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For as long as anyone can remember, the conventional wisdom among many Yale students has been that once the degree is firmly in hand, the time has come to head for the “big time,” which has traditionally meant New York, Washington, Los Angeles, London, Tokyo—but rarely New Haven. A resourceful few, however, have ignored the stereotype and stayed on in the Elm City, building careers that range from woodworking to Web site development. And what appears to be a growing number are returning from “abroad” to take advantage of what they see as New Haven’s more manageable scale and lengthening list of opportunities. No sampling of these professionals could be exhaustive, but the following six profiles are meant to provide a taste of “life after Yale” as it is being lived in the University’s hometown.
Shaping the City
Like the buildings Barry Svigals ’71, ’76MArch, designs, the offices of Svigals Associates in New Haven are aesthetically pleasing and thoroughly functional. Photographs and artwork chronicling the creation of structures as diverse as an elementary school, an FBI headquarters, and commercial laboratories fill the walls. Gargoyles and sculptures add to the mix. Along one wall is a quote from soul singer Wilson Pickett: “Don’t Fight It, Feel It.”
Svigals, president and director of design at Svigals Associates, certainly does “feel it.” A graduate of both Yale College and the School of Architecture, Svigals also studied sculpture at the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux Arts in Paris. He serves both educational and commercial clients, and he’s worked for the rich and famous, including his former Yale roommate, “Doonesbury” creator Garry Trudeau, and Rolling Stones lead guitarist Keith Richards.
“The most passionate enterprise I can possibly engage in is creating places for people to live and work in,” says the 51-year-old Svigals. “As a society, we are starved from a lack of beauty in our lives. Spaces can be functional as well as beautiful. Things are not just as they look, but as they are.”
A political science major, Svigals was at Yale during the sixties—a time of social upheaval and general irreverence. “One of my best memories is the time Garry [Trudeau] organized a ‘sleep-in for peace’ in Davenport College,” says Svigals. “He wanted to poke fun at the self-seriousness of the ‘revolution.’”
Svigals recently gathered with classmates at the book signing hosted by another Yale roommate, Scotty McLennan, author of Finding Your Religion. “It was nostalgic and powerful,” Svigals says. “We talked about many of the same social themes we talked about in college.”
After graduating from the School of Architecture, Svigals went to work for Herbert Newman ’59MArch of Herbert S. Newman & Partners in New Haven. In 1983, Svigals opened his own firm and began to develop a unique style that combines his dual passions for architecture and art. “How a space feels is as important as how it looks,” he says. “Even when working on a design, the feeling is more important than the idea. You need to rely on your intuition as much as your head.”
An example of the result is the renovated Edgewood Magnet School in New Haven, a brick structure featuring circular classrooms with large windows and such decorative elements as colorful leaves imprinted on the tiled floor. The architect says he wanted to bring elements of Edgewood Park into the school. “It’s a comfortable design that is appropriately scaled for children,” he says. “It feels like a home.”
Svigals calls his collaboration with artist Gar Waterman, whose work appears in the school, a process of “enlivening the architecture,” as opposed to “just hanging a picture on the wall.” The architect also made the gargoyles outside the school. “They provide an element of surprise that helps people relate to the building,” he says.
While vastly different from a school, Svigals’s latest project, the FBI building on State Street, also incorporates elements of New Haven’s history. The architect says the form of the building was influenced by the presence of the old canal line that runs diagonally across the site: “The memory of the canal is projected through the plan of the building—two triangles that appear to be sliding past each other. The history of the city is a basic ingredient of the design.”
Chairs with Attitude
As a boy, Kerry Triffin ’67 loved climbing trees, and the bigger and taller, the better. “There’s something true to the core about trees,” he says. “You can hug a tree as hard as you can and it’s not going to break. The leaves replenish the earth and the air. It’s almost eternal. From cradle to grave, there is wood in your life.”
Five decades later, trees and wood remain a constant for Triffin, furniture designer and owner of Fair Haven Woodworks in New Haven. The store—three floors of custom-made furniture and accessories—offers an escape into a world that is pleasing to the senses in every way. Visitors to this sanctuary discover the fresh smell and smooth touch of furniture made from cherry, walnut, maple, ash, and mahogany, as well as granite from the Connecticut shoreline town of Stony Creek.
“A piece of furniture should fill your heart with poetry every time you pass it,” says the 51-year-old Triffin. He believes in combining beauty and function when designing and purchasing items for his store. “Furniture is not sacred,” he says. “It’s meant to be enjoyed and lived in. It’s supposed to age—that contributes to its emotional and economic value.”
Triffin moved to New Haven at age 6 when his father took a post teaching economics at Yale. An English and creative writing major as an undergraduate during the 1960s, Triffin twice considered dropping out—once to work for nuclear disarmament, the other time to go to Vietnam as a Quaker pacifist. “My father, who was master of Berkeley College at the time, took it very calmly,” recalls Triffin. “He never pressured me, though he must have thought I was crazy.” Another favorite pastime was climbing onto the rooftops of Yale buildings. “I love heights,” he says. After graduation, Triffin earned a graduate degree in administrative sciences, a department that later evolved into the Yale School of Management.
During the next few years, Triffin took various jobs, ranging from business consultant and waterbed salesman to member of a vegetarian collective restaurant. He went into business for himself when his first child was “on her hands and knees trying to figure out how to crawl. I knew I wanted the flexibility to be home more.” Triffin began by building knotty-pine book-cases, which he loaded atop his grandmother’s Ford Falcon and sold to Yale students. “They went like hotcakes,” he says. “They were simple, yet prosaic. I bet a lot of those bookcases are still out there performing good service.”
Some of the creations at Fair Haven Woodworks are made by Triffin himself, others come from woodworkers and designers in New England, mainly Vermont, and as far away as Italy and Denmark. Each piece is selected by Triffin, who sometimes ascribes human characteristics to his favorites. “See this chair,” he says, pointing to one made of willow. The chair, slightly askew, is carved “from one big log,” he explains. “The artist created tension and drama. This chair has attitude.”
Roslyn “Roz” Milstein Meyer ’71 arrived at Yale in 1969 at the height of the nation’s and the city’s social unrest—student protests, the Black Panther trials, the National Guard on the New Haven Green. “We were all trying to balance our work with what was going on in the Vietnam War,” says Meyer, who was among what she calls the “first batch” of 200 women to enroll at Yale. “There was lots of protest and political activity.”
Meyer’s commitment to social change hasn’t wavered since her years at Yale, whether it’s “trying to understand the educational underpinnings that lead to a good society,” or exploring the problem of race and prejudice in America. Working with other activists, she has become involved with the educational and cultural scene in Connecticut as cofounder of Leadership, Education, and Athletics in Partnership (LEAP), an educational program for inner-city youngsters, and as cofounder of the International Festival of Arts and Ideas, which seeks to break down racial barriers through the arts.
For Meyer, 50, some of the strangest things back in the sixties were happening right in Ezra Stiles College. Meyer recalls the male classmate who, upon finishing their conversation, said, “Thanks Roz. I’ve never chatted with a girl like a person before.” Meyer was stunned and remembers thinking, “What planet are you from?” Says Meyer: “That experience was not unusual. There were many boys who had had incredibly limited exposure to girls. They didn’t know how to act or what to say. It was very strange.”
The new environment did not faze Meyer, who transferred from Cornell, and came from a family that included boys and girls. Looking back, she recalls that much of it was “quite humorous.” She and the other female transfers were called the “girls in the tower.” (The newcomers were all assigned to the top floors of Stiles.) And although females were now part of the Yale community, the colleges still shipped in girls from Vassar, Holyoke, Smith, and Wellesley for the mixers. She regrets that Yale officials never brought the women together as a class during their college days. Instead, they were dispersed among the 12 colleges with “no opportunity to network and brainstorm as a group,” says Meyer. “Now, at our reunions, we’re finding that we have lots in common.”
A psychology major at Yale, Meyer says she has always been interested in education and the problem of race and prejudice in our culture. After earning master’s and doctoral degrees in clinical psychology at Yale, Meyer and her husband, a psychoanalyst-turned-artist, decided to remain in New Haven, in part because of its “psycho-therapeutic energy,” she says. “Some of the top people in our field were here.”
Meyer’s interest in how education affects society led her to Anne Tyler Calabresi, a local activist and philanthropist and the wife of former Law School dean Guido Calabresi. The two women founded LEAP, which in eight years has grown from serving 200 young people in New Haven to 1,200 boys and girls in five Connecticut cities. “Our goal is to help inner-city youth view education as an avenue to get out of poverty,” says Meyer. “Many have never seen someone have a successful experience in education.”
Nathaniel D. Woodson ’63 flashes a boyish smile as he reaches for one of what he calls “toys” in his corner office overlooking downtown New Haven. These are not your typical kids’ playthings—fuel pellets and models of a nuclear power plant and nuclear fuel assembly. Nor is Woodson, the chairman, president, and chief executive officer of the United Illuminating Company, your typical CEO.
Woodson returned to New Haven two years ago after a 30-year career with the Westinghouse Electric Corporation, most recently as president of the Energy Systems Business Unit, where he was responsible for the company’s global commercial nuclear power generation activities. He has spent years helping heads of state throughout the world develop national energy policies. His expertise has come into play in many sensitive, situations, including the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union.
Today, life is very different for a man once accustomed to traveling to and from Hong Kong just to attend a business dinner. “Now my longest business trip is two hours to Boston,” says Woodson with a chuckle. But while his sphere of influence has narrowed, the opportunities at UI are expanding at a time when New Haven, and the region, appear to be at a crossroads. Woodson feels that current plans for a regional mall, infrastructure improvements, and faster train service “could radically transform” New Haven into a regional force.
Woodson, 58, was inspired to pursue a career in nuclear energy in high school upon hearing President Dwight Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” address to the United Nations. “That speech had a profound influence on me,” he says.
An engineering major at Yale, Woodson says that living and studying with people from diverse fields was among his most valuable college experiences and helped him throughout his career when dealing with heads of state and other top officials. “The ability to understand people from different backgrounds is just as important as taking a pencil and designing a nuclear reactor from scratch,” he says. “There is a need for responsible leaders who have a sensibility to what is going on in the rest of the world.”
“I guess as I got older I wanted a place where I could feel comfortable,” says Richter Elser ’81 in describing his latest undertaking, the Tibwin Grill in New Haven’s theater district. (The “Tibwin” comes from the name of a house in South Carolina that belonged to his grandparents.) On this sunny day, jazz plays in the background as the staff prepares for the lunch crowd. Elser sits at a window table overlooking the shops and restaurants on College Street.
It’s a much different city from the New Haven Elser encountered when he arrived at Yale in 1977. “The Shubert was boarded up. The Taft Hotel was abandoned. We had X-rated movie theaters and a flop house known as Hotel Adams,” says the 40-year-old Elser. “Now it’s completely different. I have to give New Haven a lot of credit. It has worked its way through a lot of problems.”
Like New Haven, Elser has stuck it out. In a city where many downtown merchants have come and gone, Elser has withstood economic ups and downs and has seen Richter’s on Chapel Street, his first business venture, become and remain one of the most popular drinking establishments in town. “If someone had told me that I was going to stay in New Haven after graduating and get into the restaurant business, I would have laughed,” he says. “Eighteen years later, I’m still here.”
A resident of Branford College, Elser was a history major and a member of the lightweight crew. After a short stint in public relations, Elser received a call to coach the freshman lightweights. Little did he know that the offer would help launch his entrepreneurial career. He went to the Taft Hotel to speak with the varsity coach about the job and discovered the long-abandoned barroom. “It was a neat space,” Elser says. “I fell in love with it.”
The tiny saloon, with its exquisite woodwork, became Richter’s, which Elser calls a “genuine bar” where people can enjoy “basic food” and the house specialties—unusual beers and scotches. “We were offering offbeat beers long before it was fashionable,” he says.
Now Elser is trying to get those who have “graduated” from Richter’s to trade their beer and hamburger for wine and steak at the Tibwin.
A Matter of Scale
Vincent Cangiano ’87 grew up in the New Haven area, but after graduation he felt that as a “local” he had a duty to “get as far away from here as possible.” After living in San Francisco, New York, and Washington, D.C., Cangiano, to his surprise, discovered that his travels led him right back to New Haven when it was time to start his own business.
“I came here to house-sit for my parents for three weeks,” says Cangiano. “That was three years ago.” Today, the Web consultant is carving a niche for himself as an expert in educational technology, working with educators to integrate the Internet with school curricula. His latest project involves collaborating with the New Haven school system to design a district training center for teachers who want to learn how to use technology in the classroom.
Cangiano spent his high school years listening to jazz on WYBC, the Yale radio station that, at the time, was operated by College and community residents. (He later became the station’s treasurer.) Cangiano says his interest in languages and educational technology evolved during experiences that included teaching English to Spanish-speaking residents of San Francisco’s Mission district. He taught English as a second language for three years in New York, earning a master’s at Hunter College. He went on to Georgetown to pursue additional graduate work in linguistics. “I slowly became interested in computer-assisted language learning, which led to my current interest in educational technology,” he says.
While Cangiano enjoyed living in New York, he felt life wasn’t complete there. “I could do anything when I walked out my door in my role as a consumer of culture,” he says. “But I didn’t feel the urge to give back.” He says that New Haven’s smaller scale offers the opportunity “to try out ideas and get involved in things that require your active participation.”
Cangiano’s first task upon returning to New Haven was designing newhavenweb.com, which provides information about business, travel, arts, entertainment, education, health, and other topics. “I did it just for fun,” he says. The site is now listed as one of the top 100 websites in Connecticut by the Hartford Courant.
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