WESTERLY — It was checkmate for the three women who met at Buzzi Memorials in Pawcatuck earlier this week.
Debbie Wills Ventresca, Bette Rose Defusco and Ree Gencarella Capalbo, members of Westerly High School's Class of 1969 Reunion Committee, gathered at Buzzi's to take a peek at the gift they plan to present to their alma mater — and to the Town of Westerly — in June.
Committee members, who have spent more than two years meeting, thinking and planning for their upcoming 50th reunion, said they were initially stumped when it came time to decide upon a class gift.
"We wanted to do something meaningful," said Ventresca, who served as social chairperson for the class of 1969. "Something with special significance and something with a lesson ... for Westerly High School and the Town of Westerly together."
After all, she said, the class had been included in Westerly's 300th anniversary in 1969 and had participated in many of the town's tercentenary festivities.
"We enjoyed our senior year," she said, "especially being part of the community celebration."
Laughing and reminiscing, the three women recalled how the boys were allowed to grow beards and mustaches, and how the girls were encouraged to dress in period costume throughout the school year, but especially for the "Grand Tercentenary Parade," the culminating event of that year.
But what kind of gift could tie in their connection to their school, their town and to one another?
Ventresca said that after watching a TV program that featured a Fall River man who made chess boards out of concrete and placed them in public spaces around the city, she was inspired.
"It clicked," said Ventresca, a retired Westerly Public School teacher. Why not do something similar for Westerly, Ventresca thought — a giant chessboard with benches.
She brought the idea to the reunion committee, whose members not only endorsed the plan, they took a field trip to Fall River.
After they agreed to replicate the idea in Westerly, they suggested that the chess table be placed in Wilcox Park so the whole town could enjoy playing what Ventresca calls "the game of life."
After all, committee members pointed out, Wilcox Park was the site of the first Westerly High School, it sits in the heart of town, and "it's a place of beauty and character."
In May of last year, representatives from the class of 1969 met with the Westerly Library & Wilcox Park Advisory Board and presented their idea.
They agreed, said Ventresca, but with certain guidelines and stipulations. Topping that list was the requirement that the chess table and benches be carved from Westerly granite. A wonderful but costly requirement. Initial estimates for the project came in at the $8,000 range.
The committee contacted their class members, wrote a grant to the Westerly Education Endowment Fund, and before long, came up with what they needed.
"We never thought we could raise the money," said Defusco.
"Never," echoed Capalbo. "But we did. Members of our class really pulled together. Across the board."
"We were definitely a tight-knit group," Ventresca said — clever, generous, and close-knit.
One member of the class made a donation of $69.69, she said, and others sent in memorabilia along with their donations.
Out of a class of 185, 41 members have passed on, Ventresca said, and 93 contributed to the fund. When the endowment gave them a grant of $3,000, they knew they were on their way.
Then they met with stonecutter Richard Brooks, the owner of Buzzi Memorials, who set to work on the project, which is now complete.
Brooks, who had a decade-long apprenticeship with Richard Comolli at Comolli Granite Company, said he enjoyed the project.
Capalbo said another classmate, Alan Hill, has designed the chess pieces and a box to keep them in. The box, which will be decorated with the Westerly High School bulldog logo, will be kept inside the library and will be available for players to check out.
"Time goes by but friendships and memories remain," said Joe Iacoi, a member of the 50th Class Reunion Committee.
"We will always treasure this piece," Iacoi said about the chess table. "We'll always remember our roots when we look at it ... and it will be in the park forever."
As the three women gathered to look at the enormous chess set and benches, which include the logos of the endowment and the Westerly 350th celebration, they praised the support from the Westerly Library, Wilcox Park Superintendent Alan Peck, and from their classmates.
They also continued to share memories, and reminisce about 1969. It was the year of Woodstock, the Beatles and their high school graduation.
"Those were the days, my friend," said Ventresca with a smile, quoting a popular song from the 1960s. "That song has special meaning for us."