To me, the most interesting story about Barre politics is the story of the Barre Auditorium.
It was completed in 1939, dedicated by Mayor Edwin F. Heininger. The governor may have been there, other dignitaries. It was quite an event. It was the brainchild of a guy by the name of Sergio Pasetto, Italian guy who made it well and somehow or other got an appointment as postmaster during the Roosevelt administration and later was a key figure in the Granite Savings Bank. And Serge had this idea that Barre needed an auditorium to do what auditoriums do.
The City Council was comprised of about . . . I think six people with a mayor. No city manager; it was a mayor-council form of government.
The auditorium had an appeal to people of liberal and not so liberal persuasion because of what it did and would look like and might do in terms of business enterprise, and which later it did. It was a hot issue in the sense that it was federal money. WPA and PWA money went into the construction cost of the auditorium, but it had to be matched, had to have a local match.
It was interesting. I went through the proceedings of, of the City Council discussing the building of this auditorium, and it was interesting how virtually everyone on the City Council found a way to vote on both sides of each–of the issue, depending upon what the amendment was. But, finally, it came down to the fact really that the granite manufacturers saw it as a . . . .The result would be a tax increase of some sort. And the people saw it as a place their kids could go for athletic things and other promising ideas. And so the progressives, who usually don’t have the money, voted to pass the auditorium.
And finally it came to a vote in the city in a curious happening. I can’t tell you how it happened, whether it was legal or not, but they had a vote. I think it was on a Friday. And at the end of the day Friday, the pro-auditorium people were winning by a small number of votes. It was under 200. It might have been under 100. I can’t remember the number. So it was decided that the voting should be extended into the next day. This was in the middle of the voting process. And they thought that that way they’d get enough votes to block the building of this auditorium. But what happened is that simply more people weren’t going to work, so they were able to vote, and it overwhelmingly passed.
One editorial in the Times Argus, or, it was at that time The Barre Daily Times . . . . One editorial said there’s no reason to build that auditorium way up on that hill, practically outside of town. The auditorium, it’s on a small hill, and it certainly is not outside of town. (laughs) And it did pass.
I was there the day they broke the champagne bottle over it. They didn’t break a champagne bottle over it, but they should have. The City Council was all there and everybody. The old notion that success has a million fathers and failure none was certainly true. Everybody was in favor of the auditorium. The mayor, Edward Heininger, took a lot of credit for it. He must have walked both sides of the street in order to get it passed, if he did want it. I never was really clear who wanted it other than Serge Pasetto and a lot of people.
But it came into its being, and when it opened up a job opened up as Director of the Auditorium. The guy wore a necktie and a jacket. And he was a very important person. Then we had recreation directors, and we set up recreation programs in the basement of the auditorium. And during the winter it was used for basketball, all the time for grade school programs, mostly for boys, from 7th grade, 8th grade. And then all high school games were played there as well. And then it would bring in the basketball tournaments in March and April. They’d come in from all over the state, because it was really the best auditorium in the state for a basketball tournament. Maybe still is. I don’t know.
And in those days, you would have a policeman’s ball. That would be a fund raising thing of some sort, a dance with long dresses and a high-powered band. The fireman’s ball. And high school dances were taken place there as well. We had name bands–Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, all those guys. The Globetrotters came up one time, versus a team that Ralph Branca, the old Dodger pitcher, was on the other team.
In addition we had prize fighting. And in addition to prize fighting, we had wrestling. And I can still remember well: I was probably 12 years old, and there was going to be a wrestling match, and it sounded like something that I would be very interested in. I can still remember the name of one of the fighters. His name was Harry Smokler Finkelstein. They would put two guys in a ring. It was the same show they do on TV today, you know. And somebody would pull some soap from out of their bag, and they’d rub soap in the other guy’s eyes. And you had the time of your life. I can’t believe to this day my mother would let me go to that. If she knew what went on at that thing, she’d have a bird. But anyway. That was another kind of entertainment you had there.
And I remember the two janitors, Shorty and Bill. Bill was a great big, husky guy, and Shorty was short. And they’d tell stories of all kinds to the kids who came in. And then when we played baseball up there or other sports, the locker rooms were downstairs, so we’d get acquainted with Bill and Shorty and learn the stories and how the world works. And that was part of it.
And it was a magnet. Immediately, it was drawing people from–certainly from all over the county and even beyond to what they would call a farm show. And they’d have all this farm equipment. And a home show. And then they’d have all these refrigerators and stoves and everything you have at a home show. And it, it really worked because there was no TV to compete with. There was no, no nearby big box store where you could see anything like what you could see by the home show.
Tom Davis was a seventeenth generation Vermonter, political activist, public speaker, storyteller, author, and statesman. Also known as “Tom Terrific,” he was widely admired for his quick wit, humor, humility, kindness, wisdom, and generosity. He valued tolerance, forgiveness, compassion, and activity and lived his life accordingly. Tom's Bio and Photo Album →
In 2013, Tom Davis hired me to record his recollections and thoughts. I was serving on the Barre Historical Society (BHS) board with Tom. Years before, I had interviewed him about the early days of skiing in Vermont for the Vermont Historical Society and knew him to be an engaging story teller and welcoming person. At BHS meetings I found him to be committed to Barre, social justice, and working people as well. One night, Tom told me that, after having written three books about Barre and people he had known and worked with (and two political mystery novels), he was, at age 82, tired of writing but had more to say. I was honored when he asked me to interview him and to record his memories.
Tom called our sessions “interviews,” but little interviewing was necessary. Tom and I would meet in the conference room at Barre’s Aldrich Public Library and, after I’d set up and found a chair for him that didn’t squeak and he’d adjusted his hearing aids to prevent feedback, I’d ask a question, and off he’d go, speaking freely, keenly, and with gentle humor, while I mostly just sat and listened.
One session led to another. Eventually I had recorded 25 hours of Tom’s recollections about people he’d known, events he’d witnessed and participated in, and changes he’d seen. He also spoke about his love of baseball, skiing, and golf, about the importance of music, and about a world and state that are radically different from the ones he entered in 1931. I found his words illuminating and inspiring, and I admired his deep commitment to Vermont and Barre and, beyond that, to human understanding, fairness, and kindness. It was quickly clear that Tom had a prodigious memory and genuinely cared about the people who had passed through his lifetime of public service—whether a governor, a teacher, a granite worker, or an interviewer.
Tom was also a champion of life-long learning–for himself as well as for others. “Education doesn’t begin and end with the benchmarks of man,” he told my microphone. “Life is education. I may be wrong, but it seems that I’m never going to be able to catch up with what I need to know.”
He also had his peeves, especially partisan politics, income inequality, and the domination of social service programs by office-bound bureaucrats who had little interest in learning directly from the people they purportedly served.
Tom came to his increasingly progressive views without recourse to ideology and despite the leanings of some family and friends. He admired both his Republican father and Franklin Roosevelt and, after a brief flirtation with far-right conservatism while a student at UVM, saw the need for society to stand up for those without voice or opportunity. He was puzzled by people who “could give ten dollars to one man but wouldn’t give one dollar to ten men.” He, on the other hand, had “never been able to walk by somebody who needs a dollar.”
Tom and I discussed what to do with these recordings and decided that a section of the Barre Historical Society’s Old Labor Hall Web site would be an appropriate place for audio segments, transcripts, and photographs. Tom had a deep commitment to the Barre Historical Society and to the Socialist Labor Party Hall, which the BHS owns, maintains, and uses for a variety of community and educational events. The generosity of several folks who also want others to be able to benefit from Tom’s memories and wisdom has now made that site a reality.
The audio segments and transcriptions on this site have been edited for economy and clarity, while still retaining Tom’s warm, thoughtful voice. Some draw on multiple times that Tom spoke about a topic or told a story, and I’ve tried to edit and weave them into a single narrative. Some of Tom’s recollections also appear in his books and in the three commentaries he recorded for Vermont Public Radio in the months before his death.
The complete 25 hours of interviews also cover much more territory, and new segments may appear in the future. Unfortunately, we never got to some topics, including golf, skiing, and chess–three of Tom’s great passions. At some point, we hope that the full transcript will also be available, whether on this site or through a suitable archive.
It has been a pleasure and honor to work on this project. Tom Davis enriched my life. I hope he will contribute to yours as well.
Mark Greenberg, Montpelier VT, April 2020
Tom talks about life in his home town of Barre, Vermont.
The Community was Alive - Barre Memories (Part 1)
Barre life in the 1930s and '40s
A Melting Pot - Barre Memories (Part 2)
Ethnic diversity and street life in Barre
It was a Magnet
Tom talks about his family.
My Mother Was More Liberal
A Fair-minded Person
I Got Interested in Genealogy – Family History (Part 1)
I Came in with Roosevelt – Family History (Part 2)
\"My Mother Was More Liberal\" — Corinne Eastman Davis
Tom\'s mother and her family
A Fair-minded Person – Deane Davis
Tom\'s father\'s family and his politics.
I Got Interested in Genealogy – Family History, Part1
Tom looks back on the early history of the Davis family in America.
I Came in with Roosevelt – Family History, Part 2
Tom brings his family history to his own generation.
The politicians Tom knew and worked for and the programs he helped them implement
The Beginning of Change
FDR’s visit to central Vermont
He Wasn’t Afraid to Lose
Governor Phil Hoff
A Magnificent Leader
Sargent Shriver in Vermont
A Sense of Mission
Tom's experiences as Vermont's Secretary of Human Services
Involve the Poor – The Poverty Program (Part 1)
Vermont and the War on Poverty
True Believers—The Poverty Program (Part 2)
Directing the Office of Economic Opportunity and working across party lines
Somebody Met the Bus - Shorty and Joe
The importance of human relationships in social work
A Great Education
Working in Windsor Prison and for The Vermont Alcohol Rehabilitation Board
Tom talks about his love of baseball.
A Preferred Leisure – Baseball
From Barre youth teams to the University of Vermont
A Bunch of White Guys
Tom at the University of Vermont
- Beyond Depot Square: Stories from the Heart of Vermont, self-published, 2006
- Echoes of Vermont . . . People and Politics in the Green Mountains, self-published, 2010
- Out from Depot Square: Central Vermont Memories from the 1930s to the 1950s, self-published, 2006
- The Duval Conspiracy, Marshall Jones Company, 1995
- The Governor’s Man, self-published, 2002
- Deane C. Davis, with Nancy Price Graff – Deane C. Davis: An Autobiography, The New England Press, 1991
- Michael Sherman, Gene Sessions, Jeffrey Potash – Freedom and Unity: A History of Vermont, Vermont Historical Society, 2004
- Paul Heller – Granite City Tales: Writings on the History of Barre, Vermont, self-published, 2012
- Russell Belding – Hidden History of Barre, Vermont, The History Press, 2011
Many thanks to the people who helped make this project possible:
Gerry Ghazi, Alban Richey, Arthur & Anita Ristau, Bruce Seifer, Carol Healy, Clare & David Duke, David & Nancy Lacroix, Edith A Miller, Elizabeth Slayton, Ellen S. Sivret, Fernand & Ann Peloquin, Joanne Granai, Karen Lane, Marjorie Power, Mary Miller, Maureen Morton, Maurice & Doris Fortier, Paul C Heller, Peter Anthony & Marsha Kincheloe, Quinn Premont, River Valley Workforce Institute, Ruth Ruttenberg, Stephen Martin, Wayside Restaurant, Inc., William & Olene Doyle, and the Aldrich Public Library
- Project & Web site producer: Mark Greenberg
- Web site design and implementation: Marjorie Power
- Interviews recorded and edited by Mark Greenberg/Upstreet Productions
- Interview transcriber: Katherine Drury
- Davis family photographs and memorabilia courtesy Mike Davis and the Davis family
- Tom Davis Labor Hall photo: Mark Greenberg
- Aldrich Public Library, Vermont Historical Society, World Wide Web