NECI founder revered for student model

Roger Crowley/Staff Photo Fran Voigt (standing) current president of the New England Culinary Institute is in the Montpelier administration office with G. William Meckert the new president of NECI.

MONTPELIER — The Capital City reacted to news of the death of Fran Voigt, co-founder of the New England Culinary Institute, who died at his Cabot home Monday. He was 78. Voigt and co-founder John Dranow, and their wives, Ellen Bryant Voigt and Louise Gluck, respectively met at Goddard College and started the legendary cooking school with seven students in the basement of the Capitol Plaza Hotel & Conference Center on State Street in 1980. At the height of its success, the business was honored in 1994 by former President Bill Clinton as first runner-up for the nation's small business of the year. It boasted a high of 800 students, and a number of academic offerings and outlets that still include the flagship NECI on Main restaurant and La Brioche bakery and café, and food service at National Life and the cafeteria at Vermont College of Fine Arts, all in Montpelier. Other operations, included a second campus in Essex and NECI Commons, a restaurant on Church Street in Burlington, which were discontinued. More recent contracts included a $200,000 contract to train cooks for the U.S. Coast Guard and a three-year contract to design and deliver a training program for culinary staff at Sandals resorts in the Caribbean. But NECI also was at the center of a protracted legal dispute in 1999 that landed in the Vermont Supreme Court after Voigt and the wives had a falling out with Dranow who was ousted, and sued but finally settled. NECI is now run by Milan Milasinovic, who is also president of Virginia Marti College of Art and Design in Ohio and merged the two schools last June after Voigt stepped down as president in January 2017.  It has about 200 students. Voigt's daughter, Dudley, said there would be no public service, but the family hoped to hold a memorial service later. "We would just say that he died at home after a long illness," she said. "We feel that we're very proud of NECI," Dudley Voigt said. "We watched him build it, and it was a unique coalescing of all of his talents and gifts and curiosities." According to an obituary provided by the family to be published in The Times Argus, Francis George Wilheim Voigt was born in in Oskaloosa, Iowa, March 27, 1940, after his parents emigrated from Germany. He graduated from Wesleyan University in 1962 and earned a graduate degree in political theory from the University of Iowa where he met his wife, Ellen Bryant Voigt. The couple came to central Vermont as educational idealists in 1969.  Fran Voigt accepted a teaching position at Goddard College and developed some of the skills he used to build the hands-on education that became the model for NECI where students started in the kitchen in the classroom and the student-teacher ratio was 7-1. The NECI motto was: "Learning by doing." In addition to his lifelong work at NECI, Voigt was also an active member of the Vermont Business Roundtable, Rotary International, the Cabot School and the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, which named him Vermont Citizen of the Year in 2000. He was also recognized in the community for his signature bow ties and antique Citröens. Milan Milasinovic credited Voigt with visionary leadership and commitment to the NECI model of culinary arts and being a mentor to all at the school. "He became a dear friend of mine in the last couple of years of his life," he said. "It's a huge loss. He was our founding father and he made NECI very innovative and a force as a culinary school in the United States. It's all because of his entrepreneurial spirit. I'm sure the people at NECI will miss him greatly. We loved this man a lot." U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy credited Voigt with being "at the forefront of the progressive culinary education movement nationally," and said the Vermont food scene would not be what it is today without Voigt's contribution and leadership. "His vision, hard work and dedication in founding and continually reinventing NECI leaves a lasting legacy that extends well beyond Vermont," Leahy said. "He helped give expression to Vermont’s tradition of quality, taste and excellence.  Vermont’s culinary landscape owes a significant debt to his vision, and so do the communities that were nourished, enriched and enlivened by those trained under his leadership.” Montpelier Mayor Anne Watson added: "Fran Voigt made substantial cultural contributions to Montpelier, and I'm certainly saddened to have lost him. We send our condolences to his family. The family has requested that in lieu of flowers, donations be made in Voigt's name to the NECI scholarship fund or to the Vermont Foodbank. stephen.mills@timesargus.com

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