Respite In Motel After Life Along Connecticut River
POST SCRIPT: Help And Hardship
April 11, 2008
The seasonal vagaries of the Connecticut River play a larger role in their lives than does the clock. In February 2007, 70-year-old Willie and Nancy, 52, lost the shack he had built along the river to fire. Later, they lived nearby on higher ground until spring flooding forced them to move to a motel. When the flooding subsided they moved back, but this year they moved to a motel well ahead of the northern New England snow melt. The Courant wrote about them in September and Reporter Christine Dempsey caught up with them again last week.
Nancy sits on a motel room bed, memories of the past 14 months scattered in front of her.
There are greeting cards — still in their original envelopes — marking her last two birthdays and Valentine's Day. There are newspaper clippings and a cat toy.
One tattered clipping is an article about a fire last year that destroyed the shack her friend Willie had built on the Connecticut River in East Hartford in the '80s. Willie, 70, has lived by the river for more than 20 years; Nancy, 52, joined him later.
The Courant visited the pair more than two dozen times in 2007 and chronicled their lives in a story Sept. 23. Like then, they don't want their last names or Nancy's photo published.
Lately, Willie and Nancy have been staying in a Hartford motel to escape the annual river floods.
Last year's flood waters wiped out both of their riverside homes: the site where the shack had burned and a place on higher ground where Willie had pitched a tent.
A lot has happened since then.
Years of alcohol abuse finally killed their friend Scott, who had lived along the river part time. His body gave out Oct. 25.
Scott knew he was dying and came down to the river to say goodbye, Willie said.
"He just said he couldn't hold anything in his stomach," Willie said. "His insides were all messed up."
Willie swears he heard Scott's familiar greeting for him "Hey, Big Dog!" reverberating through the woods a few nights later.
He knew right then Scott was gone. A relative confirmed it the next morning.
Willie pedaled a bike to the wake. He loathes large gatherings of people, but Scott had asked him to go, he said.
Another friend also died that month, the man who gave the pair permission to live on a riverside parcel he owned. His son has since told Willie and Nancy they are welcome to stay, they said.
Nancy's father also died. Nancy didn't have much of a relationship with him, although she inherited some of his Social Security benefits after his death. Both Willie and Nancy have separate bank accounts for their government benefits.
The pair also received money — in the form of donations — from Courant readers.
An East Hartford church, South Congregational Church on Forbes Street, "adopted" them, said Kathy Kane, Willie and Nancy's social worker at East Hartford Town Hall. She also is a church member.
The church bought them a three-room tent and a second tent for storage, a storage container, books and a new coat for Nancy, she said.
There were also donations of gift cards, jeans for Nancy, bus passes, sleeping bags and a cart.
Said Willie, "It made me see that people do really care. There are some good people out there."
Nancy still misses her cat, Meowski, who disappeared when their shack burned.
"I still don't have my cat back," Nancy said, although she still has an out-of-focus, Polaroid picture of the cat and one of his toys.
Still, 2008 "hasn't been that bad," Willie said. "It hasn't been bad at all.
You've got to keep faith."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at