Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Town Meeting Extra: Remembering Harry Cooley

Yesterday was Town Meeting Day in Randolph, and Chandler Music Hall was packed. As I squeezed into a backrow seat, I remembered sitting in the balcony with my friends back when the first Tuesday in March meant a day off from school. For much of the sixties and seventies, my grandfather, Harry Cooley, was the town moderator, and as a teenager I was always afraid he would quiz me on what I had learned at Town Meeting that year, so I tried really hard to pay attention to a discussion packed with such obscure terms as "general fund" and "equipment depreciation." My grandfather, who had the kind of dry wit for which Vermont farmers are famous, used to say something now and then that would fill the hall with laughter; inevitably, his little Town Meeting jokes went right over my head.

Harry loved Randolph—its history, its people—and he loved being part of its political milieu. He also liked to perform. After yesterday's meeting, I thought it would be fun to post my mother's portrait of her dad on today's blog—from it, you can see the kind of person who would have enjoyed the moderator's role, which requires some pretty nimble footwork. It helps to be unflappable and a bit of a ham; Grampa was both. The text below is taken verbatim from a talk my mother, Idora Tucker, gave at her church on Father's Day 1991, five years after Harry died at Gifford Hospital at the age of 93. The photograph after the jump is of Harry and Hilda Sawyer, his sister-in-law, who loved to clown around as much as he did (although what they are doing in the photograph is anybody's guess):

What does one say in five minutes about a life which spanned 93 years? Some of you know my father as one active in local and state government, a local history buff, a sometimes writer. I know him also as the head of a family, who taught his children about life largely through exampe. I'm going to use my allotted time to tell you a couple of stories which illustrate my point.

Dad became a farmer because that's what he wanted to do. In his growing-up years, many boys became farmers because they didn't know what else to do. Dad was a good student and his parents encouraged him to go to college, but he chose to be a farmer because that was what he loved. No matter how long the hours or hos physically demanding the work, he never complained about it. He enjoyed it, and from him I learned that even the most menial kinds of work can be rewarding and enjoyable. We see too little of that these days. Dad eventually reached the point when he could no longer do the hard work of a farmer, but he continued to enjoy his garden and his berry patch throughout his lifetime.

Within a few years Dad added to his already full workload a second job of teaching young men to become farmers. He did this in one form or another until he was into his sixties. He used to hire his students to work for him on the farm, teaching them by example the workings of a family farm. I know that he enjoyed some aspects of his teaching, but it was definitely a job for money, not like working the farm. And he did not like correcting papers, partly because his students were less than accomplished in written expression. (After the jump: A typical day for Dad; what he did for fun; a lesson about prejudice)

A typical day during the school year went like this: Dad would get up very early—four or five o'clock—start the wood fire in the kitchen stove, on cold mornings crank up the wood stove in the living room, milk the cows with whatever help he had available at the time, feed them, clean the barn, feed and water the chickens, take care of the horses, then come in to eat and clean up before driving us to school (no school buses) and going to his school day. In the late afternoon it was all to do over again before coming in for a meal and, often, a session of correcting papers.

In the summer, with no school, the farm work became full-time, and required many helpers, as well as a corps of household workers.

Winter or summer, Dad's day usually ended with reading, often far into the night. He read everything, and continued to do so all his life. He was truly a lifetime learner. All five of his children pursued graduate degrees—four teachers and an attorney.

Dad believed in finding time for fun. In my growing-up years our fun was usually family fun, and for the most part did not involve lessons, uniforms, nor expensive equipment. In the twenties there wasn't any money, but we had a comfortable home, wonderful food, brothers and sisters and cousins for companionship. Dad taught all of us how to fish, but he never hunted anything except the woodchucks which attacked our garden or the foxes which carried off the chickens.

For several years there was an annual hiking expedition after the hay was in, which involved all of us who were old enough to go, as well as assorted uncles and cousins. Every summer there was a huge chicken barbecue, with Dad cooking the chicken over an open pit dug for the occasion.

We all liked dancing—at VSA (the Vermont School of Agriculture, now VTC)—family style. We kids would dance with our parents and other kids until we were gorwn up enough to dance with the VSA students. For years, dancing was one of my favorite forms of recreation.

Dad loved plays and often took part in local theatricals. He had a very retentitve memory, and could learn the lines of a major role in a remarkably short time. He'd practice his lines while shaving and while doing something around the house or the garden. We'd hear him shouting out the words of his character as he hoed the peas. He also gave 'recitations', reciting from memory long poems, usually funny ones that told a story. When I was in high school I liked to perform in plays, and Dad would coach me at home. Never once did it occur to me in those days that I was not a talented actress and should not be so presumptuous as to take on some of the roles I did. It was commonplace in our family to take on anything we wanted to, and to expect that if we gave it our best effort we would be successful.

My last story is about prejudice, or maybe discrimination, and about accepting the consequences of our decisions. We were brought up to believe that no two individuals are exactly alike, but that everyone is valuable. Race, religion, physical handicaps, etc., did not make one person more valuable than another. I still believe that. We also somehow thought that this way of thinking was the norm, and that prejudice was the exception. When I was a college freshman I wanted to join a sorority. My parents pointed out to me that the sorority included in its membership only white girls, large Protestant, and a few Catholics. I was able to rationalize this situation to my own satisfaction, and joined the group, although my parents didn't think it was such a great idea. Two years later a representative from the national headquarters paid us a visit and read us the riot at because there were too many Catholic girls in the group. This was too much for me and I resigned, the only Protestant girl to do so. A hard way to learn that decisions which fly in the face of one's beliefs are likely to bring about very negative consequences.

I'd like to tell you more, about learning to accept responsibility, about dealing with change, about participating in the life of the community, about enjoying all of it. But more isn't necessarily better. I hope I've left you with an impression of a tremendously capable man who taught his chidren about life by the way he lived.


Kelly Green said...

I love this post. Thanks for sharing.

Sara Tucker said...

I have something for you!

Kelly Green said...