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Pursuits: Happy Tails

Categories: Midd Blogosphere


“Hello, girls,” said Ken Parker ’62, throwing open the blue trailer door. “Are you ready to go to work?”

The 75-year-old mostly retired Presbyterian minister had parked his Toyota truck—license plate: MINIDONK—at the curb before the Helen Porter Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center. The girls in question were two big-eared, doe-eyed miniature donkeys, Celeste and Fey. Their job this afternoon: to visit residents, mainly Alzheimer’s and dementia patients, at the Middlebury nursing home.

For more than 10 years, Parker has been trotting out—literally—his miniature donkeys as therapy animals. He and volunteers visit nursing homes and grieving children. They also run a program that allows children with developmental and emotional disabilities learn how to care for the animals. To his knowledge, Thera-Pets, his Peru, N.Y., nonprofit, was the first organization of its kind to use miniature donkeys as therapeutic animals in the U.S.

“They’re a wonderful, wonderful animal,” said Parker, brushing a bit of errant hay from dark, svelte Celeste’s coat. Sure, Parker acknowledged, therapy dogs are far more prevalent. “But give me a hundred dogs and a hundred donkeys, and the donkeys will take it every time.”

Parker and volunteer Candyce Trombley led the donkeys into a small courtyard where the residents, mostly women in their 80s and 90s, sat in wheelchairs and rockers. Parker launched into his primer on miniature donkeys, chatting with the residents and answering questions—but the real stars of the show were Celeste and Fey.

“You’re very beautiful,” one woman cooed. “Yes, you are. You’re a very good girl.” Another woman pressed her forehead to the donkey’s face and stroked Celeste’s long, tapered ears.

“People say, ‘Kiss my ass,’” quipped Parker after a resident planted a kiss on a donkey’s nose. “I do all the time.”

Ministering to the sick, disabled, and grieving comes naturally to Parker, who went to Princeton Theological Seminary following his graduation from Middlebury. (He also received a DMin from Sewanee.) Parker headed the Presbyterian Church in Peru, for more than three decades. When he retired in 2003, he briefly considered “playing golf and reading books,” but he jokes now that retirement “didn’t take.” In addition to his work with Thera-Pets, Parker spends Sunday mornings preaching to two tiny congregations.

“Once he retired, he couldn’t give up helping people,” said his wife, Helle Thomsen Parker ’62. His work with Thera-Pets is just “an extension of ministering.”

“He probably has one of the kindest souls, the gentlest souls, I have ever known,” said Trombley, who has known Parker since he moved to Peru more than 40 years ago. “There’s no pretense. What you see is what you get.”

The Parkers still live in Peru on a farm they named Butternut Ridge. He started keeping donkeys around when he retired, following a mission trip to Jamaica, where he fell in love with the animals. Today his menagerie includes 10 donkeys, as well as a smattering of cows, alpacas, chickens and other fowl, and occasionally pigs.

A few days after visiting Helen Porter, Parker was back in the North Country—and swapping his Sunday morning vestments for a Thera-Pets polo shirt for an afternoon with developmentally disabled children. By mid-afternoon, about a dozen kids had convened at the farm of a neighbor, another Thera-Pets volunteer, down the road from Parker’s home. Normally they would meet at Parker’s farm, but today they were taking a special walk.

They played games, sat quietly as Parker told a story, then raced to pair up with their donkeys. The gaggle of kids, parents, and volunteers led the donkeys on a walk through a state park, which culminated at a playground.

“It’s the best thing for both of my boys,” said mother Mary Prial, holding a donkey’s lead as her two boys, seven-year-olds Luke and Sebastian, tore off for the playground. Sebastian is a typical kid, but Luke is hearing impaired and developmentally delayed and was terrified of animals before he began working with Parker’s donkeys. Prial really likes that in the Thera-Pets program there aren’t any distinctions drawn between the two kids.

“Here they’re not different,” she said. “I couldn’t be happier. I love seeing both of my boys having a good time.”

Kathryn Flagg ’08 is a freelance writer living in Shoreham, Vermont.

Rare Dream

Categories: Midd Blogosphere


It is often said that all of literature can be derived from only seven stories. If that’s true, then the seeds of Dan Whitmore’s dream business—a rare- book dealership based out of his California home—can be traced back to one of the oldest stories, found in the Bible: sibling rivalry.

“My brother, Rob, was given first editions for Christmas every year by his godfather—and I wasn’t,” Whitmore ’03 says. “I always coveted his first editions, so I had this idea in the back of my mind that when I grew up I’d have this library of first-edition books that were really important to me.”

After one year working as an associate in the Los Angeles law offices of O’Melveny and Meyers, Whitmore had a professional epiphany. Imagining himself 15 to 25 years in the future, he says, “I couldn’t pick anyone in the firm whose life I wanted.”

He scribbled other possibilities on a legal pad—a neighborhood bar, a bed and breakfast in South America. Then he realized if he could make his living as a rare-book dealer, he’d be much happier.

With his wife Darinka’s blessing, Whitmore quit the firm, turned his budding collection of first editions into a starting inventory, and founded Whitmore Rare Books out of the couple’s home in Altadena in January 2010.  “We took a right turn,” Whitmore says, “and I haven’t really looked back since.” (And as for his brother’s collection of first editions?  “My library far overshadows his at this point,” Dan says, smiling.)

In an era when most great works are just a click of the Kindle away, Whitmore says he feels “like a lot of people are looking at books as a record of our cultural heritage.”  He’s spent the last five years growing an inventory of about 300 items, diversifying beyond modern first-edition fiction and moving into antiquarian and world literature, some leather-bound books, and some significant works in science and architecture.

Whitmore majored in economics at Middlebury and later studied at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. While living in Philadelphia, he bought a well-worn first printing of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls from a street vendor—a purchase that reignited his passion for the printed word. “I started hitting every used bookshop looking for those magic words ‘first edition,’” he says, but he never spent more than $200 on a book.

Soon after law school, and when drawing a law-firm paycheck, Whitmore seized the opportunity to buy “a really nice copy” of Atlas Shrugged from a private collector for $600. A month later, he spent $6,000 on a first-edition English-language copy of Don Quixote from 1620. “This book just glowed every time I opened it up or looked at it,” he says.

That fueled Whitmore’s own quixotic dream of turning his passion into a profession. He says, “To some extent, people telling you you’re crazy gives you the motivation to make it work.” Whitmore Rare Books is, in fact, a partnership with his wife Darinka—a graphic designer and photographer—who builds the website and produces the catalogs while Dan researches and purchases inventory, along with writing book descriptions. “I’ve never had a second thought about working for a paycheck versus doing something that I love,” he says. “What would I do if I had more money? I’d buy
more books.”

And while Whitmore muses one day about opening his own retail shop, with two dogs and two children underfoot, that’s a story to be continued. “As our kids grow older, this really can be a family business for us,” he says. “Growing up with first editions and fine literature, Oliver and his brother are going to have a really interesting relationship with books that most of their friends won’t.” And with any luck, these siblings will learn to share their first editions.


whitmore_booksUntil recently, The Lord of the Rings trilogy was on Whitmore’s wish list—books he first read in fifth grade. (Retail price: $27,500.) At Middlebury, he took a winter term course on Tolkien taught by Matthew Dickerson. In the class they read The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, the LOTR trilogy, and The Silmarillion again. “You take one course for a month, and you just live in that world. It was one of the best courses I had—just incredible.”

whitmore_plaqueWhitmore is a card-carrying member of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America, which was first founded in 1949 and which, according to its website, was begun “to promote interest in rare and antiquarian books and book collecting, and to foster collegial relations.” The average ABAA member has spent 20 years in the antiquarian book business before joining; Whitmore got his card in four.

whitmore_backpackInspired by a Middlebury friend who came in as a Feb after hiking the Appalachian Trail, Whitmore took a semester off to hike the 2,200-mile route north to south. Now, when he goes hiking, he brings 16-month-old Oliver and takes the family for a two-hour hike, starting at the trailhead just two blocks up the street from their home. “It’s a quality-of-life thing we can take advantage of because of the way we’ve developed our business,” he says.

Island Time

Categories: Midd Blogosphere


I check my watch again—likely for the 10th time these past two minutes. It’s 6:25 p.m., and the 5:30 “Speedy’s” ferry has yet to leave the dock. I do the math in my head, even though I know there’s no chance I’ll make the connecting ferry to Virgin
Gorda in the British Virgin Islands.

I flip through my notebook, where I’ve written down phone numbers for other ferry services and hotels in the area. I like schedules, efficiency, timeliness. And this night is not going as I’d planned.

I’m about to begin a monthlong internship, an environmental research expedition in the Caribbean. The other ferry passengers around me don’t seem concerned about the lack of timeliness. A baby peeks over the seat, chocolate-brown, sleepy eyes watching me tap my fingers.

Looking for assistance, I ask the man working at the ferry dock when we might be leaving.

He laughs.

“Why are you in such a hurry?” he asks.

Without waiting for an answer, he tells me about “island time.” Apparently island time means nothing is on time.

An hour and fifteen minutes after the scheduled departure, we push away from the dock. We pick up speed, crashing over waves in ways that seem reckless. “Finally,” I sigh.

I’ve always been obsessed with moving forward. In high school I worked endlessly, participating in every imaginable activity to craft the perfect resume to get me into a school like Middlebury. And while I enjoyed these activities—at least I thought I did; in retrospect, I’m not sure I took the time necessary to enjoy them properly— often my primary motivation was to check another item off my mental list: things I needed to do to succeed.

At Middlebury, I’m always working, distributing my hours between athletics, academics, two jobs, and a social life—doing so hoping I’ll find a job after graduation. I have no patience for sitting still. I must always be making progress, always moving forward.

Lately, I’ve been thinking that my exposure to “island time” is starting to change that mindset. While on island time, no matter how badly I wanted to move forward, I couldn’t.

Boxes weren’t checked. And it was okay.

Now, I can’t say that this time of self-
reflection allowed me to “figure everything out.” While gazing out at the beautiful water, I didn’t suddenly realize what I’m supposed to do next; I didn’t figure out how I was going to make an impression upon the world. What I realized—perhaps for the first time—is that trying to figure everything out is a fool’s errand.

When I returned to Middlebury, I resisted the temptation of falling into old habits: I had responsibilities, of course, but I wanted to be responsible for the moment, not the future.

Moving forward may mean a long run down a country road instead of rushing from activity to activity; time doesn’t stand still, but my time does. Instead of devoting countless hours to future plans, I try and turn this devotion to those around me. Instead of worrying about a murky future and trying to blast through the haze, I try to become comfortable with ambiguity.

With graduation approaching, I’m cognizant of the landmark events—graduations, new jobs, promotions—that will mark life’s progression. But if I’m always checking the seconds that go by and focusing on where I need to be next, I’ll forget to notice where I am.

Elizabeth Reed ’15 will graduate this spring as a sociology and anthropology major. She’ll let us know what she plans on doing next—on her own time.

The Champ

Categories: Midd Blogosphere


The first time I met W.C. “Bill” Heinz  ’37 I told him that his column “Death of a Race Horse” had made me want to write better than I probably ever would. I read it for the first time in 1964, my freshman year of college, 15 years after Heinz had written the piece on deadline for the soon-to-be-defunct New York Sun. On that July day in 1949, Heinz had watched as a young colt named Air Lift—making his first racing start—stumbled on the track, breaking his leg.

Heinz pulls the reader in so close to the tragedy unfolding mere feet way that one can barely breathe.

They moved the curious back, the rain falling faster now, and they moved the colt over close to a pile of loose bricks. Gilman had the halter and Catlett had the gun, shaped like a bell with the handle at the top. This bell he placed, the crowd silent, on the colt’s forehead, just between the eyes. The colt stood still and then Catlett, with the hammer in his hand, struck the handle of the bell. There was a short, sharp sound and the colt toppled onto his left side, his eyes staring, his legs straight out, the free legs quivering.

“Aw—” someone said.

That was all they said. They worked quickly, the two vets removing the broken bones as evidence for the insurance company, the crowd silently watching. Then the heavens opened, the rain pouring down, the lightning flashing, and they rushed for the cover of the stables, leaving alone on his side near the pile of bricks, the rain running off his hide, dead an hour and a quarter after his first start, Air Lift, son of Bold Venture, full brother of Assault.

“Death of a Race Horse” is one of 38 columns and features compiled by Bill Littlefield, longtime host of NPR’s Only a Game, who knows great storytelling. This collection, which is being released on the centennial of Heinz’s birth, should reawaken interest in and love for one of our greatest sportswriters. Wilfred Charles Heinz (1915–2008) felt and observed deeply, but he always left space for the reader to feel too. Here is Babe Ruth, sick with the cancer that will soon take his life, pulling on his uniform for the final time at Yankee Stadium.

The Babe started to undress. His friends helped him. They hung up his clothes and helped him into the parts of his uniform. When he had them on he sat down again to put on his spiked shoes, and when he did this the photographers who had followed him moved in. They took pictures of him in uniform putting on his shoes, for this would be the last time….The Babe took a step and started slowly up the steps. He walked out into the flashing of flashbulbs, into the cauldron of sound he must know better than any other man.

In 1991 I visited Heinz at his hillside home in Dorset, Vermont, where he lived with his wife Betty Bailey Heinz ’35. I told him about his influence on my life; later I would find out that other writers, Littlefield included, had made similar pilgrimages and had expressed similar sentiments.

Gracious and generous, he showed me his writing scrapbooks, each of his columns neatly pasted in place, and as he turned the pages, he spoke about his life and work, a master class in a Vermont living room.

Heinz compared writing to boxing. “You set the reader up,” he said, “you feint, you jab, you bob and weave, you bring them in close, then when you are ready, you hit and hit hard.” He said never waste a word; a good writer should strip each sentence to its core.

Heinz once told Sports Illustrated that writing for him was “like building a stone wall without mortar. You place the words one at a time, fit them, take them apart and refit them until they’re balanced and solid.”

Bill Littlefield and the Library of America have given readers a 600-page gem of a book, filled with stories and columns whose words are balanced and solid, a stone wall built without mortar. We are afforded another chance to see America through the eyes of one of the most acute observers of his generation. And when any of us reads a story that takes our breath away, I lay odds that the writer once read “Death of a Race Horse” or “Brownsville Bum” or “The Fighter’s Wife” and thought, “If only I could do that….”

Mel Allen is the editor of Yankee Magazine and a pretty darn good writer himself.

The Liebowitz Years: Tributes

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

DenaRon as President By Dena Simmons ’05

In January 2006, I wore Middlebury regalia to the inauguration of the incoming president of Teachers College, Columbia University. Ron could not make the trip to New York City, so he asked me to march in the traditional procession in his place. While Ron’s invitation may seem insignificant to some, to me, it’s indicative of the type of leader Ron is—and has been—for Middlebury. Three years prior to his asking, I wrote, in my application for the Harry S. Truman Scholarship, that I wanted to attend Teachers College as a graduate student; Ron’s invitation made clear that he took the time to notice me, to know what I was doing post-Middlebury.

However, I didn’t need this invitation to know what I’d already learned about Ron: he’s an attentive and considerate leader, with New York City flair. He and I would frequently share stories of the Harlem and Columbia University he knew as a graduate student and the ones I was currently getting to know. We bonded over our love and connection to New York City. When I’d see him at the annual alumni holiday parties, he and Jessica always made time to share their support and advice. I felt held in their presence. Similarly, when I was a student, Ron supported me. He met with me when I requested it, and he stopped to say hello when we passed each other on campus.

Most impressive, Ron shows up for his students. There were some tumultuous periods during my time at Middlebury, and Ron never failed to create a safe space on campus for students and faculty to air out their concerns, their problems, and their demands to make Middlebury better. He was available to meet with students during these trying times, and although Ron did not always get it right, he was open to learning and improving. Once, on a cold, dark January evening, Ron traveled up to Shelburne, Vermont, to support me at an awards ceremony when I received the Vermont Student Citizen Award. He shared laughter and stories with my friends and family and made Middlebury as special for them as he did for me. He made them feel a part of our Middlebury family.

Eventually, when I returned to Middlebury as a teacher, bringing with me my students from the Bronx, Ron carved out time to welcome my students and share some words of wisdom. My students were timid about taking such a long trip to a place where very few people looked like them but left Middlebury with the feeling of home. Essentially that’s the type of institution Ron fostered for us—one that smells, tastes, and feels like home.

Dr. Dena Simmons ’05 is the associate director of school initiatives at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence.

VictorRon as Neighbor By Victor Nuovo

There are deep ties binding Middlebury College and the town of Middlebury. The town and the College have a common identity: they bear the same name and are situated in the same place. This came to be because over two centuries ago the town created the College, begot it, gave it its name, supported it financially, and nurtured it. The College’s founders, who were the town’s first citizens, believed that a town without an academy could not aspire to greatness, and they desired what was best for it. Hence, sentiments of kinship, of mutual affection and good will, and a common public interest arose between the town and the College. And they continue to this day, rising and falling in intensity, but never absent.

So it happened that during Ron Liebowitz’s presidency, a splendid mutuality flourished between the town and the College, which has resulted in major public works completed or underway in town—all with major support from the College. They include the financing and construction of the Cross Street Bridge, a new town office building (the first net-zero municipal office building in Vermont), a gym and recreational center, the widening of Printers Alley to accommodate pedestrians and motor vehicles going to the Marbleworks, a public park that will occupy the property where the current town offices and gym now stand, and the commercial development of property behind the library.

Much of the credit goes to Ron Liebowitz, although he did not work alone. He and members of his staff met regularly with the town administration and its governing body, the Board of Selectmen. In these meetings, town and College officials reviewed the institutional and economic needs of the town and considered long-term plans for meeting them. They sought and gained public support, along with the approval of the College Board of Trustees. The result was a complex plan involving financial transactions, property exchanges, and construction schedules, and before long, the work will be done. It will be a token of the enduring relationship between the town and the College. It will also be Ron’s legacy.

Victor Nuovo is the Charles A. Dana Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and a former member of the Middlebury town selectboard.

MerrillRon as Teacher By Jason Merrill ’90

I met Ron Liebowitz when I was a sophomore at Middlebury and had enrolled in his Soviet Geography course. He filled Warner Hemicycle with a friendly, positive energy, looking around the room and encouraging interaction, even when he was listing facts and figures about the ethnic composition of the Soviet Union or the types of minerals found in Siberia. He encouraged us to ask questions and to think more deeply, to draw our own conclusions about what we had heard or read.

In a senior seminar two years later, Ron challenged the class to create one research project on Soviet ethnic policy. He guided us while group members not only wrote their own portions of the larger work but also worked to assemble the pieces into a cohesive whole.

By the time I returned to Middlebury as an instructor in the Russian School, and later as its director, Ron was devoting his energies to administration. He often speaks of his experiences as a student in the Russian School, where the teachers—whose names he still remembers—demanded much from him but taught him much in return. Every time I meet him, at summer receptions or at winter directors’ meetings, Ron asks the kinds of detailed questions about our courses and future plans that show he’s still a teacher at heart.

Lev Tolstoy, for whom pedagogy was a lifelong interest, said that “if a teacher has both love for teaching and for his students, he is a complete teacher.” I believe most everyone in the Middlebury community would agree that Ron exudes both kinds of love, setting an example for teachers or anyone who works with them. In my roles as teacher and director, I strive to show the same level of interest and support I receive from him.

My wife and I are excited that our son will be starting at Middlebury this fall. His Class of 2019 will be the first in the post-Ron era. But because of Ron’s insistence on uncompromising cutting-edge teaching, Middlebury is well positioned to continue to occupy its deserved place as one of the top undergraduate experiences in the country. Like so many throughout Ron’s years at Middlebury, I am proud to have been his student and to have worked with him.

Jason Merrill ’90 is an associate professor of Russian at Michigan State University and the director of the Kathryn Wasserman Davis School of Russian at Middlebury.

ZupanRon as Colleague By Patricia Zupan

Here at Middlebury, colleagues are often much more than those with whom we work. Being in such close quarters, and almost always under the pressures of time, we become professional friends. Side by side, we simultaneously raise our careers and our lives.

Ron and I both came here in the early 1980s. My late husband Franco Ciccone and I arrived in 1982. Ron came in 1984. Ron was our upstairs neighbor at 3 College Street, and his arrival coincided with the birth of our first daughter, Marisa. Franco and I found that Ron liked kids—along with good coffee and good food. He thus became a regular guest at our open Italian table.

Aided and abetted by Franco’s superb cooking skills, unfailing hospitality, and astonishing intelligence and humor, a true friendship was born around that kitchen table. The three of us shared similar backgrounds (large cities, large universities), as well as a common love of intellectual and political controversy, music, and literature. Ron and I faced similarly challenging professional circumstances, building our departmental programs and teaching like maniacs. Incessant work—along with the traditional social environment—made Middlebury a tight fit for both of us at times. As high-energy talkers with quick wits, we frequently sent up what ailed, irked, or tickled us—a survival tactic others didn’t always appreciate. But in learning to live and work at Middlebury in more and more mature ways, Ron and I became true colleagues, talking out our issues, helping each other understand what we each had to offer here, staking out our intellectual territories, celebrating our victories when we won, commiserating with each other when feeling discouraged or defeated.

Ron is at his collegial best when the hour is darkest. His forte seems to be standing strong in the face of serious crises, particularly when colleagues must confront serious or terminal illness, or that of their loved ones—something I know by both observation and personal experience. In recent years we have lost, quite prematurely, dear colleagues and family members. I myself have lost my dear husband, Franco, to terminal illness. At that time, Ron listened as a friend. But as a colleague he also offered me the practical means to face courageously and humanely this incredibly great challenge. His support empowered me to return to this intellectual community, this other important part of my lifework, with renewed vigor and enthusiasm.

Patricia Zupan is the Charles .A. Dana Professor of Italian at Middlebury.

On the Hunt

Categories: Midd Blogosphere


For 72 hours in late January, a campus becomes consumed with the unusual.

Ten hooded figures crept across West Cemetery, the small graveyard along Route 30 and across from the Mahaney Center for the Arts. It was just before sunrise on a frigid January morning, and the only sounds were footsteps crunching through hard-packed snow.  Marching in two parallel lines, the 10 carried between them a plank upon which a motionless figure rested. They arrived at a large stone mausoleum, setting down the plank and assembling around the body.  One person knelt as if to perform rites and thrust into the air a limp, yellow figure.

Then a young women intoned, “We gather this day to sacrifice…SpongeBob.”

And in fact, the object is a stuffed SpongeBob SquarePants. As the yellow blob is held aloft, the group manages to chat several rounds of “SpongeBob, SpongeBob,” before breaking into laughter.

The second day of the Hunt has begun.


The Hunt is a three-day competition that many would likely call a scavenger hunt, except this search-and-discover mission is unlike most others.

Two Hunt masters compile 100-plus clues.  (By rule, the masters are the leaders of the previous year’s winning team.) Hunt masters can task teams with anything from building a Rube Goldberg machine with no fewer than seven components (clue #85) to recording an interview with someone from the Class of 1975 (clue #78).

The first Hunt was held in January 2008 and arose from Middlebury’s Programs on Creativity and Innovation in the Liberal Arts (PCI). The year before, Ron Liebowitz and his wife, Jessica, had convened a working group of five faculty members to brainstorm extracurricular programming and a dedicated workspace that would facilitate creative problem solving and intellectual risk taking among students.  The Middlebury president felts these traits were lacking—not just among the student body, but among 18–22 year olds more broadly. This committee—Daniel Scharstein, the late Ana Martínez-Lage, Noah Graham, Suzanne Gurland, and Antonia Losano—included professors in computer science, Spanish, physics, psychology, and English.  And their ideas were as diverse as their disciplines.

“Ron believed that students had to be given more opportunity to be creative and stop doing everything that they were comfortable with,” explained Liz Robinson ’84,  who has overseen PCI since its creation. “In high school, many students were perfect and had done everything really well, and Ron wanted them to take some risks and try some things they were interested in, whether they were going to fail or not.”

It was an hour before the 2015 Hunt would begin. Joy Wood ’17, captain of “Scott’s Tots,” stood before her assembled team. Nine people sat around a circular table, watching the clock and discussing strategy. Joy announced that her dorm room would serve as team headquarters for the next three days. It would be home to all the team’s video cameras and chargers, she said, as well as a base for video editing. Anyone interested in learning about basic video editing, she added, should come by later in the afternoon to sharpen their skills.

She explained how to access the team’s Google spreadsheet and made sure that everyone had the proper contact information to coordinate communications. When no one had any more questions, the nine team members stood and formed a queue behind a cardboard box at a neighboring table. Each person grabbed from it a blue sweatshirt—the de facto team uniform—and then left to take care of any last-minute preparations.

As it came closer to the 9:00 a.m. clue release, anticipation continued to build.  Across campus, eight people—members of a different team—sat around a table while five stood behind seated members, peering over their shoulders. Five laptops were arrayed around the table, sharing space with three cameras, two external hard drives, a pocket camcorder, and a nest of chargers and cords. People continued refreshing their computers in anticipation of the Hunt clues being released.

“They’re up!” someone yelled.

Across campus, 12 other teams bunched around their own computers and smartphones, reading the same clues and preparing to dive into three days of competition.

“Seeing the clue list is like opening your Christmas presents,” said Angela Santee ’13, Brainerd CRA and five-year Hunt veteran. “But what makes our Hunt grounded in Middlebury are the efforts that the Hunt masters make to connect it to the community and talk about topics that are relevant to us.”

The clues makes evident why the Hunt is special. This year, the two Hunt masters—Kirk Horton ’17 and Melissa Surrette ’16—came up with 106. They started developing them last summer.

The clues are designed to encourage Middlebury students to solve problems they’d never find in a classroom, to create connections with other people and places, and to celebrate Middlebury’s institutional and student culture.

“The Hunt connects people,” said Liz Robinson. “Those cohorts become really close because they are together for those three days and they are so intense and competitive. There’s the connection there, but then there’s the connection to […] older alums, to the past and to people in the past, to their peers at our institution, and to people around the world.”

Per tradition, the Hunt masters develop clues that encourage participants to engage with professors, administrators, staff members, town residents, and each other. “The year we competed, we noticed that while the clues were a blast they also engaged with different parts of the community and the town,” said Horton. “So we made a conscious effort to include all of those aspects.”

The Hunt is at its best, said five-time participant Angela Santee, when the Hunt masters decide to really push the teams to see what they can do in three days.…“Because you just never know what people will pull off.”


Clue number eight: freestyle rap battle.

“We should charge you a fee, we’re gonna bask in glee, Monday night, you grovel before me!” Tom Dobrow ’16 rapped to a thumping bass line as his teammates cheered and his opponents looked on. “We’re going off the top of our head! The Hunt 2015 is life, and y’all are DEAD!”

To wild applause, Dobrow, in a purple Brainerd tank top, sunglasses, and a metallic green necklace, worked his way around Hepburn Lounge, adding the opposing teams’ names into his rhymes.

Some of these rappers were team members; others were friends willing to spit rhymes. Dobrow repped Trial by Combat, Santee’s squad, and he was among the dozen or so participating in this rap battle, which started around 10:30 p.m. on the Hunt’s opening day. All the furniture had been pushed to the room’s perimeter to give the rappers mobility—and they weren’t shy about using it. Rappers yet to perform were waiting for Dobrow to finish so they could take their turn. After everyone rapped to the first song—Ratatat’s “Loud Pipes”—they’d get a second shot with Eve’s “Let Me Blow Ya Mind.” None of the rappers knew which songs would play or wrote their raps down.

Members from the 13 different teams filled the lounge. During the competition, each team was allowed 10 official competitors, but could also use as many “contributors” as they needed—and plenty of students were willing to join in. “Everyone contribute[s] to different degrees—some people maybe in one video and other people may … just write one ode to a Battell bathtub—so it’s collective,” said Wood, the captain of Scott’s Tots.

Organizers believe a well-rounded team is necessary to win the Hunt. Some team captains recruit for specific skill sets, and competition for prized team members can become fierce.

“It’s really good to have a nice blend of talents,” Erika Sloan ’16 said. “Not everyone has to be artistic or musical or good at singing or shameless in public, you just need a good mix of all of those things.”

While important, team construction is only one part of Hunt strategy. Successful Hunt teams have highly organized systems of communication and coordination. Santee’s group used a Google Doc to coordinate completing different clues—a typical strategy. She had arranged the Google Doc—which team members updated constantly throughout the competition— to show the 106 clues, their point values, those members currently working on the clue, and any associated notes/tips about the clue others might find helpful. The spreadsheet was color-coded—challenges deemed impossible were tagged red, challenges underway tagged yellow, challenges completed were green, and challenges that required group participation were purple. As soon as Santee’s team successfully completed the rap battle, they changed the tag for clue eight, “Freestyle rap battle,” to green.


On the Hunt’s second day, and three hours after sacrificing SpongeBob at the mausoleum, two members of Trial by Combat were en route to Burlington to visit the Echo Lake Aquarium and Science Center. For the entire ride, they were balancing an egg on a spoon. The two were about to complete clue three (Roooooooaaadtrip!! To the Burlington Aquarium—six points; bonus points if you keep an egg on a spoon for the entire trip without breaking it). Pulling into the parking lot, they were careful not to dislodge the camera documenting the egg still balanced in the spoon.  As the two walked into the aquarium’s lobby, a number of pedestrians turned and looked quizzically at the two guys bustling past them with an egg on a spoon, a giant poster, and a camera.

“For an individual participant, I think the shamelessness is a pretty big part of success,” said Erika Sloan. “A lot of the clues involve embarrassing yourself in public or doing silly things in public, so you really can’t be afraid of that kind of thing. Creativity is really important.”

Certainly many Hunt clues require students to shed their self-consciousness. “Civilians” walking around on campus who are not participating in the Hunt would likely be scratching their heads if they saw people licking strangers’ elbows or walking around clad in nothing but a banana peel—but for Hunt participants, it’s all part of the game.

The Hunt’s beauty isn’t in its competition, however, but in the collaboration it spurs. “On the one hand we can be isolated in Vermont, and this is a problem sometimes,” said President Liebowitz, explaining this rather unusual spirit of collaboration. “On the other hand, it is an incredible benefit to student culture that is unique even among residential liberal arts colleges. Students, during their four years here, are socialized into an unconscious understanding that they are going to rely on the 2,400 students on this campus for most of their cultural, social, and intellectual stimulation. Therefore, there is an unwritten rule about how kids here interact with one another—it’s less competitive, despite being such a high-pressure-packed academic institution. Within the student body, there is an incredible civility and also a collaborative, noncompetitive type of environment.”

Hunt2A few members of the original Innovation Competition Committee—including Suzanne Gurland, an associate professor of psychology—had experience with academic scavenger hunts, which they thought could serve as models for Middlebury’s competition.

“I was a college student at the University of Chicago in the late ’80s and early ’90s and there was an annual scavenger hunt,” said Gurland. “One of the things that we all loved about it was the intellectual fun. Everyone was having a blast but it was also really challenging, hard questions.”

In fact, Chicago’s scavenger hunt—known to Chicago students as “Scav”—is the largest of its kind. Created in 1987, the competition began as a part of the university’s summer carnival and has since taken on a life of its own. Similar scavenger hunts exist at other schools. For instance, MIT has hosted its “Mystery Hunt” since 1981. While both of these competitions involve some lateral creativity, they heavily rely on engineering problems and puzzles that require what may be thought of as classroom knowledge for success.

At a meeting on August 8, 2007, Middlebury’s Innovation Competition Committee resolved to create a competition “different than many that we have heard about at other schools. Ours will be deliberately broad in scope as to reflect innovation in a liberal arts environment.” They decided upon the scavenger-hunt format and by September, a list of tentative names for the competition had already emerged: the J-term Chase, the Middlebury Mystery, and Mystbury were early top contenders. In January the committee had created a final product: the Hunt.

“I would wager that competitions at Chicago and Cornell take on a more cutthroat type of approach,” said President Liebowitz. “Competition for [our Hunt] is intense as well, but I know that the way that Middlebury students work together and the way that they ‘compete’ is a little bit different.”


It was early evening on the Hunt’s second day, and Melissa Surrette, a Hunt master, sat on her bed while two Hunt participants reenacted a scene from Fifty Shades of Grey. (Don’t worry, it wasn’t too explicit.) Crouching behind Melissa’s pullout closet in the corner, Kirk Horton, the other Hunt master, tried not to laugh too loudly.

The Trial by Combat members were trying to solve two clues. Clue one: a dramatic reading from Fifty Shades of Grey—three points. And Clue 93: on Fridays Surrette goes to bed at 8:00 p.m; come read a bedtime story to put her to sleep—five points.

Outside Surrette’s doorway, about 25 Hunt participants had lined up to regale her with their own bedtime tales. A mermaid was waiting, as was a guitarist and a group that had brought hot cocoa to sweeten the deal. Many team members knew Surrette prior to the Hunt and one girl, who was in a class with her, had taken a story they’d read together in class and modified it so she became part of the story. For another 40 minutes, Surrette sat in bed listening to bedtime tales. Horton, giving away his hiding spot by laughing, eventually moved to the other side of the room to enjoy the creative performances.

While Surrette and Horton successfully orchestrated the 2015 Hunt, not all Hunts have gone as smoothly. During the Hunt’s first year, members of its advertising committee put stickers all over doors and walls on campus—a campaign the College’s custodial team understandably found frustrating. Another year, a clue inadvertently encouraged teams to hack into the all-student email system. By 2010, student interest in the Hunt seemed to be on a terminal downswing.

“I was given the authority to support student initiatives and programs,” Robinson said. “But I couldn’t run them myself if there wasn’t interest. There were a couple years where the Hunt wasn’t as popular, and then in 2010 we didn’t have it.”

In 2011, after a winter without a Hunt, two seniors—Ben Wessel ’11 and Taryn Tilton ’11—approached Robinson, telling her they wanted to resurrect the competition. She happily complied.

Wessel and Tilton put in play several techniques to revitalize the competition and encourage broader participation. One method: encouraging more photo and video documentation—both to increase visibility and to enable students off-campus to participate.

Wessel and Tilton’s efforts were successful. That year, the Middlebury Campus published an article titled “The Hunt Comes Back With a Bang.” And since 2011, the Hunt has gone on every year, as has the practice of using technology in creative ways to make connections. In recent Hunts, social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram have become integral to the competition even when the Hunt masters don’t specifically include them in the clue list.


The 2015 Hunt was coming to a close. Horton and Surrette, standing onstage in Crossroads Café, asked the cheering crowd to hold their applause so they could announce the competition’s winner. All the Hunt participants—and more than a few of their friends—had arranged themselves around six round tables before the stage.

Many were still laughing, having just watched a video presentation of the most interesting and hilarious submissions (as chosen by the Hunt masters), and talking about their favorite clues. Everyone looked exhausted, as staying up all night the final evening of the competition has become a Hunt tradition.

“The first night I went to sleep at 4:00 a.m., and the second night I went to sleep at 6,” laughed Wood. “And the last night I obviously don’t sleep at all.”

“It’s exhausting,” said Sloan. “But it’s so much fun and it builds friendships to stay up all night like that doing ridiculous things.”

Friendships forged during the Hunt are often some of the strongest participants make at Middlebury.

“My freshman year when I did [the Hunt], those kids that I did it with became some of my best friends,” Wood said.

Angela Santee recalled how the Hunt shaped her relationships during her junior year, giving her and her friends a foundation for lifelong friendship and communication.

“As juniors—already divided in our social circles because half of everybody was abroad—we really bonded over those three days, and then afterwards we had so many great memories crammed into a 72-hour period that we could draw upon,” Santee said. “We still send each other things on Facebook when something reminds us of a clue, or we think it would make a great clue for a subsequent year.”

Surrette and Horton had already awarded the most enthusiastic male and most enthusiastic female (which went to Erika Sloan). Then they announced the third place team and followed by the second place.

Finally the time had come to announce the winner.

“And the winner is…Trial by Combat!”

Santee and her teammates were yelling before the Hunt masters had finished the end of the sentence.

“It’s not really about winning for me at this point,” Wood said after she and her team didn’t come out on top. “Middlebury says ‘we want you to go do this silly thing that will challenge you and make you cry and have the time of your life and make friends and be a better leader and do all of these ridiculous things.’ I think that’s pretty cool.”

Following three days of competition and months of planning, the 2015 Hunt was over. After congratulating everyone, Horton and Surrette packed up their equipment and walked out of Wilson Hall. Already they have next year’s Hunt masters in mind, and when the two members of Trial by Combat take over in a week or two, it will be time to prepare for Hunt 2016. After all, only 360 days remain until clue release.

The Liebowitz Years: A Vision Realized

Categories: Midd Blogosphere


The special partnership that preserved Bread Loaf for the ages.

In 1915, when Joseph Battell died and willed his expanse of lands along the spine of the Green Mountains to Middlebury College, he included a proviso that the College “preserve as far as reasonably may be the forests of said park, and neither to cut nor permit to be cut thereon any trees whatsoever except such as are dead or down and such as it may be necessary to cut in making and repairing needful roads; it being a principal object of this [will] to preserve intact such wild lands as a specimen of the original Vermont forest.”

Which seems fairly conclusive. Except that in the 1930s, with the College facing a financial crisis, its trustees sold off 90 percent of the land that Battell had left it.


For more than 50 years, Bread Loaf and its 2,100 acres of forest and mountain meadow—the remaining 10 percent of Battell’s original bequest—had remained a changeless place, echoing with Robert Frost’s Yankee accent. Down in the valley, Middlebury’s main campus had spent the better part of the half-century undergoing a massive building boom, yet the Ripton domain was a bit of an afterthought for trustees and administrators until, in 1997, an Environmental Studies class devoted much of a semester to studying Battell’s will.

The buyer of the land in the 1930s sale was the U.S. Forest Service, and the real estate had become the core of the northern portion of the Green Mountain National Forest—one of whose chief goals is growing trees so that they may be cut. Over time the Forest Service, at least in Vermont, has developed a more sustainable outlook, yet the students looking at the will felt real pause: What might the College do with Bread Loaf if it hit financial trouble again? Condos?

These students met with the Board of Trustees, who, while respectful of their research and recommendation that the College never sell the remaining land, took the position that they couldn’t “tie the hands” of future trustees. “They said nice things about the student presentation, but they also said: ‘Look at what happened in the Depression,’” recalls a participant in the discussion. “‘How can we take out of our successors’ hands the ability to monetize those lands?’”

That participant was the provost at the time, and while he, too, was impressed with the students’ presentation, he was preoccupied with other matters. But, he says, “I kept that in my back pocket,” and when Ron Liebowitz was named president in 2004, he scheduled his first meeting of the trustee’s Prudential Committee up at Bread Loaf. “They asked me, ‘What would be your dream for the next 10 years?’ And I think I shocked them when I said, ‘Preserving Bread Loaf.’ The wealthiest person in the room said, ‘What would it cost?’ And I said, ‘I have no idea.’”


If the prototypical Vermonter is Calvin Coolidge—so taciturn they called him Silent Cal—then outgoing Middlebury President Ron Liebowitz is pretty much the polar opposite. The first thing one notices about him, even before his relentless intelligence, is the relentless speed with which he converses. Faster than anyone I’ve ever met, a subway-train rush of words. His Brooklyn birthplace and his Jersey upbringing shine through even after 31 years in the Green Mountains. You think: city boy.

And yet those three decades in Vermont have worked their particular magic. His parting gift to the College, spurred by a deep love for the landscape, is remarkable: finding the funds to preserve forever the thousands of acres in the Bread Loaf landscape. Liebowitz will rightly be remembered as the man who brought the College through financial crisis and broadened its reach to the shores of the Pacific, but his legacy is perhaps most secure in the tens of thousands of birch and beech and maple, the red pine and green grass, the unbroken vistas that will stay unbroken. In thousands of Ripton acres where, most of the time, no one ever says a word, and certainly not fast.

On a chill March day, towards the tail end of the finest winter in years, I walked with Liebowitz through the woods east of the Bread Loaf Inn. There was still two feet of snow on the ground, so we were on snowshoes, and he reminisced about his first glimpse of this land. After his undergraduate years at Bucknell, Liebowitz went to graduate school at Columbia, a budding Sovietologist. But his Russian was weak, so his professors dispatched him to Middlebury for a summer of language school. He was three weeks in, which he said was going “gruesomely,” when a friend called and, speaking forbidden English, convinced him to take a weekend trip. “He whisked me away to Bread Loaf—that was the first time. This was 1982, and there was a real heat wave down in the valley. I was suffocating from language school, and from the weather. But then we were suddenly on Rte. 125, climbing up this tiny road. Halfway up the temperature dropped 12 degrees; suddenly it was almost chilly. By the time we got up to Bread Loaf—well, I never forgot it. Immediately it was an important part of my own conception of Middlebury.”

So, while the trustees may have been surprised by Liebowitz’s 10-year dream, it was in keeping with his longer view of the place. Work to evaluate the property began but like everything else, this took a back seat to surviving the financial crisis that soon broke out. “I mean, the endowment went from $962 million to $649 million,” says Liebowitz (figures that seem etched in his mind). But as the ship slowly righted itself, he began to pursue the project more actively, engaging a trustee, a hedge fund magnate who had already won plaudits from conservationists for preserving large tracts of land on Long Island Sound, Colorado, and the Outer Banks.


couple of years ago, Louis Bacon ’79 received one of the highest honors in conservation, recognition from the Audubon Society for all that he has done to “preserve and protect key natural ecosystems.” Accepting the Audubon Medal, he gave a speech at a gala in New York in which he talked about how important his Middlebury education—and the sense of place that came with it—had been to his development. He spoke of taking courses in environmental studies; of spending a lot of time outdoors, hunting, fishing, and skiing; of majoring in American literature and channeling Ernest Hemingway. It was an idyllic time, he said.

“That was a fat, juicy pitch right there,” says Liebowitz, who was in attendance that night. “And so from then on I got to be really direct, quoting his words at him. I kept telling him this was logical and he was the guy.”

“Ron is persuasive, and I think he knows a donor’s soft spot,” says Bacon, who fondly recalls a deer hunt at Bread Loaf one Thanksgiving when he couldn’t make the trip home to North Carolina. (He’d shot, gutted, and hid his prize in the snow, till the next day when Ripton resident and beloved professor Horace Beck helped him drag it out.) “Otherwise, I remember cross-country skiing on the trails in the afternoons after swishing down the Snow Bowl, trying to keep up with my much more practiced Finnish girlfriend. I had learned to ski cross country on the flats of the Middlebury campus, and I was not prepared for the downhill parts of the hills behind the Bread Loaf campus; I remember the terror of speeding along towards the creek bed on two skinny, unstable reeds to which the toe of my shoe was fixed, my ankle in the balance. Swearing if I survived I would never do this again, I was nonetheless at it again and again.”

Bacon—who says he initially reacted in “disbelief” at the thought that the trustees could ever contemplate selling off the lands—funded four or five researchers to scour the property. The College’s forest ecologist, Marc Lapin ’83, coordinated student research on the flora and fauna; Middlebury’s chief philanthropic adviser, Mike Schoenfeld ’73, helped pull the efforts into a package that eventually spurred “an eight-figure gift” from Bacon. In effect, he’d bought the development rights from the trustees and placed them off-limits; they’d monetized the land, and he’d paid the money, extinguishing those rights. And with that the Bread Loaf lands were secure. In a sense Bacon had made good on Battell’s intention, with Liebowitz as the proud midwife.

“I think it’s crucial to Middlebury, absolutely crucial,” says Liebowitz. “This is a microcosm of Middlebury, but in some ways it’s the place where you feel the connection to our past most deeply.” What makes the sentiment remarkable is that, viewed from a distance, the Liebowitz years have been about expanding Middlebury ever further out: the acquisition of Monterey, the spread of the Schools Abroad, the expansion of the Language Schools.

“But with all that expansion one thing remains constant,” he says. “From September to May we’re always and only about undergraduate education, and that’s centered here in Vermont.

“And undergraduate education, in a lot of ways, is about contemplation. You can have a graduate education anywhere. But we needed to retain the core of who we are, and that’s why this Vermont piece is so important,” Liebowitz says.

Bacon speaks in much the same terms: the landscape provides a “combination and closeness of nature and scholastics” especially valuable “in this day of the rush of modernity and electronic devices, because it allows one to ponder larger questions undistracted.”

Bread Loaf is contemplation defined—Ripton’s population today is about 500, or the same as the town of Middlebury when the College was founded. “To lose this would take away a large, symbolic piece of Middlebury’s identity,” says Liebowitz. “I’m not an outdoors person, but I am a geographer; that’s why it’s so easy for me to see that our location has been so central to our success.”

Has been, and will be. For perpetuity, as they say in wills.