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At 90, long-time Groton official retires

By Chuck Potter
The Day Of New London / December 11, 2011
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GROTON, Conn.—Catherine Kolnaski once suggested that no municipal meeting should last past 10 p.m.

That recommendation is now policy in the Town Council's rules. Called the Catherine Kolnaski Rule, it is not to be breached without due cause, even after the 90-year-old Kolnaski retires from elected office Dec. 6, having served 20 years on the Town Council and 14 as mayor in the City of Groton.

Kolnaski, a former World War II nurse and mother of four, is married to Edward Kolnaski, a veteran who taught in the Groton schools for more than 40 years. The gymnasium at West Side Middle School is named in his honor. Among their children and their families, there are a dozen teachers.

But that's not why there is a Catherine Kolnaski Magnet School in town. She chaired the Town Council Education Committee for 15 years, and co-chaired the Phase-I committee that conceived the school construction plan.

"It's amazing we got that passed," she said. "To get two new schools built (also Northeast Academy) and another renovated (Robert E. Fitch High School) is a great job. We worked hard."

Former Town Mayor Jane Dauphinais said Kolnaski has displayed a gentle type of leadership.

"She didn't repeat herself. She didn't talk a lot," said Dauphinais, who served with Kolnaski for eight years. "She never spoke loudly. But everything she said was worth paying attention to. She was one of these public servants with no other motive other than to serve. We sure could we use more of those."

Kolnaski recently had lunch with Dauphinais, former mayor Dee Hauber and former councilors Rose Marie Althuis and Lori Bartinik, all of whom once shared the council bench.

Kolnaski was on the Town Council from 1977 to 1981, and again, beginning in November 1995. Between stints, she held down a full-time job in the city.

"I ran for mayor in `81, and I won," she said. "I was mayor for 14 years. I lost in 1995. The election was in May, so in the fall I ran for the council. I was so glad to get back on."

Kolnaski said she never wanted to get involved in politics, but says she will "miss it terribly."

She said having been on the council helped her as mayor.

"Being mayor of the city is like a family," she said. "It's such a small town. I got so much help from all of the department heads."

Harry Watson, a 20-year veteran of the council, said Kolnaski's service to the city benefited the town as well.

"As mayor of the city, she brought the expertise of a CEO to the Town Council," he said. "That helps a lot, for things like purchasing and negotiating with the unions."

Kolnaski said there was lot to be proud of during her tenure in the city.

"One thing I was glad we got done was the lights at Washington Park," she said. "And I always felt good that we were able to keep the Submarine Memorial in the city."

Asked about regrettable decisions or incidents, Kolnaski recalled only one episode.

"The KKK came and stayed in Washington Park one time," she said. "That bothered me. When I called the town attorney, he said we had to let them. They came. There were no problems. They left. I don't know where they went. I never asked."

Kolnaski is a founding member of the board of directors of the Ledge Light Health District, which she was instrumental in establishing.

She said the city used to have a health director, Dr. McDermott, who was also a full-time physician. One person checked the water quality. Another person would check restaurants, she said.

"But people were calling about rats and mold and things," she said. "One lady said if I didn't do something about the rats in her yard, she wouldn't vote for me again.

"Dave Winkler (the town mayor at the time ) and I worked together on it. I called the state Department of Health. When they said we needed more than one municipality for a district, we said we had the City and the Town of Groton. I still attend meetings."

She hardly ever misses any. Watson said she also has near perfect Town Council attendance and attends more community functions than most other councilors.

Current mayor Jim Streeter affectionately refers to her as the Energizer Bunny.

"She just goes and goes, everywhere," he said. "She is such a knowledgeable woman. We're really, really going to miss her."

There is another Kolnaski rule, albeit unwritten. At the end of every meeting, when Streeter asks "if there is no further business," all eyes turn to Kolnaski.

"I move to adjourn," she says.

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