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Losing Winn: A Burlington activist dies the way she lived—fighting poverty 

click to enlarge GARY CAUSER
  • Gary Causer

Sixteenth-century French essayist and gardener Michel Eyquen de Montaigne once wrote, “I want death to find me planting my cabbages.” Death found Virginia Winn three weeks ago at Hannaford’s in South Burlington, when she suffered a heart attack while defending total strangers — a mother and her two children — who appeared to be in need.

The 56-year-old Burlington activist might have left this world pursuing any of her many passions: tilling the soil, caring for horses and dogs, bidding on antiques at an auction or cooking a communal “women’s night” meal. But sacrificing her life for another, as it were, could have been the most appropriate exit.

While she wasn’t a saint, Winn did share some common ground with one of her chief role models, the androgynous Joan of Arc. “Ginny loved that fighting spirit,” explains Jen Matthews, a longtime friend and director of the Livable Wage Campaign at the Burlington Peace and Justice Center. “And she had read that Joan of Arc wore men’s clothing. That really made an impression on her.”

A faded portrait of the feisty medieval warrior gazed down from the altar during a memorial service at the Unitarian Universalist Church last Tuesday. It was among several artifacts in a makeshift shrine: a container with Winn’s ashes was surrounded by a leather saddle, the framed photograph of a beloved Springer Spaniel named Sailor, several pairs of reading glasses, winter boots and a favorite shirt or two.

“That’s Ginny in the little box,” explained her tearful brother-in-law, Donald Trodson. “This event is like a time capsule. We can see the missing links.”

Although almost 200 people had come to bid her goodbye, it’s likely that few grasped all the missing links in Winn’s rather remarkable life. Most knew her as a proud lesbian who was the outspoken director of Chittenden Community Action for more than five years. Some realized she had been given the YWCA’s Susan B. Anthony award for leadership in 1988. Other admirers talked about her pivotal role in launching first the Firehouse Family Shelter and later, the Transitional Housing Project. Winn also distinguished herself by pushing for a city ordinance that guarantees women employment on the crews of local construction projects.

“She was one of the best and strongest advocates low-income people ever had in Burlington — always, always, always thinking about the needs of the most vulnerable people,” says Michael Monte, director of the city’s office of Community and Economic Development. He worked with Winn constructing the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf. “When Ginny spoke on the issues, more often than not it was important for us to listen.”

Less familiar details in the Winn story emerged at the service. Ed Blechner of Addison had worked with her in the mid-1970s as “cottage parents” at Spring Lake Ranch, a Shrewsbury residential therapeutic community for adults with emotional, psychiatric or drug-abuse problems. “We bonded over gardening, and Ginny was an expert chicken catcher,” he recalled, mimicking her two-fisted approach to nabbing errant fowl.

Janet Hicks, Winn’s housemate a few years later in Burlington, remembered being treated to a birthday dinner at the Middle-bury Inn, where mental health professionals at a nearby table were talking about their patients in a derogatory fashion. “Ginny was listening in and it got her steaming. She finally said out loud: ‘Aw, hell. Just ship ’em back to Waterbury and lock ’em up,’” Hicks said, quoting her late friend’s sardonic reference to the state psychiatric hospital.

A fearless buttinsky, Winn was a kind mentor to Jesse Bell of Burlington. “When I was 18, she was the first person, ever, to believe in me,” he told the crowd. “I had a chip on my shoulder, and Ginny taught me to turn it into action.”

Winn’s commitment to action was unmistakable on May 15 during her final selfless act: She was trying to pay almost $400 for a cart full of groceries that an unidentified woman apparently intended to shoplift from the supermarket on Dorset Street. In the confusion, the alleged thief disappeared. When the police arrived, Winn argued with them and they issued her a citation for retail theft. Shortly afterwards, she had difficulty breathing. An ambulance took her to Fletcher Allen Health Care, but it was too late.

“She had a fierce protectiveness for those tossed aside by the system,” suggested Peggy Luhrs, a former director of the Burlington Women’s Council. “Ginny died as she lived, the dedicated, crazy-enough-to-care person she was. She saw a woman in trouble — no questions asked.”

The youngest of three daughters in a well-to-do Connecticut family, Winn had a relatively happy early childhood on a rural chicken farm, according to her sister Pat Trodson. There, she no doubt honed the expert “catching” skills that would later come in handy at Spring Lake. She also had a playmate in Kim, the first in a long line of Springer Spaniels. Her father, J. Douglas Winn, taught veterinary medicine at the University of Connecticut. Her mom, Jessica, had studied at the Boston Conservatory of Music and was an accomplished amateur pianist.

Trodson, the middle sister who is now 66, says that Winn’s keen sense of justice became evident at age 5. “We were all sitting around the dinner table and the adults were talking about the subject of Native Ameri-cans. Suddenly, Ginny said: ‘Do you know that there are Indians so poor they have to eat their dogs? When I grow up I’m gonna be a law-er and fix that for them.’ I can’t imagine where that came from. She couldn’t even pronounce the word ‘lawyer’ yet.”

Alcohol took a toll on what might have been an idyllic family situation. Winn’s parents drank and fought. Nancy, the oldest, was already away at nursing school when Pat, then a teen-ager, went to live with their maternal grandmother. “I feel like I left Ginny in the lurch,” Trodson now laments.

Things got worse when their mother moved out of the increasingly dysfunctional household. Winn, only about 11 at that point, remained behind with her father.

“Ginny’s mother took a powder and ran off with the handyman,” notes Kathy Valloch, who had worked with Winn at Community Action and was her business partner at an antique store called Three Old Bats during the late 1990s. “My own mother died when I was young. Either way, it gives you a profound sense of abandonment you never get over and always guard against.”

Valloch says Winn often talked about her father. “We both liked our dads a whole lot. We’d tell dad stories,” she says. “That’s where she got her love of football — Ginny was a football fanatic.”

The elder Winn also took his daughter fishing, but his continuing addiction to booze proved to be terminal only a year or so after his wife left. At age 50, he fell while under the influence and fractured his skull.

“Ginny was about 12 then,” Pat Trodson says. “I would have taken her in to live with us, but I was only 22 and newly married.”

Instead, Winn was assigned to guardians. “She stayed with our father’s former secretary and her husband,” explains Trodson, who has always believed her sister was content there.

Valloch thinks otherwise: “Ginny told me it was an awful experience. She didn’t like them at all. She wanted to be with her grandmother.” For reasons unknown, the grandmother was unwilling to take the young girl in.

Even while Winn’s father was still alive, she looked elsewhere for comfort. “There was a big family with six or seven kids near her house,” Valloch says. “That’s where she had spent a lot of her time.”

At 14, the virtually orphaned adolescent went to a girls’ boarding school in Massa-chusetts. “Don and I would go visit her,” Trodson remembers. “She excelled there. Ginny made many friends and won all sorts of awards. On holidays, she would come to our place in Rhode Island. Our mother, who was remarried in Florida by then, came to Ginny’s graduation. But it was too painful for my sister. She distanced herself from Mom the way she later distanced herself from us.”

Winn’s alienation from her remaining family members did not begin right away, though. She was pre-vet at the University of Vermont in the 1960s, but dropped out after two years. Then, in Providence, she lived with the Trodsons before finding her own apartment, and worked in a factory that made GI Joe dolls. It was an improbable job for an anti-war feminist.

“My kids thought Ginny was so cool,” Trodson says. “She did little magic tricks for

them and drove around town in a convertible.”

Those might have been the wheels that brought her to New Hampshire, where Winn bought a communal farm with money inherited from her father in the late ’60s. Kathy Valloch recalls hearing that townspeople there eyed the hippies with suspicion. Nevertheless, local officials asked Winn to fill in for an elementary schoolteacher who had left mid-semester. “She really had no credentials for that job, so she’d take the kids out to collect wildflowers or leaves,” Valloch says.

Janet Hicks chuckles at that image. “Ginny did look like a schoolmarm,” she suggests, “although somebody, maybe her father, had once nicknamed her ‘stringbean’ or ‘beanpole.’ Even in the mid-1970s, she was not yet as chubby as she was tall.”

It was at this time that Winn began to turn away from her relatives. “We’d send each other birthday cards, but Ginny was reluctant to visit,” says Pat Trodson, who doesn’t believe her sister’s sexual orientation was the cause of the disaffection. “When our mother died in 1996, I asked her to come to the memorial service. She told me she had too much farm work to do. Our mother was always overcome with remorse. People’s hearts are impossible to understand.”

During that phone conversation with her sister, Winn was warm but unwilling to reconnect. “I thought maybe we could be close again. Ginny said, ‘I don’t feel as though we’re apart.’ I wanted her to know my four kids as they were growing up. We’d invite her to weddings, but she never came. I never asked her why outright. That wasn’t how our family communicated. I last saw her in 1972,” Trodson says. “She brought me Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 album.”

Winn had been so secretive about her roots that Valloch, a dear friend, didn’t have Trodson’s last name to go on when she had to make contact three weeks ago. “I don’t know why that door closed on Pat,” she adds.

By 1974, Winn had sold the New Hampshire spread and was working at Spring Lake Ranch. After a year or so, she relocated to Burlington to establish aftercare service in the Queen City for former Spring Lake clients, and was also employed testing milk for bacteria at farms in the region.

Janet Hicks got to know her about that time and soon moved into Winn’s house on Marble Avenue — home to yet another Springer Spaniel. “Ginny had named him Simile after just opening a dictionary and randomly pointing to that word,” she says. Winn was a voracious reader, Hicks adds, and she was particularly conversant about the literati in Virginia Woolf’s famous Bloomsbury group.

In the heyday of “women’s liberation,” Winn got involved. Peggy Luhrs ran into her at meetings on issues such as rape and domestic abuse. “When Ginny won the Susan B. Anthony award, she gave a speech about ‘the women who aren’t here’ — mainly lesbians — who opened the first safe houses.”

After two years as a caseworker for Women Helping Battered Women, Winn became a housing specialist at Chittenden Commun-ity Action in 1985. The low-income advocacy and service agency promoted her to director five years later. That’s when she hired a number of the people who spoke eloquently at her memorial last week.

One of them was Barb Prine, now a lawyer for people with disabilities at Vermont Legal Aid. She remembers, “Working with Community Action at that time, and with Ginny, really saved me and other people from becoming ‘liberals.’ It gave me a Left analysis of income issues that is beyond humanism... that looks at a political system that creates and keeps people poor.”

Winn reacted strongly to individual examples of injustice. “Her anger was a profound motivator,” Prince says, recalling a homeless teen-age couple who came into the office one winter. The two had been sleeping in a car, even though the woman was pregnant. “She was furious that they had to face that... That kind of rage started the family shelter,” Prine says. “When I look at the legacy of all these activists who worked at Community Action, I think she was incredibly productive. She hired people who were going to be good, and she made them better.”

Among them was Hal Colston, founder and program director of the philanthropic Good News Garage in Burlington. He was 40 and had worked as a chef before 1993, when Winn took him on as coordinator of the emergency food-assistance program. “At my interview, she seemed to be saying, ‘I think this person might really accomplish something,’” he says. “And, lo and behold, right on!”

Moreover, Colston was one of the few “straight” people and the only African-American at the organization — a situation that might have left him feeling isolated. “But I made lasting memories and friendships there,” he attests. From the pulpit of the Unitarian Universalist Church, he added, “I stand on the shoulders of Ginny, going forward and feeling comforted that she’s up there, giving ’em hell.”

Kathy Valloch and Ginny Winn had often daydreamed about opening a shop to sell “stuff,” as they called it. In 1997, Three Old Bats moved in below Upstairs Antiques, next to the railroad tracks on Flynn Avenue — the street where Winn also lived.

“Calling it Three Old Bats was Ginny’s idea, even though we never had a third bat,” Valloch explains. “I didn’t necessarily think the name was so great, but it turned out to be genius. People could really remember it. After a while, the auctioneers would announce, ‘Here’s something that the Three Old Bats might want.’”

After three years in business, the women’s store was only breaking even. They decided to shut the doors. “My father was sick then, so I needed more time to spend with him,” Valloch explains. “Ginny was reluctant to close, but she didn’t want to find another partner.”

In 1999 Winn had her first heart attack but told almost no one about it. That incident, in combination with a diabetic condition, convinced her to give up smoking and begin exercising. But her more recent health habits remain a mystery. “Ginny was very private about her personal life,” Valloch points out.

But there was no question about her loyalty to friends. “She built herself a new family,” observes Pat Trodson, whose wistful blue eyes are strikingly like those of the younger sister she now mourns.

Animals were also a great comfort. Winn boarded her horses in Hines-burg with Kathy Gaudette, who also became a good pal. “Ginny could calm any animal down. We had an Arabian who had been in a few accidents. We couldn’t approach him. She kept telling us not to give up on him and he turned out to be such a wonderful companion. She was so good and patient — that’s the kind of Ginny I knew.”

Winn worked with horses in order to train them to drive carts or sleighs. Until a few years ago, she and Gaudette participated in wagon train excursions every autumn in Hyde Park. Enthusiasts — some in covered Conestogas evoking the Old West — would hitch up their ponies for trips into the surrounding countryside for several days. “At night, we’d sing songs around a campfire,” Gaudette recalls.

Winn had rented or bought lakeside camps over the years to enjoy the solitude of nature. Last fall, that back-to-the-land spirit prompted her to purchase an acre bordered by wildlife-management property in Walden. She called the place Turtlehead Mews, in honor of a wildflower growing there in abundance. “Ginny intended to build a small lodge with a porch all around it and an awesome gazebo — but first an outhouse. We were there just a week before she passed on,” Gaudette says, choking up at the thought. “I never lost somebody I was so close to. We had so many things planned for this summer.”

The pioneering part of her life was less evident at the memorial than her public service. Winn was always short on ego. “Ginny hated to be fussed over,” Jen Matthews surmised. “And here we are fussing over her.”

It seems that everyone knew Winn but few, if any, knew her completely. She was complex, and yet her death in the line of duty, so to speak, has a haunting simplicity. “Ginny laughed at things that were not correct to laugh about,” Prine notes. “She would have thought it was pretty funny the way she died — arguing with the cops, standing up for people.”

During the service, Peggy Luhrs talked about Winn’s “wicked” sense of humor and courage, before concluding with a poem by Adrienne Rich. Its last line best sums up her friend’s indomitable spirit: “My heart is moved by all I cannot save.”

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