The old Town Hall then and now.
The old Town Hall then and now.

By Thane Grauel

WESTPORT — Eighty years ago today, a young artist who’d recently moved to Westport saw a painting of his published as the cover of the Saturday Evening Post.

Stevan Donahos’ “Honor Roll” is an oil painting depicting a public works employee in front of the old cobblestone Town Hall adding a name to the wooden tribute to those lost in World War II.

It was his first work of art bought by the nationwide publication. It became an iconic image appreciated across the nation — the issue sold some 3.9 million copies — and was treasured in Westport, which was a much smaller town back then. Extra copies sent to town were not enough to meet demand, according to a newspaper account at the time.

Dohanos would go on to illustrate more than 125 covers for the Saturday Evening Post, his son, Anthony, told the Westport Journal. Several featured scenes around town, including the Staples High School band, firehouses, scenes from downtown and just everyday life.

Anthony Dohanos said all those in the paintings were real Westporters. His dad featured Anthony is some of them.

“He used people in Westport,” he said of the models. “Every one of the people in his Saturday Evening Post covers is a real person from Westport. He once said he painted something like 789 actual Westport residents in his paintings.”

Anthony Dohanos, who’s active on Facebook, said that when he posts his father’s work, “people say, ‘Oh, that’s my grandfather, that’s my father. That’s my uncle.’ ”

“And I’m sure the guy in the Honor Roll is an actual guy,” Dohanos said. “I don’t know who it is, but all those names are real names.”

The honor roll includes names of well-known Westport families. But Dohanos regretted at the time all could not be shown for graphical reasons.

The Saturday Evening Post was for many across the country a prime source of news. The magazine peaked at over a million subscribers. It also provided commentary, cartoons, fiction and iconic covers illustrated by Dohanos and his idol growing up, Norman Rockwell.

“If you lived out in the middle of Iowa or something, you couldn’t wait to get your next Saturday Evening Post,” Anthony Dohanos said. “He did 125 of those covers, and a good portion of them are directly related to Westport.”

"Honor Roll" hanging in a Town Hall meeting room. / Photo by Thane Grauel
“Honor Roll” hanging in a Town Hall meeting room. / Photo by Thane Grauel

One painting of the Staples High School marching band ran in the late ’40s.

“You can tell it’s a football game by the reflection in the tuba,” Dohanos said. “He was really clever with the way he composed artwork.”

Anthony said his dad was a good dad, very generous, but also very busy, with “lots of irons in the fire.”

“I guess I didn’t see him as much as I would have liked,” he said. “That’s how it goes. He was kind of a victim of his own success.”

In 1943, the Saturday Evening Post sold at newsstands for a dime, which that year also could buy you a pound of apples or a loaf of sandwich bread. It was more than enough to buy a box of Kelloggs Corn Flakes but not quite enough for a gallon of gasoline.

“Casablanca” was still one of the top films in theaters, you could buy a new automobile for under $1,000, and Westport was home to about 8,000 people. That’s less than a third of the present population. There were still plenty of farmers in town, but no hedge fund managers.

The painting has a long history, which has been researched extensively by Kathie Bennewitz, curator of the Westport Public Arts Collection Committee, which has many of Dohanos’ works.

She noted that not long after making the cover of the Post, Dohanos’ painting was included in an exhibition of Norman Rockwell’s “Four Freedoms” paintings.

Steven Dohanos in a Lord Calvert advertisement. / Photo public domain.
Stevan Dohanos in a Lord Calvert advertisement. / Photo public domain.

A couple months after appearing as the Post cover, the magazine’s publisher gave up ownership so it could be used for a war bonds drive in Westport, Bennewitz said.

It brought an $80,000 bid in the name of the Bedford family, and the Wassel family, which lost three sons in the war. That was a remarkable amount of money at the time. Bennewitz said the painting hung in the original YMCA, which the Bedford family built, for years, before falling into private hands.

A couple decades ago, the painting was up for auction, she said, and a town effort led by Mollie Donovan, one of the founders of what would become the Westport Public Arts Committee, raised enough money for the town to reclaim it.

Since about 2005, the painting has hung in Westport Town Hall, Bennewitz said, for several years in the First Selectman’s Office.

It now hangs in a meeting room next door.

“This painting somehow ended up in private hands and had to be repurchased,” she said. “Once again, the town came through and made it happen. I think that’s beautiful, and now, because you can sit there in interesting meetings, controversial meetings and boring meetings and look at this painting and think about it, is really important.”

Andrew Colabella, a Representative Town Meeting member from District 4, is among those who appreciate Dohanos’ painting, and what it means.

“I look at it all the time,” he said. “It’s beautiful. It really captures the beauty of not just the art itself from its time but the artists and artistes of the community of Westport was made up of.”

He said the community has changed, but “we do not forget where we came from.”

“Every room in Town Hall has beautiful, magnificent art that I think opens up our minds to be more creative, expressive, as well as detailed,” he said.

Colabella, for the record, is the proud owner of a Dec. 4, 1943, Saturday Evening Post magazine.

Thane Grauel grew up in Westport and has been a journalist in Fairfield County and beyond for 35 years. Reach him at editor@westportjournal.com. Learn more about us here.