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Greenberg: Tom Davis Remembrance

Tom Davis liked to say that he was born with a “social justice gene.”

Son of Republican Governor Deane Davis and grandson of a Vermont State Treasurer, Tom was aware of political issues from a young age. Visitors to the Davis’ Barre home included 1940 Republican presidential nominee Wendell Willkie. Young Tom, however, was more interested in baseball and skiing. These, and later golf, would remain lifelong passions. Even after being formally introduced to political science and economics at UVM, Tom entered the workforce as a car and insurance salesman.

But public service beckoned, and a job as an alcohol rehab counselor in the old Windsor prison led to a lifetime of serving Vermonters, including as founder of the Vermont Office of Economic Opportunity, Secretary of Human Services, and New England representative for the U.S. Department of Labor.

After retirement he served on the Board of the Barre Historical Society and as president of the VT Labor History Society.

Tom also had a rich family life with his wife, Dolly, and nine children. Somehow, he still found time to write three memoirs and two detective novels. I had interviewed him about Vermont skiing history many years ago and knew he was an engaging yet self-effacing story-teller and a welcoming person. But I was unaware, until we met again at a Barre Historical Society board meeting, of the depth of his commitment to social justice and working people.

Tom hired me to interview him and record more of his reminiscences – and it didn’t take much to get him talking. Whether the subject was his admiration for Jackie Robinson, or chauffeuring presidential hopeful Sargent Shriver around central Vermont, or the lack of connection between government bureaucrats and the people they purported to serve, Tom spoke freely – with keen insight and gentle humor.

With American political debate seeming to decline in quality daily, Tom’s words reaffirmed the immeasurable value of thoughtful, informed, common-sense discourse – free of rote ideology, ego, and ambition.
Instead, his observations were driven by a genuine commitment to human understanding, lifelong learning, fairness, and kindness. The “social justice gene” had, indeed, kicked in and Vermont is richer for it.

Hopefully, when more of his interviews become publicly available, Tom Davis will continue to teach us what it truly means to be both a citizen and a public servant.

Mark Greenberg is a Montpelier-based educator, writer, musician, and media producer. He has taught at Goddard College and the University of Vermont and produced award-winning folk music recordings and radio and video documentaries.
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