In A Pickle

This paddle sport is taking Connecticut by storm

April 12, 2021
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Article By John Torsiello

2020 was going to be epic. A powerful repeat-digit year that we last had in 1919, but this was extra special – a double-digit year, not seen since the Middle Ages in 1010.

As 2020 approached, the economy was booming. People were planning 2020-themed weddings and special trips, and those graduating in the class of 2020 felt their group was extra special, all because of the numbers 20-20.

Here we are ringing in 2021, hoping there is never again a year like the one we just trudged through. We cried, we worried, we grieved, and we changed the way we lived, perhaps forever.

For many of us, 2020 began with a pall of sadness. Connecticut was still processing the sudden death of Denise D’Ascenzo, the legendary newswoman, my co-anchor and “TV wife” for a quarter century. Her shocking death triggered what was said to be the largest outpouring of collective grief in Connecticut for a single person since the death of beloved governor Ella Grasso in 1981. For more than 30 years, Denise was a constant on televisions in our state, a beacon of warmth during the biggest news events of our time. As Gayle King put it, “this wasn’t supposed to happen. Denise was always supposed to be here.”

As 2020 began, I had to adapt to a new phase in my career, one as a solo anchor on the evening news. I didn’t take any extra time off. I’m fiercely loyal and felt I needed to be there on the news for the viewers, who would write to me saying that seeing me brought them some comfort, peace, and a sense of trust – that everything was going to be okay after such a devastating loss.

It was a time of tremendous sadness for me as I helped plan the memorial while responding to the cards, emails, Facebook messages, and gifts from distraught viewers. It wasn’t easy, but Denise would have wanted me to be a strong, dependable leader. I spoke to her husband and daughter almost daily during this time, while Kara and I monitored our children, who were still trying to comprehend the death of “Auntie Denise.” I found solace in deep conversations with some of my co-workers who were really having a tough time coping with her loss. Leading our team and our state through this bereavement was my top priority and what Denise would have expected. I felt her guiding me through that awful month. Still do.

Her public memorial was held on January 29, one day before her birthday, at the Connecticut Convention Center. The state united in mourning that day, at what would be one of the last big events before Connecticut and the world changed.

In late January, we started hearing a little about coronavirus, a deadly contagion overseas, but many people weren’t paying close attention. The drumbeat of stories continued through February and increased, reaching a peak in March as the threat of a deadly pandemic grew closer.

On March 20th, the governor ordered non-essential businesses to close. Gyms, restaurants, and schools were shuttered. Students came home from college, young professionals fled New York and Boston and beyond, to live with mom and dad back home in Connecticut. Many New Yorkers with the means to do so moved their family operations to country houses in Litchfield or beach cottages on the shoreline.

Supermarkets were vastly different. There was a run on toilet paper and cleaning products. Package stores were allowed to remain open, and they experienced brisk business. Students started what we know now as remote learning. We learned about Zoom, Webex, Google Meet, and Houseparty.

COVID-19 was a real thing, and it was killing people in Connecticut. By the end of April, more than 2,000 people had died. The number of infections increased daily, and we witnessed field hospitals being hastily assembled across the state for the overflow of patients. A little over two months after “Be Not Afraid” was played at the convention center during Denise’s memorial, people were afraid, as the mammoth complex was transformed by the National Guard into a makeshift hospital.

There was the economic fallout. Layoffs, furloughs, reduction of services, shortages, and closings became a part of Connecticut life. There were stories of people who lost loved ones to COVID, then lost their livelihoods as their businesses went under, never to reopen. In some cases, people died alone, their family not allowed to visit them as coronavirus stole their last breath. The grieving had to be done at home. Funerals weren’t allowed, and neither were social gatherings. There were no attractions open to take your attention away from the grim situation, no gyms to burn off steam or malls to pass the time.

There were so many unanswered questions. I helped launch a special edition of Face the State for Thursday nights with Governor Lamont and me, that became known as Thursdays with Ned and Den. On two of those broadcasts, the governor told our viewers if they had a problem with their unemployment claim, to “contact Dennis and he’ll let us know about it.” My inbox and voicemail blew up. I had so many people reach out to me with heartbreaking stories of jobs lost, mounting bills, and mouths to feed. I helped them navigate the bureaucracy of the state Department of Labor. The notes of thanks I received from people after their benefits were approved were a highlight of 2020.

Through these dark times, Connecticut began to shine.

We saw the state come together in unprecedented fashion. Social media was filled with messages of love for healthcare workers, first responders, restaurant employees, and those who worked at grocery stores. Those people were working extra hours on the front lines of the pandemic. We cooked more and had more family dinners. Families played games and went on hikes. Bike sales soared. Home improvement stores saw an uptick in business as people invested in fixing up their abodes. That room that was last painted in 1995? It finally got done. Free time for many was plentiful.

We embraced masks and the social distancing protocols. As spring turned to summer, we saw our state become a model of how to manage COVID-19. The experts told us the metrics were heading down, and we started to live a little. Not a complete return to normalcy, but restaurants and stores re-opened. Cities and towns allowed the expansion of outdoor dining into their streets. Our hair got longer as barbers and salons remained under quarantine.

We learned Connecticut was actually growing. Many of those people who fled big cities are still here. I have some new neighbors who bolted Brooklyn and love it here, and the real estate market in parts of Connecticut is red hot. My realtor told me of a house in West Hartford that listed for $625,000 and sold for $775,000 after a bidding war. In October, Governor Lamont told me more than 25,000 people have moved to Connecticut since the pandemic began and the moving trucks continue to come in.

A funny thing happened to me as the pandemic progressed. Connecticut is, of course, my home and I’m happy here, but I found myself really falling deeply in love with our great state, and my desire to see it survive and succeed intensified during this crisis. My commitment to inform, educate, and help Nutmeg Nation (did I just create that term?) grew stronger as the negative news increased. I found myself more energized as I would head into work knowing much needed to be done. I helped viewers on my day off and decided to give back a little. I picked up a stack of Dunkin’ gift cards to hand to people I would see at traffic lights with signs indicating they were down on their luck. I wanted to do my part.

As the summer came to an end, like so many people in Connecticut, I lost my job too – laid off after 28 years. Fall arrived, and we learned about major cutbacks at several companies; state health officials warned about a second surge, and it came. The state was forced to roll back some of its reopening plans and saw the COVID numbers start to creep up. At the time of the writing of this article, families were planning smaller Thanksgiving dinners and winter school sports had been cancelled. There is talk that visits to Santa Claus will be through plexiglass. No sitting on the big man’s lap.

If you had told me on December 1, 2019 of all the major changes that would come in 2020, I would have laughed hysterically and called you crazy.

I would have said: “Forget it. Tom Brady is not going to play for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.”

I would have been wrong.

So I know that there is no guarantee of what the coming year will bring. Still, I’m an optimist. I’m a positive vibes guy and know that better times are ahead for our state and for me. My loyalty to this state runs deep, and I believe Connecticut is a fantastic place to live. I’m confident that 2021 will be a great year. There are signs of new shops and eateries opening, a major development project just got underway next to the home of the Hartford Yard Goats, and all of our new fellow residents are spending money in our state, their new home. Two pharmaceutical companies recently announced new vaccines – both of them reported to be 95 percent effective. It’s the breakthrough we’ve all been waiting for.

There’s no question in my mind that we will overcome this unprecedented global challenge. In Connecticut, the Land of Steady Habits, we will hang tough and continue to do what we’ve always done – pull together, help one another, and lift each other up as we begin to glimpse the light at the end of the tunnel.

That’s something we can all do, to make 2021 a better year.

That’s what Denise would have done.

Photography by Stan Godlewski

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