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Walter Brockett’s hand-crafted bat box was a big hit at a recent Daytime Gardeners meeting. (Photo by Elizabeth Reinhart/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
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For most Americans in 1957, the Russian’s launch of Sputnik was a historical event that altered the global political and scientific climate. For a young Walt Brockett growing up in North Haven, however, the event was the catalyst for the path he would choose in life.
“I thought that if they can do it, I can do it too,” he says.
So, he followed a family tradition of attending the University of Connecticut. He majored in mechanical engineering with a course load including calculus, physics, and applied sciences.
“I was always good at math and sciences, so that helped,” Walt says.
UConn’s program was rigorous.
“At freshman orientation, the provost said, ‘Look two people to your left and two people to your right,’” Walt says, adding that the provost then said not all of them would make it to graduation.
Walt credits his dedication and a strong work ethic learned from working on his family’s dairy farm as critical to his success in school and life.
“I learned a lot of good values working on the farm,” Walt says. “You were expected to work. You were given chores at an early age and the chores gradually got bigger and bigger until college.”
Although the Brocketts’ Arrowdale Farm operation was moved by his older brother from North Haven to upstate New York about 30 years ago, Walt’s family and its use of the land in North Haven can be traced back to Colonial times.
“There is a big connection between the land and my family,” says Walt.
Now a caretaker to many parcels of family land and property in North Haven that he has either inherited or bought, Walt seems content with his position in the family.
“My older brother, he is really the dairy farmer,” he says. “One brother in the family business is enough.”
The knowledge, at an early age, that his eldest brother would take over the dairy farm enabled Walt to pursue his dreams of innovation.
After graduating from UConn, Walt started a 31-year career at Lycoming, a company that manufactures aircraft engines. He would eventually work his way up the ranks to become director of research and development at the firm.
Walt and his team worked on numerous projects including electric engine technology that is now just coming to fruition in cars manufactured today.
“We were out there on the leading edge,” he says. “We had a lot of unique concepts.”
Some of which included reducing the noise of aircraft engines.
“You had to be conscious of elements that were rotating versus the non-rotating parts of the engine,” Walt says.
Most of Walt’s projects in this area met with success, as he remembers a trial run of an aircraft engine at Tweed-New Haven Airport.
“We were out on the runway [in the late ‘70s] and the technician next to me says that the plane’s engine was producing less noise than some of the cars on the road,” he says.
Walt ended his professional career at Pratt & Whitney, where he worked for four years.
Now an avid volunteer and woodworker, Walt says, “the stuff that I’m doing today is a lot more interesting.”
Walt serves on a variety of organizations including the North Haven Historical Society, Peter’s Rock Association, Daytime Gardeners of North Haven, and the North Haven Land Trust. He also volunteers with the Experiment Station Associates, helping to support the work of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station.
His accomplishments in these areas range from installing several gardens throughout North Haven to hosting a Farm-to-Table fundraising dinner for the Daytime Gardeners and North Haven Historical Society, to planting oak and cherry trees. He also helped plant blight-resistant chestnut saplings at Peter’s Rock.
A master gardener and trained arborist, Walt speaks with reverence when referencing specific specimens of tree that he has used as a woodworker. Some of his wooden, handcrafted pieces include the outdoor pavilion at Peter’s Rock, storage buildings, bat boxes, bird houses and story walks for the youngest of hikers.
He is most well-known throughout town, however, for his bowl turning. Walt uses the wood of naturally felled trees like oak or black walnut to make bowls that he gives away or puts into raffles.
“If I sell them, it sounds too much like work,” Walt says with a smile.
The most important part, for him, is working with his hands.
“You never know what you will get out of [the wood] until you start working with it, to see what it will produce,” Walt says.
“There is a lot of precision in mechanical engineering, so there is carry over into his woodworking,” says Sally Brockett, Walt’s wife of 54 years.
This became abundantly clear when it was time to create a cradle for their first grandchild.
“He gave me several choices in design,” Sally says. “I said, ‘I like this part of one, and this part of another.’ Well, he combined all designs and made the cradle.”
When the second grandchild was on the way, Walt took his time thinking about the concept.
“I told him, ‘It takes 9 months for a baby to develop,’” Sally remembers. “And then suddenly, one day he says, ‘I figured it out.’”
Figure it out he did, with a cradle even more elaborate than the first.
Although Walt hasn’t launched another Sputnik, it’s this type of ingenuity that’s helped him create his very own legacy that will be remembered for generations to come.
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