ESSAY: Looking to the Past

by Thomas Christopher Greene

Thomas Greene’s father, Richard, and grandmother, Marie, at Richard’s college graduation in the 1950s.

As a novelist, I am fascinated by how small events, a chance meeting, an illness, can change the course of an entire life.

The grandmother I never knew, Marie Foley, died five years before I was born. She was only 63 years old and had had a hard life. When she was a teenager, both her parents, who had escaped the famine in Ireland and settled in Massachusetts, both died suddenly in their forties from influenza. She and her 11 siblings were parsed out to different relatives and one of her brothers was put on the orphan train that went up through Maine to Canada.

In the years that followed, Marie worked as a housemaid and met her husband, Charles, on a bridge. He drove a coal-truck until turning to drink full-time during The Great Depression. He never worked again. They had seven children. They lived in a small, drafty house in the shadow of Bradford College, an all women’s college that catered to the wealthy in the mill town of Haverhill, Mass. Marie found work as a cook in the kitchen of the college and here sometimes her children, including my father, Richard, would come to visit her.

My father remembers a happy Christmas when all the poor children of the employees were invited to stand in front of a large Christmas tree and the students brought them presents. Another time, my father, perhaps 10 years old in his recollection, was in the cafeteria when the college president came into the room. My father remembers asking who he was, and then watching how others responded to him and in that moment my father decided he wanted to do this with his life, to become like that man.

Of my father’s six siblings, he was the only one to graduate high school. He went on to college to become a teacher, where he met my mother. He did a stint in the Marines. He returned and taught high school while working in a liquor store at night and going to graduate school. He eventually earned his master’s degree and then his Doctorate in Education from Boston University. He became a college professor and then a dean, and eventually, like the man he saw as a child, a college president. He and my mother had seven children. All of us went to college. Many of us went to graduate school. Two of us became college presidents, currently the only brothers running colleges at the same time in the country. Education, my father who rose out of The Great Depression told us, is the one thing that can never be taken away from you.

In 2006, a combination of circumstance, naiveté and hubris, led me on a quixotic quest to start Vermont College of Fine Arts. I had been a higher education administrator in my twenties but had quit after my second novel was published to write full-time. The college that owned the historic Vermont College campus announced that they were going to sell it to the highest bidder. Developers were looking at turning it into condominiums. Over 100 jobs would be lost. And the renowned MFA program that I had graduated from and helped make me a writer would close. I decided I had to do something about it.

Part way through the two year process of starting Vermont College of Fine Arts, one of the members of my newly formed board, an artist from New York, asked a friend of hers with decades of experience in higher education to come visit with me to get his opinion on the viability of this effort. His name was Arthur Levine, and he ran the Woodrow Wilson Foundation at Princeton University. Much earlier in his career, though, he had been President of Bradford College in Haverhill, Mass. In higher education circles, Art was a legend.

As Art and I walked around my snow-covered campus, looking at the old brick buildings, he remarked how much it reminded him of Bradford, which had closed many years before, succumbing to the winds of change in higher education after the 60s, when many all women’s colleges closed. It had been shuttered for a while and then became condominiums. And the Vermont College campus, too, had once been an all women’s college and had also come close to closing then, too, when Norwich University swept in and saved it the first time. In fact, Vermont College had been one of the schools that, back in the day, competed for students with Bradford. At one point, listening to my plans to breathe life into this old campus, Art turned to me and he said, enthusiastically, “What you are doing here is changing the trajectory.”

And when he said that I thought of that moment some 60 plus years before, when my father stood as a boy in a cafeteria and watched a predecessor of Art’s walk in the room and decided he wanted to escape his life for a better one. I thought of the idea that sometimes all it takes is the ability to imagine something and you can become it. That this is also where most dreams die: many children don’t get that opportunity to imagine. The world is too closed to them. We can never do enough to open it. What if my grandmother had never cooked at a college?

No, I thought, looking past Art to the fat snowflakes that fell through the air. I’m not changing the trajectory. That happened a lifetime before I was born.

Thomas Christopher Greene is a novelist and founding President of Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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