Louis J. Fossi, 83, former first selectman, businessman, Ridgefield native

Louis John Fossi, a Ridgefield native, longtime resident, and former first selectman, died Sept. 22 in the hospice unit of Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center in Charlotte, N.C. He was 83, and had lived in South Carolina for 16 years.

In his final hours, he kissed his wife, expressed his love to his surviving brother and three sisters, embraced his children (and some of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren), and insisted he was the luckiest man ever.

A Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated on Friday, Sept. 27, at 10:15 a.m. in St. Mary Church, 55 Catoonah Street.

Interment will take place at the direction of the family.

The family will receive friends in the  Kane Funeral Home, 25 Catoonah Street, on Thursday, Sept. 26, from 5 to 8 p.m.

Mr. Fossi’s story is in large part a story of Ridgefield, just as he became a small part of Ridgefield’s story.

His parents, Ida and Domenico, came to Ridgefield just before World War I from tiny hill towns in the Marches region of Italy. Here, like many of his fellow “Marchegiani,” his father found employment on one the large estates that in those days were found throughout town.

Mr. Fossi, fourth of seven, born on April 30, 1930, grew up where the East Ridge Middle School is today.

He graduated from Ridgefield High School in 1949, when Ridgefield was still a village of 5,000 or so. He worked various odd jobs, then served in the U.S. Air Force. While stationed at Gunter Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala., he met his wife, Mary Ann (Ann) Sweeney.

They were married on Thanksgiving Day 1953, and while still in Alabama had their first two children, Cathy and Peggy. Mr. Fossi returned to Ridgefield in 1956, where he and Ann had five more. His promise to someday return Ann to warmer climes would send them to South Carolina some four decades later.

Mr. Fossi had several careers — including selling shoes at Fossi’s Famous Footwear, insurance for Prudential, and homes throughout town.

He also for a time in the 1960s and 1970s owned Wayside Food Market on Danbury Road, across from Grove Street. Wayside was known for its personalized service and its outstanding meat department, and Mr. Fossi could often be found there holding forth behind the deli counter.

Most will remember Mr. Fossi, however, for his service to the town, including eight years in the 1960s as the lone Democrat on the Board of Selectmen, two years on the Board of Finance, and then four consecutive terms as first selectman, from 1973 to 1981.

It took some doing to be elected at all, in a town with a two-to-one Republican registration.

The Watergate scandal in 1973 may have helped a little, and his personable nature surely helped a lot. He was, as his wife says, a “people person” through and through. Everybody knew Lou, and Lou knew everybody.

Two months after he took office, nature gave him his first test as a leader — the extraordinary December 1973 ice storm (which inspired the Ang Lee movie) devastated the area, knocking out power for as much as a week in some areas while temperatures dipped to minus two.  Mr. Fossi, working closely with the splendid town crew led by Frank Serfilippi, helped to minimize the damage and speed the recovery.

There followed constant budget battles and problems with school building needs.

After his first term, the town’s GOP repeatedly tried to unseat him, casting him first as an unsophisticated greengrocer and then as the dictatorial “King Lou.” The voters, though, would have none of it; they liked their townie, and elected him by wide margins for three more terms.

In a time of change and challenge, his administration had many accomplishments: it built the town’s first senior citizen housing complex, Ballard Green. It helped bring Boehringer Ingelheim to town, breathing new life into the old high school building on East Ridge in the process.

It replaced the sanitary landfill (called, in those days, the “dump”) with a transfer station, and moved the police from their cramped quarters beneath town hall into their own headquarters.

Mr. Fossi served with fairness and integrity. He had the courage of his convictions, and never let personal convenience or interest divert him from what he believed was right.

When a Bridgeport developer, hoping to gain a foothold in Ridgefield, gave town officials televisions for Christmas, Mr. Fossi immediately donated his to Ballard Green, and encouraged his colleagues to do likewise.

He enjoyed the town meeting form of government, and loved the free expression of opinion it fostered.

Sometimes, of course, he crossed swords with Republicans from the right (who wanted to shrink the budget) and Democrats from the left (who wanted to slow the town’s growth), but the debates were almost always civil and respectful.

Occasionally, though, some irritation showed through.

An editor of The Ridgefield Press, reflecting on his days as a cub reporter, recalls traveling with Mr. Fossi in a town vehicle. Mr. Fossi turned on the air-conditioning, which was something of a luxury in those days of gas rationing and long lines at the pump. What would the head of the Ridgefield Taxpayers League — a constant political antagonist — think of that, asked the reporter, with some temerity?

“It’s because of people like him that I need the air conditioning,” shot back Mr. Fossi. Except that he didn’t say “people.”

That same reporter recalls one of the few times that Mr. Fossi was genuinely upset with one of his Press stories. He had quoted Mr. Fossi using the word “damn” or “hell,” which to the reporter seemed almost anodyne. But Mr. Fossi was livid; now Ann would read the quote, and he would be in hot water for weeks for cussing so freely.

During his South Carolina retirement, Mr. Fossi devoted himself to his favorite things: cooking (never with a recipe), reading, and his children and grandchildren. But he never lost his interest in Ridgefield; he continued to read The Press for years.

“You have to take your hat off to the people that run this town, whether it’s the boards and commissions or the garden clubs, whatever,” he said in an interview at his retirement. “They do make it a very, very attractive town to live in. Maybe we ought to pause and say ‘thank you’ some time.”

And, he never lost his interest in politics. After he survived major surgery in 2003, Mr. Fossi’s oldest daughter, Cathy, asked him whether he had any regrets.

Yes, he said, he regretted missing the funeral of John F. Kennedy, whom he admired. When Ronald Reagan died, whom he also admired, Cathy phoned her father and asked if he wanted to go. He jumped at the opportunity and they spent a memorable day together.

Mr. Fossi’s greatest joy was to live out his life with Ann. He never hesitated to give her immense credit for raising his children. He kept his promise to take her back to her southern home, leaving Ridgefield for South Carolina in 1997. Even at the end, when he could scarcely lift his arms, he blew kisses to her from his bed.

Besides his wife, Mr. Fossi is survived by his three sisters, Dorothy Marconi of Wallingford, Elsie Craig of Ridgefield, and Norma Contessa of Newtown; his brother Thomas Fossi of Charleston, S.C.; his children, Mary Catherine (Cathy) Gregory of Charlotte, N.C., Margaret Ann (Peggy) Oldham of Hilton Head Island, S.C., Lawrence Fossi of New York City, Joseph Fossi of Ridgefield, Daniel Fossi of Danbury, and Loretta Jouanno and James Fossi, both of Norwalk; his 13 grandchildren, Maj. Matthew Gregory of St. Louis, Mo., Erin Gregory of Charlotte, Emily and Teddy Oldham of Hilton Head Island, Randall, Derek, and Persephone Fossi, all of Houston, Texas, Alex and Brendan Fossi of Ridgefield, and Ryan and Juliette Jouanno, and Phoebe and Maya Fossi, all of Norwalk; two great-grandchildren, Jonah and Peyton Gregory of St. Louis; his sons-in-law, Wayne Gregory of Charlotte and Frank Oldham of Hilton Head Island; by his daughters-in-law, Diane Thompson Fossi of Ridgefield, Barbara Duncan Fossi of Danbury,  Melissa Jacobs Fossi of Norwalk, and Juliet Gold of New York City.

He was predeceased by his brothers, Robert Fossi and John Fossi.

Contributions in his memory may be made to Saint Mary School, 183 High Ridge Avenue, Ridgefield, CT 06877; or to Southbury Training School, Cottage 18, 1461 South Britain Road, Southbury, CT 06488-0901 Attn: Pam Webb, Director’s Office.

Lawrence J. Fossi, a former reporter and editor for The Ridgefield Press and The Wilton Bulletin, is an attorney in New York City. Press news editor Macklin Reid contributed to this obituary.