My first day on the job was Thursday, Jan. 3, the only paper of 2019 that I didn’t contribute to with stories or pictures.
I did contribute by delivering newspapers on my first day to the stores, town halls, libraries and other places where our newspapers are left. In the process, I met several people who I would write about during the year again and again. And again.
On a Saturday shortly after, I found myself in the middle of the Hinesburg Town Forest, realizing that my previous work at weekly newspapers and a daily in Georgia and North Carolina hadn’t completely prepared me for what journalism in Vermont can be.
The temperature was 2 degrees and even Ethan Tapper, who as Chittenden County Forester spends a great deal of his time in the woods in all kinds of glacial and summery temperatures, admits that it was cold that day. As soon as I got out of my car, I knew that I wouldn’t be taking off my gloves except for a few brief milliseconds to snap a photo or two.
I would not be ungloving to write.
Thank goodness for cell phones modern recording functions. I can’t imagine how prehistoric reporters managed.
Of course, when I got into the office the following Monday, my co-workers had all kinds of tips that weren’t taught in the journalism school I attended in the South.
“Oh, don’t you know you should always carry a pencil when covering a story outside in winter?” said one.
“If you don’t have a pencil, stick your pen in your mouth,” said my editor.
It’s the principal of the thing
In early February, I found myself in the much warmer environment of Champlain Valley Union High School principal Adam Bunting’s office. (That’s right: Not even two months on the job and I’d already been sent to the principal’s office).
It was fascinating to learn about Bunting’s collegiate journey to the realization that education was his destiny.
“Finding his strength in struggle, fear: Random strangers changed CVU Principal Adam Bunting’s life” was the headline for that story about how his life was changed in the most unexpected of ways.
It was a stranger who arbitrarily walked out in the night of downtown Burlington and punched him in the face, breaking his jaw and almost killing him. And it was a stranger who stopped to help him after his car broke down shortly after he got out of the hospital. When Bunting offered him money for his trouble, the Good Samaritan said to pay it forward and help someone else down the road of life.
“At first I thought it was kind of cheesy,” Bunting told me. “But the next day sitting in class, it kind of clicked in my head.”
He began to think about a way to help people think about what their influence on the world is. Those people turned out to be high school students. At his own alma mater – CVU.
Inspired by inclusion
Profiling Bunting created an urge in me to find every opportunity to write about schools in the Champlain Valley School District, which led to stories about school resource officer Matt Collins, a Skype session at Charlotte Central School last spring where students were talking with NASA astronaut Ricky Arnold, meeting the cast of Niel Maurer’s production of “Frozen Jr.” at Hinesburg Community School, meeting with natural resources teachers Dave Trevithick and Mike Abbott and their students and so many fascinating and vital projects they are working on. Time and again I’ve met students in the CVSD system at all grade levels who aren’t waiting for graduation to try to improve the world.
But of all the stories and momentous experiences that students and teachers have shared with me and given me the opportunity to write about, one really sticks out and comes back to me in memories again and again. On an unexpectedly chilly – but profoundly warm – morning in April, I gathered with a huge crowd of students, teachers, members of the community, school board members and others to watch as the Black Lives Matter flag was raised at CVU, the eighth school in Vermont to take this stand for inclusion.
Baby, baby, baby
On the first Sunday in May I found myself at the Hinesburg Town Hall for a brunch welcoming the town’s newest and youngest citizens.
So many beautiful babies, all in such good moods, and I just couldn’t seem to get a good photo. Finally, I realized that standing or even squatting there like a grown up wasn’t going to get the photos these angels deserved. I discarded my self-consciousness like a dirty diaper and lay down on the floor. Almost immediately, Adeline Edling, who was 7 months old at the time and who had been acting camera shy, turned toward me and it looked like she was going to climb into my camera. It’s one of my all-time favorite photos.
At the end of June, I went to Shelburne Farms to report and write once again about inclusion.
Around a campfire a group of more than 50 of us sat on logs, blankets or the ground in rapt attention as Chief Don Stevens of the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk-Abenaki told stories, shared artifacts and sang songs from his native culture.
This was a story that challenged me as I tried to write the Abenaki terms he used to tell the wonderful stories that he told. I hope that I got it right. It sure was a wonderful evening and a perspective that I hope has broadened my vision of the world.
Winding road to police chief
Stevens’ stories around the campfire at Shelburne Farms appeared in the July 4 issue of the newspapers. Also in that issue was another story that inspired me and I hope my version inspired readers.
On that day, as part of Hinesburg’s phenomenal Fourth of July celebration (If you’ve never experienced it you really should; if you’ve experienced it, you’ll probably be back to rejuvenate your patriotic sentiments. Along the same lines, make sure to attend the Charlotte Tractor Parade in October) Anthony Cambridge was sworn in as the town’s new police chief.
Cambridge shared with me the long and winding road he had traveled with his wife Amy to the police department in Hinesburg. The first time he’d seen her, as a 13-year-old middle school student, he’d thought they would someday be married. But the route had presented a number of obstacles and detours that would have deterred many others.
Working on that story I not only became once again convinced that persistence often pays off and sometimes life is illuminated and enhanced by true love.
Delightful and controversial coyotes
Later in July, on a Friday night I was one of more than 100 people crowded into the Shelburne Town Hall to hear an ironic theory about the eastern coyote. Chris Schadler, the New Hampshire representative for Project Coyote, has been working with the demonized canines since the 1970s.
Her message about the eastern coyote is that this is a remarkable animal with an amazing ability to not just survive but to thrive. She said efforts to wipe out coyotes have the opposite effect, that the secret about coyotes is they self-regulate with strong pack behaviors that keep their births in check. The irony, she said, is that killing coyotes just causes coyotes to breed faster, so they spread.
She also told stories and photos that showed how delightful coyotes are. For 18 years she’s had a sheep farm where she’s managed to live in harmony with coyotes. And she’s never lost a sheep.
A doozy of a donkey
The coyote story got lots of response from readers, some who remained unconvinced that killing coyotes is a bad thing, but in November I wrote another animal story that got a lot of reaction. And it was universally positive, not so much for my reporting and writing, but for its subject – Dudley the Donkey. Dudley lived at Shelburne Farms for 28 years of his 36 years before passing away on Oct. 30.
Some people said for them Dudley was the main attraction, an ambassador of the farm. During his tenure at Shelburne Farms staff estimated that Dudley had been petted by hundreds of thousands of hands, little and large, and he was always a sweetheart.
The one regret I have about this story is that in all the trips I’ve made to Shelburne Farms for sugaring, shearing and sharing so many facets of agricultural life in Vermont, I never met Dudley. One of my New Year’s resolutions is to meet even more wonderful beings in 2020 and strive to tell their stories.
2019 was a year chock-full of amazing animals, students, babies and even a few adults. I’ve tried to tell their stories with respect, wonder and humor. I’m hoping that 2020 will be even more chock-full (chocker-full?) and that I’ll write more respectfully, wonderfully and humorfully.
But don’t hold your breath.