The difference from start to finish
Sometimes things take a little longer than planned. In March 2008, I announced in this space that the Vermont Historical Society, of which I was executive director, had launched “a collaborative project to compile a congenial book on the lessons Vermont has to impart, under the title ‘The Vermont Way: Perspectives from the Green Mountain State.’ I didn’t offer a timetable, but I recall thinking at the time that we’d have the book in print by the end of 2009.
Enter life, laughing at human expectations. I moved to Michigan in November 2008, and “The Vermont Way” languished. Vermont historian and longtime colleague Nick Muller and I resurrected the project in 2010, enlisted David Donath and the Woodstock Foundation as third editor and publisher, respectively, and persuaded Kristen Peterson-Ishaq to come on board to keep us in line.
National Life offered financial support, the Vermont Historical Society joined the foundation as co-publisher, Kris added “fourth editor” to her project manager duties, and we got under way.
Our editorial quartet, all of us friends and colleagues going back to the 1970s, made relatively short work of identifying 18 areas in which we thought Vermont ideas and practices had something to offer the rest of America.
The list that emerged — sustainable agriculture, small-town democracy, historic preservation, heritage tourism, the creative economy, women in leadership roles, government ethics, support for the arts and humanities, outdoor recreation, respect for state and local history — constituted an impressive range of ways in which our state has created policies, institutions and traditions that merit adoption and adaptation elsewhere.
We wondered whether we could persuade the best Vermont authors and leaders to write essays in their fields, but that concern proved unfounded: Nearly everyone we asked said “yes,” and most (to our surprise as seasoned academics) sent in their drafts on time or early. By late 2012 we had many of the parts and pieces of a book in hand.
We did have to deal with speed bumps along the way. “The Vermont Way” abdicated to “The Vermont Difference” when Burlington writer Greg Guma announced his own “Vermont Way” project we thought would come to fruition before ours. Kris learned that the true meaning of aggravation is trying to keep Kevin Graffagnino, Nick Muller and David Donath on track for more than a few minutes.
Finding the right images to complement the essays went slowly until we brought designer Brian Prendergast in to work his magic on combining words and pictures. Crafting a budget that didn’t bankrupt the publishers without raising the list price of the book to $500 took time and creative juggling of the numbers. Looking back at our tempestuous 20s and ambitious 30s, we were all glad we’d waited until mellow middle age to launch such a complicated venture.
But in the end, seven years from conception to publication, “The Vermont Difference” turned out very well. Our authors — Art Cohn, Paul Bruhn, Ellen McCullough-Lovell, Robert MacDonald, Peter Gilbert, Roger Allbee, Tom Slayton, Paul Costello, Jan Albers — constitute a roster of the best and brightest Vermont leaders of our time.
Three ex-Governors — Tom Salmon, Madeleine Kunin and Jim Douglas — wrote essays, and incumbent Peter Shumlin wrote our foreword, a chief executive roster we’re sure is unique in Vermont publishing history. Brian Prendergast’s design vision and the images he gathered from institutional and individual collections all over Vermont complement the texts beautifully. Some Vermont book projects have been faster, but I don’t think many have been better.
One early reader of “The Vermont Difference” characterized it as presenting “the best of Vermont,” and I think that’s accurate. The book is not about our state as an idyllic utopia or a place in which everything is exceptional; our editors and essayists all know that there are hundreds of areas in which Vermont has nothing to teach outsiders. Instead, “The Vermont Difference” offers perspectives and insights on the Green Mountain programs, activities and innovations that do merit wider consideration, the ways in which Vermont examples might be instructive or useful elsewhere.
We’ll launch “The Vermont Difference” with a series of roll-out events in early May. I hope Vermonters will attend, take a look at the book, and appreciate what it says about our state. If we can get people from Arizona, Wisconsin, Georgia, Maine, Oklahoma, and the rest of the country to pay attention as well, we can look forward to watching Vermont’s influence and examples receive the national respect they deserve.
J. Kevin Graffagnino is director of the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan. He was executive director of the Vermont Historical Society form 2003 to 2008.