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06/06/2023 08:28 AM

Frances Russell: The Write Stuff

Former Westbrook First Selectman Frances Russell is preparing to release her sixth book, I Live in Westbrook, Connecticut. Photo Courtesy of Frances Russell

“This is my sixth book, but it’s special because it’s about the place I love the most,” Frances Russell says. The former first selectman and teacher has written a new book about something close to home: the history of Westbrook.

The newest book is titled I Live in Westbrook, Connecticut: A History of Westbrook from 1635–1840. A book launch is planned for Saturday, June 10, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Westbrook Historical Society on the Town Green.

“I’ll be there, and Bud Loomis, who illustrated the book, will be there to autograph and personalize copies as well as answer questions. We’ll have some of the illustrations in the book there, too; it has beautiful illustrations,” Frances explains.

The idea for the book first began about a year and a half ago, Frances says.

“I was approached by a member of the historical society and they asked me to write a book. At first, I was hesitant because I knew it would be a lot of work,” Frances recalls. After about a week of mulling it over, she then agreed to do it.

Originally, the book was intended to be a kids’ book and cover the town’s history from 1635 to the present. But things quickly changed.

“I ended up doing research for hours and hours each day. Then eventually, I started writing, and I said, ‘No way can I do 1635 to present in one book; there’s so much information here,’” Frances says.

Instead, Frances decided to have the book just cover the period of 1635 to 1840, at which point Westbrook was incorporated as its own town. The book is also no longer a kids’ book and is one meant for people of all ages.

For Frances, writing the book was as much a trip down memory lane as it was a chance to learn something new.

“My favorite part was talking about things and all that I remembered. But I really, really enjoyed talking to all the people in Westbrook that have lived here even longer than me and all the things they remembered or the rumors and hearsay they remember being talked about. That was a lot of fun,” Frances says. “It was enlightening and really enjoyable for me.”

Frances says that one part of writing the book that was difficult was making sure she told the story of slavery in the town. Frances points out that Toby Hill Road got its name from an enslaved person who lived in the area named Toby Hill and that some enslaved people fought in the American Revolution.

“It would be unfair to not include them in the book,” says Frances.

While Frances has now written six books, people in Westbrook may recognize her from other endeavors in town. Frances has been a member of the Board of Education, the Westbrook Historical Society, the Cub Scouts, and the Congregational Church. She was also the first selectman of the town from 1999 to 2001.

“I was on the Westbrook Board of Ed[ucation] for two terms, then the Republican Town Committee approached me and asked if I would run. I really enjoyed the time, but I missed the kids,” Frances says.

Prior to being the first selectman, Frances had enjoyed a long career as a teacher, first in Washington, D.C., then in Clinton for nine years. After her term as first selectman, Frances was ready to return to teaching, but she missed working with an inner city school like she had in Washington, so she began looking at opportunities to return to an inner city school in Connecticut. Frances found a job as a middle school music teacher in Bridgeport, a position she held for 20 years.

“I loved it. My favorite part was learning more from the kids than they learned from me,” Frances says.

During her time in Bridgeport, Frances developed a program that specialized in African drum music that was so successful the school was invited to perform in Washington, D.C., including a trip to the White House.

“It was amazing,” Frances says.

Frances grew up in Pennsylvania but has been a Westbrook resident for over 50 years. In college, she met her eventual husband, David, and the two moved to Washington for a time. But neither wanted to have kids and raise them in a city, so the couple moved to David’s native Westbrook.

Fittingly, you can say history runs in the house.

“We are the third generation of Russells to live in this house,” Frances proudly notes. In fact, that house is one of her favorite things about Westbrook.

“It’s an old house. It was built in 1938 and survived the ‘38 Hurricane,” Frances says. “I also love the history and traditions of Westbrook. I just absolutely love living in this town.”

And Frances isn’t quite done telling the story of Westbrook, either. “I’m already working on the next book,” she says with a laugh.