To Will Petts: A few weeks ago you wrote a letter to this newspaper telling us you were a fourth-grade student in Charlotte, N.C, and your class was going to have a State Fair to get to know different states in the United States. What a wonderful idea! You chose Rhode Island ... an even better idea because we’re small, but we’ve got a lot going for us. You were also very wise, Will, in realizing that you can’t possibly learn about any state just from books and websites; you need to get the information from the people who live there. Well, I am one of those people, and while I’m sure you’ll hear from others, this is my “take.”
I am not a native, but have lived in the Westerly area, the very southwestern tip of the state, for nearly 33 years. Rhode Islanders are fierce New Englanders, and although warm and welcoming, they do not consider you “one of them” if you weren’t born here!
Westerly borders Connecticut — matter of fact, we share a downtown and a history with Pawcatuck, Conn., so it’s pretty cool to be able to walk back and forth from one state to another! Westerly is small, but has a rich history. Settled by English colonists in 1661, at one time it housed granite quarries and many mills. We may be best known for our beautiful beach communities. Today they look so clean and sparkling, but over the centuries, hurricanes nearly wiped them out, the most notable of which was the 1938 hurricane that destroyed 57,000 homes and killed hundreds of people. Today, these beaches draw tourists from all over the world, more than doubling our population of 22,000 during the summer months.
We have many places of interest, including a magnificent library and adjoining park right in the center of town, boasting a statue of the Runaway Bunny, a book your parents might have read to you when you were little. Wilcox Park is a peaceful place with outstanding landscaping, making it perfect for wedding venues, for Shakespeare in the Park festivals, and for the highlight of every summer season for nearly 40 years: the Summer Pops Concert, complete with the Boston Festival Orchestra, cannon fire, fireworks, and the more-than-200-voice Chorus of Westerly, which has performed worldwide.
If you and your family come here, you will be warmly welcomed, because more than anything else, Westerly and its nearby towns and villages are all about community.
The people here represent a wide demographic of race, religion, age, and occupation, but when something is needed, they band together as one. If there’s a town event to support, they’re there. If there’s a tragedy, they’re there. If an individual or family falls on hard times, they come together and do whatever has to be done. This is a place of fierce loyalty and commitment. It is also a place of great pride in all our resources, the most important of which is our people.
Your fourth-grade project, your teachers, your school, and you, Will Petts, forces us to stop and take a look at ourselves to realize how much we have in this tiny, quirky piece of geography where we call a water fountain a “bubbler” and spaghetti sauce “gravy!” It makes us realize that what we take for granted others think is pretty remarkable and special. Yes, we have beautiful beaches and a coastline that seems to go on forever. We have excellent schools, fantastic restaurants featuring the freshest seafood, Italian food, and we eat “cabinets,” “stuffies” and “doughboys,” washing them down with “coffee milk.” There’s world-class theatre and music, art, science, and plenty of history; active Chambers of Commerce who go out of their way to provide ongoing events in all stripes for both locals and visitors; but most of all, we have community.
So, Google Westerly, R.I., or Pawcatuck, Conn., and you and your classmates will read about history, geography, climate, beaches, art installations, even restaurants; but the one thing no website nor book can give you is our sense of community. For that you have to come here. You have to smell the seashore, walk down High Street in the center of town and count the smiles, or stop almost anyone and ask directions. You won’t believe what you’ll get in return!
So, welcome Will Petts ... come see us soon.
Rona Mann has been a freelance writer for The Sun for 17 years, including her “In Their Shoes” features. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 401-539-7762.