About the Vermont Humanities CouncilBecause Ideas Matter
Aiming High from the Start
Vermont Humanities was founded 45 years ago in 1974. We recently sat down with Victor R. Swenson, the organization’s first Executive Director, to hear his recollections of our early years.
Victor: I had worked at Johnson State College before I took the humanities job. When I was appointed, my first job was to open an office, so I started in January 1974 on New Year’s Day because we were in a hurry to get started. I moved a picnic table into the office, which was empty, and a folding chair and got to work.
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.”
Victor Swenson, 1975
VH: Do you have a sense what was behind the decision to move to Morrisville?
Victor: Yes. The Hyde Park space had grown over the years. It was a farm building with sheds attached to it and the sheds became more office space for years after we got going. But that space had grown inadequate. We shared the floor with the state’s attorney’s office and that could be awkward. There was a big, solid, sturdy house in Morrisville, which is more of a big village rather than a little one. It could easily be wired for computers. We came to the computer age determined that every worker in the office, whether paid employee or volunteer, would have his or her work enhanced by computer power. My associate, Michael Bowman, who was brilliant with computers developed and installed a Unix-based system that could take a lot of workstations. Michael pointed out that a Unix workstation and the system that we acquired cost about as much as an electric typewriter. There was that reason to have fresh wiring for all this stuff in the house in Morrisville and that worked out.
Victor: It was a slightly shorter commute for some people and a slightly longer one for some but that didn’t matter. Then when Peter moved the office in Montpelier, that really made sense because we’d started to gain a little state funding for our work.
VH: Sort of a related question with that in terms of state funding, I saw a photo of you with Jim Jeffords when he signed a nice note to you. Was there anything that he did or some of the other congressional delegation? Were they always supportive of the council?
Victor: We had to build that support. You had to make the case. By that time, we were beginning to work with adults learning to read and to take a stand in literacy issues.
VH: I saw a photo as well of Patrick Leahy reading a book to kids. It seemed like you made some inroads there.
Victor: Right. Well, Senator Stafford was a stalwart supporter of the program. We held an evaluation meeting for Senator Stafford’s office. This was early on. His office called our office and said, “We’d like you to bring testimony on the effect of your programs and it will be on this date and in this timeframe. You can saw whatever you want. Just bring us up to date.” So we had noticed already in many publications that humanities councils across the universe handled that. It’s easiest to talk about your wonderful staff and we decided to hold this evaluation meeting with Robert Stafford with as far as possible only program participants telling why it made a difference to them. It was really wonderful. They said great things. There were adults learning to read who had been empowered to read to their children.
Victor: When it was all over, Mrs. Stafford, who had sat in on this meeting, came over to me and said, “This is the best hearing I’ve ever gone to.” After we stopped weeping tears of joy…
Victor: And later Jim Jeffords was the ranking member of the Senate committee on Education, Arts and Humanities.
Senator Patrick Leahy in Brattleboro.
VH: What led the council into wanting to do literacy programs?
Victor: Mary Leahy, who is the sister of Senator Leahy, became a board member. Her life has been devoted to adult basic education. We talked with her about her program and started working with adults learning to read through her auspices and those of other adult basic education providers in the state. The results were very encouraging. It’s a difficult population to reach and it’s easy to get things wrong. Mary was a very successful voice for this and others in the state too. It’s like other things where you start out with a piece of an idea and then it gets expanded into being a mission or a goal. We used to say in our testing of what was good and what wasn’t in the world of humanities programming, you can say, “I got a grant from Susan Robuck for a program on solid waste disposal.” My then development director, Martha Nye, would say, “So what? Who cares? Anybody can run a successful program that blips on the screen and then blips off and that’s it. Whatever the value of it is what it is but it’s not building toward anything.”
Victor: So we came to the conclusion that we were going to help build this and we declared … Bill Wilson, our then chairmen, he said, “We have to have ideas that we can be afraid of and this is one of them.”
VH: Going into the literacy programs?
Victor: Going into the literacy programs. So we made grants to fund books and tutors and so forth and AV offices. Began to work on the idea of building a coalition that could drive us home. This is about the mid ‘80s that we’re working on this. So you have 15 years to achieve the impossible. But we also funded a couple of times a state-wide conference of adults learning to read.
Victor: They’d never been to a conference before. Katherine Patterson was the opening speaker. Everybody had read or had read to them The Great Gillie Hopkins and the discussion was so sweet. Gillie is in a difficult emotional jam and is neglected and doesn’t know how to respond to kindness. And by the end of the book she’s restored to her mother who’s abandoned her, and she has to leave the foster house that she’s come to love and there are lots of tears.
Victor: We say this is an authentic humanities experience. It’s reading and thinking and talking and debating and questioning. I still think that there is a possibility here but in our naivete we did a lot of good stuff but it wasn’t reaching maximum force.
Victor: The reason is I think that we were too small a task force. The humanities and several adult basic education offices supported the idea. The State Department of Education officials were not interested really, some of the adult basic education administrators in other parts of the state. Mary’s in three counties in the northeast, Washington County, Orange County, one other county. So we didn’t have buy-in from everybody. I think we were in the category of thinking that this is such an obviously good idea that it’s going to sweep the state by storm. One forgets how hard it is to move anybody anywhere.
Victor with former staffer Ginger Lee.
VH: Do you have a sense when you look now at programs that the Council is doing and its impact around the state, are you surprised about where the council has gone and what it’s doing?
Victor: Well, surprise in the sense of being gratified to see that these things are coming along. I think First Wednesdays is a brilliant plan and helps to get the Council well-known and people have had lots of pleasure at those lectures and lots of learning has taken place. I’m out of touch with the grant program. I don’t know how much of the budget goes into grants. For us, grant-making to communities was our chemistry lab. Are book discussions going to work? Yes, they worked in Rutland and then Brandon and then Morrisville and then 150 libraries in the state. And beyond that, there are probably 15 or 20 states in the country that do a Let’s Talk About It program, which was directly from the Vermont council. Pat Bates and I went to Chicago to talk to the American Library Association. I mean, we can feel gratified that certain people in Minnesota are better read than they were before.
VH: What do you find that you look back on really fondly during the first years of the Council, whether it’s specific moments or people?
Victor: The whole experience was just very exciting. My previous employment had been at colleges or universities and I marveled at the headaches that deans and department chairs and so forth had to struggle with. As I contemplated the Humanities Council, it was a situation where you very rarely had to suffer fools. If people wanted your funds, there were ways they could get them and we would do our best to help them understand how to put together a program that flies.
Victor: Let me hasten to say that I and the board both made mistakes. One of the things we did in early years because we had the money to do it was to fund the production of documentary films of one sort or another. The first film we funded was called Last Stand Farmer. It’s about an old side hill farmer who still plows with horses. It’s just out of step with the times. It’s touching, the old ways on the way out. That was our first film. I took to proudly to Washington and showed it and they were all duly impressed. Then we made grants to a bunch of films that sounded good, had good paper. Our motto soon became “good paper does not make good films.”
Victor: So that was one area for a while that was a bonanza for filmmakers. The assumption was that nobody reads books anymore and film, television film is the way to get to people. So we’ll do documentary films and have a discussion after it’s over. But people never stayed for the discussion.
VH: It’s interesting to me that you said even 40 years ago people were saying things like people don’t read anymore.
Victor: That came up in our organization when the first reading and discussion program came to us from Rutland. I think it preceded the Women in Literature, I believe. It was a year-long program that had a lot of moving parts to it but it was successful. Pat Bates was urged to do it again.
Victor: So when that proposal came to the board, there was a sharp discussion between people who read still and some who either don’t read themselves or are discouraged with the general public who doesn’t read much. Finally the board in good spirit said, “Let’s give it a try and see if it works.” It had that trajectory that I described earlier that other libraries began to pick up on it. I should get briefed sometime on just how many libraries that are going at one time, just where that stands now.
VH: I think it was over 100 events with discussion groups last year. I’ve gone to some of these small towns, like East Corinth in March and there’s 15 people who come out in bad weather to discuss Don Quixote and they’re passionate about it. You can see in some of these small towns, it’s a bit of a glue that the library is the community space and books give people a chance to discuss issues.
Victor: We love that. That’s what we’re aiming for. We want to expand those circles.
VH: So that was always part of the work.
Victor: It disclosed itself to us as a possible sort of work and we embraced it. If you’d asked me 15 years earlier if we’d do programs in 150 libraries, I might have been skeptical. But I’m a believer now and a missionary.
VH: Here’s a general question because you’ve lived in Vermont for a long time. Do you feel like the state has changed in the period of time that you’ve lived here?
Victor: Oh, sure.
VH: What are some of the ways that it’s changed?
Victor: It’s more wrapped up in the speedy work of the world. So it’s not as placid as it may have been. I don’t know if that’s the right phraseology. It’s just there are more people, not that many more, but the landscape changes as trees take over meadows and condos take over meadows. So it’s still very pleasant and there are nice, quiet neighborhoods like this one, which don’t cause much harm to anybody. I love the state. I think no state should have more than 600,000 people in it.
Victor: Well, you can say in response to this question that there are a lot more better-read people now than there were before. And there are certain new culture heroes like Katherine Patterson and others that people have come to enjoy meeting.
VH: Do you feel there’s anything that we haven’t covered that you’d like to say about the history of the Council or your role?
Victor: I think it’s a lot of fun and it’s just all benign, very positive work to be doing. I always felt that we set an impossibly high goal. Full literacy by the year 2000. Nobody could tell you what full literacy means really, honestly. But you can tell right now that we’re not at it. Too many people that missed out like your friend that didn’t get it in school. If you aim high, you only get part of the way there but at least you’re marching on the right trail unless it gets hopeless or something. The humanities can be made to feel centrally important in a life.