True Believers—The Poverty Program (Part 2)

Directing the Office of Economic Opportunity and working across party lines

Gov. F. Ray Keyser, Jr.
Gov. F. Ray Keyser, Jr.
Robert Gannett
Robert Gannett
George Little
George Little
Emory Hebard, Vermont Treasurer
Emory Hebard, Vermont Treasurer

There were a lot of young, true believers in those days. We did a big program in daycare. I did a lot of research on the negative income tax. I met with Jim Tobin, who is really the father . . . . It’s now known as the earned income tax credit, but in those days it was called the negative income tax. And I was a true believer on the negative income tax. And we wanted to start a statewide experiment, which actually got as far as my father saying he would support it. It never happened. Probably just as well because there was no way to manage the numbers. We didn’t have computers in those days, and how exactly it would be administered . . . .Who knew?

I can remember two women walking into my office—both Republicans, I think, or one of them was, anyway, and they were interested in family planning. Family planning was not talked about almost anywhere as far as I could tell in Vermont, as a government responsibility. And these two women were true believers in family planning—thought that was going to solve a lot of our problems. And they wanted to know if I could get their brochures in the welfare office or the Health Department.

I said, “Well, I don’t know. I think so. Let me try.” So I did try. It all was so easy, it wasn’t even funny. Because we had two great guys. We had Bob Aiken, who was Commissioner of Health. And he wasn’t afraid of anybody. And we had John Wackerman, who became a great and dear friend of mine when he was appointed welfare commissioner by Ray Keyser, I think, before Hoff was governor. He was a Republican. He was some kind of a judge. And the more Wackerman learned about welfare, the more liberal he became.

I don’t remember that the church or anybody else had any complaints about it. It was simply something that should be and could be available at relatively no cost. We put together a statewide family planning grant that involved all the five Community Action agencies. Kathy Hoyt, who worked for me at that time, was the one that put that together, and she could get along with everybody, and very soon that program was operating and it has operated successfully since that time.

We started that family planning. We got money for that. We started some clinics, and some services around the state. We managed to get support from the legislature along from the federal government for major amounts of money going into daycare, which included fixing facilities and a lot of training, a lot of work. I think we went from maybe ten licensed daycare centers to around 200—something like that.

Head Start became, of course, kind of the bellwether program. It had advanced funding. It had advanced technical assistance. And somewhere along the line, somebody decided that the best approach to poverty was through the Head Start program, which involved these children and the whole family. Through the program, you would identify problems in the family and theoretically find resources to help. If you had a good idea, my answer was always “yes.”

We had people working in Human Service programs who knew something about human services, who knew about working with people. We had people who worked with each other.

I brought some great people in. Kathy Hoyt—I hired her. When I became state Director, I got a letter; I got a lot of letters. I got about, say, 25 letters–people wanting a job. Most of them I didn’t bother with. I got a letter from this woman, from a little small town down in North Carolina, that had worked for the North Carolina Fund, I think they called it. There was something about the letter that appealed to me. She simply wanted to meet with me. And I said, “okay.”

She and her husband were going to come up, and we were supposed to meet. I think it was at 6 o’clock or 5 o’clock in Montpelier. Well, she was operating with an old-fashioned map, and by 5 o’clock she was in Brattleboro, I think it was. But I agreed to wait, and so she came along somewhere around 7:00 or 7:30. And I sat down with Kathy and we talked. She had a real southern accent. But her experience was good. Her commitment was obvious. I don’t think I ever hired anybody any faster. I hired her in 20 minutes, I think. I’m sure all business types would be horrified at how and why I do things. But I trusted my gut, and in the case of Kathy, of course, that was exactly right. She has gone farther in state government than I ever would or could.

She was important to Howard Dean and to Vermont. First of all she cared. She had this human service experience, and when she talked to the legislature, she was talking from her experience and from knowing what it’s like. I think the most important thing I can say today, ‘cause I repeat this continually, is the Einstein quote, my favorite Einstein quote: “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” And our inability to differentiate between qualitative and quantitative factors is what is making it difficult for people to accomplish things.

The other thing that seems to be happening is that people don’t talk to each other anymore. They send email. They send texts. And they don’t talk to people anymore. As administrator, I always felt my job was to create a sense of mission among the people. If the musicians are all going off on a different direction, it probably isn’t very good music. And what’s missing, in my opinion, in government today is that sense of mission that we’re all on the same page. We all really want it to work.

But I can remember the debate around these issues when I met with legislature. There was not an ideological debate in the usual sense. There was a pragmatism that was dominant in both political parties really, that ruled the question of what you do. And a lot of that has been changed in some part in both parties.

In Vermont, we had the birth of what has become the Progressive Party. There was Liberty Union and Progressive, and there may have been one or two others. But, ultimately, most of the people that were in that early group came under the heading of Progressives. Or became Liberal Democrats in some case. Not too many became Republicans. The Republican party seldom didn’t lead in these matters. And they had tremendous influence in the legislature. Not only did they more often than not carry the numbers, but they had experience because they had been in control for so long.

And there were some darn good people there—I gotta tell you. I remember Ed Janeway from down in Windham County, and Bob Gannett from Brattleboro. George Little from Burlington. These are all Republicans that I’m mentioning. Emory Hebard was my very close friend. And Emory Hebard was considered to the right of Genghis Khan by the people who didn’t know him. But I found him to be a pragmatist and one of the most forward thinking people around, In fact, in some regards, later when I went to work for Salmon in the early ‘70s, I had better luck dealing with the Republicans than the Democrats.

When my father was running for governor, I was still director of the anti-poverty program. There was a report in the newspaper that Orleans County had one of the highest neonatal death rates in the nation. This became a cause celebre. So Phil Hoff decided to ask Jack Daley, who was Lieutenant Governor and who was going to run for Governor, that he should take a tour of Orleans County, in the Northeast Kingdom. Jack put it together, and he got the top people from education and welfare and mental health and all–that whole cross section of people. There must have been eight or ten of us who were high rollers, plus another eight or ten newspaper men or women.

So we started a poverty tour. And we worked with Tom Hahn in the Northeast Kingdom, who would identify the places we should stop. And we stopped at some pretty sad and bleak situations. I won’t go into all that.

But what’s interesting, or what’s important, I think, to this, is that when this was all done, everybody got together. I think it was in the Senate, and all the people that had been on the tour were there. And the question came up: okay, what is poverty? And what the solutions were? And each person got up and spoke about the solution [that] was enhancing their program, in almost every case. And all the enhancements that were recommended probably were, in the main, a good idea. Which one was more important than another was left in the lap of the gods.

My own philosophy is you’re poor because you don’t have enough money.

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