By Imogen Howe, June 2016
Joan D. Ensor — a lifelong resident of Redding, whose impeccable journalism, prolific and skillful letter-writing, and tireless activism were instrumental in guiding Redding through the twentieth century to become the town it is today — died on June 9, 2016, at an assisted-living facility in South Burlington, VT. She was 103.
“Joan lived the life she wanted in a town she loved. Her example will live on in the significant contributions she made to the Land Trust,” says Joan’s friend and colleague Mary Anne Guitar, a former first selectman and the current chairman of the Redding Land Trust. Indeed, of all the causes Joan championed, and the many boards and commissions of which she was a hard-working member, none was more important to her than the Land Trust. She was involved with it from its beginning, in 1965. Her older brother Benton Deming was its first president, and she herself was president from 1977 to 1987. She remained on its Board of Directors for years after that.
Joan Hawthorne Deming Howe Ensor, a great-granddaughter of Nathaniel Hawthorne (and the last of her generation, in her branch of the family), was born on May 5, 1913, in the old farmhouse in West Redding which her parents, Imogen Hawthorne and Dr. William Champion Deming, had bought in 1908. She would live virtually her entire life within a fraction of a square mile of that house. She spent her childhood on the farm. With four older siblings and a gang of cousins and friends, she roamed Redding, riding horseback, swimming in the Saugatuck River, playing tennis, putting on plays, and writing for their Story Club.
Along with siblings and cousins, Joan attended the home school taught by her uncle Henry Hawthorne. Briefly, after her parents’ porce, she attended public school in Hartford, then went on to Spring Hill School, in Litchfield. She graduated from Saint Margaret’s School, in Waterbury, in 1932, and from Vassar College in 1936.
In May, 1937, she married Paul Willard Howe, of Pleasantville, NY, who was a bank executive and jazz musician. After Paul returned from his service in World War II, they installed a furnace in the old farmhouse and settled there permanently. Their children, Imogen and Sally, grew up there.
Joan served as Democratic Deputy Registrar of Voters, and on the Democratic Town Committee. She was a member of the League of Women Voters and the Children’s Services of Connecticut. She also served on the Redding and the Regional Boards of Education, and for 12 years on the Zoning Commission. An avid tennis player, she participated every summer in the Redding Tennis Tournament.
In the early 1960s her marriage ended in porce. Shortly thereafter, Joan began her career as a newspaper reporter.
In 1965, she married W. Clois Ensor, of Redding, a music teacher, flutist, and conductor. They built a house just up the hill from where Joan was born.
Joan was Redding’s reporter to The Danbury News-Times for many years. Her articles appeared also in The Newtown Bee, The Bridgeport Post, and The Norwalk Hour. To The Redding Pilot, she contributed a series of articles called “On the Town,” which tell of early 20th-century life in Redding as she experienced it. Later, she collected the columns into a two-volume chap book, On the Town: Growing Up in Long-Ago Redding, and On the Town: Some Later Years in Long-Ago Redding, both still in print. She and John Mitchell were co-authors of the original Book of Trails, the Land Trust’s guide to its network of public trails, which is in its fourth edition.
In her fight against what she considered the complacency and dishonesty that had allowed overdevelopment to creep into other towns, Joan’s ultimate weapon was her writing. As a journalist she strove to write without bias — “clearly and logically, without false drama or gratuitous editorializing,” she said, in a letter praising another journalist. But in her hundreds of letters to editors of the local and national newspapers and magazines, and to congresspeople, governors, U.S. presidents, and the advice columnist Ann Landers, she used her writing to crack the whip of her passionate partisanship. She wrote to “set the record straight.” She wrote to deplore ineptitude. She wrote to oppose “monstrous power lines marching through Redding” (August, 2001). She wrote in favor of purchasing new open space: “So come on, everybody! Let’s live up to Redding’s tradition of farsighted enlightened self-interest. Let’s all get out tonight and vote to save yet another vital piece of open space, for the sake of the kids — and you and me. We won’t get another chance” (2002).
Joan’s brilliant, many-faceted sense of humor will be fondly remembered. She was a master of ironic repartee; for relaxation, she delighted in pure nonsense. She gave hilarious imitations of animal behavior, and loved a good pun.
For recreation she hiked, played tennis, and gardened. She and Clois, who was known as the Trail Boss, mapped and cut the trails through new open-space property as the Land Trust acquired it. Every summer for about 20 years they took a two-week pack trip in the American West.
Joan speaks for herself about her love of life. In 1997, she gave Ann Landers this advice: “Lighten up. … There’s a wonderful life out here, full of music, art, good books, nature, animals, friends, and fun. And the more you know, the more you’ll enjoy it all.”
Joan is survived by her daughters, Imogen Howe of Redding and Sally Howe of South Burlington, VT; her stepdaughters, Celinda Ensor Roman of Parkland, PA, and Persis Ensor of Exeter, NH; three grandchildren, Katie Foote Haddock of Brooklyn, NY, Seth Deming of Orlando, FL, and Noah Pollak of Washington, D.C.; and three step-grandchildren, Chris Roman of Wrentham, MA, Becky Roman of Brownington, VT, and Aaron Cass of Exeter, NH; three great-grandchildren, and four step-great-grandchildren.
Donations in Joan’s memory may be made to the Redding Land Trust, at PO Box 1076; Redding, CT 06875.