My father came from a family of nine children. I think he was third or fourth. Something like that.
My father was not all that active. At least I didn’t think he was all that active during my formative years, if you can consider formative through grade school, high school, or even college. He had been a lawyer or judge. His father was probate judge. That would be E. R. Davis. That would be my grandfather.
My father bought a farm up on East Hill. He was a gentleman farmer, and I was a slacker who didn’t like to work on a farm—listen to Red Barber announce the Brooklyn Dodger baseball games rather than go out on a hay wagon. But I did some of it. He was happiest, truly happiest, when he was out alone feeding the horses, grooming the horses, or shoveling the horse manure out of the pen. That’s when he was happiest—and looking at the mountains. And he loved the state.
He had opportunities. I think he could’ve been on the Federal Reserve Board. But that meant leaving Vermont. It meant leaving the horses. He said, the one big regret he had in life was that he never bought a lot of land. He felt that that’s where value lay. And when you think about it and go back to when our ancestors came over from England, they came for land. They didn’t come for anything else. The problem was, if you were the fifth son, there wasn’t much land left, and then you had to go find some more land.
My father went to Boston University Law School. He did not go to Boston University. And he got a law degree. But he did not have a university of degree, a BA or anything like that. And then he put up a shingle in Barre. And his father was a lawyer here in town–later State’s Attorney and then sometime down the road a probate judge for many years.
My father was liked because he represented two wings of the Republican Party: to some extent the business side of the Republican Party, but I think he also represented the old Vermont, rural Vermont, and that played out well with all his work on the environment, Act 250 and related legislation regarding the environment.
My father was no flaming liberal. On the other hand, he was a lawyer, and he was a fair-minded person. He became General Counsel to the National Life Insurance Company and then President. And we sold the farm. He bought the farm around, about 1940. We sold the farm in 1945 or 6. My mother wasn’t terribly healthy at that point. She died of cancer three years later, four years later, which was another huge effect on my life and probably had something to do with my alcoholism.
My father was kind of one of these guys behind the scenes, and they are always asking them to run for something. He might have gone to the Republican convention once or twice, the nominating conventions.
My father in the last analysis believed in small government, believed in local control in the best sense. But in fairness to him, he also was rational. He wasn’t ideological. I think even his Democratic enemies would say that. My father came from the farm mentality of economics. In other words, you do it yourself or you don’t do it. He was very generous personally.
And my father was State’s Attorney, and among his job as State’s Attorney one time, of course, was enforcing Prohibition in Barre. Prohibition in Barre is again a subject of its own for the simple reason that because of granite industry and the dust associated with it, Barre’s incidence of silicosis, tuberculosis, and associated lung diseases was skyrocketing. Most men who worked in the sheds died before they were 45. This left widows with no Social Security or any other benefits. So what they did is open boarding houses and sold liquor at the kitchen table. But my father’s job was enforcing the law, and he had mixed feelings about that for the simple reason he understood that the only way these women could survive was by selling liquor and selling rooms in their homes.
My father had a wealth of stories, most of which are not recorded anywhere. For example, he hired a private detective, so to speak, who would go in to catch somebody with liquor. The liquor was on the shelf next to the sink, and the minute they walked in the door the liquor was down the sink and the bottles were broken, and there was no evidence.
Another time he was following this guy through the hills of East Calais, possibly a back road of some sort toward Canada, which is where the booze came from mostly. And my father got stuck in the in the mud with his car. Well, the car that he was following, wherever it went, it went and turned around and was coming back and saw my father. So the bootlegger pulled my father out of the ditch. So there was kind of a strange relationship between the law and the distribution of alcohol at that time.
My father was a Republican. I remember vaguely, “Landon and Knox, shall fall on the rocks, but Roosevelt and Garner shall fall in the sea.” I learned that at the age of five or six years old, and it shows what great retentive powers I have.
My father used to [?] Roosevelt, but he never seemed terribly angry about him. He would call him, “That man.” That was fairly common. And he would read literature that made fun of Eleanor Roosevelt, which was common at the time. I think some of the resentment of Eleanor Roosevelt was the same kind of resentment women get today. I credit her a lot for that.
My father became quite an admirer of Roosevelt and how he conducted the war. It was probably thirty-five years or forty years after the actual events. I can remember him saying things like, “I’m beginning to have second thoughts about this Roosevelt fellow.” That was quite a switch, because my father was a Republican from the tip of his toes to the top of his head. But he was also a lawyer, very strong on the rule of law. And yet he was a Nixon loyalist ‘til the very end. I never understood that. I never confronted him on it at that time because Nixon’s crimes were . . . . And they’re still coming out all these years later. But the fact was that my father met Nixon, liked Nixon, thought he was bright, and of course, the fact is, Nixon was bright. The problem was, he wasn’t, apparently, principled.
I didn’t know my father was going to run for governor until I visited one day in 19 . . . . I forget the year. But I remember seeing a picture on a poster which looked suspiciously like a campaign poster, although there was no writing on it at all. And I said, “You running for governor?” And he hedged, and I figured I had it right. And I did.
He had to learn a lot about politics. He had to learn a lot about Vermont, despite the fact that he was brought up here, practiced law. When I was young, occasionally would travel to a . . . . He’d be invited to speak to a rotary club or a town meeting or something somewhere. I remember going on a dirt road over the hill in the old days through Woodbury and up to Hardwick, in the old town hall there. I remember him speaking there. It was there, I think, I noticed that his voice would change slightly. The Vermont twang would appear, subtly. And if you listen closely to politicians, some of them have that knack of suddenly becoming part of who they’re talking to.
Most of all he believed . . . . He used to tell the kids, “I don’t care what you do as long as you read one hour a day. Read anything you want.” And everybody in the family, including my mother and sister, were readers. And so was I. So we read a lot, a lot of different stuff.
Wendell Willkie came to our house one time. I wasn’t there. I think it was after ’44. My father fell in love with Willke. He really liked his book, One World. So Willke came to the house. I guess he was thinking of running again. My mother couldn’t stand him because he swore too much and he drank too much. So that was Willke’s undoing.
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