A state in the middle

I have been a country boy all my life,'' Howard Carter says. So it was only natural that when the tall, soft-spoken engineer left Fairfax, Va., six months ago for a new job in New York, he wanted to live as far out of the city as was convenient. One thing led to another, and now Mr. Carter calls Wilton, Conn., home.

Like other commuters here in Fairfield County, clutching their copies of the New York Times and styrofoam cups of coffee as they wait for the 7:06 express to Grand Central Station, Carter says he thinks of Connecticut as a New England state.

In fact, if you travel around this state, there isn't a faster way to provoke an argument than to ask residents if they seriously believe themselves to be New Englanders - unless you ask them whether Connecticut should have a personal income tax. (It doesn't.)

But is it really a New England state? Or has it become, as many people in northern New England seem to think, merely an extension of New York?

In a whimsical front-page story a few years ago, New England's largest daily, the Boston Globe, suggested that Connecticut was a state in search of an identity.

The land mass south of the Massachusetts Turnpike, the story said in part, ''is an inconvenient stretch of highway between Boston and New York'' whose last traces of New England flavor ''probably will dissolve'' in the urban sprawl of those two cities.

In many ways, Connecticut is atypical of the rest of New England.

John Naisbitt, author of the best-seller, ''Megatrends,'' selected it as one of only five bellwether states - indeed, the only one in the Northeast. He cited its leadership in setting minimum education standards, in establishing safeguards for workers on the job, in eliminating monthly minimum utility charges for poverty-level customers, and in electing a woman governor in her own right.

Not only is the Nutmeg State closer to the nation's largest market - with its powerful financial, cultural, political, and social influences - than the rest of the region, but it also is the most densely populated and most affluent. And with the possible exception of Massachusetts, it is the most industrialized.

Moreover, that industry is of a higher technological order than most of the rest of New England. Pratt & Whitney in East Hartford builds jet engines, including the new one just approved for testing on Boeing 757s next summer. Sikorsky in Stratford builds helicopters. General Dynamics' Electric Boat division in Groton builds Trident submarines for the US Navy. The US Coast Guard Academy - if that counts as an industry - is at New London. No other state in the nation is more dependent on the defense industry than is Connecticut.

As a partial consequence, the statewide jobless rate is down to 4.8 percent of the work force for the latest reporting period, according to statistics released last week. Per capita income for 1982 was $13,687 - almost $2,000 higher than in any other state in the region. For its 1984 economic forecast, Connecticut magazine surveyed economists around the state and found unanimous agreement: It should be a fair-weather year.

Connecticut is also the New England state most heavily committed to legalized gambling. In addition to its lottery and dog-racing tracks, it sanctions professional jai-alai and off-track betting on horse races.

Even in subtle ways, there are indications that Connecticut's membership in the region may be in dispute. Some automakers, advertising on a New England-wide basis, drop out any mention of the Connecticut dealers when they promote their new models on television.

None of this fazes the state's defenders, however.

''Connecticut, with its deep wooded hills, wide river valleys, and sunny shores, is New England at its most enchanting,'' proclaim Department of Commerce travel brochures. ''Scenic, colorful, historic, and compact, Connecticut is New England in capsule form.''

Bob Kelchner, who sells newspapers and dispenses early-morning greetings to the hundreds of commuters who file through the Westport railroad station every weekday, says most of them are New York-oriented. ''But the local people think they're New Englanders. Especially the Italians; a lot of them have been here for generations.''

Says Dick LaBouchere, editor of Connecticut magazine, the only publication that circulates throughout the state: ''There is a mind-set (in states to the north) that Connecticut isn't part of New England, and that annoys us. We feel very much a part of New England.''

Indeed, he says the staff of his publication learned through experience that trying to be a mirror image of the widely admired New York magazine wasn't what readers wanted. Although Connecticut magazine serves an affluent, well-educated audience, he claims, ''people here don't like all that cynicism. We find that Connecticut is very provincial. People in Salisbury grumble about too many weekenders from New York.''

Whether their state is regarded by others as being a part of New England ''is a matter of some concern to people in Connecticut, symbolically as well as in other ways,'' adds University of Connecticut political scientist G. Donald Ferree. ''People here have no trouble recognizing that southern New England is different - but is still New England.

''If you ask: Is Connecticut typical of New England? And you take into account Massachusetts, which is part of the rest of New England, I think you also have to ask: Is Massachusetts typical of New England? In some ways, I think Connecticut is probably more typical of the rest of New England than Massachusetts is.''

Dr. Ferree, who doubles as associate director of the prestigious Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, says Connecticut's essentially conservative and relatively ''unaggressive'' state government more closely resembles the traditional New England model than does Massachusetts. Connecticut towns, he says, jealously guard their individuality in true Yankee fashion.

Dick Ahles, news director of WFSB in Hartford, the state's largest and most-watched television station, agrees. There is no way, he says, that WFSB can get away with lumping the cities and towns in its coverage area together and calling the amalgam ''metro country'' or something similar.

Indeed, he says, this independent streak poses certain challenges to shaping WFSB's news coverage: Stories must ''travel well,'' meaning that they have importance beyond the city limits where they originate.

Yet Mr. Ahles, who has been with the station for 22 years, claims that Connecticut has ''a split personality.'' He draws an imaginary line across the state at Middletown, 25 miles southeast of Hartford.

''From Middletown down is (New York) Yankee country,'' he says. ''From Middletown up is (Boston) Red Sox country. I would say that the part of Connecticut where the Red Sox fans live is New England.''

But in the well-worn industrial city of Waterbury, which falls a shade below Ahles's dividing line, the local Chamber of Commerce unabashedly promotes the ''New England way of life'' in its attempts to lure businesses across the state line from New York, says vice-president Bob Zellinger.

''It's one of the main things we do pitch,'' Mr. Zellinger says. ''Some of the other things here are not positive - high energy costs, high labor costs compared to the South. The weather is not great. The real selling point is, you know, take a look; see how great the quality of life is. A lot of the people I've met live in Connecticut because they'd rather not live in New York - and yet the cultural and social niceties of New York are still available to them.''

And lest a visitor leave without the conviction that Waterbury is indeed a New England city, Zellinger walks to the chamber's second-floor picture window and points proudly to the traditional green just across North Main Street, flanked by the obligatory large churches. Similar scenes can be found in communities all the way to the Canadian border.

As for Yale University in New Haven, it entertains no doubts about its standing in the region, according to public information director Steve Kezerian.

''We very definitely, in the sense that our roots go back to the colonial period, consider ourselves a New England institution,'' he says. And yet he says the Ivy League school has no economists or political scientists who specialize in regional business or politics.

If there is one section of Connecticut that everyone agrees is most typical of New England, it is the easternmost counties of New London and Windham. They feature seaside villages along Long Island Sound, such as Mystic, with traditional cottages and quaint country inns, as well as mill towns, like Putnam.

Settled largely by French Canadians who were imported to work in the textile mills, Putnam carries its years as graciously as possible in the face of a declining local economy. But it is a struggle. Several of the downtown businesses are due to close, and there are rumors that others may follow. Town Hall is in need of renovation. The newest building in Putnam is a subsidized-housing project. Young people leave in search of brighter opportunities elsewhere.

Still, one businessman fights to perpetuate the old-fashioned Yankee values that the town was built on. He buys back automobiles from dissatisfied customers , writes off sizable debts owed by people he has known for years rather than try to dun them for the money, and quietly assists employees struggling with personal burdens. He looks for ways to help revitalize the town, such as proposing that a small abandoned mill be turned into a restaurant. And he delights in pointing to the welcome that this rural, virtually all-white community of 8,400 people has extended to its new black Methodist minister.

Is Connecticut still a New England state? ''Well, I think so,'' he says. ''That's what they tell us, anyway.''

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