EDITORIAL: Friends of Local History

by Nat Frothingham

“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”   — George Santayana 

Over the years, The Bridge has often celebrated history — preeminently the local history of Montpelier — but also at times the history of our sister city Barre — and from time to time the local history of the nearby villages and towns in Washington County.

In this issue of The Bridge and in the next issue of The Bridge that will hit the street on Dec. 15, we are publishing a range of stories on a theme of local history.

The idea for this concentration on local history goes back to a meeting this past October with two Montpelier High School students — Nathan Grutchfield and Matt Koucky — who are working with The Bridge as part of a Community-Based Learning project. We meet once a week for about an hour. And it was Nathan and Matt who when given a list of possible writing themes — chose to write about local history.

Having hit on the local history theme, I began reaching out to local historians and local writers to see if they would join Nathan and Matt in contributing local history stories.  People are busy. That’s a given. But what surprised me was that every writer I contacted agreed to contribute a story. Not a single writer declined our invitation.

In addition to Nathan and Matt from Montpelier High School we are publishing stories in this paper and the Dec. 15 paper from — not in any special order — the following writers:  Dot Helling, Paul Gillies, Paul Heller, Paul Carnahan and Michael Sherman.

I have also had good phone conversations on local history subjects with Tom Davis who has written about Barre and we will draw from his two local history books about Barre to celebrate its history in our paper of Dec. 15.

I’ve also talked by phone with Helen Corry (Ba) Riznik about what it was like to be a Montpelier High School student during the 1940s. And I have interviewed Erline Leonard who is a fount of information about the history of East Calais.

But the acknowledgements don’t stop with writers. Paul Carnahan who is writing for us is also Librarian for the Vermont Historical Society and works out of the Vermont History Center in Barre. Over and over again Paul has helped The Bridge and helped us about a week ago as we searched for good photographs in the archives of the History Center.  Also of great help was Marjorie Strong, Assistant Librarian at the Vermont History Center.

As we assembled this issue of the paper, MHS student Nathan Grutchfield offered to write a review of Paul Levy’s  recently published book — “Finding Phil.”

The “Phil” in this story was Paul Levy’s uncle Phil who died in combat in the closing days of World War II.  When Phil died, Paul was a one-year-old child. Growing up he heard the occasional reference to his deceased uncle, but not much more than that. Eventually Paul Levy wanted to know more and thus began his very recent five-year journey to reconstruct his uncle’s life. So we are publishing Grutchfield’s review of Paul Levy’s book in this issue of The Bridge.

Also in this issue managing editor Carla Occaso writes about Montpelier resident Delia Robinson’s memorably illustrated “new take” on the tragic (1911) “Triangle Shirtwaist Fire” in New York City — that took the lives of 145 workers, mostly women who were suffocated or jumped from the eighth through 10th floors to their deaths.

And in our December 15 issue, writer Robbie Harold will be reviewing a recently published book written by Montpelier resident Fay Webern. Her book entitled “The Button Thief of East 14th Street: Scenes from a Life on the Lower East Side” tells the story of Webern’s early life in New York City from 1927 to 1957.

History is all around us, in our own lives, in the lives of our friends and neighbors and from the lives of others in the deeper past. We can rejoice in what we know, we can unlock the riddles of past human behavior. We can also in the spirit of Spanish-American philosopher, essayist, poet and novelist George Santayana measure the present and future against the past. It was Santayana who seized on the absolute importance of understanding history to avoid the failures of the past. He also said about war, “Only the dead have seen the end of war.”

Thanks then to the writers and other people in our Central Vermont communities who have measurably and generously helped The Bridge as we put out two issues of the paper with a local history theme. Let me not forget to thank Matt McLane at Montpelier High School who arranges the CBL (Community-Based Learning) projects. And, as always, let me thank everyone who works at The Bridge for your valued work and thanks as well to our board members and very close friends with special thanks to Phil Dodd  all of whose whose creativity and hard work make this paper possible.

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