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Slayton: Reporting On Phil Hoff

Philip Hoff and his wife, Joan, pose in front of the Vermont Statehouse at Hoff's gubernatorial inauguration, which took place Jan. 17, 1963.
Associated Press

Historians debate whether historic change is made by forceful men and women, or by larger forces — trends and events that push human beings into actions that they may believe they are in charge of. But with Phil Hoff, it was a combination of both.

I covered Hoff, both as candidate and governor; I was standing right behind him when he shouted with excitement as the Legislature voted to reapportion itself. And even as a young cub reporter, I could see Hoff was something special — and different.

Hoff was a visionary and a strong leader. In Nineteen Sixty-Two, he won a historic victory, became the first Democrat in a century to be elected governor, and charged into office ready to change things. After a series of caretaker Republican governors and legislatures, Vermont state government was sleepy and compartmentalized. Hoff came into office determined to bring Vermont into the 20th century. He quickly called for a comprehensive study of every state department and agency and worked for reforms in everything from education to civil rights. By the end of his six years in office, he had made enormous change, ranging from reforming the state’s welfare system to removing the poll tax as a requirement for voting to establishing the Vermont Arts Council.

And so you could say that Hoff drove change and made the difference. But Vermont in those days was ripe for change. Legislative reapportionment had been ordered by the courts and was accomplished, making that branch of government more responsive. Vermont was enjoying a period of economic prosperity, and idealistic young people had begun to stream into Vermont and change things on their own.

Phil Hoff rode those waves because he was young, full of ideas, and forceful in accomplishing them. He believed that government could be a force for social change — change that the Vermont of the early 1960s needed. The times helped him, but he was precisely the right man for the times. Vermont has never been the same since.

Near the end of his third term, I attended a concert in Bennington. The program was a mind-bending modern piece of music by the Vermont composer Carl Ruggles. When Hoff introduced the piece, the woman next to me said: “We’re not going to see his like again in our lifetime.”

And as we stood and applauded, I knew — and know today — that she was right.

Tom Slayton is a longtime journalist, editor and author who lives in Montpelier.
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