Jeffords’ death brings life full circle
By Kevin O’Connor
Staff Writer | August 22,2014
Albert J. Marro / File Photo
Former U.S. Sen. James Jeffords attends his hometown of Rutland’s Paramount Theatre in 2006.
James Jeffords called it his “first vivid memory.” It was just before Christmas 1939. Jeffords, then 5, stood by the fireplace of his family’s Rutland home and hung his stocking for a newspaper photographer.
Smile, the man said. But all Jeffords could do was grimace at the growing pain in his stomach. By the time his parents sped him to the hospital, it was clear his appendix had burst.
In the end, the photographer got his shot, and Jeffords got a story — the first in a trove of tales he’d collect over the course of a 40-year political career.
The former U.S. senator’s death Monday at age 80 — spurred by complications from pneumonia at the Knollwood military retirement residence in Washington D.C. — has drawn response from President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.
A host of state leaders, for their part, will attend Jeffords’ funeral today at 11 a.m. at Grace Congregational United Church of Christ in his hometown of Rutland.
But the man who won election to the Vermont Senate in 1966, the attorney general’s office in 1968, the state’s lone congressional seat in 1974 and the U.S. Senate in 1988 was most comfortable with his family, friends and neighbors — the ones who sent him off four decades ago and are welcoming his son and daughter, Leonard and Laura, back to where it all started to say goodbye.
“He always wanted to be in Vermont,” Leonard said Thursday. “This is where his heart was.”
James Merrill Jeffords, born in Rutland on May 11, 1934, was raised in a Kingsley Avenue house his architect grandfather built in 1930 and his family still owns. His father Olin’s ancestors settled in Vermont in 1794. His neighbor, Leonard Wing Sr., would become a major general and World War II hero. Another man who lived nearby, Robert Stafford, would become Jeffords’ predecessor in the U.S. House and Senate.
If that sounds like a scene from a Norman Rockwell painting, it almost was. When Jeffords was a teenager, the famed artist asked him to pose. The student respectfully declined.
“When I saw the final result I was glad I hadn’t given up a day’s pay to model,” Jeffords wrote in his 2003 autobiography, “An Independent Man: Adventures of a Public Servant.” “There was my pal Billy Farwell immortalized by Rockwell as a youngster, with big ears and a big nose, which Billy did not have. I figured Rockwell would have had a heyday with my awkward looks.”
But Jeffords often was photographed by his hometown paper, be it hanging that stocking as a child or playing football, basketball or the baritone horn as a high school student.
“When Jim first reported for varsity athletics as a freshman four years ago, the coaches were tempted to pass him by,” the Rutland Herald reported his senior year. “He didn’t appear put together the right way to make a good athlete. But at long last, Jim has pulled himself up by the bootstraps. He has what it takes.”
Or did he? Growing up, the seventh-generation Vermonter and son of a chief justice of the state Supreme Court appeared to be a picture-perfect all-American. But he exhibited an independent streak as early as high school, when one of his pranks — perhaps it was the stink bomb he set off in class — got him blackballed from the Boys State student government program.
The student, feeling shy and socially awkward, hid behind what he called “an odd bravado.” He ran for president of the class of 1952 all four years of high school — and lost.
Jeffords’ oil-and-water mix of eagerness and anxiousness often hampered him from speaking in clear, concise quotes, leaving reporters to paraphrase his thoughts.
“I know that my father’s inability or lack of desire to communicate with me and his deficiency when it came to showing affection or intimacy contributed to my own shortcomings in this area,” he wrote in his autobiography.
“I’ve been told many times that I lack the simple ability to carry on a social conversation. Nor am I very adept at expressing my deepest emotions, even when I sorely desire to do so. Perhaps I should blame my father, but I don’t. He was who he was, and I am who I am.”
Jeffords often cited humorists Frank Bryan and Bill Mares’ “The Vermont Owner’s Manual,” which says any politician who subjects schoolchildren to a 20-minute speech should be charged with a misdemeanor — except Jeffords, who deserved to be charged with a felony.
But Jeffords would go on to Yale University, the Navy, Harvard Law School and a lifelong roller-coaster romance with a former Burlington travel agent named Liz Daley, with whom he bought a house in Shrewsbury, then divorced, then remarried on their 25th wedding anniversary with their son and daughter as best man and maid of honor.
The former U.S. senator’s death has drawn national press coverage — all recounting his 2001 departure from the Republican Party that tipped control of a 50-50 chamber to the Democrats and landed him on the cover of Newsweek (the headline: “Mr. Jeffords Blows up Washington”). But through all the flashbulbs, he never forgot his roots.
After the announcement, Chris Graff, now head of communications for Montpelier’s National Life Group, traveled to the nation’s capital as the Associated Press’ Vermont correspondent. Expecting to be met by an aide, Graff was surprised when the senator himself — waving a copy of Newsweek — was the first to greet him.
“Can you believe it?” Graff recalls Jeffords asking.
Believe what, Graff thought at the time — the cover, or the fact the most sought-after man in the capital was waiting for him?
In his autobiography, Jeffords summed up his story by citing the Frank Capra film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”
“I hope you’ll see that one person can make a difference,” he wrote, “not just on the political landscape but in the priorities I believe are essential to a democratic nation — education, environment, the safety of the planet, health care and the support for our agricultural community — and that you can have one heck of a good time doing so.”
For Mr. Jeffords, it was a wonderful life.