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Faith in Goddard: A collective memorial for "Little Moscow on the Hill" 

click to enlarge Bill Orleans, left, and Bob Johnson
  • Bill Orleans, left, and Bob Johnson
In the first week of my first semester at Goddard College during the early 1960s, northern lights danced wildly above the Plainfield campus. Everyone ran outside to watch a spectacle of the cosmos I had never even imagined as a 17-year-old girl from New York. In a flash, the school and the rural state that I would come to love became forever bathed in the mystique of the aurora borealis.

Saddened by the recent news that financial woes have prompted Goddard to shut down its residential undergraduate program after a whirlwind 64 years, I began to anticipate a gaping hole in Vermont’s political, cultural and emotional fabric. With infrequent use by adult degree candidates, the campus is in danger of becoming a ghost town.

My assessment is only one viewpoint among the following recollections from former students and employees of the college. These reminiscences, presented chronologically, add up to more than the misty nostalgia of a typical school reunion. They tell the story of a small liberal arts college that was often plagued by internal conflicts and the suspicion of its neighbors, even while it remained in the educational avant-garde.

When Robert Frost visited the campus in 1939, he recited his poem about“a road less traveled.” The phrase sums up Goddard in a nutshell. “I can still see him sitting at a table, swinging his legs, on the lawn of Greatwood Manor,” says Robert Mattuck, who retired in 1989 after teaching English literature at the college for 50 years.

Mattuck speaks with a British accent, smokes a pipe and exudes a tweedy professorial air. During the Vietnam War he also had the savvy to advise a young man expelled from a Southern university for political activism: “Well, that would be a plus at Goddard.”

Now 91, Mattuck’s life spans much of the history there. When he arrived in early 1939, the school was brand new: a former seminary and women’s junior college in Barre recast as a four-year institution on a 250-acre Plainfield agricultural estate. Marshfield native Royce “Tim” Pitkin, Goddard’s first president, adopted the pragmatic democracy-in-education ideas of John Dewey, a forward-thinking philosopher from Burlington.

The college established a revolutionary new scheme: only three courses per semester, none of them required courses; discussions as opposed to lectures; written self-evaluations rather than tests or grades; students washing dishes or helping out in the library; non-residential work terms in January and February to provide a taste of the real world; and a strong emphasis on the arts, which were merely extracurricular at most schools back then.

Goddard was also a unique experiment in human development. With only 40 students, Pitkin held regular “community meetings” to foster participation in campus life. “Two big topics in the early years were where you could smoke [tobacco] and if dorms would be open to both sexes,” Mattuck recalls. “For a while, men were allowed to visit the lounges at women’s dorms on Thursdays and Saturdays. Kids were still kids in those days; teens hadn’t yet learned to flex their muscles.”

“We were the quiet generation,” suggests Chloe Pitkin, who came to Goddard in 1949 and married one of Tim Pitkin’s sons two years later. “World War II had ended and many students were soldiers going back to school on the GI Bill. They had integrity and a quest for knowledge.”

The country was just succumbing to the McCarthy era. “I flew in from Boston and took a cab to Plainfield,” remembers Pitkin, who had attended a conventional Massachusetts high school. “When we approached Goddard, the cab driver pointed and told me: ‘There it is — Little Moscow on the Hill.’ Local people thought we were all card-carrying Communists. I didn’t even know what that meant.”

Unaccredited until 1957, the school might have been under the Red Scare radar, but it was not without fashion critics. “Our girls wore jeans, which many townspeople thought was disgusting,” Mattuck says. “But, within a year or two, local girls were wearing jeans as well.”

The late 1950s signaled Goddard’s atmospheric Jazz Age with a hip bohemian aesthetic. Tony Whedon, from Long Island, played trombone, wrote poetry and felt an existential tug. “Until about eight years ago, I used to dream about Goddard,” he says. “It remains an unfinished part of my life.”

That’s largely because he accomplished an almost impossible feat: Whedon was kicked out of a college with no grades. “In my second year, I stopped going to classes and was drinking too much,” he confesses. “They thought I was a bad influence. I got a letter that said, ‘We think your creative endeavors would be better suited to a place like Greenwich Village.’”

Instead, Whedon headed for the University of Iowa, more traditional than Goddard but well-respected. He returned to Vermont in 1974. Now 61, he lives in Montgomery, teaches creative writing at Johnson State College and edits The Green Mountain Review.

Whether success came because of, or in spite of, his time in Plainfield, Whedon notes that the school’s essence has remained with him. “I always liked the small classes and individual initiative,” he says. “That’s the way I teach: as if I’m at Goddard.”

In the early 1960s, although Goddard students weren’t always known for being serious or trustworthy, those who did exemplify such qualities often signed on with the school fire department. Andy Jackson, now director of operations for Vermont Life, was one of them. “It was very rigorous,” says the Montpelier resident, who matriculated in 1961. “We were the only people at the college who had to take exams. We had to pass written and practical tests that included carrying a colleague down a ladder from a rooftop. We could not be a bunch of goof-offs.”

An admittedly “indifferent scholar,” Jackson would never have gotten into prestigious Dartmouth College, where his father was an admissions official. “Goddard was a place I could pursue whatever I wanted, even though I wasn’t yet sure what that was. Somewhere along the line, I realized you have to do it yourself.”

His self-motivation eventually led him to a top job at the state’s official quarterly magazine. “I’m responsible for a $2.5 million business,” says Jackson, 59, “even though one of the main reasons I chose Goddard was because it didn’t have a math requirement.”

Jill Tarule, dean of the School of Education and Social Services at the University of Vermont for the last decade, chose the women-only Bennington College in 1960. After two years she transferred to coed Goddard, where her parents — Robert Mattuck and his late wife Corinne — were faculty members.

At a 1990s gathering for students who graduated between 1962 and 1970, a group from Tarule’s era talked for two days. “We’d each left Goddard with a really strong commitment to social change,” she observes. “The community government had been such a profound influence because we made real decisions. Of course, I can’t remember now what they were.”

Tarule’s sister and fellow alumna, Susan Meacham, was one of the founders of the Onion River Co-op — now Burlington’s City Market — in the 1960s. Before her death from cancer in 1980, Meacham organized other co-ops in central Vermont. Her legacy is just one quiet example of how Goddard helped a poor rural state move into the second half of the 20th century.

The late 1960s rocked. “Those were the golden years,” contends Jane Shore, an East Calais poet whose enrollment was presaged at age 16. “A mean girl at summer camp told me, ‘You should go to Goddard College — that’s the place for someone like you!’”

The comment was meant to be an insult. Shore had grown up in suburban New Jersey as “the artsy type,” she explains. “I was interested in music, poetry, painting and dance. I sang and played folk guitar.”

At Goddard from 1967 to 1969, Shore met the children, nieces and nephews of her heroes — kids with names like Seeger and Guthrie. One of her classmates was David Mamet, now a renowned playwright and filmmaker. As a budding wordsmith herself, Shore witnessed Allen Ginsberg, on campus for a reading, proclaim Plainfield “the spiritual center of the universe.”

Now a 55-year-old professor at D.C.’s George Washington University, Shore says Goddard “gave me a kind of courage. There were enough people there like me that I didn’t have to explain myself. I was part of something new and interesting.”

Conversely, the school also attracted many people who “were totally stoned all the time,” Shore says. “Everybody was doing their thing.”

To Chloe Pitkin, that counterculture mantra — “Do your own thing” — was not what John Dewey intended when he designed an approach to education based on self-discovery and democratic ideals. Once her father-in-law retired from the presidency at the end of the 1960s, “Goddard did spin out of control,” she acknowledges.

“It’s remarkable that I graduated at all,” notes Shelburne Museum President Hope Alswang, who attended Goddard between 1967 and ’71. “I came from a progressive New York City family and was expecting a school where people just sang lefty Pete Seeger songs. I was taken aback by the marvelous self-indulgence and decadence. People were smoking dope, naked and crazy.”

Alswang identified with “the radicals, the protestors. We were cynical and urban. We once tried to close the road in front of the Norwich military academy.”

Her biggest disappointment? That Goddard seemed “less intellectually challenging than I’d hoped. In my background, people took the life of the mind very seriously.” Alswang concentrated on independent studies “that taught me you could make anything happen, that you’re only limited by your own energy and imagination.”

Those qualities have taken her a long way in life. “In no small measure, I owe my career to Goddard,” says the 55-year-old Charlotte resident, who has headed the Shelburne Museum for 10 years. “It did give me a belief in myself.”

In 1969, Paul Kaza came East from Oregon to attend Goddard sight-unseen. “It seemed like an innovative place,” says the 50-year-old president of Paul Kaza Associates, a communications firm in South Burlington. Although an anti-establishment hippie himself back then, he felt a growing alarm about the school: “It was infested with drugs.”

He recalls that 20 percent of the kids weren’t even students but lived and ate at Goddard without paying tuition. At community meetings held to discuss the problem, “I remember people throwing things at each other,” says Kaza, who wrote a critique headlined “Of Freedom and Freeloaders” for the school newspaper. “It was far from a peaceful love fest.”

The once cohesive community was fracturing at a time of peak enrollment — 600 residential undergraduates, by Kaza’s estimate — with various special interests claiming their own turf. “There was an all-black dorm that didn’t allow white people in,” he says, “yet I played basketball with some of those guys.”

He dealt with the situation by living off campus and student-teaching at the Berlin Elementary School. “Goddard is a place of tremendous missed potential,” says Kaza, who now lives in Shelburne. “I’ve never set foot on the campus since graduation in 1973, or given them a nickel, either.”

Kaza’s aversion to his struggling alma mater is a real loss for a college that turns out graduates more inclined to make a difference than earn a fortune. Goddard has rarely received major endowments. As Andy Jackson — class of ’66 — points out, “most graduates did not become captains of industry. We’re quietly in the woodwork, doing interesting and creative things.”

Money was a perennial problem. Desperate to beef up enrollment in the mid-1980s, Goddard promised existing students $50 for every new warm body they recruited. Young Page McConnell became a sort of bounty hunter, luring Trey Anastasio and Jon Fishman away from UVM. The threesome would soon join forces with Mike Gordon to form Phish, one of the world’s most beloved jam bands.

“Goddard’s been on the verge of folding as long as I can remember,” says Peter Schumann, founder of the Glover-based Bread and Puppet Theater. The internationally acclaimed troupe was in Plainfield from 1970 to ’74 as artists-in-residence, living and performing at the school’s nearby Cate Farm.

Schumann thought Goddard strange. “There might be a master class in knitting socks or gazing at Chinese skies,” he quips, adding that students also were able to receive credit for working with Bread and Puppet. “It was a wonderful place, with a downside only in terms of academic discipline. But we badly need free educational institutions like that in this world of stupefying factories for people who are like sheep.”

Another group of players used Goddard as its springboard. The Two Penny Circus was the brainchild of Donny Osman, now Plainfield’s State Representative and head of the Governor’s Institute on the Arts. Born in Brooklyn, he spent a year with VISTA before coming to the college in 1968. “I couldn’t have gone anywhere else,” he claims. “Goddard’s a place where you learn how to learn.”

It’s also a place where his costumed clowns handed out paper “diplomas” at the 1974 graduation ceremonies, a satirical twist in that the unorthodox college never actually bothered with such documents.

The late ’60s were a turning point for Fred Wilbur. “I came from a Republican family,” says the 51-year-old owner of the Montpelier music store Buch Spieler. “So part of the joy of Goddard was liberating myself from them.”

The Saratoga native started at Goddard in 1969 but, just as he was hitting his stride in 1971, the school switched to a trimester schedule — which sent the previously unified campus reeling into separate time frames. “Suddenly, there was no continuity in the faculty. I began seriously looking into transferring, but instead became pretty much a non-resident student by living off campus,” Wilbur says. “Buch Spieler was my senior study. I’d started the store and a teacher recommended I write about it, even though I never in a million years thought I’d end up in business.”

Wilbur’s introduction to Goddard coincided with the advent of Fran Voigt, who began as a teacher of political theory and constitutional law but was soon asked to help run the low-residency Adult Degree Program. He remained at the college until 1979. “In a sense, I found myself there. I knew I didn’t fit in elsewhere.”

In 1980 Voigt co-founded the New England Culinary Institute, which operates restaurants in Burlington, Montpelier and Essex as vocational “laboratories” for 650 to 700 students each year. Like Goddard, he says. “We have small classes and learn by doing.”

Voigt, 62 and living in Cabot, waxes philosophical about his former employer: “For years, I thought of Goddard as a minor miracle. It’s amazing the place has lasted this long. A lot of talented people were attracted to the college, but things were always in ferment.”

Speaking of ferment, beer making is the career that called to Bob Johnson in the mid-’90s when he and Alan Newman opened the Magic Hat Brewery in Burlington. Back in 1977, Johnson first visited Goddard as a prospective student.

“It was absolutely crazy. I thought, ‘This place is cool.’ Kids at the University of Connecticut were tossing kegs out of windows in those days,” says Johnson, 42. “We had our share of kegs at Goddard, but it was much more laid-back. My first semester was pretty much a haze. I smoked grass and tripped. Then, something clicked for me in my second semester.”

A lifelong learner was born. “Goddard gave me the chance to become what I was becoming,” explains Johnson, who joined the Peace Corps before turning to the beverage biz. “I found a sense of purpose there. I still draw on that.”

One of Johnson’s best friends at college was Bill Orleans, who has been running his Professional Postering & Distribution business in Burlington for 21 years. “I was in a dorm with 24 kids and a kitchen,” he recalls. “The school would give us a few thousand dollars in cash every semester to buy food. We spent it on beer and going out to good restaurants. By my second semester, I realized that the [kids in the] veggie dorms were eating better and not so loud.”

So Orleans and three others joined the vegetarians. “When anyone asks me why I went to such a small college, I always joke that they were all the kind of students I’d want to hang out with,” he says. “Goddard taught me to get along with people. That’s been important in my work.”

At 43, Orleans appreciates how the school transformed Vermont. “Without Goddard, we might as well call it New Hampshire,” he suggests.

In 1979 and ’80, 23-year-old Jody Petersen attended the Goddard Experimental Program in further Education (GEPFE). “The mind-boggling thing was that the faculty asked me, ‘What do you love?’ What do you want?’ I wanted to be a deejay,” she says.

And that’s precisely what Petersen — who recently “retired” after two decades at Montpelier’s WNCS — was able to do back then, while also holding down a waitressing job. She landed a gig at WRUV, the UVM-student-run radio station, and wrote about it. This was her required “core project” for GEPFE, another low-residency opportunity for “distance learners” who worked from home but spent one weekend a month on campus.

“Broadcasting was a skill I could use for my life,” says Petersen, who grew up in Jericho. “At Goddard, I understood that it all comes down to one thing: risk-taking. They really held you accountable for yourself there. You create your own reality.”

GEPFE was perfect for people with families — like Jane Sanders, now an education and political consultant married to Vermont’s lone U.S. Congress-man. “I discovered that we have a responsibility to contribute to society,” she says of her 1979-80 experience at Goddard.

Sanders ran the Burlington Youth Office from 1981 to 1990 and started a five-year stint on Goddard’s board shortly after her city job ended. At that time the school was $1 million in debt and its accreditation was at risk. “Within one year, we were out of debt and got the highest marks [we ever had] in accreditation,” Sanders says. “We formulated a five-year plan in 1997 to improve the facilities. Morale was bouncing back.”

Sanders is peeved about Goddard’s current predicament — all the more so because she even spent a year and a half as interim president of the college in 1996-97. “It was an exhilarating time,” she remembers. “I had lunch every day in the dining hall, acted as faculty advisor for three students a semester, and facilitated the Dorm for Spon-taneous Living.”

Some things never change at Goddard. But something might soon. Chloe Pitkin, that 1952 graduate who was warned about “Little Moscow on the Hill,” is leading the Renaissance Committee. The group has already raised $200,000 but needs a total of $5 million to stabilize the college for accreditation purposes.

With its link to the first president, the Pitkin name seems to instill confidence in building a new paradigm on a familiar foundation. The Renaissance volunteers are trying to stage a residential-based revival with a somewhat different imperative: teaching peace.

“We’re exploring several ideas, but the template is a coalition of peace and environmental organizations that could send us folks,” Pitkin says. “In classes, they would look through the lens of global responsibility and peaceful solutions. The campus could become a beehive for undergraduates. Using John Dewey’s pragmatic approach, we could be on the cutting edge again.”

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