This week we mourn the passing of one of Vermont’s true public servants — Jim Jeffords. For many, he rose to prominence through his decision to become an independent. For those close to him, he will always
be known for his unbridled curiosity, his compassion, his dedication to the people of Vermont and his lack of artifice. In a time when national figures are often celebrated more for their media savvy than for their achievements, Jim was a throwback to an earlier generation of political leaders.
Jim was dedicated to expanding educational opportunity and was an environmentalist before it was fashionable here or elsewhere in the country. He played a central role in every major education bill that moved through Congress during his tenure, and many of his environmental policies are now so established that we take them for granted. He achieved this by being open, honest, good-natured and willing to cross party lines and ideologies to build winning coalitions. He assumed national leadership roles while always keeping the needs of his beloved Vermont at the forefront of all national debates. Our historic sites, our schools, our arts programs, and our roads and bridges, lakes, streams and air are all the better for his leadership and service.
Jim’s greatest asset, however, was his compassion and his commitment to the education of our children. For many years, the one unchanging time on his schedule was the weekly time set aside to read to one of his young student mentees in the Washington, D.C., schools through the Everybody Wins! program. This time was sacrosanct, and no one could move it for any reason. A Google search will show photo ops of senators and Cabinet secretaries reading in schools. You won’t see a photo of Jim because for him the experience was about the student. You also won’t learn that these luminaries participated because Jim relentlessly appealed to their conscience until they capitulated.
Every former staffer has a favorite story, and I hope that over the next few days, these will be shared. I have two favorites. As a staffer with young children, the demands of Capitol Hill were great, and many nights I went home to tuck my children into bed and return to the office. Other nights my kids would come in for pizza and homework while we worked on legislation. Jim would take time to check in with them and would occasionally read to my 8-year-old daughter after we finished a project. When I took a position in the House of Representatives, my daughter cried because she would not be able to see “Senator Jeffords” anymore.
The second story captures both his compassion and his humility. We traveled to deliver a speech at one of the hotels near Disney World. Jim, notoriously thrifty, insisted on using the free bus service to travel to and from the hotel. This required a 45-minute wait at the main bus hub near the Magic Kingdom. It was 7 p.m., and young families were waiting for the bus with exhausted, overstimulated children. Chaos reigned. A couple in front of us was struggling with their two children, and Jim started entertaining their young child. They asked where we were from, and Jim said Vermont but that he worked in Washington. Not knowing that Jim was a senator, much less chairman of the education committee, the couple (both teachers) shared their deep frustrations with Washington and their inability to communicate with their home delegations about education matters. Jim asked a lot of questions, agreed with them on a number of points, and promised to look into a number of the problems they decried. I lingered after Jim climbed aboard the bus to let them know that they had just lobbied the chairman of the Senate education committee. Jim took their issues back to Washington (and spoke with their senators) and instructed us to find a way to address them in the next bill he moved forward.
There are many people who worked with Jim longer and many who knew him far better. But this was part of Jim’s power. All of us who worked with and for him knew that we had been privileged to be part of something special, and that we were all the better for having been so graciously invited to join him in service to Vermont.
Scott Giles is president of the Vermont Student Assistance Corp. and a former staffer to the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.
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