I think we make a mistake today. I can’t document it, but most of the people who seem to be in positions of authority come from a business background or having been successful in another field, rather than finding people who have more feel for what actually goes on.
In 1971 or ’72, we began to change the way we accounted for what we were doing, all because of the invention of the computer. And Einstein had a wonderful, wonderful quote which is more important than anything else I’m going to say today. And that is, “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that is counted, counts.”
There was the case of Shorty. He ended up in the State Hospital. I was living in Windsor at the time. And he ran the pool room. And that’s all he did. And he lived in the back of the pool room. He worked for the guy who owned the building. Nobody even really knew that he drank much. But lo and behold, one day he ends up with the DTs in the next door restaurant and was taken without my knowledge right up to Waterbury. Somebody called me and told me that he’s coming home.
I said, “Okay. What do you think?”
She says, “Well, you know, he’s an older man.” And everything was screwed up where he worked. They hadn’t taken out social security or taxes or any of that stuff. I didn’t have anything to do with it, but we proceeded through the volunteers to get him straightened out in that regard. And the back payments on social security were taken care of.
I remember I went down and met the bus, and I saw him get off the bus. And it’s just like when you see a guy walk out of Windsor State Prison. There’s a little less blood in the face of people that way. There’s always a little white. They’re scared to death, even the ones that you think got it all figured out. And sure enough, Shorty looked just that way. I said, “Hey Shorty. How you doing?”
“Hey Tom, [mumbles].”
So we walked together down to where he was before, where he worked. And I say, “Shorty, how’s chance of seeing you at the AA meeting on Tuesday night?”
He says, “I’ll be there.”
Of course, I’d heard that a few times. But he was there. And the guy stayed sober the rest of his life. I don’t know how you count that when you’re asking for budgets and all the kinds of information that we read in the newspaper that is so important. But the fact is, somebody was there. I don’t take any personal credit. It’s the thing that workers in the field, when they’re given a little flexibility, would do on their own hook.
But as I think back on it, he got sober not because somebody filled out forms or anything else. Shorty got sober because somebody met the bus.
As Secretary of Human Services, when we were building the budget under Tom Salmon in ’73 or 4, I got everybody together. We went up to Stowe, and we had dinner and a meeting and then a big meeting the next day, I guess it was. And I started out, and I said, “As far as I am concerned, folks, the money that goes directly into the hands of the people is the most important part of the money we spend. Services are important, but services are expensive, and we cannot service ourselves out of poverty.” That was a line Shriver–something like that–Shriver used to say, and I agreed with that. You need the services but they were not the solution. They were an aspirin when you needed a heart transplant.
I was in Windsor one day–excuse me, in Springfield. And I got a phone call, anonymously. They said, “You better go down and see Joe Ripchick.” Well, I knew him casually as an alcoholic, problem guy working in the foundry. I went over to his house which was in a relatively middle class neighborhood, the house his father had left him. And I knocked on the door, and not much happened. I walked in. And Joe was there in the middle of the living room, laying on the floor with old dirty blankets and pillows and stuff around and empty bottles and that sort of thing, and nothing. No furniture. Zero.
It turns out he had either sold or burned all the furniture in this house. And there was evidence on the floor, where he tried to make a fire to be warm because only December can be mean cold, and it was December mean cold that day.
I said, “Joe, what are you doing?”
“ Oh, Tommy.”
He called me Tommy. He was a three letter athlete at Springfield High School, a young man with a lot of promise. But I knew when I went in that day that he had been to the State Hospital at least a couple of times and perhaps the other treatment facilities.
So I said, “What do you say, Joe? Let’s go back up to Waterbury. What do you think?”
“Ah,” he says. “Tommy, why don’t you just let me die?”
That’s a memory that has lingered with me for a very long time. It relates a lot to how I began to look at the world. I mean, I was always a pretty liberal-minded guy, but this reinforced my instincts for some reason.
So anyway, he finally agreed to go to Waterbury. And in those days, you didn’t need a deputy sheriff. I just threw him in my car. I didn’t throw him in my car, but I got him in my car. And the probate judge was in Windsor. We drove up to Windsor. And in those days, the probate judge could make the commitment for a month.
The judge had a second floor office. And this is how it worked in those days. I parked in front of the office and ran up the stairs, leaving Joe in the car. I knew the judge. I said, “Any possibility you could come down where he could sign the papers down here? Because he can’t really make it up the stairs.”
And without batting an eyelash, the probate judge came down and accommodated me. And, there again, it was the way we did it in those days. You did what needed to be done, and the differences in status between a probate judge and a person such as myself who was nothing but a state worker and a counselor didn’t mean much of anything. We were all on the same team. And Joe went to Waterbury.
I didn’t see him again for many years. One day I got a call. Someone invited me down to visit several community care homes, they used to call them. There was a woman at the State Hospital; they had one woman who worked on release. Her name was Barbara Oliver. And if a saint ever lived, she was one of them. She and I worked together real good on getting people the best we could.
I went with an associate of mine to this community care home in Windsor. And it was a really nice community care home. And somebody said, before I got there, “Somebody wants to see you.” And they didn’t tell me the name. So I remember walking up the walk. I looked up, and they had a garden, and there was a gate around it, and behind the gate was Joe Ripchick.
He says, “Hey Tommy, how are you? You know.”
And it turns out–I talked to him. He was functioning as assistant manager. He didn’t handle the money. But he was functioning as assistant manager. And he took care of everybody. And he was as happy as he’d probably ever been in his life.
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 remember, you have to say, “ Remember who you’re here for. You’re not here to defend the budget. You’re here to make sure the money goes to the right place.” And I think a lot of people don’t remember well enough, or aren’t sensitized enough to those kind of experiences, so that when they are making laws, they remember these laws have to fit everybody, at least at some level.
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