One of Wilton’s most beloved and respected former residents who called Wilton home for 53 years has passed away. Robert “Bob” Russell, a former first selectman and town historian who literally ‘wrote the book on Wilton,’ died on Saturday, June 18 at age 86.
Bob and his wife, Carol most recently lived in Redding, at the Meadow Ridge retirement community. According to their daughter, Jennifer Russell, they just celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary last Thursday, June 16.
Bob had a 35-year career as an electrical engineer with IBM, where he met Carol. Settling in Wilton, the two became deeply involved in the community with their two children, Jennifer and Jim, and through civic engagement. Bob was a dedicated volunteer with many Wilton town and organization boards that reflected his commitment to land preservation, libraries, learning and history. He served as a member on the boards of the Wilton Library Association, the Wilton Historical Society, and the Wilton Land Conservation Trust, and continued his volunteering even when his board tenures expired.
“I have such a love for the people and history of Wilton and wanted it to continue to be a great place for generations to come,” Bob wrote in a recent essay published in the Wilton Bulletin.
Bob dedicated many of his years volunteering on town governing boards, serving on Wilton’s Board of Finance and the Wilton Fire Commission before running for First Selectman, a job he held from 1993 to 1999.
In 2002, after he and Carol chaired Wilton’s bicentennial celebration, Bob decided to write the definitive book about Wilton’s 300-year history. He devoted himself to historical research, digging for hours through archives and records at Town Hall and several local libraries, and drew upon the personal accounts of many Wilton residents to author Wilton, Connecticut: Three Centuries of People, Places and Progress, what he said was “a labor of love.”
Beloved by residents as well, the book was chosen as the centerpiece of Wilton Reads 2022, the library’s community-wide reading program. The multi-week effort delved into the rich and vibrant history of the town of Wilton through several programs, including lectures, musical concerts, film and a tour of the Wilton Library History Room. Wilton Library partnered with the Wilton School District to weave in age-appropriate reading selections and curriculum around the topic of Wilton’s history.
Bob’s commitment to celebrating the town and its history was renowned. He often led walking tours of Wilton’s historical sites, including Hillside Cemetery, Lambert Corners and Wilton Center.
In 2017, GOOD Morning Wilton was privileged to accompany Bob on one such private tour of Lambert Corners to give a preview of a tour event. We will treasure the time spent in his presence and will always remember him as a kind, generous man eager to share his knowledge and experience with others, and we’re thrilled to have memorialized the time on video.
Later this week, Bob’s family will provide more information about funeral arrangements and how his life will be celebrated. With their permission, GMW has reached out to several people who have worked with and known Bob in various capacities over the years for their thoughts and tributes for us to publish today, and we will continue to add to this as others send their comments to us. As one person told us, “It’s hard to sum up what Bob meant … in only a few words.”
Paul Hannah, former First Selectman (1999-2005):
“On Saturday, Wilton lost a man who truly loved and enthusiastically served our Town. For many years Robert H. Russell was active in almost all Town organizations: Historical Society, Library, Republican party, Kiwanis Club, Congregational Church. In 1993 he was elected First Selectman, and, not surprisingly, he ran unopposed. In six years as the Town’s Chief Elected Official, he led the Town in expanding its open space holdings, acquiring land now the site of Wilton Commons and Trackside Teen Center, purchasing Ambler Farm, and insuring that Wilton Schools would have facilities second to none.
“I was honored to succeed Bob as First Selectman in 1999. A favorite memory of mine is having watched Bob, at a seat in the Town Clerk’s vault week after week, combing through three centuries of land records. The result was the thoroughly researched Town history, Wilton, CT Three Centuries of People, Places, and Progress. Long overdue, this book brought the Town’s first 300 years to life.
“Bob Russell will be sorely missed by the community.”
Nick Foster, Wilton Historical Society Interim Director:
“I’m very sad to hear of Bob’s passing. I considered Bob a good friend, as countless others in Wilton did. I’m sure there are many people more qualified to offer their thoughts on what Bob meant to this community, but I can say that maybe more than anyone Bob Russell is synonymous with Wilton history. His book continues to be the go-to resource for learning the town’s past, and I can say from personal experience it was frequently easier to reach out to Bob directly to help answer a question than to try and find the answer by pouring over our records in the archives. He was unparalleled in his ability to recall facts, anecdotes, and resources concerning Wilton’s history.
“More important was his desire to share that information with all who sought it. Bob was exceedingly generous to the Society and by extension, this community. Bob was always willing to lead a walking tour of a historic site or speak in front of a captivated audience at one of the Society’s programs. Bob loved the history of Wilton. He valued the people and events that constitute our shared history and he wanted to make sure others loved and valued that history as well. Our organization and the town are better for Bob’s contributions, and it’s safe to say the Wilton Historical Society’s continued success would not be possible without everything Bob brought as a board member, donor, volunteer, and visitor. I and everyone at the Wilton Historical Society will miss him greatly.”
Caroline Mandler, Wilton Library Association Executive Director
“Bob was a very dear friend to Wilton Library Association and he will be sorely missed by all of us. His dedication and contributions to our library and community have been tremendous, and we owe him a debt of gratitude. Our thoughts are with his wife, Carol, and his family in this time of sorrow.”
Elaine Tai-Lauria, former Wilton Library Executive Director
Bob was such a devoted friend, supporter and advocate of Wilton Library, and he did so much for this community. I shall always feel privileged and honored to have known him, worked with him (on so many library projects), and most of all to be able to call him a friend.
So many projects at library involve the history room, which really is a product of Carol and Bob. For the book sales, he was always a resource with the rare books —he ran the auction for the rare and special books. The number of things that they were involved with, they were always just giving to the community.
In 2018, the library recognized Carol and Bob at the annual Gala, and it was such an honor for us to pay tribute to them because of so much that they’ve done for the library. He constantly thought of ways to improve any organization that he was with and certainly the town. Along with so many other, I will miss him dearly.
Bill Brennan, former First Selectman (2005-2015) and Kathleen Brennan
“He got me into public service and I’m very indebted to him. He was a great mentor and he was one of Wilton’s great citizens. We will miss him terribly because in his retirement, he was always active and indicating Wilton’s history in many different ways with his lectures at the Historical Society. He was a great historian, and he’s going to be missed terribly.
“Kathleen and I were very saddened to learn of Bob’s recent death. He was one of Wilton’s greatest citizens and community leaders. His definitive book on the history of Wilton reflected his keen insight into the most interesting details of earlier days, complemented by his wonderful sense of humor. His life of public service and involvement in so many boards and community activities will be his lasting legacy. Our deepest personal sympathy to Carol and Bob’s family.”
David F. Clune, former Wilton Public Schools Superintendent
“Bob Russell served his adopted hometown of Wilton by doing so much, so well, for so many for so long as a public servant in many highly visible roles, culminating in his tour of duty as First Selectman. Bob shared his deep appreciation and respect for the history of Wilton, which he captured so eloquently and thoroughly documented in his book, Wilton Connecticut-Three Centuries of People, Places, and Progress. Bob and his wife Carol, in keeping with the Mission of the Wilton Historical Society, helped shine a light on the making and meaning of history through Wilton’s stories and historic preservation. May Bob’s insight and light continue to light future pathways.”
Lynne Vanderslice, Wilton First Selectwoman, 2015-
“Bob was a rare individual in terms of his selfless commitment to his community. He accomplished many things but may be most remembered and appreciated for his love of Wilton’s history and his leadership in preserving that history. His efforts will continue to benefit multiple generations to come.”
Den Taylor, Kiwanis Club of Wilton President
“A community leader on multiple fronts including Kiwanis, as well as being the de facto historian of Wilton, he will be sorely missed.”
Stephen Hudspeth, Friend
“Bob was always so thoughtful and gracious, and he was a good friend to so many of us in town.
“His last major public event occurred just last month when he delivered the capstone presentation to a full house in the Wilton Library’s Brubeck Room. His presentation concluded the Library’s “Wilton Reads” series for this year that featured his impressive book on Wilton’s history.
“Bob was clearly very much on top of his game in this presentation, with Carol nearby as always, along with his colleague and friend Julie Hughes, Ph.D., archivist at the Library’s Wilton History Room (renamed the Russell Room, as announced on the occasion of his presentation). Bob offered in that presentation an extraordinary array of detailed facts — with only photos of figures from Wilton history, about whom he recounted those fascinating stories, to guide his memory — as he led his audience through key periods in our town’s history using these figures’ stories to bring that history to life. He then answered questions from the audience that ranged across the centuries of Wilton’s history, each of which he answered very specifically and with his lively intellect, wonderful sense of humor, engaging insights, and unfailing graciousness fully evident to all of us.
“In fact, those were defining characteristics of Bob, and they held him in good stead both (as I’m confident was the case) in complex electrical engineering work at IBM just as they did for sure in his major leadership roles in town government here. For sure also, his intellectual curiosity never waned!”
“Bob Russell was a gentleman and a treasured part of ‘old’ Wilton. His devotion to and knowledge of this town was unrivaled. Bob always took great pleasure in reaching across the generations to help folks understand the rich history of our corner of the world. He will be missed by many, including the Brubeck family.”
Toni Boucher, Former State Senator, Former Bd. of Selectmen member during Bob Russell’s term as First Selectman
“My heart breaks for Bob’s family and loved ones. I have been lucky to call Bob and his wife Carol my friends and all my love is with Carol during this extremely difficult time. As we mourn this painful loss, we must also remember and honor all that Bob stood for.
“Bob embodied public service. He had so much love for Wilton; for our town’s history, our community, and our people. When he was First Selectman I was fortunate to serve on the Board of Selectmen and I witnessed firsthand how hard Bob worked to make our town a great place and to support each and every resident. I will personally miss his guidance and counsel so much. He was always there whenever needed, sharing his wisdom and perspective. He was and will always be a local treasure, active in making our community a better place for the future, and preserving our history and past.
“Bob is forever a piece of our town, and his life must be celebrated for all that he has done for Wilton.”
Tom Dubin, Wilton Democratic Town Committee Chair
“Wilton’s Democratic Town Committee joins all Wiltonians in sadness to learn of Bob Russell’s passing. As First Selectman he governed with an open door. Democrats who served with him on our town’s boards and committees consistently recall that he welcomed all points of view, both publicly and privately. Wilton will benefit from Bob’s foresight and leadership for generations, and we will forever hear his voice through his deeply researched and compellingly written town histories. Nobody exemplified a love for Wilton more than Bob Russell.”