In 1963, on November 23, I was in the parking lot of a small supermarket across from the Windsor post office right next to the Windsor House. And it came over the radio. I probably was listening to the radio in the car. I had 2, 3 kids with me. And Kennedy was gone. I had to go in and get my wife to get her groceries and get out of the store and go home, which is what we did, and turned on the television, which conveyed everything that went on. I witnessed the Oswald assassination on TV at the same time.
In those days I read both Newsweek and Time magazine. I don’t know how I had time to do all that, but I did. And then they were announcing suddenly the Poverty Program. 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 probably learned more on that job about government, about people, about people who cared, and people who didn’t care. And I learned perhaps most about myself by working with other people.
Then I met the warden of the prison. He was a great guy. And he was so unlike the stereotype of correctional officials of the last 15 or 20 or 25 years, for he was strictly oriented to helping people.
So, anyway, suddenly they announced this Poverty Program. Nobody knew exactly what it was. Newsweek said it’s doomed to fail. And it was minimal amounts of money put into what was the community action part of the program, which is where I became first involved. The program was put together with the usual agreements between different special interests, although the special interests in this case were generally of a more positive nature. Organized labor wanted programs like the Job Corps. And there was a Job Corps, and it was in some cases successful, in some cases not. They made a lot of mistakes in the beginning about locating them, about the kind of training people ought to have who were going to manage and run the programs.
There was no clear track on how you did all this stuff. There were at least three operating philosophies for what community action was supposed to do. And they did not necessarily complement one another. Some people felt community action means getting things done through the system, cooperating, community development, that kind of thing. Others saw community action as the poor becoming organized and asserting themselves and leading their own way. And even within Vermont in the five Community Action programs we had, the differences would vary from a program to program.
I became the first president of Windsor Community Action, and then all of a sudden we were told that we had to merge with Windham County. Well this required my imaginary political skills. And I ended up president of what later became Southeastern Vermont Community Action or SEVCA, a name that it still has. And that was in 1966, I think.
The Vermont legislature scarcely noticed when this Poverty Program began. Certainly selected members picked it out, but by and large it wasn’t seen as something big enough to worry about. I’ve always felt that you could start a federal program in Vermont . . . . You can do almost anything you want for two years before anybody notices. And in some respects, that was true in the case of the Poverty Program because it was a very controversial philosophy underlying it: the conflict between those who felt what we were trying to do was learn how to work together; others felt confrontation was necessary.
The big thing in those days was: involve the poor. That was the message up here: involve the poor. How you involve the poor, whether you do it in a controversial or a collegial way. That was a continuing debate throughout the whole history of the program. In other words, were we always to be adversarial, or could we find things to work together on.
And of course, there was always tension between the federal government and the local agencies as to who should be on the board and who shouldn’t be on the board. At least a third of the people on your board had to meet income insufficiency levels. But we did identify people who later became leaders, mostly women, as a result of the Poverty Program.
I remember as I do about every job I’ve ever had: I go in and sit down in the chair, and I say, “Well, I wonder what a director of a community action program is supposed to do?” And I always think of that because I think every job I’ve ever had, I’ve always–other than when I helped on the truck at Montgomery Wards–I think I always sat down and said, “I got a nice title, but I don’t know what I’m supposed to do, and there isn’t anybody around here any smarter than I am to tell me what to do.” So I found my way that way in most things that I did.
I’d had some help and met some people from Montpelier in the process. And Paul Guare from Montpelier was an ex-newspaperman. He’d been a Hoff confidant and was a genuinely great good guy, a helpful guy to Hoff. But when Hoff appointed him on some sort of temporary basis as director of the program it seemed to conflict in the minds of many with his job as head of Rural Development. And the newspapers made a fuss out of that, and probably about whether he was collecting money from two places and all that. At any rate, he wanted to get out of it. So I went to Montpelier and advocated for the director of the program in Montpelier, a guy by the name of Jerry Goldman. And Tom Kenny was one of Hoff’s assistants. The other was, at that time, was Ben Collins.
I was advocating for Jerry, and I remember Tom Kenny said, “What about you? Aren’t you interested in the top job?”
I said, “Well no.” I hadn’t thought about it. I said, “I haven’t got a Master’s degree.” I felt at that time that the key to the kingdom was a Master’s degree. And I had taken trips to Boston trying to see if I can figure out some way to get a Master’s degree through Boston University at that time. But I never even talked to the right person, I don’t believe, in that regard. He said, “Well, why don’t you meet with the governor and see?”
I got a phone call a few days later, and it said, “Will you come up and meet with the governor?”
I said, “Sure.”
I didn’t know Phil Hoff. I mean, I’d met him, but I really didn’t know him at all. He had a table at least eight feet long, covered with papers and several ashtrays, some of them with smoking cigarettes in them and some with not. And we sat down and talked. He sat at the corner of the table and talked about what the Poverty Program might do, what kind of money we could bring into the state, what we might want to do with it. But we talked pretty generally, and he says, “Do you want this job?”
And I said, “Well, yeah. I think we can do some things with it.” I don’t recall whether I gave him my litmus list of all the things that I thought could be done. I always had a lot of things I wanted to do, from daycare . . . . And of course, Head Start was a priority at the federal level. Vermont did a lot of good early work in Head Start, not because of me but because of a lot of good people out in the communities.
“Sure, I might be into it.”
“Well,” he says. “I tell you what. You want the job . . . . I don’t know why you want the job, but if you want it, you can have it.” And that was how I was hired to head the Poverty Program.
And I can remember walking in, as I have at other jobs, I walked in the office and, of course, I was in the room with the best window and the biggest desk. I remember sitting in the chair looking out the window and says, “I wonder what the head of the Poverty Program is supposed to do.”
I was a true believer. I thought everything was possible. I thought programs would work. I thought everybody was honorable, mostly. And most of the ones we had in Vermont were.
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