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Road Taken: Awakening

Categories: Midd Blogosphere


Somewhere along the way modern America lost its sense of scale. The coasts seem to have grown more proximate. Our neighbors have inched closer. Everyone appears to know everything about everybody. Maybe the Internet is to blame, or the airplane, or even the car. But no one seems to notice. At least I didn’t—not until last summer, when a friend and I embarked on an unorthodox trip from Buffalo to New York City.

The plan was to paddle the decade-old, 17-foot, obnoxiously red, recreational Old Town canoe my father had given my mother for their 19th anniversary. We were going to go along the Erie Canal and down the Hudson River. By car Buffalo to New York is seven hours and a tank and a half of gas. By canoe, it’s three weeks and 20 cans of soup. Setting out, we weren’t sure if we would encounter a small portion of a big world or a big portion of a small one.

We felt every mile. The canal has a 10-mile-per-hour speed limit—a restriction I’d always thought laughingly slow until I considered it from the stern of a canoe. Paddling as hard as we could—dip, swing, dip, swing, dip, swing, j-stroke—we’d hit about 5 mph tops. But after 20 minutes, even that was out of reach.

I was surprised our slow progress wasn’t demoralizing. Instead, as we slipped along past farmland that endlessly stretched from the water’s edge—past abandoned mills and factories, past dense tree cover—our journey’s slowness accentuated the distance we covered. There was something deeply satisfying about every day’s small progress. Thirty miles on the water contained more than 300 on the interstate.

There were pieces of the canal that I had crossed daily for a large part of my life—mundane trips in the car headed to school or the store—but from the water everything was different.

I barely recognized my own community. From the canoe I saw the backs of buildings or a random swing set, and my brain wouldn’t register these familiar landmarks from a different vantage point. And the canal itself was unfamiliar. What I had always assumed was a meandering vestigial feature of a less-refined era revealed its elegance in gentle curves and long straights that were far more direct than the ribbon of roads we passed under.

Leaving the canal behind, the Hudson brought further revelations. Every mile
possessed abundant detail—the smell of pine needles, the hum of the freeway that was almost always in sight, bald eagles soaring overhead, aquatic life just beneath the water’s surface.

And then there were revelatory moments: container ships on the Hudson sound like a cross between a jet engine and a dinosaur, and when I viewed them from the surface of the water, I found judging their distance or movement almost impossible. With their skyscraper stacks and mammoth hulls, these water-crawling beasts obscure both the shore and landmarks. For what seems like hours, they don’t appear to move. Until suddenly a ship rushes past, leaving a fury of displaced water in its wake.

And then those moments, too, passed.

When we reached the Inwood Canoe Club in Manhattan—19 days and 450 miles from where we’d begun—I was relieved, satisfied. Still, I couldn’t shake one feeling. With all of the new sensations I’d experienced, I started wondering what I’d missed while looking the other way—or not looking at all.

The world no longer seemed quite so small.

James Lynch ’16 interned with the magazine last summer and is continuing on as a contributing editor. An English major, he is writing his senior thesis on his canoe trip down the Hudson.

The Life and Times of Rick Hodes

Categories: Midd Blogosphere


A memory Rick Hodes ’75 has from early in his career doesn’t arise often, but when it does, it returns in the same vivid detail.

It’s 1985, and he’s standing among hundreds of gaunt, emaciated people who have hardly eaten in weeks. Hours before, they were dirty, but now they’re clean, and their heads have been shaved. Some wear oversized blue jeans and T-shirts; others are in handsome tuxedos and slinky evening gowns. The irony of the clothing isn’t lost on them—they’re laughing about it, and Hodes is laughing with them. 

At the time, he was a medical resident at Johns Hopkins University, spending his vacation volunteering in Ethiopia, where one of the 20th-century’s worst famines was raging. Tens of thousands were wandering the countryside in search of food, while a civil war fueled the chaos.   

Starving people arrived at the camp where Hodes was stationed, and were divided by gender, cleaned in mass showers, and deloused. The staff gave them new outfits donated by Western relief organizations and burned what they’d arrived in.

This was his first trip to Ethiopia. Apart from that brief moment when the clothing’s irony trumped the suffering, the famine remains the most haunting thing Hodes has ever witnessed.

After a month, he returned to Baltimore, not sure he’d ever return.

On a rainy Friday afternoon 30 years later, Hodes is riding in the back of his Suzuki along a busy avenue in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s sprawling capital. He sees a man with a severely contorted posture standing at the mouth of an alleyway and orders his driver to pull over. His assistant, Kaleab, gets out and approaches the man to tell him about the free clinic Hodes runs at Yekatit 12, a nearby public hospital. That’s where we’re heading now.

We’re 15 minutes late by the time we pull into the parking lot. Hodes runs two clinics—this one and another—under the auspices of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), a relief agency based in New York City. He’s not a tall man, standing just 5’3”, and today he’s wearing an oversized yellow raincoat that he’s left unzipped. He walks through the crowded waiting room, a stethoscope hanging from his neck and blank flashcards and several pens tucked into the breast pocket of his button-down shirt. If a patient needs, say, a follow-up chest X-ray, he’ll write a note on a card, hand it to the patient, and ask them to bring it on their next visit.

He slips into the cramped examination room, places his backpack on a box of surgical gloves and settles into a chair. I push aside a pile of blank referral slips to make room for myself on the windowsill behind him. The paint is coming off the room’s walls and an untidy stack of papers covers the only sink. A nurse, Sister Tena, beckons patients one by one from the waiting room.

Each patient will undress in front of a large group that includes two medical students from the University of Rochester who are interning with Hodes for the summer, several local volunteers, Kaleab, and me. Across the room, another nurse and volunteer administer a test to cardiac patients who have been prescribed Warfarin, a blood thinner. There are easily a dozen people in the room at any given time.

Watching Hodes work is like watching an expert chess player face several opponents at once. He greets each patient warmly, quickly assesses the problem without blinking, and then makes his move. He ups a young man’s Warfarin dosage and asks him to return the following week.


He holds a girl’s spine X-ray to the room’s overhead light and tells Kaleab which surgeon she should see.

“She’s a USA case, put her on the list for Kamal.”


Although he’s lived in Ethiopia for 28 years, Hodes is proficient, but not fluent, in Amharic—the  official language—so he speaks in English and Sister Tena translates. He takes extra time with children. He’s jocular with the boys: “Are the barbers on strike? Sister, tell him if his hair gets too long, it’ll crunch his back.” And he’s grandfatherly with the girls: “No boyfriends until you’re done with school…tell her she needs to study hard so she can replace me.”

Hodes returned to Ethiopia just nine months after his first visit. He’d applied for a Fulbright grant to work in Zimbabwe, but Fulbright instead offered him a job teaching medical students at Addis Ababa University. This time, he stayed for nearly three years before returning to the States to enter a private practice in Washington, D.C. He liked working in D.C.; it seemed a good place to pursue a career in international health. Soon enough, though, he was on a plane back to Addis Ababa.

By the early 1990s, Ethiopia’s 17-year civil war was coming to a close and the sitting government of Mengistu Haile Mariam was on the verge of collapse. Hodes signed on with JDC to help run a clinic for Ethiopian Jews waiting to immigrate to Israel. He led a team of doctors during Operation Solomon, the largest civilian airlift in world history: nearly 14,400 Ethiopian Jews were evacuated to Israel in less than 36 hours. Following the airlift, he remained in Ethiopia and has been caring for patients ever since.


After he’s seen all of his patients at Yekatit 12, we walk back to the Suzuki, and Hodes explains to me he never expected, as a younger man, that he’d live the majority of his adult life abroad. Behind the clinic’s derelict walls stands a new, modern hospital that will open within a year. Hodes’s clinic has been offered a space in the new building, but he shrugs at the thought. “We’re perfectly happy to stay where we are.”

Brand-new buildings are a common sight in Addis, as Ethiopia is developing rapidly—its GDP is growing at nearly 11 percent per year. However, the country remains extremely poor and nowhere is this more evident than at our next stop: Mother Teresa’s Mission, run by the Missionaries of Charity, a Roman Catholic congregation where Hodes has been volunteering more than a decade.

We’re not there long. Hodes listens to a few hearts, checks in with the nuns, and visits with several patients. I meet Tilahun, a young boy who lost a leg to cancer and is still undergoing chemotherapy. When affordable cancer drugs for Tilahun couldn’t be found in Ethiopia, Hodes flew to India to get them. The Mission is where Hodes first met three of his five adopted sons, orphaned street kids who had been brought in with grave medical issues. Without health insurance, they would have never received the proper treatment, so he decided to adopt them—but he asked God first.

We leave the Mission, and the driver drops me at the guesthouse where I’m staying. Hodes tells me to shower quickly and make the short walk to his house for Shabbat dinner.

The Hodes residence includes a main house and, behind that, two small dwellings for visitors. During the day, a group of kids, mostly recovering spine patients, play soccer in the driveway. Surgery has afforded them previously uncharted lung capacities, so they play vigorously. Hodes tells them no sports for six months following surgery, but they don’t always listen. The titanium rods holding their new backs together can break, although it’s uncommon.

In the main house’s living room, medical textbooks, fiction, nonfiction, and Hebrew prayer books line the bookshelves. Hodes was raised in a secular Jewish household in Syosset, Long Island, though he now identifies as Modern Orthodox after spending several months studying at a remedial yeshiva in Israel. He prays three times daily and has placed mezuzot— small cases containing a verse from Deuteronomy— on all his doorposts. Jews are to touch these whenever they come and go, then kiss their hands, but Hodes never does for fear of germs.

During his time in Israel, he says he discovered a wisdom and spirituality in Judaism he’d never sensed when he was younger. He insists he’s a doctor by nature, not faith, but allows that faith does give his life structure and, at times, has guided how he practices medicine. He once brought two boys with cancer home from the Mission and started their chemotherapy on his front porch. They had the same shoe size, which he took as a sign from God they should not be split up.

In 1994, he found spiritual guidance especially important when he arrived in Goma, Zaire—what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo—to treat cholera in a refugee camp for Rwandans fleeing the genocide. To cross the camp, Hodes recalls needing to get on the back of the “body truck,” a dump truck used to transport the newly dead to mass graves. Before leaving Addis for Goma, he phoned a rabbi he knew in Los
Angeles with a serious, moral question: who to treat and who to let go? That rabbi referred the question to a more senior rabbi in Philadelphia who sent Hodes a fax just before he left: “All life is precious. Treat them in the order they come to you.”

I arrive at Hodes’s house an hour or so after being dropped off and find a large group gathered, which includes an impressive Middlebury contingent. There’s professor Claudia Cooper and her son, Nick Rogerson, who are in Ethiopia for several weeks with a group of students to study development practices; Mesfin, Hodes’s youngest son, home from college; the two medical students from Rochester; and two young Americans—one, a medical student—who are visiting from their home in Israel. Also among the group: Bayilign, a former child soldier during the civil war, who worked for Hodes before becoming a nurse; and a mother with her child. The boy had heart surgery in India several years ago, and the pair came to Addis for his checkup. Families like theirs have little money, so they stay at Hodes’s house while the patient sees doctors, recovers from surgery, or receives more care.


We form a circle, and one of the medical students distributes an eclectic mix of hats—fezzes, a Rastafarian hat with faux dreadlocks, cartoonish menorah-hats with floppy candles. Hodes begins each Shabbat with Pete Seeger’s “If I Had a Hammer.” We join hands, and those of us unfamiliar with the lyrics sing timidly.

I’d sing out love between my brothers and my sisters

All over this la-a-and.

Across the room from me, Hodes leads the singing in a quiet, melodic voice. His eyes are downcast, and he looks tired. The sight of his menorah hat, its candles akimbo, is somehow humorless.

Next we sing the traditional song to welcome the Sabbath, “Shalom Aleichem.” Then Hodes circles the room, places both hands on each child’s head and whispers a blessing. He circles again, this time with several loaves of bread, breaking off pieces and tossing them to each guest.

Before I arrived in Ethiopia, Hodes flooded my email inbox with background reading. There was too much, honestly, and some seemed more relevant than others. The first email contained the remarks President Ron Liebowitz delivered when the College awarded Hodes an honorary degree in 2006; next was an Economist article comparing poverty in the Congo and Appalachia. Scrolling down, I found still more speeches, profiles, one of his son’s college essays, and more.

I skipped ahead to a commencement address he delivered at Brandeis in 2013. Some of the material he used—namely quotes from St. Francis of Assisi and Wayne Gretzky—I’d hear again during my week with him in Addis. His graduation speech began as many do, displaying humility as he questioned whether he was up to the challenge at hand.  However, he makes this familiar move surprising by equating his task as speaker with the marital duties weighing on Senator John Warner the night he became actress Elizabeth Taylor’s sixth husband. “I know what I have to do tonight; I’m just trying to think of a way of making it interesting.”

From there, he told an abridged version of his life’s story. Upon graduating from Middlebury in 1975 with a degree in geography, he hitchhiked to Fairbanks, Alaska. He set a very deliberate pace for his life there—he ran, hiked, and cross-country skied in the winter—and read prodigiously, mail ordering the major works of Leo Tolstoy, Miguel de Cervantes, Martin Buber, and others. No great epiphany led him to consider medical school, only an interest in international medicine dating back to junior high, when he’d read about Thomas Dooley, a missionary doctor.

He took his premed classes in Alaska and then matriculated at the University of Rochester. He became an internist, he said, because he liked the idea of having long-term relationships with patients. Next came his residency at Johns Hopkins and then Ethiopia.

Hodes’s speech at this point pivots to a story about an email his assistant had received from a college senior. The student was interested in medicine and had been offered a job in health care. His email asked “whether working with Dr. Hodes was worth risking a comfortable job in the U.S.”

“I wondered: ‘What can you learn from me?’” Hodes asked his audience rhetorically and then ventured an answer.

“I can teach you a completely different way of practicing medicine. I can show you how to start something from zero and grow it. I can teach you how one thing leads to another…and how things happen if you put years of your life into them.”

After reading the Brandeis speech, I opened another document titled “Grad Speech for the Self-Centered Sloths.”

“Dear Alon,” it began. “Congratulations on landing a job in health care. Great question you ask: ‘Is the work with Dr. Hodes worth RISKING a comfortable job here in the U.S.?’ (The exact wording is yours, the emphasis is mine).”

It took me a second, but I realized this was a response to the email Hodes referenced in his Brandeis speech. It was a sprawling 2,000 words and signed at the bottom by his assistant at the time, Menachem.

At the beginning, his tone was tongue-in-cheek.

“Hodes,” Menachem wrote, “chose to dedicate his life to the fascinating, vital, and unique problems of some of the sickest…most deformed…and occasionally the sweetest people on the planet. It is virtually all he does with his time. I have no idea why.”

“Rick’s a tough guy,” Menachem conceded, but “despite claims of daily meditation, he has the inner balance of a kid with cerebral palsy on a unicycle and the attention span of a hummingbird on amphetamines.”

And he had plenty to say about the frustrations that come with working as Hodes’s assistant.

“When Rick’s gone, it’s my job to go to the ATM [and] withdraw money…But what happens when Rick’s in Bangkok and the brothel eats his ATM card, leaving us on austerity for weeks? Huge problem, huge stress, complaints bombarding from all sides.”

Menachem started sounding less satirical and a bit more moralizing when he described the patients whose lives had been forever changed by Hodes: the child with severe scoliosis from polio, who Hodes found sleeping on the streets; the homeless girl who had her “mitral valve replaced in California and her Scheuermann’s kyphosis operated on while she was on anticoagulants in Mumbai”; the orphan with the “severe S-shaped spine” whose bus fare from the Sudanese border Hodes had reimbursed out of his own pocket.

Menachem concluded quoting Hodes, whom he’d asked for the proper response to Alon’s query.

“Tell me—what kind of asshole would consider maximizing comfort at age 22 when he could be doing something worthwhile? If the guy were married and had three college tuitions to pay, I’d understand it. But single and 22?”

“Most of the time I wish I had a comfortable American job like yours,” Menachem signed off cynically, wishing he, too, could  “scrutinize the cost-effectiveness of dunning patients for their CAT scan copayments.”

His parting advice: “Get a nice car, a comfy job, and hope for a big-boobed babe in the cubicle next door.”

I made a note to ask Hodes about Menachem once I was in Ethiopia. I even looked him up on LinkedIn and considered adding him.


Hodes’s hardest day, his “marathon day,” as he calls it, is on the day of rest. On Saturday at 8 a.m., he and I pile into the Suzuki, along with the two Rochester medical students, and the American medical student studying in Israel who’d attended the Shabbat dinner. We drive to Hodes’s second clinic, which is located at a private hospital called Cure.

The first patient is a boy who recently had spine surgery in Addis Ababa, when a team of American surgeons visited last. Hodes takes his hand and walks him back to the waiting room.

To Sister Tena, who is translating, he says, “Tell them that this boy was completely paralyzed. And now he’s walking.” The boy shyly takes a few steps and everyone claps and cheers.

While some surgeries are done in Ethiopia, the majority of Hodes’s spine patients fly to Ghana, where a prominent Ghanaian spine surgeon, Oheneba Boachie-Adjei, operates at a nonprofit hospital in Accra. He previously practiced in New York and now heads his own NGO. In
Accra, patients spend three to four months in traction, a process that involves a metal halo being fitted around each patient’s head and tightened against the skull. To allow for patient mobility, they are placed in  frames with wheels, a contraption that slightly resembles the luggage carts parked in hotel lobbies.

Each frame has a pulley system that attaches to the halo, allowing for tension to be applied, which elongates the patient’s spine. Nurses start the weight around five pounds, then gradually increase the weight over three weeks, ending at around half the patient’s body weight. In the pictures, traction looks painful and medieval, but the patients are often smiling, and playing cards or watching television. They’re taken out of their frames when they sleep and are hooked into a pulley system anchored at the bed’s head and foot.

When the patient is ready for surgery, Boachie-Adjei and his team cut into their backs and reconfigure the spine either by removing or reconstructing the vertebrae. They then screw the titanium rods into place for support. Afterward, patients remain in Ghana typically for about two months, undergoing physical therapy.

Today the Cure clinic has around a dozen new spine patients. Each new patient needs to be photographed in about twenty different positions, which Hodes does himself. If he had more money, he says, he’d hire a photographer. Because these deformities are three-dimensional in nature, the pictures allow him and the surgeons to see all the different angles and contours of the problem.

For each patient, Hodes will photograph their face, followed by a picture of them with the person who brought them to the clinic. He then has patients remove their shirts and photographs them facing forward, arms down. Next he photographs them to the side, asking them to stand with their arms folded across their chests. Sister Tena, with a Sharpie pen, draws lines at the top and bottom of the patients’ kneecaps and Hodes photographs how closely their arms, resting at their sides, come to the kneecaps, which gives him a sense of each patient’s lung capacity.

Then he measures the patients’ ATRs—the angle of trunk rotation—which is basically how sharply one side of their back differs from the other. Some of these patients have severe deformities—for instance, T-10, a vertebra in the middle back, might in reality be higher than T-1, which is just below the neck, because the patient’s spine is shaped like a saxophone.

Hodes has little use for the standard American scoliometer, which only measures up to 30 degrees. And in severe cases, the scoliometer app on his iPhone is useless because it also doesn’t go high enough (only to 50 degrees). With spines bent or twisted more than 50 degrees, Hodes uses an angle finder called a Dasco Pro, which sailors use to measure a boat’s tilt. He calls it “the boat.”

Mid-morning, Mesfin, Hodes’s youngest son, calls. There’s a funeral at the synagogue, and they need one more Jewish man to form a minyan, a group of 10 required for certain prayers.

“I’m not going to the synagogue with a waiting room like this,” Hodes says. Theologically, he justifies working on Saturday because if you save a life on the Sabbath, you can break all its rules.

The only other candidate is the medical student visiting from Israel, who volunteers. Hodes wields his iPhone in one hand and the young man’s in the other and arranges someone to take him to the funeral.

In the afternoon, Hodes sees a group of spine patients who’ve recently returned from Ghana. Since space is limited, he first sees the girls, then the boys. Both groups are chatty as they have spent the past several months constantly in one another’s presence. Some have plastic braces fitted around their torsos that they’ll keep on for at least six more months.

When surgeries are successful, they’re life changing—patients can breathe and eat normally for the first time in their lives. But they’re also incredibly risky. Four of Hodes’s patients have died on the operating table, and four others have become permanently paralyzed.

(One week later at Cure, I watched as Hodes explained to a crying woman that her son, who was able to walk when he left for Ghana, would return to Ethiopia completely paralyzed. “I don’t live in the world of miracles, I live in the world of medicine, and it’s not likely he’ll walk again,” he said.)

Later that afternoon, the medical student returns from the minyan and after Hodes has seen all his patients, we pack the car and return home. I sit at the dining room table and look over my notes while Hodes and the young man talk in the hallway. Kaleab organizes a pile of X-rays for Hodes to look at and then departs.

Eventually, the young man leaves, and Hodes comes in and sits down with me.

He’s beaming.

“That’s Alon!” he says.

He sees in my face that I don’t register.

“Alon, Dear Alon.”

After I finish laughing in utter disbelief, I wonder aloud how Menachem will respond to the news that Alon made his way to Ethiopia at long last.

Hodes gives me a confused look.

“Menachem didn’t write that email. I wrote that email!”

When Hodes was living in Alaska, he read “Three Questions,” a Tolstoy short story that has stuck with him to this day.  A king, hoping to forever avoid failure, seeks the answers to three questions: What is the right time to begin everything? Who were the right people to listen to? And what is the most important thing to do? Wise men offer answers, but none are conclusive, so the king consults a hermit, who he finds digging in front of his hut near the edge of a forest. The hermit gives no answer, but the king sees the hermit is tired and stays to help dig instead of returning to the palace.

Suddenly, a bleeding man stumbles from the forest and the king takes him into the hermit’s hut and treats his wounds into the night. The next morning, the man wakes and admits he’d been plotting to ambush the king on his return from the hut, but the king’s knights had found and wounded him. He’d just barely escaped. He pledges his loyalty to the king for having saved his life. As the king makes to leave, he asks the hermit the three questions once more.

But he had his answer, the hermit explains. Had he not taken pity on the hermit, his enemy would have ambushed him. Had he not treated his enemy’s wounds, they would not have made peace.

The only important time, then, is now. The most important person is the one you’re with. And the most important thing is to do good to him.

Wyatt Orme ’12 has written for High Country News, Al Jazeera, and National Public Radio. He’s currently  reporting from Rwanda, a posting funded, in part, by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Rick Hodes ’75 blogs about his work at rickhodes.org.

We Cannot Afford to Walk Away

Categories: Midd Blogosphere


I grew up in a one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx with my two sisters and immigrant mother. On our stoop, neighbors socialized and celebrated with barbecues, domino games, and merengue dancing. These moments colored my childhood with the feeling of home. Yet I often went to sleep to the sound of gunshots. In those moments, I remained stiff in bed for fear of being discovered by the darkness outside. My building, the epicenter of the drug trade on my city block, was framed with sturdy metal railings that led to the entrance. I was nine years old when, one morning, I noticed that one of those railings had been dented with a deep groove, caused, my mother later told me, by one of our neighbors throwing his wife out a fifth-story window.

My mother, traumatized by the incident, lived in increasing fear that the violence my sisters and I witnessed would overtake our lives—that our visceral poverty meant that the neighbors with whom we lived and shared space could harm us. We were tied to the Bronx, but my mother’s anxieties spurred her into action. She secured boarding school spots for us outside of the city, and soon my sisters and I were driving to Connecticut in a borrowed car to pristine, manicured boarding-school campuses with full scholarships—and fear—in tow.

The disparity between my Bronx home and the luxury of New England’s unlocked doors, abundant food, and quiet nights made me realize other forms of violence existed. Though we ran away to escape tragedy, I encountered new horrors: racism, classism, and the quiet violence of gender policing that happens at a prestigious all-girls boarding school. I discovered that my all-girls school was not really for all girls. I received many tips about the nature of my clothes and the right way to speak. I learned I did not measure up to my peers. I came to believe that if my future stood any chance of success, I would do well to heed the glances, the unsolicited advice, and the public shaming that were for my “own good” in order to grow into the “right” kind of woman. My Black body, with its large curves, unruly hair—as well as the scent of poverty still clinging to my clothes—made me a prime target for victimization from my peers, my teachers, and a system of education that privileges those who don’t look like me. Fearing persecution, I learned to erase myself as a way to survive.

With the new aroma of boarding-school pedigree now on my khakis, doors of opportunity, otherwise closed, opened for me. I now operated as an exception to the rule because I’d learned to be something other than me. But despite the good intentions of others, I still felt as if I did not belong. The course work that ignored my reality, the reminders of the charity bestowed upon me, or the gangsta-themed parties my peers threw made it clear I was in borrowed space. I suffocated with the pain of being treated as if I were invisible.

Even in the hallowed halls of privilege, even years after fearful nights in the Bronx, my safety continued to be at stake. I was—and am still—not safe to be my full, authentic self. I, along with so many Black people, am obsessively preoccupied with my safety and the protection of my humanity. For us, waking up is an act of courage, an act of resistance against the sanitization of our existence.

In some measures, I am light-years from that Bronx stoop. I work at Yale—at the University’s Center for Emotional Intelligence—and our mission is to use the power of emotions to create a more effective and compassionate society. In that vein, I have the honor of supporting educators to develop their emotional intelligence skills so they can create emotionally intelligent and safe schools.

And yet I still walk in the world in fear.

I see Freddie Gray.

Eric Garner.

Trayvon Martin.

Renisha McBride.

Rekia Boyd.

Michael Brown.

Walter Scott.

And, most recently, Sandra Bland and Sam Dubose.

I ask myself: If they were not Black, would they still be alive today?

If I were in their exact situation, would my name be on that list?

Would yours?

These are important questions to consider because they require us to reflect on the role of race in our society. For generations we have lived in a society built upon the interests of white individuals and the belief that white people are dominant and normative. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King spoke of the arc of the moral universe. He said it is long, but it bends towards justice. And while we, as a nation, have made strides since King’s assassination, some days that arc seems longer than ever.

Even with the election of our nation’s first Black president, the war against Blackness is alive and well. Events in Baltimore, Staten Island, Ferguson, Charleston, and Cincinnati have highlighted this. As an educator, researcher, and activist, I think about how people, especially young people, are digesting these events. I think ceaselessly about Black youth and young people of color learning about themselves, about their lives. Many consume narratives of violence every day—living this violence the same way I did as a child in the Bronx— through police brutality, poverty, gentrification, and systemic injustice. They learn very early that their personhood is suspicious and terrifying. They are constantly on the verge of becoming Aiyanna Stanley-Jones or Tamir Rice.

And this terrifies me.

Dena1After Middlebury, when I taught middle school students in the Bronx, I would use statistics to engage my students in conversations about race and activism. A 2014 study by the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Education revealed that Black students are suspended and expelled at a rate three times greater than white students. Additionally, multiple studies have found that Black students receive harsher punishments than their white peers for the same infractions.

This continues into adulthood. Black people comprise nearly half of the 2.3 million incarcerated Americans, and they are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of white people.

I would look at my beautiful, curious students, and I would want to damn those statistics.

While I could not control the chaos of my students’ lives—the instability of their homes, the uncertainty of their next meal, the loud neighbors that kept them from sleep—I  provided them with a safe and loving classroom where they could not only learn but thrive. I taught them necessary survival skills like code switching, writing and speaking persuasively, and understanding how data and media can be manipulated.

The school where I taught—with its overcrowded classrooms, rodent infestation, lack of textbooks, overworked and sometimes disengaged teachers, and prisonlike school safety guards—sent children the message that their dreams could only live within the school’s metal window gates. So I took them out of those gates. We went on class trips to museums and libraries. We walked the campus at Columbia, where I earned my doctorate. And we traveled north to Vermont, to my dear Middlebury, because I wanted my students to know they deserved space at our nation’s finest institutions.

I taught my students how to create meaningful actions to challenge and change the problematic systems that they inhabit. And I equipped them with love, kindness, and acceptance so they could mediate the violence many of them were already experiencing. I showed my students they mattered despite everything else in their lives telling them otherwise. I answered the phone when they called. I listened when they needed someone to listen. I stayed after school when they were confused by something I had taught earlier. And I told them I loved them every opportunity I had. I also taught my students how to seek support and advocate for themselves—and for others. I included their narratives and stories into my lessons so they could learn to value and love themselves, so they could feel proud of who they were, and so they wouldn’t have to endure the trauma of erasing themselves as I did.

But this wasn’t enough. I continued to fear for my students’ lives at home and in school. And this fear is what motivates my life’s trajectory to ensure safety for all. It is the reason I researched teachers’ preparedness to confront bullying during my doctoral studies. It is why I now travel the country and world to equip adults and youth with the skills of emotional intelligence. It’s why I’m writing this essay.

My success does not demonstrate what Black folks can achieve. It’s a reminder of what is kept from us. And I have to own the many privileges I have that allow me to tell my own story and speak up against a system that benefits me.

I am a light-skinned Black woman, which means my Blackness is preferred over the Blackness of my darker-skinned sisters and brothers. I have greater proximity to whiteness, to the acceptable standards of beauty. I’ve also been granted access to prestigious networks of power through attending and working at some of the nation’s elite secondary schools and universities. However, I still do not have the privilege to walk in the world without fear for my safety. I am still Black. I’m still more likely to be subject to the structural violence of dilapidated neighborhoods, subpar health care, failing schools, over-policing, and—worse—the insidious brainwashing that manipulates Black people into hating and devaluing our own existence.

Even in this highly racialized environment, however, there’s room for healing and growth. I strive to do work that empowers others to realize their value and potential and to fight for justice. However, the work should not rest only on the shoulders of people of color. This work for racial justice is all of our work. It’s a collective struggle for our shared humanity. Racial equity is a national imperative that requires purging our hate of Blackness and revising the way our country functions.

We cannot shift our current state of affairs if we shy away from painful and difficult discourse about racial injustice. These conversations have the potential to enlighten us so we can prevent doing inadvertent harm through ignorance and implicit bias—so we can truly see each other, and so we can begin to heal.

We cannot afford to walk away, to turn off our screens, and to carry on with our comfortable lives. None of us, especially those in power, have the right to be comfortable. It’s through discomfort we learn and transform most. Questioning, challenging, and curbing racial injustices is everyone’s job.

All of us must be compassionate. We must be open to other experiences, and we must learn to accept others and ourselves for everything we are—and everything we are not. We must fight for ourselves and for each other. And we must begin to shift the violent course of history to one of peace, love, and mutual understanding. I have faith in us. What I ask is simple: for Black lives to be seen, to be acknowledged as human, to be treated with dignity. Our shared humanity depends on this.

Dena Simmons ’05 is the director of implementation at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. She writes for Bright, which can be found at medium.com/bright and is a veteran of the TED talk circuit. Her TEDx talks titled “Its 10:00 p.m. Do You Know Where Your Children Are?” and  “What Do You Do If a Student Comes At You With Scissors?” are available on YouTube. In November, she is speaking at TED Talks Live in New York.

A Tale of Two Writers

Categories: Midd Blogosphere


Jay Parini owes his friendship with Gore Vidal to a stranger’s hospitality. Planning a sabbatical for the spring of 1986, Parini mentioned to then Italian Professor Ugo Skubikowski that he wanted to spend the time in Italy cultivating his ethnic roots. As it happened, Skubikowski’s mother had a friend with an empty house on the Amalfi coast, and she was delighted to rent it to Parini and his young family.

Soon after they arrived, Parini learned that the villa perched on the cliffs above their terrace belonged to Gore Vidal, whose work he’d long admired. So he jotted a quick note: Dear Mr. Vidal, he recalls writing. I’m a college professor, a poet, a novelist, and a critic, and I’ll be living at this address for the next six months. If you ever have the time, I’d love to meet you. He then gave the note to a local tobacconist, who saw Vidal most afternoons when the writer stopped in for a newspaper. “It was a message in a bottle,” says Parini. “I had no idea what would happen.”

A few days later, he and his wife, Devon Jersild, were tending to their two sons—the younger only a few weeks old—when someone pounded on the door. “I’m Gore Vidal,” the man bellowed. “Are you Jay Parini?” Vidal invited them to dinner later that week at the Ravello mansion he shared with his longtime partner, Howard Austen.

The evening was lovely, Parini says, full of laughter and good wine. He was captivated by Vidal’s wit and expansive knowledge of literature, politics, and history. Yet Vidal also seemed vulnerable. When they sat for drinks in Vidal’s study, Parini noticed on the walls framed magazine covers—Time, Newsweek, and Life among them—bearing his host’s image. “Why did you hang all those pictures of yourself?” Parini asked. “To remind me every morning of who I am,” Vidal said.

Their friendship blossomed. Many afternoons, Vidal would stop by and pick Parini up en route to Amalfi for drinks and conversation at the Bar Sirena. “We had some kind of visceral intellectual connection,” says Parini, founded on a mutual love of Mark Twain and Henry James, liberal political views, and an eclecticism that made both writers hard to pigeonhole.

They shared a few friends who lived in London, including the writer Stephen Spender, and an antipathy toward Ronald Reagan. “Gore called him our ‘acting president,’” says Parini. Parini saw Vidal as a model for the kind of writer and activist he was striving to be: outspoken, courageous, and committed to engaging with the world. Vidal saw him as the son he never had, and perhaps the key to defying what he called “the great eraser” of time. “He wanted an heir of some kind, or a disciple,” Parini says. However, “this was southern Italy, and there really wasn’t much traffic to his door. I represented the outside world of books and discourse. And the conversation just continued for the rest of his life.”

That 25-year conversation forms the heart of Parini’s new biography, Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal. Parini, who is the D.E. Axinn Professor of English and Creative Writing, has produced a book that blends reporting, literary criticism, and personal recollection. Parini’s portrait of Vidal is nuanced—clear-eyed yet sympathetic. He captures this gifted but difficult man, illuminating not only Vidal’s place in the American canon but also a moment in history—pre-Twitter and partisan gridlock—when literate individuals with complex ideas could become cultural icons.

Like its subject, Empire of Self is both serious and entertaining. “Most writers’ lives are dull,” says Parini, whose 25 books include biographies of William Faulkner, Robert Frost, and John Steinbeck. “They just sit at a desk and grind away. Not Gore. He really had the life.”


VidalEugene L. Vidal Jr.—Gore was his mother’s maiden name—grew up in Washington, D.C., surrounded by power and privilege. His mother, Nina, was a narcissistic senator’s daughter. His father, Eugene, was a West Point graduate who went on to become an Olympic decathlete, professional football player, and aviator. Both philanderers, they squabbled incessantly and neglected Gore, who went to live with his maternal grandparents. His grandfather, a populist lawyer who served as one of Oklahoma’s first two senators, was blind. Vidal became his eyes, reading to him in the Senate, as well as from his vast home library. He described his grandmother, whom he called “Tot,” as “my real mother” and “the woman who raised me.”

Politicians and celebrities were part of his upbringing. “Gore would tell me stories about Amelia Earhart being his babysitter, or about the time Huey Long came to dinner and read him a bedtime story,” says Parini. “He’d talk about going to Hyannis Port and staying with the Kennedys, or attending dinners at the White House.”

A lackluster student, Vidal bounced from prep school to prep school, eventually graduating from Phillips Exeter Academy, where he excelled at debate. Eschewing college, he enlisted in the Army at the height of WWII, pulling family strings to land at an Army air base in Colorado Springs, where he began what Parini calls his “lifelong pursuit” of cruising for sex with men. He surprised himself by passing the test to qualify for the sea-transport division and became a first mate on a ship bound for Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. In his spare time, he wrote. (The setting of his first novel, Williwaw—a local word for “sudden storm” in those waters—is on a similar ship.)

After a bout of hypothermia, Vidal was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and sent to a Los Angeles hospital, becoming infatuated with Hollywood. Savvy, restless, and compulsively prolific, he used his charms and connections to secure a position as an associate editor at Dutton—the only office job he ever held—and a publishing contract. He produced six novels before he turned 26.

Then he got really busy. A bold, facile writer with a grasp of politics and the public Zeitgeist, he churned out novels, essays, plays, works of nonfiction, TV adaptations, and movie screenplays (including Ben Hur). His 1948 novel The City and the Pillar broke ground in its detailing of adolescent homosexuality. Parini is among the critics who consider Vidal’s historical novels—Lincoln, Burr, and Julian (about the fourth-century Roman emperor)—his best works of fiction. “But his essays are his master works,” says Parini, who remembers reading, long before he met Vidal, Vidal’s magazine pieces against the Vietnam War and his personal reflections on literature. “He was our Montaigne.”

Vidal also dabbled in politics, running unsuccessfully for Congress twice. Handsome and trenchant, he became a sought-after television commentator, once famously calling William F. Buckley a “crypto-Nazi” during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. By the time Parini met him, he was one of America’s foremost public intellectuals, recognized on both sides of the Atlantic.

Parini began keeping notes on Vidal soon after their first dinner in Ravello, thinking he’d stockpile the material for a future novel or memoir. “His conversation was glorious,” he says. “He was a hilarious storyteller and raconteur. He liked to talk about people. ‘History is just the higher gossip,’ he would say. He was always dropping names.” Parini adopts a booming, patrician voice: “‘Then Tennessee Williams said to me…’ ‘I was dining with Princess Margaret…’  He was a very bright flame, and I was drawn to it.”

After Parini’s sabbatical ended, the two continued their conversations—over the phone or during spontaneous rendezvous at Vidal’s request (if not expense). “He would call up and say, ‘Jay, next week I’ve got to be in Vienna. Meet me on Tuesday and stay with me until Thursday.’  And I was crazy enough sometimes to just drop everything and do it!” Impulsivity had its perks: through Vidal, Parini met Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Susan Sontag, Norman Mailer, Frederic Prokosch, and Anthony Burgess. “I wouldn’t have gotten to visit Graham Greene, or have dinner with Alberto Moravia without Gore,” he says. “For me as a young man, it was just amazing to meet so many of these people who were like heroes to me.”

Still, when in the early ’90s Vidal asked Parini to take over the biography that Newsweek book editor Walter Clemons had abandoned, Parini said no. He didn’t want to feel pressured to sacrifice truth for friendship. Vidal was a well-known narcissist, and Parini feared he’d try to seize control of the narrative and whitewash his image. “Gore would have been constantly harping, saying, ‘Oh, don’t mention I was drunk at that party!  Take out the bit about Mailer hitting me in the mouth!’”  But Parini did promise to write a book after Vidal died.

This prospect pleased Vidal, who took to introducing Parini as “Jay Boswell” after James Boswell, Samuel Johnson’s famous biographer. He seemed to relish always being on the record. “Are you writing this down?” he’d often ask Parini. Parini was. Over the years, he conducted countless hours of interviews—not just with Vidal but with many of those who knew him best, including Tom Stoppard, Gay Talese, Susan Sarandon, Edmund White, Erica Jong, and Howard Austen.  Parini drafted parts of the book over 20 years ago, then updated these sections before publication.

Being close to his subject made Parini’s work both easier and more fraught. “When you write about people you never knew, you’re dealing with many removes. You’re talking to Robert Frost’s granddaughter, for instance,” he says. “I could never know what his day actually looked like. But I knew Gore’s world inside and out. We talked on the phone every week, sometimes every day. “‘Jaaaaaay,’” says Parini, doing his Vidal impression. “‘I’m in Bangkok. What time is it there?’ ‘Gore, it’s 3 in the morning!  I wish you would look at the clock.’  My wife could never tell if I was talking to Gore or my mother. She said I had the same tone with both.”


PariniParini struggled with how much to incorporate himself into the story. He considered turning the book into a memoir about their friendship but ultimately decided a serious study of Vidal’s life and work was most needed. Still it felt wrong to overlook their friendship.

“I wanted to stay out of it but not deceive the reader,” he says. “I thought, ‘How can I let it be known that I was there?’”

He settled on adding brief first-person vignettes between chapters. “A late idea,” Parini says. Though Parini makes subtle appearances throughout the biography, the evocative inter-chapters make his presence most plainly felt: At lunch when Vidal urges Susan Sontag, who had just published The Volcano Lover, to “never ever try your hand at fiction again.” On a nostalgic tour of Vidal’s beloved old estate, Edgewater, on the banks of the Hudson. Aboard a fractious boat ride capped by Leonard Bernstein calling Vidal a “star fucker.”  “In the end, I thought it would make a better biography if people knew we were friends,” Parini says.

Parini sees Vidal’s foibles and flaws, but also—as a good biographer—presents them without fanfare or judgment. Vidal could be pompous and egocentric, seeking always to expand his “empire of self.”  He had an insatiable need for affirmation, which Parini attributes to Vidal as a child feeling unloved by his alcoholic mother. “He’d call me up and ask, ‘What are they saying about me in Brazil?’” Parini says. “A tremendous number of people hated him, because he was at times an arrogant son of a bitch. But at the core, he was shy and insecure.”

This was small consolation for those to whom he was rude and cruel—behavior alcohol exacerbated. When Parini won a fellowship to Oxford, Vidal remarked, “They don’t let in wops like you, do they really?”  But despite his sharp tongue, Vidal was thin-skinned. He never forgot personal slights or bad reviews. With his literary rivals, he could be petty and childish. Describing his first meeting with Truman Capote, Vidal later told Parini he thought the man was “a colorful ottoman. When I sat down on it, it squealed.” Vidal, introduced to Mailer in 1952, asked him how long his grandparents had lived. When Mailer said they’d died when they were around 70, Vidal said, “I’ve got you!” since his had lived much longer.

Vidal also struggled with his sexuality. Though he was predominantly attracted to men, he did sleep with a few women, “which was really not any fun for him,” says Parini. He preferred to think of himself as bisexual or as a “heterosexual man who liked to mess around with men.”

“Gore wanted to be straight,” Vidal’s partner, Austen, told Parini. “It would have made his public life a lot easier. When he tried to go straight, he found girls who were boyish.”  Vidal called gay men “degenerates” or “fags,” though he claimed to be joking. His gay novels reveal a clear “note of self-hatred,” writes Parini. Still, Vidal never denied having sex with men and in his later years was fairly open about it. Parini says he considered sex “an annoying need” that had to be fulfilled. “He really hated having to take the time for it.”  This didn’t, however, preclude him from racking up thousands of sexual conquests.

The one man Vidal didn’t have sex with—except at the very outset of their relationship—was Austen. “Gore’s one emotional connection was to Howard,” Parini says. “It was not sexual, but it was genuine.”  Smart and down to earth, Austen managed all the details of their busy life together, from travel arrangements to shopping. He played chess with Vidal in the evenings, mixed a mean sidecar at cocktail hour, and always set guests at ease. Best of all, he kept Vidal in line. “Howard could prick his balloon in a good way,” says Parini. “Gore could be pretentious and blown up. And Howard would say,” Parini adopts a high-pitched Bronx accent, “‘Gore, stop it!  Just stop it, Gore!’ And Gore would.”

Vidal was never especially demonstrative, but his devotion became clear in the waning days of Austen’s life. “When Howard got sick, Gore moved heaven and earth,” says Parini. “He flew a special hospital plane all the way from Naples to LA at the cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars.” In one vignette, Parini recalls that the only time he ever saw his friend cry was a few years after Austen’s death. They were having drinks and Vidal put on a recording of his late companion singing “Hello, Young Lovers.”

The more sensitive the material, the more dispassionately the biographer recounts it. Parini demonstrates his subject’s unrepentant alcoholism by straightforwardly chronicling Vidal’s frequent boozy dinners and wee-hour benders and the boorish behavior they engendered. But as Vidal’s friend, Parini freely acknowledges how upsetting it was. “What was I going to say: ‘Gore, don’t drink so much?’  Every once in a while I’d try to pour him a weak scotch—that’s as far as I would go. But he only got worse and worse. In the end he was drinking a double scotch for breakfast. It was hard for me.”

The ’90s were the heyday of their friendship, says Parini. Vidal “was still burning at a good pace and traveling a lot.”  They sought each other out, meeting up in New York, Boston, Washington, London, Salzburg, and always Ravello. Vidal opened doors for Parini, but the gesture went both ways. Parini introduced Vidal to, among others, Hillary Clinton and Noam Chomsky, whom Vidal had always wanted to meet. Vidal also leaned on Parini in academic settings, which intimidated him. “Whenever he traveled to Harvard, he’d want me there as his ‘academic bodyguard,’” says Parini. “He thought I had some special way of dealing with professors because I’d spent my life in universities.”


V&PVidal and Parini became enthusiastic collaborators, trading ideas and drafts of their work. Both favored historical novels and Parini valued Vidal’s insightful comments. “From early on, Gore was one of my first or second readers,” he says. Parini wrote a chunk of Benjamin’s Crossing sitting at Vidal’s pool. One day he asked his host if he thought it acceptable for two characters to talk about Kierkegaard for 30 pages. “Of course,” Vidal said. “But only if your characters are sitting in a railway car, and the reader knows there’s a bomb under the seat.”  When the film adaptation of Parini’s Tolstoy novel, The Last Station, was nominated for an Academy Award, Vidal threw Parini a big party in LA.

Vidal’s fluidity across genres inspired Parini, who had been writing poems, novels, and essays since college. “Early on, I think I unconsciously looked at him and said, ‘Whoa, I don’t have to hold back on anything!’  From him, I learned to have courage and not hesitate. If you feel like you’ve got an angle on something, and you have a way with words, and you have access to the press, you damn well better use it.”

Their politics, in fact—liberal, pacifist, populist—were very similar. When Parini was 16, he published his first piece, in support of gun control, in the Scranton Times. He attended protest marches in Washington during the Vietnam War. At the start of the Iraq War, Vidal was still railing against military intervention—distributing Bush-bashing pamphlets and speaking to crowds of young people who’d never heard of him. “He cared—and he was right!” says Parini. “He said in 2003, ‘If we go in and topple Saddam Hussein, it will create a power vacuum and mad men will rush in to fill it. The whole Middle East will come apart.’ How accurate was that? He had a global perspective that was very deep. He always understood how the pieces of the world fit together.”

At key political moments, Parini misses Vidal, who died in 2012. “When the Supreme Court voted in favor of gay marriage, we would have immediately been on the phone talking about it,” he says. “He would’ve been amazed. Obamacare? He would’ve been delighted. And the consequences of Citizens United in this current election would just drive him crazy.”

Parini acknowledges that it’s probably for the best Vidal isn’t around to read Empire of Self. “He would be furious!” says Parini. “He wanted always to have a perfect, homogenized, beautified picture of himself.” While not that, Parini’s biography does capture Vidal with the kind of unflinching eye that Vidal himself cast so vigorously upon society. Surely there is no tribute more fitting.

Susan H. Greenberg is a freelance writer in Vermont.

Cover Essay: Waiting in the Wings

Categories: Midd Blogosphere


The story of this ornithological teaching collection goes back roughly 130 years to the mid-1880s, when a couple of Addison County teenagers, Chester Parkhill and Albert Mead, became interested in local birds. They were bird fans—that was the term back then, bird fans—not birders or bird-watchers—and the way people observed birds in the late-19th century was you see a bird, you shoot it, you observe it. It was barbaric by our contemporary standards, obviously, but that was the custom.

When Parkhill and Mead were in high school, a College senior named Frank Knowlton came to their biology class to demonstrate skinning and mounting birds. The two were hooked and subsequently enlisted Knowlton to give them private tutorials. Over the next several years—Mead enrolled at Middlebury, while Parkhill stayed home to tend the family farm—they amassed a considerable collection. The skins were well preserved, and their labeling—the precision, the artistry—was done to exacting standards and is an example of museum-quality craft.

Tragically, Parkhill died at a young age. His sister left his entire collection to Mead, and then, at some point before 1939, Mead (by this point a Middlebury trustee) donated both his and Parkhill’s collections to the College. We know this because the spring 1939 News Letter published a story about how this ornithological collection was being used in biology courses.

And after that, things get murky.

During the next decades, Middlebury’s biology department added some outstanding faculty—Hal Hitchcock, George Saul, Duncan McDonald, but I don’t think they were all that interested in the museum skins. And when  the science departments were moving from Warner to the new science center in the late ’60s, my guess is that someone looked at these cabinets of birds and thought, I have no interest in those. So they were moved into storage, essentially left to be forgotten.

I was hired in 1985, and on one of my first days on campus, I went down to the storage room in the science center—which, by this point, was filled to capacity—and started rooting around. It was dark and dusty and filled with all of this junk, and at some point I spotted a couple of museum cabinets pushed against the wall way in the back. (This tells you they were probably the first things to go into storage.) They were great looking cabinets, so I started digging through stuff to get to them—it was like digging through sand. In order to go forward, I had to take something in front of me and move it behind me. Finally I reached the cabinets, cleared some space, and opened one of the doors. The overpowering smell of mothballs hit me, and my jaw dropped, not because of the smell, but because of what I saw. This cabinet was filled with these bird skins—birds from the 1880s, all from Addison County, expertly preserved*.

*Following this, Trombulak also discovered boxes of eggs, as well as mounts. They’re without documentation but he believes they were all part of the Mead collection. (More on the entire collection here.)

Unbelievable, I thought. I knew I had to move these up to my teaching room, and I have been curating the collection ever since.

The Art of Birds

Categories: Midd Blogosphere


In his natural history courses, Professor Stephen Trombulak has been using a 19th-century ornithological collection ever since he discovered the treasure buried in the far reaches of an overcrowded College storage room.

And that’s just the beginning of this fascinating tale.

“I realize now, after many years of association with colleges and educators and curriculum committees, that we were being unconsciously and pleasantly educated through the bird hobby in ways that we ourselves, let alone our elders, did not dream of.”

Albert D. Mead, Middlebury Class of 1890, expressed this sentiment in a letter to Biology Professor Samuel Longwell. Writing in the early 1930s, when he was a trustee, Mead was discussing an ornithological collection he had gifted the College in the hope that Longwell would use it in his courses. Mead had designed the collection, which consisted of Addison County birds captured and “stuffed” (in the parlance of the day) by Mead and his childhood friend Chester Parkhill.

Mead and Parkhill were self-taught, picking up the hobby while in high school after receiving a tutorial from a Middlebury senior named Frank Knowlton (who would later become a paleobotanist of some renown). They continued through Mead’s student years at Middlebury. (Parkhill was working on his family’s farm.) And as Stephen Trombulak relays later in this photo essay, their work progressed to exacting standards—much of what remains in the teaching collection is of museum quality.

Some mystery still involves parts of the collection (beyond what Trombulak describes in his cover essay on page 1): namely, the provenance of the eggs and mounted birds (such as the Great Horned Owl opposite this page). While all of the museum skins are affixed with labels documenting that Mead and Parkhill collected and prepared them, the mounts and eggs aren’t denoted the same way. (Still Trombulak believes that the mounts and eggs did come from Mead; more on that later.)  What’s not in dispute is their value in the classroom. As Trombulak says, “Not a single one of these is replaceable, because it represents the condition of the species at a point in time that we can never go back to.”

The collection also displays inherent artistic value. Though Mead reportedly didn’t see his work as art, in his letter to Longwell he noted the “graceful lines” and “the texture and the patina” of his specimens. He also likened his and Parkhill’s work to that of a sculptor: “[Our work] conduced to attentive study of form and pose in nature, and the bird skin, when freshly mounted, was a plastic medium, identical in texture, of course, with the thing we tried to represent, by which our conjured-up mental images could be adequately represented.”

Heightening the artistry are these commissioned works by world-renowned photographer Rosamond Purcell, who is best known for her work with natural history collections, with specific attention paid to birds and eggs. (One of her 12 books is the exquisite Egg & Nest.) Purcell spent the better part of two days in Bicentennial Hall exploring these and other teaching collections. Watching her in action, one was reminded of something she told National Geographic a few years ago: “I just like the way certain things work. If I don’t take a picture of these things,” she says, “I just have this feeling that they are going to [disappear] back down that hole. I have to put out a line [with my camera] and get it. It is discovery. I say to myself, ‘People have to see this.’”

While we’re confident that Trombulak won’t allow this collection once again to disappear “back down that hole,” we completely agree with Purcell’s raison d’être: people have to see this.

Welcome, Laurie Patton

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Laurie Patton; her husband, Shalom Goldman, the Pardon Tillinghast Professor of History, Philosophy, and Religion; and their two Great Pyrenees, Padma and Suka.

It was a few minutes after 8:30 on the morning of July 1 when Laurie Patton steered her silver Prius into a parking space on Old Chapel Road. Middlebury’s 17th president was about to begin her first day at work.

“I write to send warm greetings on my first day as Middlebury’s new president,” she had written in an email that was sent out to the community later that morning. “The glorious Vermont summer weather has matched the excitement I feel in coming to work with such an extraordinary community.”

Though that day’s weather was not cooperating with Patton’s sentiments—leaden skies prompted rain showers throughout the morning and afternoon—the excitement of which she spoke was evident the moment she walked into Old Chapel.

Greeting her new colleagues with the familiarity one gains from eight months of visits, phone calls, and correspondence, Patton drew smiles and hugs as she made her way to the building’s third floor.

“Hi, dear,” she said to Barbara McBride, embracing her assistant in a big hug. “It is so good to be here, and one of the best things is that after all we’ve done together already, this feels like just another day.”

“It does,” McBride replied, “but it’s not just another day for Middlebury.”

After a morning spent in meetings, Patton took advantage of a slight break in the weather to walk the campus with her husband, Shalom Goldman, who has been appointed Pardon Tillinghast Professor of History, Philosophy, and Religion, and their two Great Pyrenees, Padma and Suka.

On their stroll, the couple encountered and chatted with a distinguished faculty member; an alumna; a prospective student and her father visiting from Oregon; and two sophomores, from India and the Philippines, respectively, who have stayed on campus for the summer—one to work in Armstrong Library and the other to help a professor revise a textbook. Patton conversed in Hindi with the young woman from India before finishing the loop back to Old Chapel.

More meetings followed, and then Patton ended her day in Mead Chapel, speaking at the opening Convocation for the second session of the Language Schools. It was the second time Patton had spoken in Mead, the first occurring a little more than eight months ago when she was introduced to the community as Middlebury’s next president.  

Laurie Patton will be inaugurated as Middlebury’s 17th president on the weekend of October 1011. Visit www.middlebury.edu/inauguration for info.