February 9, 2021
By Greg Smith
New London — He will always be known as one of the Bulkeley boys.
New London native Harold Arkava was many things in his life, but friends say his tenacious efforts to protect and pay homage to his high school alma mater, The Bulkeley School, is likely to be remembered for generations.
Arkava died over the weekend at the age of 94.
“He was a piece of work. They don’t make 'em like him anymore,” said longtime friend Joseph Heap, who served with Arkava on the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission in the 1980s and 1990s.
Heap reminisced about his friend this week, calling Arkava a funny guy, a bit offbeat, no nonsense and a great storyteller whose tales became more unbelievable with the more cognac he drank.
Arkava served for 16 years on the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission before leaving in 1994. During that time he would have lunch with developers one week and butt heads with those same developers when they came before the commission the next, always keeping things entertaining, Heap recalls.
“I don’t tell people what they want to hear, I tell them what I want them to hear,” Arkava told a Day reporter in a 1988 interview. “That’s called leadership, without blowing my own horn. I’m a leader, not a follower.”
Roseann Marks, a former city employee who was a recording secretary for the commission, said Arkava had his own personality and style.
“He was strong minded, articulate, explained things beautifully and was good with people, even if they didn’t get what they wanted,” Marks said. “He had a command of the podium and of the gavel and his voice could project.”
Marks said she became fast friends with Arkava and threw a surprise birthday party for him at Ocean Beach Park when he turned 80. Several hundred people showed up.
Arkava was honored for his efforts to promote preservation of historic buildings in the city when he received the Clifford Stone Award from New London Landmarks in 1993.
Even those who did not know him from his days on the commission might recall him as the man walking all over the city with a plastic bag over his shoulder. Arkava had taken to walking several miles a day, schmoozing with residents and collecting bottles and cans for extra money to add to the scholarship fund he started in order to provide a boost to college-bound descendants of fellow Bulkeley graduates.
What is now known as the Harold J. Arkava Scholarship Fund began awarding scholarships in 1988 and earned Arkava the unofficial title of grandfather of the Bulkeley boys, since most of the scholarship recipients were young enough to be his grandchildren. The Bulkeley boys are the graduates of the all-boys school that closed its doors in 1951. Arkava was a 1944 graduate of the school and focused his efforts on keeping the school’s memory alive when he started the scholarship fund with just $2.
It was a response to a different scholarship that had been set up with proceeds from the sale of the school but only available to New London residents. Since Bulkeley had welcomed students from across southeastern Connecticut, Arkava figured that funding should be available to all relatives of Bulkeley graduates.
The scholarship fund had grown to $1.3 million by the time Arkava transferred the money to the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut in 2016. Hundreds of students have benefited and more than $70,000 is slated to be awarded this year. The fund balance is at nearly $1.8 million, said Alison Woods, vice president and chief development officer at the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut.
She said it was an honor for the foundation to carry on Arkava’s work.
“He really dedicated himself. Harold had amazing energy when it came to this. Not only did he do a good job stewarding the money during his time overseeing it, he was a very effective fundraiser,” Woods said.
Arkava said through the years that giving money to help the younger generation continue their education gave him an inner glow, having himself come from modest means.
Tony LaLima, who graduated from the Bulkeley School in 1949, worked with Arkava and Myron Hendel for decades on organizing the annual Bulkeley School reunions, an event that used to draw hundreds of former grads from all over the country for a day of fraternal bonding.
Arkava was fond of saying participants were members of the “most exclusive private club in the United States of America.”
Bulkeley grads had until recently joined for dinners at the Port 'N Starboard Restaurant at Ocean Beach Park. LaLima said there is a pride and camaraderie among graduates who went on to be star athletes and have successful careers.
“It was also a special place where everybody knew everybody else. For those four years of high school, it was the best experience anybody could get,” LaLima said.
After a pause in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic, LaLima said plans are underway for the 54th reunion, though it is still unclear if it will happen this year.
The reunion switched venues in recent years to Langley’s Restaurant at the Great Neck Country Club in Waterford, mostly because of the age of the participants and their ability to walk up the stairs at Ocean Beach. LaLima said participants used to come by the hundreds but numbers have fallen to the 60s or 70s, with most graduates now in their 90s. There were more than 700 graduates when LaLima started work on the reunions and at last count 325 were still alive.
Bulkeley School opened in 1873 and closed in 1951, when New London High School opened. The building where it was housed is now part of the Regional Multicultural Magnet School. It was one of three schools in operation at the time, including the all-girls Williams Memorial Institute and William H. Chapman Technical High School.
Bulkeley maintained a preparatory-like reputation for producing star athletes and students and achieved fame for a New England basketball championship in 1951.
Arkava, the son of Sam and Molly Arkava, lived in his family home across the street from the school for most of his life. Friends said he stayed to keep an eye on the school.
He was a vocal opponent of early plans for the redevelopment of the school into a commercial complex with offices and a restaurant. He also rallied the neighborhood and petitioned the City Council when the city moved the statue of former Gov. John Winthrop from Bulkeley Place to Eugene O’Neill Drive in 1974. It was returned in 1986.
Arkava was a lifelong bachelor who served 2½ years in the Navy after high school and earned a business management degree from the University of Connecticut. He was known for a time as “Crazy Harold” on radio ads for a Norwich car dealership he ran with business partner Carl D. Sherman in the 1950s. After some world traveling, he would later go on to operate a wholesale car business.
Martin and Rona Rutchik, longtime close friends of Arkava, recall a man who was well traveled, well read and fun to be with.
“Whatever Harold did, he did with excitement, determination and fun,” Martin Rutchik said.
One of Arkava's goals was raising money for the Bulkeley scholarships, which Rona Rutchik suspects was because he never had family or children of his own.
“He was sensitive of the fact the kids of New London didn’t have the chances in life others did. He wanted the community to help them,” Rona Rutchik said.
“This was one of his life goals and I think he achieved it,” LaLima said.
The Rutchiks, who had been visiting Arkava in his final days at Beechwood convalescent home in New London, said he was well cared for and in good spirits. His final wish of being buried near his good friend Myron Hendel also was being honored.
Arkava will be buried with military honors on Wednesday in a private ceremony. A gathering for a celebration of his life at Ocean Beach Park is being planned for spring or summer, or as soon as pandemic conditions allow.