A Sense of Mission

Tom’s experiences as Vermont’s Secretary of Human Services

Governor Thomas P. Salmon
Governor Thomas P. Salmon
John Howland
John Howland
Russell Niquette
Russell Niquette
Emory Hebard, Vermont Treasurer
Emory Hebard, Vermont Treasurer
Walter "Peanut" Kennedy
Walter “Peanut” Kennedy
Bernie Sanders, 1981
Bernie Sanders, 1981

Salmon had taken over. My father had handed him the key to the office, I suppose. And I was shortly thereafter named Secretary of Human Services, a job for which many Republicans thought I was too liberal.  So I had to go through confirmation hearings, particularly in the Senate, and John Howland was one of my champions. Another one was Russ Niquette, who was a Democrat from Winooski–prominent, longtime Democrat. There were some hard right people on that committee. 

The rumor started to circulate that they were going to ask me some personal questions. One of the members of the press told me this. It had to do with the fact was I or was I not an alcoholic. And I am a recovering alcoholic, and I make no bones about it. At that time, I don’t know how many years, but probably 10 years or 15 or something. I don’t know. They never brought up the question. I survived the committee vote somehow and survived the final vote. 

But when I think of the cadre of Republicans that I dealt with in that 4 years in the legislature, I can’t find an equivalent 4, 5 people today, possibly on either side of the aisle. The level of cooperation between people, agencies, the interaction, is much more tense. There’s less sense of collegiality. When Hoff was governor, and even when my father was governor, there was a sense of mission around certain subject areas—the environment, for example, the bottle law, things like that. And people worked together, even if they weren’t 100 percent on every issue, and they worked together and got things done.

Today we put people in cubicles and put a screen in front of them, and they don’t talk to each other. They talk to the machine. And I personally feel a lot more communication occurs when people can speak to people directly as opposed to through electronic media. In fact, I think you lose at least half if you don’t have the personal, if you don’t see the body language, so to speak. I’m not an expert on the subject, but if I have to convince somebody of something, or if I have a squabble over something I buy, I don’t want to talk about it on the phone. I want to go see them.

Emory Hebard–considered by everybody to be quite conservative.  I convinced Emory Hebard.  I said, “Look, Emory, you put $100 down, the feds will give you 200.  The $300 will pay putting it through the system.  The federal money will pay for you getting the hundred dollars.  He didn’t have any tr. . . . . He was a  PhD from Middlebury anyway.  He didn’t have any trouble understanding that, and he was my great ally, and everything I wanted to do regarding federal money he supported, the flexibility I needed. So I had him. I had John Wackerman, who nominally was still a Republican, and he was, of course, Commissioner of Welfare. So there was a lot of things we were able to do and loosen up. 

Home Health began to draw money down as a result of being able to match federal funds. And that was a major achievement which has never been particularly noted. But there were other wonderful people. There was Edgar Janeway, who had been a longtime Republican committeeman from the southern part of the state, a man you’d trust your life with. Bob Gannon from, from Springfield. Because many of the Republicans’ premier issue or an issue of which they would stand upon was matters of the environment, which means government intervention any way you slice it. Peanut Kennedy. I could work with Kennedy. In fact I sold cars for years before on the side working for Peanut.

The the issue wasn’t, “Is there a problem?”  Everybody knew there was a problem.  The question was, “Which problem and how much?”  The problem today is: “Well even if there’s a problem the government shouldn’t get into. They’ll just screw it up.”

As I say, I was Secretary of Human Services under Tom Salmon. I felt I did a pretty good job. I was the second one. The first one was only a year there under my father when he was governor, guy by the name of Bill Coles. And not much had changed in that year. Nobody really had a clear vision of what they wanted the agency to do. And let me be clear: I didn’t have a clear idea of what the agency should do either when I went in. But I was young enough and ambitious enough to believe that I would find things in ways that would begin to do the job.

I don’t know whether I was too young, but I was certainly too liberal for what some people were looking for. Others probably thought I wasn’t liberal enough. I can remember sitting across the table from Bernie Sanders arguing about food stamps and trying to defend the status quo. And Bernie was wanting more and more. And Bernie was right. And I knew in my heart he was right, and there wasn’t a thing I could do about it. I’ll never forget that.

I learned a couple of things, by having come from where I came from. I had worked down in Springfield and Windsor and Windsor County. I knew people throughout the mental health system. I got involved in some of the early development of that. And, of course, I was involved in all the anti-poverty programs—the Legal Services program, the statewide Family Planning program, programs of that sort. One way or another I always had my finger in there. And was able to select good people to work for me. I always figure that was always my ace in the hole that I had people around me smarter than I was.

But the other thing that I learned by having come from the field is that the Montpelier types didn’t have clue about what was going on out there, didn’t have the feel of it. What I’ve been thinking about is the failure of all of the professions really, and government in particular, to find a way to assign some aspect of generalist functions to human services workers.

One time I was head of what was known as the New England Services Human Coalition, most of us who had come from the Poverty Program at the time. And we used to meet once every couple of months or so. My thing was always that unless you have generalist skills, you’re not going to survive, or at least you’re not going to get very much done.

And then complicating this whole subject was the invention of the computer, which managed to take up an awful lot of time filling out forms that nobody reads. We did keep data even before the computer. But I was there only a year as a counselor before I realized that when my paperwork was in shape, I wasn’t working very hard. And when I was working really hard, my paperwork was not in shape. But within the bureaucracy, it’s understood that you’re good if your paperwork’s in shape. Never mind the what you’re doing, because they don’t understand what you’re doing anyway.

I think one idea, which I never did anything about, would be to take about 50 percent of the people in Montpelier, in the human service bureaucracy, and put them in the field, and take 50 percent of the people in the field and put them in Montpelier. You should and could do the same thing in education. Take educators out of the high schools and grade schools. Put them in related offices–mental health offices and . . . . I mean, the specifics would be very complicated, be very hard to do this, if not impossible. Probably impossible. But the failure to understand across disciplines the opportunities that are there. . . . And the case finding–the early intervention that could occur .

For a whole lot of reasons, I’ve had kind of crazy experiences with rich and poor, well to-do and not so. I’ve had the luxury of being with very bright people, most of them brighter than I, certainly, and, and yet, at the same time, have an understanding of those who don’t have, have had the background in education, and IQ that can take them anywhere.

It taught me that the things that you really learn don’t come out of a book or a manual, God knows, of a “how to do it.” You have to learn how to reach around the bureaucracy and get back to either the people that need help or the few workers in the field who aren’t part of the official chain of command. They just do the work.

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 →

Interviewing Tom

Tom Davis testifying against human services budget cuts - 2010In 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.

Mark Greenberg
Mark Greenberg

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.”

The Recordings

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.

Postcard of Mathewson School
The Community was Alive - Barre Memories (Part 1)
Barre life in the 1930s and '40s
Quarry workers with pneumatic tools - early 1900s
A Melting Pot - Barre Memories (Part 2)
Ethnic diversity and street life in Barre

Front entrance of Barre City Auditorium

It was a Magnet
The origins of the Barre Auditorium

Tom talks about his family.

Corinne Eastman Davis

My Mother Was More Liberal
Corinne Eastman Davis and her family

Deane Davis

A Fair-minded Person
Deane C. Davis' family and politics

Will Davis Farm, c. 1981

I Got Interested in Genealogy – Family History (Part 1)
The early history of the Davis family in America

Corinne and Deane Davis with Tom's sister Marian and Tom as an infant

I Came in with Roosevelt – Family History (Part 2)
The Davis and Eastman families

The politicians Tom knew and worked for and the programs he helped them implement

President Franklin D. Roosevelt at Camp Charles M. Smith, CCC, Waterbury, Vt., on his tour of inspection of Vermont’s flood control projects, July 25, 1936.
The Beginning of Change
FDR’s visit to central Vermont
Phil Hoff celebrating his 1962 gubernatorial campaign victory in Winooski, VT
He Wasn’t Afraid to Lose
Governor Phil Hoff
Sargent Shriver campaing for Vice President in 1972
A Magnificent Leader
Sargent Shriver in Vermont
John Howland
A Sense of Mission
Tom's experiences as Vermont's Secretary of Human Services
Tom Davis and Phil Hoff
Involve the Poor – The Poverty Program (Part 1)
Vermont and the War on Poverty
Robert Gannett
True Believers—The Poverty Program (Part 2)
Directing the Office of Economic Opportunity and working across party lines
Vermont State Hospital in Waterbury
Somebody Met the Bus - Shorty and Joe
The importance of human relationships in social work
Windsor State Prison
A Great Education
Working in Windsor Prison and for The Vermont Alcohol Rehabilitation Board

Tom talks about his love of baseball.

Barre American Legion Baseball Team 1948-9
A Preferred Leisure – Baseball
From Barre youth teams to the University of Vermont

Jackie Robinson stealing a base from Phil Rizzuto in the 1947 Wold Series
A Hero of Mine – Jackie Robinson
Trips to major league baseball games and admiring Jackie Robinson

Postcard showing the University of Vermont library and Ethan Allen Chapel in the 1940s

A Bunch of White Guys
Tom at the University of Vermont

Recommended Reading

By Thomas C. Davis:

  • 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

By others:

  • 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