Vermont Humanities founding Executive Director Victor Swenson (left) with Senator Jim Jeffords. Jeffords was the ranking member of the Senate committee on Education, Arts and Humanities.
Vermont Humanities: Whose idea was it to start the council? Did someone or a group of people approach you about starting it?
Victor: The way it worked, this was a new program and the National Endowment for the Humanities was managing the growth of the program across the country. They had been almost hounded by congressional critics that it wasn’t reaching out. The National Endowment wasn’t reaching out sufficiently to the local man and woman on the street. So the endowment felt challenged, healthily so, by this concern and developed the state-based program as a division of the endowment program. So in addition to library collection grants and scholarly research grants, there would be a network of state humanities councils that would somehow help bring the humanities to life.
Victor: And there was a brilliant official at the endowment named John Barcroft who designed the format for the State Humanities Councils. What they came up with was a grant program, re-grant program really…The state could apply for a large grant. Our first grant was $140,000. With this, we could fund projects and use the funds to figure out what a humanities program was and how to tell if it was successful. The opening conversation with people left them curious about whose idea this was because the lively arts is one thing, the lively humanities was to be discovered and it was.
Victor: So the initial guidelines were that a program had to deal with public issues. There was no faith that the humanities by themselves would draw an audience but if you’re talking about solid waste disposal in the Champlain Valley, that has a possibility. The challenge there is to find the literature professor or the historian or whatever who’s a solid waste expert. There were curiosities. I used to drive. My opening months were spent in program development, just announcing that this program is here and available and here’s how you apply. Meanwhile, we’re inventing all this stuff. Not at all certain what was going to work or not, but we were determined to work hard at it.
Victor: The chairman of the board was David Littlefield, a literature professor at Middlebury College. He was deeply committed to the idea that the humanities should inform public debate and so my board committed to that idea. It was an open promise that we would do our best to bring this into being without any guarantees that it would be successful or be interesting to people.
VH: Was Vermont one of the last states to have a humanities council, or was it somewhere in the middle?
Victor: Somewhere in the middle, I think. I’m not positive about that. The endowment wasn’t sure that this was going to work and it didn’t want to squander its reputation by funding a failure. So they designed this idea of humanities programs, dealing with public issues for the out-of-school adult public audience. This is not for people who want a PhD. It’s for people that want to read history for pleasure or whatever. There were some financial considerations that you had to pay attention to. You had to match your grant dollar for dollar, but you could do it with inclined services, so 25 peanut butter sandwiches for the speakers, you could pay that with grant funds.
VH: We had heard that you founded the office at Hyde Park because of the oil shortages. Is that right?
Victor: That wasn’t the reason. The reason was I didn’t want to be in Johnson because it would confuse people. Hyde Park is a beautiful little village. Route 15 is circled around it, so it doesn’t have traffic through it. The office was an old farmhouse, which was one of the few buildings to survive a big fire in the 19th century that burned the south side of the street and our house was on the north side of the street. It still stands but it didn’t have a plumb wall or level floor in the building. For the first several years, it was just me as executive director and Mary Silver, a friend and colleague who was secretary. Mary was in a chair in an office that ran downward toward the center of the house and, she had to put rubber stoppers [on her chair] to keep the wheels from turning.
VH: The Fall Conference started right in the first year in 1974. Do you recall where the idea for the Fall Conference came from?
Victor: Yes, I do, very well. So many of these questions are based on a mistaken assumption that’s perfectly understandable. It’s assuming that a program that has had 20 years to mature knew what it was doing in the first place. I have no shame in saying that I honestly didn’t know if this program made sense. But I was determined to find out, and the board was very eager to get things going. They believed in this program. They thought it would help the state. It was something that they had a high sense of understanding of the purpose of it. So they were enthusiastic about it.
The December 1974 fall conference was really an evaluation conference. We invited participants from the projects that had taken place during the year. We invited scholars who’d then participated in programs, and also program users, people that had come to programs, to just quiz them on what’s working, what’s not working.
VH: After 1976 you no longer called the Fall Conference the “evaluation and program conference.” Was there a change in the makeup of the Fall Conference at that point?
Victor: By that later year, people were getting the idea. They knew it and Rutland was in the lead on that. The free library had a very nice meeting space and it was one of two libraries in Vermont that did adult programming. Pat Bates in Rutland who was the pioneer of the reading programs said, “Victor, we’ve don’t this already. We’ve already evaluated it. We know it works. Why do we have to do this again? Don’t do this again.” She was right. We edged into programming for content [at the Fall Conference.]
Victor: Pat Bates, we owe her a lot. The first substantive conference we did, part of it was we sent a book to people coming to the conference. But we didn’t do anything with it. It just was a book to enrich your experience and, no offense to anybody, and Pat Bates came in and said, “How come we had to read this book and you didn’t discuss it? You have to talk about it.”
VH: I remember when we spoke to Bob and Mary Ann Chaffee about going to so many Fall Conferences. They said that was something they really enjoyed and missed. That it seemed like for a while you would read a book and then be prepared to discuss it at the conference.
Victor: Back in our early computer days, we didn’t think of emailing chapters to people. We sent them for our 1988 conference on the Spanish Armada. We sent everybody The Armada. It’s one of my favorite books. Not everybody read it. A lot of people would say after that or any other reading programs that we do, “I didn’t read that one but, boy, I’m going to go home and read it now.”