happy to see was how well the Syrian children are learning phonics so they are still teaching it at Salisbury. It looks to me it is being done very well.

JM:You wrote several books. Some of them were written from your career and some of them relating to your religion. Would you talk a little bit about them? Let’s start with “Never Stop Praying”.

LG:The most recent one “Never Stop Praying” grew in part from my work with the RCIA. I had also been active with the men’s Bible study group which is interdenominational and interfaith. It meets at the Congregational Church. It is mostly members of the Congregational Church; we have been meeting for years. Every time we talk about how long we have been meeting, no one seems to know. It is certainly more than 20, probably closer to 25 years. I wasn’t in at the beginning, but I have been active on it. My own life has also been a factor. This book fits in with the current interest in meditation and mindfulness. It renews age-old practices with in the church. The publisher came up with the title; I didn’t. The subtitle is “Meaning Retreats” and I think that is apt. The first situation or incident is Accept


or Acceptance. Perhaps it is a bit counter-cultural, but the saints and mystics always seem to come up with this as the most important thin-accepting God into their own lives: accepting what comes into our lives. We don’t have to gout and prove something every day. Maybe the hardest thing is accepting ourselves. That is that book and it is selling pretty well. I was speaking with some people who are active in a Catholic college, and they are hoping to use it for student discussions.

JM:Wonderful, a teaching tool. You did a second book on peer leadership?

LG:Yeah, that goes back about 10 years. I have been working for about 30 years as an educational evaluator. There are grants always require an external evaluator. One project I worked on for a number of years in science and math was peer led learning. It is a small group led by a student who has taken a course before that. He is guiding in-house a small group. It is more complicated than it sounds. The leaders have to train, they need special material, and the instructor really has to be involved if this is going to work well. We developed a model of 6 critical components, or success factors. I got a small gran to write the book, what you would call a professional book. It is published by Springer.

JM:What are the 6 critical components?

LG:The organizational arrangement, which means the size of the group, the location, and the time. That is all one. I used to do site visits and whenever things were not working right, it was because one of these components was missing. That the professor be involved sounds obvious, but there were places where the professor teaching a course would turn it over to somebody else. Materials are critical; they must fit with the course for small group learning. The students must have a connection with the course that too is critical. There are places where they are doing enrichment things which did not help the students in their tests.

JM:That gives a very good summary. Is there anything else that you would like to add to this interview before we close?

LG:No thank you. You are doing a good job. I think some oral record of the town is very helpful. By and large we have very good town government. On the school board and other boards I have served on, in town issues things rarely broke down through political lines. This might be important to mention at this time. Town issues, budgets, policies it was always just what was best for the community.

JM:It didn’t make any difference: it was for the betterment of the community.

LG:That’s right.

JM:Thank you so much.