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10/08/2009 12:00 AM

Person of the Week Al Russell

One of Al Russell's favorite historic areas is Branford Point. The Branford native volunteers to lead talks and walks centered on historic sites in town and enjoys sharing his knowledge of Branford's history. Photo by Pam Johnson/The Sound

There's plenty of history to share in a town like Branford and resident Al Russell is happy to do just that. The Branford native and self-professed history buff has spent 10 years enlightening all manner of local groups, from school children to seniors, with fascinating tales from Branford's past. Al also volunteers to lead walks amidst historic Branford sites including Center Cemetery, Branford Point, and the Town Green.

One of his favorite historic areas to share is Branford Point, where Al grew up. On Sept. 30, a group of interested Branford seniors arrived by bus to meet Al at the point for a talk, but he's also known for giving impromptu talks, too. If you happen to catch Al there on a sunny day, you might just learn about Branford Point's McCarthy-era aircraft spotting tower or its grand Victorian hotel.

"I'm the type of guy that might see three or four people down here and I'll gather them up and say, 'Have you ever heard of the Branford Point House? It used to be right here,'" Al says, waving

toward what's now Parker Park.

The Branford Point House was a hotel destination stop for those traveling by steamer, rail and surrey, and eventually trolley car in the late 19th- and early 20th centuries. The owners, George and Alice Parker, willed the property to their son Frank Parker, who died in 1912 and willed it to the town, explains Al.

Parker is buried at Center Cemetery, another historic Branford locale of which Al seems to hold an encyclopedic knowledge. The crooked stones fronting Montowese Street are in the oldest section of the cemetery and some go back to the 1600s, he says.

"Branford's only Medal of Honor winner, Aaron Lamphier, is buried in Center Cemetery, as is Asa, the last [local] Indian that we formally know of, and Reverend Samuel Russell, who was

involved in founding Yale."

Al says the founding of Yale University in Branford is a common question he fields. True to the sign on the Green, downtown Branford was in fact the birthplace of Yale University.

"It was started by a group of Congregational ministers who got together to form some kind of school of higher learning," he says.

The Branford ministers gathered the school's first books-but confusing the picture is the fact the first class was held in Clinton/Killingworth and the first graduation in Old Saybrook. To this day, Yale University includes Branford College, a nod to this town's contribution, says Al. Another focal point of the Green, the 1820 Academy building, comes into the discussion when Al speaks to students about the history of Branford schools. Al can craft a speech about the era of the one-room school house or mold it to include stories of modern-day namesakes like Mary Tisko.

Married for 46 years to his wife, Florence, Al retired from the United Illuminating Co. in 1998 and since then has been a substitute teacher in the Branford school system. The father of two and grandfather of four remains a busy volunteer in town, including current roles on the Parker Memorial Park Commission, the Branford Food Council, and as a member of the Branford Historical Society and Friends of the Blackstone Memorial Library.

Al also served on Branford's 350th Anniversary committee, which created the scenic tribute site to the town's founding carved into a rocky outcropping at Branford Point.

"I have a great feeling for Branford Point, because I grew up here. We had no money in those days and this is where we spent our time," he says. "Branford's closeness to the water and Long Island Sound becomes a part of your life. People who've moved away from Branford have often later commented to me how they miss this in their lives."