By Dan Shine
“Few are left who know how much I have done.”
When Pauline and Otto Lang moved from the Midwest to the young town of West Haven in 1936, they found that their new community had a great many needs for activities and social programs for its residents—especially for its young people. So, while Otto spent his days as Chief Chemist at the Armstrong Rubber factory, Pauline threw herself into a great many volunteer activities for the good of the community. Pauline had earned her master’s degree in social work in 1933; this education made her well prepared to confront West Haven’s many social needs.
Street corner gangs were a growing problem in West Haven. Juvenile delinquency was rampant—in one eight month period, 420 cases were reported to the town’s one and only probation officer, who also ran a trucking business on the side, and held a paid job as a mail clerk at the state House of Representatives in Hartford! The town had established a “boys club” in a red light district near Savin Rock; on either side of the club house was a tavern—not exactly a wholesome environment for impressionable youths. Everywhere there were boys and girls who did not belong to Scouts, Hi-Y or church groups, and who needed to belong to constructive recreation programs.
Thus, in 1941, Pauline Lang set herself to the task of founding the Group Work Council of West Haven, which today is known as the West Haven Community House Association. At a meeting to determine the recreational needs of West Haven’s youth, she recommended that a survey be taken of West Haven families, to carefully define just what was needed—but no one was available to administer the survey. In the end, Pauline Lang single-handedly interviewed 1700 families and produced a great deal of useful information which helped identify the problems that existed.
She recognized the need for volunteer support for this program; the support of ten volunteers was offered on the condition that the program should be headed by a professionally trained social worker—Pauline Lang saw to it that this prerequisite was met. Within a few months, the Group Work Council had grown from ten members to over sixty, and Pauline Lang was elected as its president.
But as her reputation grew, it was clear that certain elements and groups in West Haven distrusted Pauline Lang’s motives; the anonymous telephone calls and mudslinging then began. The underlying fact was that many West Haveners and many in political office were naturally suspicious of outsiders who came to town with new ideas that would upset the status quo.
And, so it was a brave Pauline Lang who accepted an invitation to speak about her program at a town meeting. Well she knew of the epithets and catcalls that would greet her when she spoke—and she was right. As Pauline Lang went to the podium in the old Town Hall, she was greeted with shouts of “communist,” “carpetbagger,” and “Who do you think you are?” They would not let her speak; and then Rev. Hall of the Methodist Church stood up. “I don’t know Mrs. Lang, but I want to hear her speak.” And then he too was shouted down. Somehow, by the end of the evening, Pauline Lang had addressed the biggest town hall meeting in years—and she had convinced many of the taxpayers of the soundness and the worthiness of the program.
Some of the newspapers praised Pauline Lang’s speech; others distrusted and criticized her. But the program that she envisioned moved forward. A ten-room building on Elm Street was rented with an option to buy; it was on a streetcar line, and occupied a 135 x 500-foot lot, which presented many opportunities for activities for West Haven’s youth. Ultimately, the house was purchased in 1943 for $8000. The organization finally had a home, and has remained there to this day.
Today, the West Haven Community House offers a multitude of programs for West Haveners of all ages. But this would not be so if it was not for the vision, the bravery and the hard work of Pauline Lang.
Later on in life, she became a professor and still later the Social Work Director at what is today known as Southern Connecticut State University, and upon her retirement she was named Director Emeritus of Social Work at the university, but that’s another story for another day.