Her Way

Her Way

It begins at Crescent Street in Beaver Hills. It crosses Whalley and Edgewood, Chapel and Derby, where it runs under the colorful bridge of Barnard Environmental Magnet School. It hugs West River Memorial Park, where marsh grass ripples and maybe kids play soccer. It passes Evergreen Cemetery with its showering fountains, then signs for auto parts and BBQ, then the Boulevard Flea Market with its graffitied shipping containers. It bends like a pipe at most major cross streets, hooks a final run under I-95 and ends at Kimberly Avenue, a stone’s throw from the place where the West River empties into the New Haven Harbor.

“The Boulevard,” some still call it. Its official name is Ella T. Grasso Boulevard, bestowed in 1985 according to the second edition of Doris B. Townshend’s The Streets of New Haven (1998). Grasso was the first woman to be elected governor in Connecticut—indeed, the first woman in the nation elected to that office in her own right, rather than on the coattails of a husband. As Grasso herself reportedly put it, she was the “first lady governor who was not a governor’s first lady.”

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Born in Windsor Locks in 1919, Grasso was educated at St. Mary’s Parochial School there and later at the Chaffee School in Windsor, where her classmates predicted in the yearbook that she would become “the first woman Mayor of Windsor Locks,” as she told a New York Times Magazine reporter in 1975. It turns out they were thinking too small. After leaving Connecticut to earn her undergraduate degree and an M.A. in economics and sociology at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts, Grasso returned to her native state, serving as a state legislator, Connecticut’s secretary of state and a U.S. Representative for her hometown district before being elected governor in 1974. She never lost an election.

Grasso’s big personality was legendary. Former New Haven mayor Frank Logue remembered her “quick thrust to gain an edge at the beginning of a conversation” and her enjoyment of politics for “the elation of combat, the joy of the game.”

In December of 1980, shortly before Grasso died at the age of 61, Logue wrote a tribute to her in the New York Times. He recalled her attendance at his January 1976 inauguration, where she swore him into office. “If she wondered what I was trying to prove in an outdoor ceremony in 38-degree weather, she didn’t ask,” Logue wrote. “She came again two years later—election year for her—and, at my second inauguration, made a commitment of state funds for two vital New Haven projects: the revitalization of Union Station and the extension of our downtown connector, Route 34. And what Connecticut city, do you suppose, gave her the largest majorities in her 1978 primary and general elections?”

“Mrs. Grasso has long delighted in paying the back-handed compliment,” Logue went on. “Thus she would say to New Haven audiences: ‘it is such a pleasure to be in the company of your Mayor when he isn’t asking me for something.’” And when it came to such requests, “Connecticut mayors rarely left a meeting with Mrs. Grasso having the flat-out commitment they came for. They left with assurances of her good will, and a strong sense of doing business with a woman who knew just what she was doing—and valued her own instincts more than their opinions.”

Grasso was known for holding firmly to her convictions. At the tumultuous 1968 Democratic National Convention, she supported the anti-Vietnam plank against the strong wishes of the committee chairman, John Bailey, her mentor and “boss.”

But she could also be a pragmatist. As a Democratic governor during a time of fiscal distress, she found herself at odds with state employees and, ultimately, with her own party. According to her obituary in the Washington Post, her popularity declined toward the end of her first term “because she was forced to retrench economically, curtail some state services and lay off state workers.” She disappointed liberals by taking conservative stances on some social issues; at the same time, conservatives labeled her “the last of the big spenders,” as she remarked to the New York Times. Her opponents even targeted her sex with an election-year bumper sticker that read “Connecticut Can’t Afford a Governess.”

At the same time, Grasso earned praise for being accessible and down-to-earth. She regularly conducted “office hours” in town halls statewide. During the blizzard of ’78, she “traveled by helicopter to trouble spots throughout the state and trudged through snow drifts on her fact-finding mission,” the Washington Post recalled. In her first term, she reportedly brought 260 new businesses to the state and turned a deficit into a healthy surplus. She won re-election handily.

Grasso’s governorship was cut short by ovarian cancer. Discovered early in 1980, by the end of the year it had spread. On December 4 she announced her resignation, effective December 31. She died just five weeks later, leaving her husband Tom and two adult children behind.

Today, Grasso’s name is attached to not only New Haven’s Boulevard but also to roads in Windsor Locks and New Britain and a technical high school in Groton. A plan to rename Bradley Airport in her honor shortly after she died never materialized. Today, many who drive Ella T. Grasso Boulevard know little about its namesake—a governor who, New Haven’s Logue told her publicly in his tribute, had “pursued every day’s new challenge” with “zest,” who was “a woman and a leader, your way.”

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Images, depicting a 1958 campaign flyer and a portrait photographed circa 1974, courtesy of Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections. This lightly updated story was originally published on November 2, 2017.

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