MONTPELIER — Local leaders spoke fondly of Vermont Humanities Council founder and former executive director Victor R. Swenson following news of his death Thursday. He was 84.
Tributes have followed the passing of Swenson, who is widely credited with the statewide launch of programs that brought a lifelong love of learning to many libraries, schools, children, communities and people from all walks of life.
Swenson single-handedly started the council on New Year’s Day 1974 in Hyde Park, and by the time he retired 28 years later in 2002, it had 11 employees and supported 2,500 events a year in all of Vermont’s 14 counties.
Many of the council’s flagship programs, which Swenson started, continue today. The council’s offerings include: Speaker’s Bureau (scholarly discussion on diverse humanities topics); History Alive (programs that bring historical characters to life through well-researched and well-acted portrayals); Connections (reading and discussion programs for adult literacy students, adults in low-income community programs and literacy programs for incarcerated adults); Humanities Camps (summer day camps for at-risk middle school students); Never Too Early (professional development for early care and education providers); Early Literacy Development Training (interactive training that demonstrates the importance and joy of sharing picture books and stories with infants, toddlers and preschoolers); and Read with Me (workshops for parents of children from birth through age six).
The annual Victor R. Swenson Humanities Educator Award was also started in honor of him, presented in recognition of a Vermont educator in grades six through 12 who inspires and encourages their students to develop a lifelong love of learning.
Last year, the $1,000 award winner was Morgan Moore, a humanities teacher at Burke Town School. This year’s award will be presented at the VHC’s annual meeting in November.
Swenson grew up in Indiana and received a bachelor’s degree from Oberlin College, a master’s degree in history from George Washington University and a doctorate in Middle East studies from Johns Hopkins University.
Swenson taught for four years at the University of Massachusetts, a year at Oberlin College and then taught at Johnson State College, which brought him to Vermont and the beginnings of VHC, in nearby Hyde Park.
In an interview with the council in February (and available on its website), Swenson described how the job began.
“When I was appointed, my first job was to open an office, so I started in January 1974 on New Year’s Day because we were in a hurry to get started,” Swenson said. “I moved a picnic table into the office, which was empty, and a folding chair and got to work.”
Swenson went on to explain that the National Endowment for the Humanities was taken to task by congressional critics for its lack of outreach in the country.
“So, the endowment felt challenged, healthily so, by this concern and developed the state-based program as a division of the endowment program,” Swenson said. “So, in addition to library collection grants and scholarly research grants, there would be a network of state humanities councils that would somehow help bring the humanities to life.”
In its first year, VHC received a $140,000 grant that launched programs that would become the hallmark of the VHC today.
A leader who developed some of the literacy programs for adult learners was Mary Leahy, the sister of Sen. Patrick Leahy, who became a board member of VHC.
Patrick Leahy said Tuesday he remembered Swenson and shared his own personal love of learning at an early age at the Kellogg-Hubbard Library.
“We talked about the reading (at the library), and he got a chuckle out of the fact that I got my first library card from the Kellogg-Hubbard Library (in Montpelier) when I was four years old,” Leahy said. “We talked about how important it is for children to read, and love to read, and not just because you’re assigned to read book one, two and three, but also read for the sake of reading, to expand your interest.
“He got me interested in reading to children. I would say he was (a) gentle persuader, persuading people to do the right thing and making things better as a result. He would persuade others to join him. He was a leader, no question, and it was wonderful. I think the whole state was fortunate to have him,” he added.
It was at the Kellogg-Hubbard Library in Montpelier where one of VHC’s most successful programs, First Wednesdays, got its start about 18 years ago, when Peter Gilbert was executive director of VHC, after Swenson retired.
“The First Wednesdays’ program actually started at the Kellogg-Hubbard Library,” said Rachel Senechal, the library’s program and development coordinator. “It started with Ali White, who was the longtime Vermont Humanities Council coordinator of the First Wednesdays program.
“She worked here at the Kellogg-Hubbard Library and she and Peter actually talked about having a monthly humanities’ forum, and she started it at the Kellogg-Hubbard Library,” Senechal continued. “The First Wednesdays’ program grew from one site to nine different locations in Vermont because it clearly was very popular.
“Our community really loves the programs and the people that have been here for First Wednesdays’ presentations, scholars from all over Vermont, but also from other states, from Boston, New York City and Washington, D.C.,” she added.
In April 2020, the First Wednesdays program at the Kellogg-Hubbard Library will bring back Richard Blanco, an American poet, public speaker, author and civil engineer, who read for former President Barack Obama’s second inauguration.
Gilbert was hiking in the Andes in Peru when Swenson died and was not available for comment.
His successor, Christopher Kaufman Ilstrup, who started last August, had high praise for the legacy left by Swenson.
“I did get a chance to sit down and meet with him and my immediate predecessor, Peter Gilbert, and I spent a few hours with him last fall,” Kaufman Ilstrup said. “He started so many of the programs that we’re doing today and are still reaching thousands of people every year.
“They’re vital and important activities in towns small and large around the state where people still get together and with dozens of communities on a weekly basis in discussion groups. That was one of the first things that Victor started in 1974,” he added.
Barbara Meider, of Williston, was on the council’s board for about three years in the early 1990s and worked with Swenson.
“Victor was bigger-than-life person but one of the kindest, most humane people I’ve ever met, an all-around nice person concerned about Vermonters,” Meider said. “I was on the council when we decided we were going to become a fully literate state by 2000... Victor was concerned that everybody had a chance in life, that the humanities weren’t just for (the) educated, they were for everyone.”
Meider said that Swenson was also “good company” in social circles, too.
“We’ve been in touch and we stayed friends for the last 30 years,” Meider said. “He was just an enjoyable person to be with and there wasn’t a topic that you could bring up that he wasn’t willing to discuss – a well-read person. If you had a dinner party and you invited Victor, you know the dinner party was going to go well.”
A memorial service for Swenson is tentatively planned for September.
To learn more about the council and its work, visit www.vermonthumanities.org