The first time I saw Phil Hoff, he came to Windsor in 1961. He had just been away on a trip to Africa that had been arranged for him by President Kennedy, and he spoke to the Windsor Rotary Club.
I was working as a rehabilitation worker for the State Alcoholic Rehabilitation Board. And I was in Windsor. There were three of us, or 4 of us, 4 or 5 of us actually, standing outside the Windsor fire station including the Fire Chief. Bill White was a probation officer, a good friend of mine; I worked with Bill a lot. And there were one or two others around, and all of a sudden we learned that Phil Hoff had been elected governor of Vermont, the first Democratic governor in 108 years. And despite the fact that I voted for him, and I think all of, or nearly all of the people there had voted for him, it was sort of a shock to your system. I mean the devil you know and the devil you don’t. And suddenly we had a new devil. And what was he going to do, and what did it mean to our jobs, and what did it mean to our community? Because I had never met Phil Hoff.
It was also a time, a year after John F. Kennedy had been elected president. So there was the Kennedy aura, the Kennedy mood upon the land. Kennedy was brilliant in his press conferences. He was funny. His use of words was magnificent, probably assisted strongly, I suppose, by Ted Sorensen. But, nonetheless, Kennedy was on his feet about as good as they get in my opinion.
And in addition we were a younger generation. We weren’t that far from the war. Many of us that I was associated with were brought up in the ‘30s and lived through the 2nd World War. We were all in that age when you sort of think things are possible anyway. And the atmosphere created by the President and by the media to some extent . . . . Television was beginning to come into its own.
And so for all that Vermont didn’t have at that time—and it was not the Vermont that you see today with pretty houses all over the landscape. It was falling down houses all over the landscape. And Vermont hadn’t begun to get its coat of paint in 1961 or 2.
Phil Hoff came on the scene, and the first thing he did, of course, was send the legislature home to see what it is we ought to do, which created this array of committees. I happened to be on one. And I remember rubbing shoulders with the Commissioner of Corrections at the time, and I thought, boy, he was a pretty exalted figure. And I was in Windsor, of course, and a lot of my work at that time was in the prison, working with guys there and taking them out into the community when they were paroled or released. And I was just a small part of all that.
In almost no area at all did we have enough people to do the kind of planning that needed to be done, for a lot of different . . . . whether you’re talking about economic development, the environment . . . . Hoff was big on the environment. But he did a lot of it through other people. He was a master with people, and he was the right man at the right time in that period.
So I went in to see Hoff, and I talked to him. I liked him. He had a desk about the size of a ping-pong table, and on it were about 40 or 50 ashtrays. He smoked incessantly—probably give me the devil for saying all these things. We sat down and talked about the Poverty Program—what I thought we should do and could do and his willingness to participate and back the ideas that we generated. And I should put more emphasis on that than I have so far. And that is that if there’s any one single ingredient that I found in Phil Hoff that probably exceeds that of any other person I ever worked for was that when the chips were down, he would back you to the hilt.
I’m not saying that others that I’ve worked for haven’t. But that gave me a tremendous sense of willingness to talk to the press and raise these outrageous ideas that many people thought were outrageous anyway. So we established a good relationship.
I remember, one time we had an appropriation for Legal Aid—the first one, that had passed the House Appropriation Committee or was coming up in the House Appropriation Committee. I went to the meeting the night they were dealing with it, and they shot it down. And Hoff was furious. I called him up. I remember we had lunch in the back of the old Brown Derby. So I told him what had happened, and the House had not passed the bill. And he says, “My God, we’ll get the Bar Association in on this.” So he called his secretary, Priscilla LaPlante, at the time, and said, “Get the press in at 1:30.” This is 45 minutes lead time. About all he said to her. He didn’t even tell her what he was going to do or anyone else I guess. When the press came in, he went up one side and down the other for those guys not passing the Legal Aid program. The politics was in place. That’s the reality of the situation. But to be able to beat Phil Hoff on anything was of some importance to several of the Republicans on that committee, and, somehow or other, it did get shot down the night before. But with his willingness to go public immediately and criticize the Bar Association for not doing more . . . . I mean, he was a member of the Bar. He had no fear of offending. Some might say went too far sometimes, but he said what he really thought. And the public liked it. The press loved him.
Phil Hoff was not in there for the fun. Phil Hoff was probably the strongest-minded politician I ever met, who established broad ideals and was perhaps more willing to lose for those ideals than anyone else I ever knew. Because in politics, Hoff said, you don’t amount to anything if you aren’t willing to lose for it. If everything is up for sale, there’s no principles involved. So you’ve got to have things you are willing to lose for. And I think I learned that from Phil Hoff. He would take a stand and didn’t always have to put his finger in the wind to find out how the public was thinking. Politicians today read the polls before they read the paper it seems, many of them. And the idea of standing for something and not changing when the wind changes is very unusual.
Bernie Sanders’s success, in my mind, in Vermont is due in part to his—what he’s saying, but it may be more to the fact that he has the same message he had 40 years ago, and he hasn’t changed it a bit. He combs his hair and wears a tie once in a while now, but I— you can’t fault a guy for that.
I can remember my father giving his State of the State speeches, in which he proposed a sales tax. No tax makes you very popular, and leave it to my father to go ahead and say he was going to do it, and he did. Phil Hoff walked right up to him. Said, “I think you’re right, Governor. I’ll support you all the way.” Hoff did what he thought was the right thing. And he wasn’t afraid to lose.
Under Hoff, we saw the reformation of welfare in Vermont. Is it perfect? Hell no, but it’s a lot better than it was then. And we were able to see some things happen. We saw Legal Aid happen. We saw Family Planning programs become statewide. We saw huge increase in the commitment of the state to daycare.
Hoff ran for U.S. Senate in 1972, I think. The timing was bad. Planning for the campaign was poor, I thought. Hoff worked hard, but he didn’t get anywhere on that. But as I say, he wasn’t afraid to lose. He would go out there and lose if he had to. He’s always stayed connected to politics, as I’ve known him. He went back into the State Senate. As a senator, the only governor that I know who has ever done that. Maybe others have, but he worked as a state senator.
I mean, he’s everything you want in a politician. He was sort of like building from the flame that Kennedy lit by being elected in 1960. And you had two young, personable, charming, good-looking men with good-looking wives saying, we need to go somewhere. They said it in Vermont and they said it, in fact, in New England as a whole, with the possible exception of New Hampshire. There was Ken Curtis in Main who showed leadership, and there was some Republican leadership in Massachusetts, for which there was some of that same sense of mission for this part of the country.
Republicans and Democrats really liked Hoff. They wished he wouldn’t do some of the things he did, but they really liked him. Today politics doesn’t have anything to do with like. It’s what’s in the next news cycle unfortunately.
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