by Dot Helling
That’s what I call them. Groups of locals who have gathered regularly over the years to make a difference, or not, through friendly debate, opinion, agreement and controversy. The meeting spots in the olden days included Coffee Corner, Capitol Plaza (then the Tavern Motor Inn bedecked with a large fish tank and swimming pool for bar stool entertainment), the original Thrush Tavern (now Capital Pho) and the Stockyard (now the site of Vermont State Employees Credit Union). Notables included Probate Judge Nora Olich, the ever effervescent Senator William “Bill” Doyle, Republican Grand Dame Lola Aiken and local attorneys Austin Noble and Paul Giuliani. Judge Olich held “court” so to speak over martini lunches at the Stockyard where politics was the main topic, and the lunch cast was a “who’s who” of Montpelier. For decades Doyle and Aiken were stalwarts in a Saturday breakfast and Sunday brunch group at the Plaza. Aiken was the first woman to break into the group of conservative Republican men who met every weekday morning at the Coffee Corner front table. Aiken later invited women and liberals to the Coffee Corner front seats, and was the instigator behind the change in group dynamics. Today’s front table hosts an eclectic variety of conservatives and liberals, young and old, male and female. From this window you watch the city come alive and critique the development of various projects, like the Positive Pie outdoor seating and the hanging of the State/Main Christmas ornaments, or count the trucks full of metal coming down from Bolduc’s. On Fridays, two different groups gather at the front table starting early with an energetic batch of male cronies transplanted from Plainfield, such as storyteller Willem Lange and birdman Brian Pfeiffer. On Thursday mornings the front table features the musical talents of fiddlers Susan Reid and Corrie Wilcox, guitarists Leeds Brewer and Glenn Howland, accordionist Rick Winston and violinist Donna Hopkins.
Today, in addition to Coffee Corner, influencers meet regularly at Capitol Grounds and Birchgrove Baking on Elm. Newton Baker, Roger Crowley, retiring Representative Tony Klein and John Mallery are regulars at the Grounds where talk centers around sports, politics, women, geriatrics and downtown infrastructure. Meanwhile at Birchgrove, the likes of Larry Mires, Carol Vassar and John Durrance chat up similar topics and the benefits of retirement. Mires is a double timer who also participates in the early Friday group at Coffee Corner. Willem Lange inhabits Coffee Corner and the Grounds. It is not unusual to have the governor or other state and local politicians pass through these establishments for a cup of coffee or breakfast and join the discussions, especially around election time. What runs constant is the camaraderie and laughter. You can’t have a thin skin if you sit down and expose yourself to the enigmatic characters that form these groupings. They know how to toast and roast with the best. Here are bits about just a few of them:
Leeds Brewer, father of Andrew Brewer who owns Onion River Sports, is a Montpelier landlord and oversees many properties in the downtown. His wife Charlotte works at The Shoe Horn. He plays wonderful guitar music, most often in a duo with fiddler Susan Reid at venues like Skinny Pancake and Morse Farm. Leeds is the Coffee Corner’s “Grand Poo-Bah.” He can answer any question or simply tell you where to go with it. His unique manner includes a generosity and kindness that is unmatched. Just don’t try and sit in his chair or use his mug. His chair is the cushy one that faces down State Street, his mug holds a pint of coffee and says “Mug of Coffee.”
Corrie Wilcox, a Montpelier native, is the youngest participant at the Coffee Corner on Thursday music mornings. Corrie was brought to the table by Brewer last fall and plays traditional fiddle music on violin. She works as the buyer’s assistant for Onion River Sports and The Shoe Horn on Langdon Street. At a mere 27 years old, Wilcox would have made Lola Aiken proud given her talent, enthusiasm and willingness to hang out with the older set. She has her own opinions too.
Senator Bill Doyle is Montpelier’s longest seated legislator, having served 40 years at the State House. He has been on the Johnson State College faculty since 1958 and this fall will teach a course entitled “Campaigns and Elections.” Many of his students, like progressive Senator Anthony Pollina, have gone on to serve in public office. Doyle has recorded 1,200 interviews for ORCA in the past 6-7 years, has been known to attend every chicken pot pie supper in Central Vermont and for 16 years has put out topic-specific surveys on local issues for publication. Bill’s face and voice are everywhere, the Times Argus, the World, the Senate floor. As did Lola Aiken, when Doyle appears in venues like Sarducci’s, he makes the rounds before sitting down to a meal, making sure to say hello to all the patrons. Doyle always remembers your name. For a 90-year-old, his memory and historical knowledge are irrepressible and impressive. His wife of more than 50 years, Olene, is a gem.
In the opinion of Doyle, all of these informal “meet-ups,” especially amongst politicians, lawyers and lobbyists who have gathered at venues such as the Thrush and Capitol Plaza over the years, have an important social value. In the old days when legislators stayed over at the Tavern Motor Inn, they dined together and talked across party lines and reached understandings that may not occur when simply presenting and arguing on the legislative floor. They would gather and think together as people, not political parties, a very valuable part of the legislative process which, according to Doyle, is missing today.
So what’s the moral of this story? Keep talking. Communication serves us all and can influence others.