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Fair Haven Activist Fights the Good Fight

Originally Published: New Haven Register

 

Can an American blueblood remain an outsider in New Haven after 40 years?  Or, are his efforts to bring so many others inside worthy of more community attention?

 

(Pictured left: Contributor to “The Forum”)

 

When Brereton ”Bret” Bissell was 15 years old, he had mastered the art of newspaper, earning upwards of $5 an hour in early 1950s Grand Rapids, Mich.

 

So it’s no surprise really that this 67-year-old man should have come back to his enterprising roots to help found the Grand News, a not for profit monthly serving the east side of New Haven that has been around for almost two years.

 

Bret is a classic social engineer, what modern business would call a change agent, a catalyst, or to be really scientific, a persistent pest who just won’t give up though his methods reflect the height of sobriety and decorum.

 

 

Blame his mom for the social activist in Bret.  Blame his dad, the industrial engineer, for Bret’s wanting to go back to the drawing board so often to get it right.  You’d have to imagine that Bret has a lot to live up to, given that great-grandfather Melville was the inventor of, you’ve guessed it, the Bissell carpet sweeper, back in the late 1800s.  Following Melville’s death, wife Anna became one of America’s first female corporate CEO’s according to company promotional material and “confidently” ran the company.

 

(Picutred Right: Delivering some of the 7,000 copies of “The Grand News” distributed for each issue.)

 

Bret and I first met following a column I wrote in the Register dealing with the need for charities to face up to challenging times with renewed purpose and vigor.  I got back a heavily noted and underlined copy of the article that he had sent to his board at the Fair Haven Housing Initiative.

 

Since few of us like to walk alone, we began a four-season trek through south central Connecticut’s mud, humidity, rain and snow.  I didn’t know the water company owned so much property, or that, if you closed your eyes, and ignored the encroaching development, one could well imagine the remnants of 19th and 18th century structures restored to their former functionality.  Bret seemingly knew the purpose and history of every piled stone, every truncated water wheel.  My impression remains that land is more permanent than man-made efforts.

 

Though hardly verbose, Bret could be enticed to talk about his varied childhood experiences living in different parts of America in the middle of the last century.  I listened to tales that I thought only existed in Hardy Boys books, third grade readers or other long forgotten pieces of American nostalgia, which of course, in real life it wasn’t to Bret or his two brothers.

 

It gets a little confused now, somewhere between Grand Rapids and Iowa, Wisconsin and Pittsburgh and New Mexico.  But it was a time of the triumphant American stride across the stage when you invent almost anything, try anything, even expect to be forgiven or get lucky in almost anything.

 

Bret is a classic social engineer, what modern business would call a change agent, a catalyst, or to be really scientific, a persistent pest who just won’t give up.

 

I could well imagine Brett, in college in Indiana, returning from a vacation in Mexico with friends in a car that might have been prewar only no one could be sure what war.  He says one of his friends actually slept while driving while Bret kept an intrepid eye open, no doubt on the brakes which were repeatedly failing.   His mom was an in-your-face social activist working with local civil fights groups in the Midwest when that meant snubbing from the gentle folk at the club.

 

Later, Bret’s brothers would find social activism their own was ii—one becoming a missionary, the other radicalized in the ‘60s and fleeing the law for many years.

 

Bret became a sociologist (words like “ethos” and “mythos” flow gently and easily from his mouth) and moved to New Haven on an internship some 40 years ago.  He’s stayed but he still sees himself as an outsider, the non-native, and the thoughtful tinker, providing the activism through a long succession of human service jobs, mostly dedicated to helping the underclass.

 

When we first met, he gave me a tour of Fair Haven, a section of town I was not familiar with.  There were few buildings, businesses and streets he did not know, not to mention the detailed composition and statistics of the sociological breakdown of that and surrounding neighborhoods.  He showed me where his Fair Haven Housing Initiative had brought and renovated homes on Richard Street for people of modest means and also described the excruciating paperwork that such multi-faceted transactions entail.

 

He mentioned the stunningly low salaries he’s accepted over the years that would be inconsequential had the Bissell fortune migrated in any substance to him over the generations.  It hasn’t.

 

“I’m a perfect example of downward American mobility,” he says usually smiling, while tracing the four generation patch to a middle-class life sustained over the years in no small part due to wife Pat’s efforts.

 

Though officially retired, Bret helped to launch the Grand News in large part to foster empowerment and activism in the neighborhood.  Along the way, this onetime struggling reader and student has sold ads, edited copy, written stories, taken photographs and prepared grant proposals and business plans to keep the effort going.

 

So, if you happen to see an energetic, youthful man in his 60s delivering newspapers over on the east end of town with a white fringed beard that would look at home at a barn-raising, know this, he may not have a family fortune, but what is doing is priceless.

               

Originally Published: Forum, Editorial Page, New Haven Register, May 31, 2005

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