The Wilton Woman’s Club celebrates 50 years of giving
MOTHER & DAUGHTER: Betty and Shelly Sternad are long-time WWC members.
Photo by Siobhan Crise
Just like many families in Wilton today, Ruth Elizabeth Sternad and her husband moved to town to get the best education for their children. The mother of three poured her energy into school PTAs, the Wilton Congregational Church, and raising the kids, while husband George supported the family in a corporate job with a long commute.
So far, so familiar. Except that Betty Sternad’s story does not take place in the current decade (or even the current millennium), but in the 1960s. When the Sternads arrived in 1964, Wilton was an agricultural community with few of today’s amenities. The town’s retail center was the Barringer Building, and the library was housed in a snug 1918 structure. A movie theater was still only a dream for local teenagers, who attended high school in what is now Middlebrook School.
Unlike their previous walkable neighborhood in East Norwalk, Wilton was so spread out that the Sternads needed a second car. So Betty (pictured below in the 1960s) drove the family’s Buick, while husband George purchased a VW Beetle to commute to his food-industry sales job in White Plains. Betty was a high school teacher with a Master’s degree in physical education, but had put her career on hold to look after the children: Shelley, Ken, and Allyson.
It was in this setting that Betty decided she wanted something more for energetic and educated women like herself, something outside of the usual circles of school, children, and church. So she gathered 11 friends at her Newtown Turnpike home in March 1966 with plans for a Wilton woman’s club. “There really weren’t any women’s groups,’’ says Betty’s daughter, Shelley Sternad Dempsey.
“My mother saw this big hole. She wanted to be with like-minded women. She wanted to be involved in philanthropy.”
Betty served as the club’s first president and led the group with “style, grace, and true devotion,” says one contemporary. Another of the group’s co-founders recalled an early Wilton Woman’s Club social event. “Betty beautifully groomed and coiffed as always, with a warm enthusiastic welcome.” If Betty and the milieu sound like namesake Betty Draper in the television drama “Mad Men,” then photos of Sternad with her film star looks and dazzling smile certainly support the idea.
Today, 50 years later, Wilton Woman’s Club is proving that it’s just as relevant now as it was in the mid-1960s. It has evolved to accommodate today’s drastically busier lifestyles, and still attracts new members through its central ethos of bringing women together to do good things. That pull of friendship and philanthropy drew Betty’s daughter Shelley into the club in the early 1990s when she moved to Wilton with her young family; and she enjoys being a member now that her four adult sons have left home.
“We are first and foremost a philanthropic organization,” said Donna Sargeantson, Wilton Woman’s Club’s co-president along with Stacy Crameri. “The emphasis really is on giving back.” The club concentrates the volunteering efforts of its 90-some members on selected local organizations such as Wilton Social Services, and Person-To-Person that serve needy families in lower Fairfield County.
As well as the volunteer service of its members, the club raises tens of thousands of dollars annually to donate to good causes in the community. For more than a decade the club ran a fall craft festival, which eventually became a colossal two-day endeavor at Wilton High School’s Field House. The event pulled in more than $50,000 one year alone.
A long list of organizations, such as Wilton Senior Center, A Better Chance, and Woodcock Nature Center, benefited from the funds raised. The craft event ended in 2005 and since 2008 the annual fundraiser has been a fashion show and lunch.
At the club’s upcoming 50th anniversary celebration in April, the funds raised will go to the Norwalk River Valley Trail, the popular multi-use path that’s being extended through Wilton.
The anniversary event at Rolling Hills Country Club is a double celebration for Betty Sternad, who turns 90 this year.
As WWC co-founder Carol Silk wrote to Sternad in 1989, after Sternad had enjoyed another two-year tenure at the helm of the organization, “Wilton Woman’s Club is your gift to our community.” That gift is just as vibrant and significant today.