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The sage of Steward Street and the gun debate

By David Collins

Publication: The Day

Published February 17. 2013 4:00AM

I won't say 83-year-old Versie Mitchell misled me when she invited me to come visit her at home on Steward Street in downtown New London.

But I will admit she used some wily persuasion on our original phone call.

First, she threw out the outline of an interesting story, a neighborhood frustrated by loud noises waking people up in the wee hours of morning.

Then, to make sure she had the hook in, she dropped the name of The Day's publisher.

After I had spent a little time with her at home, Mitchell explained the circumstances by which she had come to know the publisher. By then, of course, it didn't matter whether they were old friends or passing acquaintances.

Mitchell already had drawn someone from the newspaper's newsroom into her living room, where she was telling her story.

Apparently, I was able to help Mitchell with her problem.

At least my subsequent inquiring call from the newsroom seemed to put an end to the loud emptying of Dumpsters at a nearby office complex which Mitchell said was waking her and her neighbors at 3 every morning.

The manager of the office building was gracious when I called, and he said he would be sure the early-hour noise would come to an end, even if he had to change trash haulers.

For the record, city police also said they would respond, if the noise continued, to make sure no noise ordinances are violated.

Mitchell later graciously thanked me for making calls, saying the noise has indeed stopped.

But I should thank her, because during our chat Mitchell shared some of her thoughts on the tragedy of the Newtown shooting that I have found myself mulling over a lot.

Mitchell moved to Connecticut from her home in the South after her mother died many years ago. She eventually had a long career at Electric Boat, working in the shipyard's machine shop, helping build submarines through the Cold War.

She moved to the house she owns on Steward Street in 1986.

When she moved to Connecticut, she brought along a family member with some mental health issues, taking him out of an institution near their childhood home and finding room for him in one here.

As it turned out, Mitchell's relative ended up in a psychiatric hospital in Newtown, the sister facility to Norwich State Hospital. She traveled back and forth from New London to Newtown, seeing to his well-being.

Eventually, as part of the deinstitutionalization of hospital patients, Mitchell's relative was moved into the first of a series of group community homes where he ended up living. Mitchell followed his progress and got to know people in the homes where he lived.

When I met her, Mitchell raised the issue of Newtown. For her, Newtown refers both to the recent school shooting as well as the institutionalization of her relative.

The Newtown lesson she wanted to pass along is that sometimes you have to make hard decisions to seek care for your loved ones, for their sake and the sake of your family and the community.

And even when the hospital in Newtown closed, Mitchell said, there were still state facilities and a safety net available for people like her relative.

Of course, every individual is different and circumstances vary a lot.

And I know that budgets have changed and the system is different than when Mitchell made use of it for her family.

But what I took away from my conversation with her is that there is no shame and not necessarily a shortage of resources in seeking help for loved ones whom you know need it.

I could see that even now, Mitchell takes some comfort in the help she made sure was delivered where it was needed.

And of course I now know that Mitchell is not someone who is shy about asking for assistance.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

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