Updated, 3 p.m. Saturday: Thoughts from The Maritime Aquarium.
NORWALK, Conn. — Former Norwalk Mayor Bill Collins has died at age 87.
Collins was driving to California to visit a family member and was in a one-car accident, according to Michelle Gibbs, his daughter-in-law. Police called her Thursday night and notified her, she said. The accident was in or near Farmington, N.M. Police think he fell asleep at the wheel.
Collins was State Representative for District 140 from 1974 to 1977, and Mayor from 1977 to 1981 and from 1983 to 1987. Born and raised in Norwalk, he founded Minuteman Media, which later became OtherWords, in 1998. His political history also includes three terms on the Common Council. He was a Korean War veteran and former national board member of Veterans for Peace.
Collins never stopped trying to make Norwalk a better place, routinely speaking to the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency on topics such as affordable housing and redevelopment plans, and issuing opinions for publication in news outlets. From 2013-15, he led a SoNo Task Force.
Collins had two stepsons through his marriage to Elizabeth Villa “Tish” Gibbs, according to Michelle Gibbs. He had three grandchildren. Tish Gibbs died a year ago.
“I am heartbroken by this news and praying for his family,” Norwalk Democratic Town Committee Chairwoman Eloisa Melendez said in an email to the DTC.
Former Mayor Alex Knopp released a statement:
“Bill Collins was the architect of Norwalk’s modern urban government. His policies of staff professionalization, active city planning, support for education, historical preservation, using the Maritime Aquarium for tourism as a city economic development, and support for affordable housing all laid the foundation for the modern successful city that Norwalk has become.
“His rescue of the SoNo downtown from the wrecker’s ball became known as one of the most important urban preservation projects in the country.
“Bill was my closest friend in Norwalk. I served as Council president when he was Mayor and got hooked on how city government functions. He was the first person to urge me to run for Mayor. Bill presided at my wedding and our families went on many vacation trips together to walk the streets and parks in other states.
“Recently I tried to take Bill out for lunch every few weeks and was saddened to witness his loss of energy and hearing. Norwalk owes him a lot and my family will dearly miss him.”
Former City Clerk Donna King, who led the Democratic Town Committee for years, said, “Bill Collins and Tish Gibbs pioneered in the area of urban preservation and development. The Recycling program in Norwalk was their baby. They were a strong team in so many important areas, especially as leaders for affordable housing. As Common Council members, we learned so much about how government works from them. They will be missed.”
The Maritime Aquarium was a cornerstone of Collins’ plan to revitalize South Norwalk, the Aquarium said in a Saturday statement, mourning his loss.
“Without his bold leadership urging preservation of the past as a launch pad to the future, we and our beloved SoNo would not be here today,” stated Clay Fowler, chair of The Maritime Aquarium Board of Trustees.
“Bill was a true friend and a visionary for Norwalk,” said Christopher du P. Roosevelt, founder of The Maritime Aquarium. “He initiated the South Norwalk redevelopment process, stuck with it through thick and thin, and was an ultimately practical leader who got things done. He truly cared about the people of his community and worked hard to better his community and his neighbors. We all are the better for his commitment and will miss his leadership, care, and humorous light touch.”
The full statement is reviewed here.
Kay Anderson and Bruce Kimmel, District D Democrats, knew Collins well.
“Bruce and I are so sad – we will miss Bill, our dear friend and neighbor, and just an all-around wonderful human being,” Anderson wrote. “We loved him and we loved Tish.”
“We had a long history,” said former Mayor Richard Moccia, a Republican. “I served as Fire Commissioner for a time during one of his terms. During his time, he did much to modernize Norwalk and move it forward. I did not agree with Bill on many issues, both locally and nationally. But I respected his dedication and knowledge of the workings of government.”
“The loss of former Mayor Bill Collins is a tragedy for Norwalk,” Mayor Harry Rilling said. “He was a highly respected individual and Mayor. He had tremendous love for Norwalk and through his leadership and deep commitment to giving back to the community, made a lasting impact on our city. He was especially passionate about issues such as affordable housing and finding ways to help the less fortunate. He has certainly left an enduring mark on our community and we will miss him.”