Beatrice Mildred Duni experienced neighborly kindness at an early age. She was seven years old when her father died. At that time, funerals were held at home. Two men, neighbors of her family on South Main Street, tried to help her though the ordeal. Samuel Spencer, a former lieutenant governor, whisked her away to Forest Park so she would miss the funeral preparations. Charles Bissell invited her to dinner for the same reason, but the dinner was awkward for Bede who didn’t know how to interact with the maid.
Thatcher George Belfit, Bede’s father, owned the gas station on the corner of High Street and Mountain Road. He was a Navy veteran, electrician, and on the school board. Despite the Great Depression and her father’s death, Bede had a wonderful childhood, thanks to the kindness of neighbors.
Maida Stiles Belfit, Bede’s mother, was the registrar of voters and tax collector. Bede often walked to the Town Hall with the tax money in hand. Bede worked in tobacco and recalled sitting in cow manure at the back of a truck coming home from the tobacco fields. She swam at Schwartz’s dam and skated in winter. She rode her bike to Forest Park and Babbs Beach where she roller skated with William (Bill) Robert Duni, her beau. She still has her roller skates, and she married Bill!
Before Suffield built its first high school, many Suffield students attended Suffield Academy, including Bede’s mother, father, Bede and Bill. Bede might be the oldest living alumna from Suffield Academy! When the new high school opened in 1939, now McAlister Intermediate School, Bill and Bede transferred there. Bede played on the basketball team and was the captain of the first cheerleading squad. Bill was a star baseball player.
Bede’s ancestors came over on the Mayflower. She is descended from the Whites, whose baby named Peregrine was the first known English child born to the Pilgrims in America. She is also related to the Stiles family, one of the first families in Connecticut. Ezra Stiles was an early Yale president. Her Stiles grandparents farmed and lived in the yellow house on High Street now owned by Suffield Academy. It is for them that Stiles Lane is named. Bill’s family emigrated to this country more recently. His grandfather Michael Dunaj (the original name of the family) came to the United States from Poland around 1913 and served in World War I.
At first Bill and Bede lived in the Windsor house made famous by the murders which occurred there, popularized in the play Arsenic and Old Lace. When they moved back to Suffield, Bill and Bede bought the house on Halladay Avenue East where Bede still lives today. They grew broadleaf tobacco, tomatoes and shrubs for the market, planted a large home garden and raised chickens and four children: Bobby, Patty, Sharon and Thatcher (Tad). All four children graduated from Suffield High School and had successful careers. Bill also worked at Pratt & Whitney for 41 years.
In 1959, Bede began working odd jobs in the schools. She reluctantly quit 53 years later when she was 88. She was a secretary at Bridge Street School, Spaulding, McAlister and the VoAg Center, now the Agri-Science Center where she worked with Harrison Griffin, its director. Harrison emphasizes that Bede was organized. Harrison believes that Bede invested in file folders because she had a file folder for everything and could instantly retrieve information, no matter the date. They worked together as a team, purchasing equipment and supplies for the new AgriScience building, submitting grants and filing paperwork necessary for students who exhibited at the Big E. She was Harrison’s best ally, made his life better, and she brought Bill who volunteered often.
Bede was active in the First Congregational Church where she was a founding “Choir Mom.” She sewed many of the youth choirs’ robes. She was the Girl Scout Cookies Regional Chairman filling the house and garage with hundreds of boxes of cookies. She and Bill raised funds for the school soccer team, state champions in 1961, presenting the team with jackets bought by funds from the sale of cider, donuts and tickets to weekly dances which they chaperoned. In their spare time, after their children grew up, Bill and Bede enjoyed traveling throughout the country.
Bede returned the neighborly kindness she received as a young child by the kindness she exhibited in work, as a volunteer and in her everyday life. She hopes that the Suffield community will continue to be a good neighbor to all.
Send a card or stop by to wish Bede a Happy 100th birthday and have some birthday treats on Saturday, November 25 from 2 to 5 p.m. at 129 Halladay Avenue East.