Jay Copp 2017-02-08 00:44:04
A Vermont club continues to thrive after recognizing the need to evolve Located in sparsely populated southwestern Vermont, Manchester regularly fills up with outsiders. In the summer canoeists and fishermen frequent the forests that encircle Manchester, set in a valley. Zealous leaf-peepers arrive from as far as California to gawk at the brilliant burst of colors in October. Hardcore skiers charge down the white slopes in the winter. The upscale outlet stores that line Manchester’s main street also draw crowds. The visitors come for the shopping and the ambience. Authorities have been careful to preserve a small-town feel and not allow Manchester to be too commercialized. Neon signs are prohibited. Establishments are bound by a required amount of green space on their property. Until recently, when three-story retail buildings were permitted, the maximum was two-story. “The joke was that the fire department only had a two-story ladder,” says John O’Keefe, town manager. Preoccupied with the outdoors or shopping, most visitors don’t learn the rich history of the town, chartered in 1761. Ethan Allen and many of his Green Mountain Boys lived in the area; in 1775 the ragtag militia defeated the British at Fort Ticonderoga, the first American victory of the Revolutionary War. Entrepreneur Charles Orvis founded America’s first mail-order business in Manchester in 1856. Known for its fly-fishing gear, the company is headquartered today in Sunderland, the next town over, and Manchester has a well-appointed Orvis store. Another famous link is Robert Todd Lincoln, the president’s son, who built a lavish estate in town in 1905. The Lincoln family stuck around for decades. Perhaps a sign of how the town’s long history and majestic setting fosters humility, Lincoln Isham, Robert Todd’s grandson and a lawyer who died in 1971, was surprised once to find the court was closed for a holiday. “What holiday?” he asked a judge. “Lincoln’s birthday, of course,” the judge replied. The Manchester area was also home to two of America’s most iconic artists. Robert Frost wrote poetry and worked his farm in South Shaftsbury, just 18 miles from Manchester. Norman Rockwell lived and painted in Arlington, a mere eight miles south of Manchester. At least one of a local Lions’ relatives posed for a Rockwell painting, and the Quality restaurant in Manchester, since renamed, is believed to be the setting for his well-known Saying Grace painting. The ghost of Rockwell can be said to hover over Manchester, at least during its town hall meetings. The artist famously depicted civic involvement in New England in his Freedom of Speech work, one of his Four Freedom paintings of World War II. Using his Vermont neighbors as models, Rockwell painted a rough-hewn blue–collar man standing up to express his views at a town hall meeting. Citizens in ties and dress shirts listen to him attentively. Rockwell is sometimes derided for idealizing smalltown America. But he was spot-on regarding Manchester. Its town hall meetings often are packed. The budget meeting in March is especially crowded. Hundreds from the town of 4,100 squeeze into a room and actually vote on the budget line by line. Among the regular meeting-goers are members of the Manchester Lions Club, one of the state’s most active clubs. At the budget meeting, a voice vote clearly signifies the outcome for most line items. But if someone says, “I doubt that vote,” a head count is taken. Last year Lion Penny Charbonneau carefully counted those who stood. Well-known around town, Lions are woven deep into the fabric of community life in Manchester. O’Keefe, who once lived in Boston and observed community groups like the Lions there, notes, “A small town revolves around community life. A Lions club has much more impact in a small town.” Joining the Manchester Lions Clubs has been an uplifting experience for its younger members, who have lifted the club to new heights. Shown are (from left) Amy Herrmann, 41, Nicki Dexter, 23, Retha Charette, 31, and Past District Governor Pam Nichols, the youngest club member when she joined at age 49 in 2007. The Lions are needed. Despite its stream of visitors, pockets of need persist in Manchester. Schools and nonprofits never have enough money. People lose their jobs, become disabled, can’t pay the bills when a marriage flounders. In serving as a reliable resource, the Lions help sustain community. The club is a strong stitch in the social pattern. Manchester emits a certain timelessness—its long, rich history, the seasonal rhythm of its visitors, the grand natural setting, its embrace of participatory democracy. The Lions club fits in seamlessly. Chartered more than a half century ago in 1951, it, too, seems permanent and impermeable to significant change. But Manchester Lions have realized that not evolving and taking charge of its destiny is tantamount to losing ground and relevance. Club stalwarts (left) Bruce Murtaugh (who plays Santa at the Elf Express) and Joe Charbonneau fondly recall the club auction, held at the Lions barn at a park. A Giving Community Schools in Manchester let out at noon on Thursdays. Students are required to ski or skate for the remainder of the school day. Residents are passionately devoted to outdoors recreation and cultivate that trait in the next generations. The commitment to outdoor sports pays off in the arena of international competition. Residents can name local participants in the Winter Olympics and proudly point out that the state as a whole surpasses its neighbor, the much more populous New York, in Olympics accomplishment. Ski season brings in hordes of outsiders to Manchester. Three ski resorts are located less than 30 minutes from the town. But summer is actually the busiest season for the town with its outdoors enthusiasts. The only slow time is the “mud season,” the doleful weeks of the spring when it’s chilly and rainy. The beauty of the natural surroundings is hardly the only attraction. In the 1980s a host of upscale outlet stores opened in Manchester, the first in the region with high-end budget shopping. The main street is flush with the likes of Eileen Fisher, Kate Spade and Armani. The stores are good for the economy but slow traffic to a crawl. “The local joke is that if you don’t get your shopping done before Saturday morning, don’t bother,” says Bruce Murtaugh, a three-time president of the Lions club. The stores are a mixed blessing. An economy dependent on retail stores—and snow—is problematic. Last year the ground remained bare. “He worked 10 hours last year,” says Lion Pam Nichols of her husband, who plows in the winter. “The year before he went three and a half months without a day off.” The number of families who used the food cupboard at the village hall jumped in the winter of 2016 to 300 from 170. The lower wages paid by the retail stores result in unpaid bills. The Lions not only support the food cupboard but also a couple dozen other concerns in town such as Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, Meals on Wheels and heating bills during the long winter. “People would not starve, but their lives would be a lot harder [without Lions],” says Murtaugh. The next generation of Lions epitomizes new ways: Herrmann owns a mobile coffee shop. The volunteerism of Lions is community-wide. Residents are proud of their help-thy-neighbor ethos. When remnants of Hurricane Irene in 2011 left homeowners without safe water or electricity, invitations quickly sprang forth: “Come to my house. I’ve got water.” Village officials asked Lions to cook at the village hall for those not otherwise cared for. “The Lions were the auxiliary force,” says O’Keefe. Reconstruction also was a matter of spur-of-the-moment volunteerism. Teams of high school students descended on homes to rip out soggy drywall. Freelance volunteers including Lions drove down the roads searching for homeowners in need of a handyman. “By the time FEMA showed up, the work was already done,” says O’Keefe. “They said, ‘OK, show us what the damage is.’ It was fixed up already.” Personal, behind-closed-doors volunteerism is common. Joe Charbonneau, a Lion who was the greenskeeper for many years at a local country club, meticulously tended to the grass of two new soccer fields put in by the town. “It must have been 100 volunteer hours,” says O’Keefe. Charbonneau (a cousin of Penny Charbonneau’s husband) also befriended Wendell Cram, a legendary community figure whose health had declined precipitously. As a boy Cram learned to ski on crude, homemade skis and qualified for the 1940 Winter Olympics, which were cancelled because of the war in Europe. As a soldier he was part of a ski unit ready to dash down the Alps to fight the Germans. Those plans never materialized, but his unit’s service is commemorated in a bronze statue of a 10th Mountain soldier in ski-crazy Stowe. Charbonneau frequently visited Cram at his home, providing companionship as the town icon gradually slipped away. Time Marches On The Lions club would not have come into existence when it did if not for the restrictive policies of Rotary. Back in the early 1950s pig farmer Oscar Johnson attended a Rotary meeting and was set to join. But the club already had a farmer and allowed only a single representative from a profession. Johnson’s dad had been a Lion in Stratford, Connecticut, so Johnson helped charter the Manchester Lions Club in 1951. The club’s first activity was a bicycle safety course at a new elementary school. The first fundraiser was an auction in 1952. Lion Charles Hawkins flew his private plane to publicize the fundraiser. Using a public address speaker attached under the wing, he announced the hours while buzzing locals. Supposedly, but likely apocryphal because of the danger, Hawkins would shut off his engine at times to ensure he could be heard. The club’s first fundraiser was its auction. Quickly becoming its most well-known and successful project, it continued for more than a half century. The auction was a study in consistency. Each year, for 47 consecutive years, the original auctioneer, the voluble Bus Mars of Pawlet, took the microphone and auctioned off the goods donated to the club. The auction was a community happening. Held in the Lions barn at a sprawling park and sports complex, the mood among the buyers was festive. Who doesn’t love a bargain and walking home with a newly purchased treasure? Ending the auction three years ago was “like a spear in the heart” for people, says Charbonneau. But times had changed. Increasingly, people sold their unused household items on the Internet. The death knell was the opening of a Habitat for Humanity office that accepted donations for resale. “If you call Habitat, they pick it up tomorrow. Our auction might have been months away,” says Nichols. The decline of the auction helped the club realize that change can be uncomfortable but is sometimes necessary. The club needed new projects. It needed younger members. The ending of the auction was “kind of sad,” says Nichols. “But time marches on. If you don’t make adjustments, you go away.” Looking back, the decision to move on proved to be sound. “The club better have changed. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t have been viable,” says Charbonneau. “Some of the older members don’t like that much change. But the club has to evolve.” Ben Boors, the club historian, has his own personal story to tell: his daughter used this braille typewriter, given to her by the club, to succeed in school and life. A Necessary Evolution In the fall the club once again held its venerable Maple Run, a distance race that drew 700 runners. One of the race marshals was Lion Ben Boors, 77, the beloved, longtime custodian at Burr and Burton Academy, the independent high school in Manchester. Boors became a Lion in 1961. “I wish I were 20 years younger. I’d do more activities,” says Boors, somewhat misleadingly because he still volunteers at a number of projects. “I’m there even if it’s five in the morning,” he adds. Boors can personally attest to the power of Lions’ service. In 1986, his daughter, Theresa, became blind due to a hereditary disease. Undaunted, Boors kept her at the regular elementary school—its first blind student. The club gave her a tape recorder and then a braille typewriter. Determined to succeed, Theresa became a model student. She earned her doctorate, wrote two books and today serves as a Baptist minister. Boors is deeply grateful for the place of Lions in his life. In 2008 he was awarded a Melvin Jones Fellowship. “I think that was the highlight of my life,” he says. The Elf Express brings the joy of the season to children. Coordinating the Maple Run was Lion Amy Herrmann. She once worked on the race as an employee for the parks department of Manchester and helped out as a volunteer ever after she left that job. “I got a little ribbing from the Lions. Why don’t you just join?” she recalls. Key to the project are Neil Post, who coordinates it, and Mr. and Mrs. Claus (Murtaugh and Nichols, respectively). Her mother is a Lion in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, where Herrmann grew up. So she joined the Lions two years ago and courageously agreed to be in charge of the race. As fate would have it, the Chamber of Commerce in Manchester, the Lions’ partner on the race that provided much-needed office resources for the race, dissolved during a key pre-race stretch. “What did I get myself into?” recalls Herrmann, who owns a mobile coffee truck. “This was supposed to be a well-oiled machine.” The day was saved when Make A Wish agreed to come on as a race partner. Herrmann had enough help to do what she needed to do including extensive social media. She promoted the run on Facebook, posted a video of the race shortly after the starter’s gun was fired and posted the results the next day. Herrmann, 41, is part of the new wave of younger Lions in the club. Herrmann brought Retha Charette, 31, into the club, and Charette in turn convinced Nicki Dexter, 23, to join. Now Dexter’s boyfriend is set to join. In just a few years the 60-member club, while still not young, has turned a corner. Nichols, who owns a hair salon, was the youngest member when she joined at age 49 in 2007. “The dynamics of the club are definitely changing,” says Nichols, who took a quick liking to Lions and served as district governor last year. “The average age was 70 when I joined. It’s down to 55.” Becoming a Lion is a surefire way to become integrated into Manchester. The average age of residents is older than the state average, and longtime residents abound. “We’ve been here 45 years, so we’re not native,” cracks Lion Becky Nawrath, a Lion since 1993. Some families, extending outward and sometimes referred to as one of the “clans,” are certain of their place in town. Newcomers must find an entry point to belonging. Charette, a project coordinator for Big Brothers, Big Sisters, moved to the area from Massachusetts along with her boyfriend three years ago. Becoming a Lion has worked out. “I met a lot of people, not just Lions, but because of Lions,” she says. She competes in a roller derby league, and Lions she had just recently got to know showed up at a game to loudly cheer her on. “It’s the first time I felt like I really belonged,” she says. “My friends said, ‘Your Lions really know how to have fun.’ ‘Yeah, that’s why I am a Lion. You should join.’” Charette met Dexter at a Big Brothers, Big Sisters event. Soon after her college graduation, Dexter had moved to the area to teach before taking a job with the parks department. “You’re young,” Dexter said to Charette. “What do younger people do around here?” Charette replied, “I don’t know. I hang out with older people.” Dexter, who recently bought a home, plans to stick around Manchester for a while and stick with Lions. “It’s a great way to meet people, to get connected to the community,” she says. The club has welcomed not only new members but also their ideas. As Herrmann was finalizing the details of the race, Dave Pardo, a longtime member, disagreed with one of her decisions. “This is the way we’ve always done it,” he told her. Then a look of regret came over his face. “Wait a minute. I’ll shut my mouth,” he told her. “That’s why we brought you in.” ‘The club better have changed. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t have been viable.’ The old guard has been willing to give way to the new. In the past, the liquor inevitably flowed freely at director’s meetings, and members who “missed a meeting got a phone call,” says Charbonneau. He joined in 1987 because “the community was good to me.” Being good to the club can mean letting go a bit. “It’s time for younger blood,” he says. “I’m nearly 60. Someone else can do the bulk of the work.” The club’s biggest fundraiser, the successor to the auction that generates as much as $30,000 and brings joy to children and their parents, is its Elf Express Train Ride. Five carloads of children and guardians board a lavishly decorated vintage train on a December weekend and take a one-hour ride full of singing, dancing, caroling and, of course, an appearance by Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus. Begun five years ago, the elaborately staged event is centered around Christopher-Pop-in-Kins, a cuddly elf who greets the children in costume prior to boarding. The elf’s tale is told in a popular storybook that flies off shelves nationwide during the holiday season. On the train the story is read on a loudspeaker as the children read along. Lions serve as conductors. Using his real white beard, Murtaugh plays Santa, and Nichols is one of the Mrs. Clauses. Leos or students involved in theater at the high school play the elves, who sing and dance on the train; each car has three high-energy elves. The musical’s script was written by a local ringer, Jim Raposa, a former Broadway professional who now teaches at Burr and Burton Academy. A show business friend of his in New York created the music and lyrics for the upbeat production on the train. The train ride is so alluring that among its riders have been Make A Wish children, who pick the festive adventure over a trip to Disney or a visit to the Fenway clubhouse. They ride for free, of course, as does about one in 10 children, either disabled or disadvantaged in some way. Each year about 2,000 riders take the Elf Express. The Lions do an annual survey of riders. “We’ve had no negative feedback at all. Well, one exception,” says Neil Post, who has led the event for a few years. “One year Mrs. Claus was having trouble with her knees. She went to sit down and took off her wig, and one of the kids saw her.” The weekend project is exhausting, say Lions, but also highly enriching. “There is such joy on the kids’ faces,” says Post. “You couldn’t pay me enough to do this. It’s hard to differentiate whether it’s more rewarding for you or for the people you are helping.” Post grew up near New York City and ran an import/ export business there for many years. He understands how Lions in a small town make a difference by acting a bit differently. “A small town is different marketing-wise,” he says. “It’s not as aggressive, more laid back. It’s talk-about- it marketing. It’s face to face. You can send all the email you want. But you need to go see them.” As coordinator of a major event, Post knows what it’s like to ask for help and get it as well as needing to accept “sorry” and then call on someone else. “You have to realize this is a volunteer organization. People do as much as they can. You can’t be pushy about it,” he says. “In general, I feel we play very nice together.” Like others in the club who have put in serious blocks of hours, he’s ready to hand over the reins—confident someone younger can do just as well if not better. “I’ve done it long enough,” Post says. “It’s not that I don’t love it. I know people are out there with different ideas. Young people are on a whole different page.”
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