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How could this happen?

Bassist Dave Shapiro froze to death in his own home, and a community seeks answers

The funeral for Dave Shapiro will be held on May 6 at 1 p.m. at the Round Hill Cemetery on Round Hill Road, off the Back Windham Road, in West Townshend.

TOWNSHEND—On Nov. 2, 2010, three months and 15 days before he was found frozen to death in his house on Round Hill Road in West Townshend, widely known musician and teacher David “Dave” Shapiro was also well-enough known to 260 Townshend voters who elected him a justice of the peace, along with a slate of six others, for a two-year term.

And that office, in a roundabout way, was the main reason the 58-year-old Shapiro was found.

There is no official record stating how long he’d been in the house when, on Feb. 16, Sgt. George Badgley of the Windham County Sheriff’s Department took out a window pane in a front entrance door of the house, unlocked the door from the inside and found Shapiro dead “in the kitchen area,” he reported.

The death certificate is a public document issued by the state medical examiner, a copy of which is now on file in Townshend Town Hall. It states the manner of death was an accident, “due to cold environmental temperatures.”

“How did injury occur...?” the certificate asks.

The answer: “Found dead in home with no heat (last seen December).”

Apart from noting that an autopsy was done and that other contributing conditions were “atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease and psychiatric illness (type unspecified),” the stark document reveals no further details, other than such clerical information as addresses and occupations.

Because Townshend Town Clerk Anita Bean had called a meeting of the Board of Civil Authority, made up of the justices of the peace, and was not able to raise a quorum, she began calling members to tell them the Feb. 15 meeting was off.

“When I called Dave, I found out his phone had been turned off,” Bean explained. “So then, I called a neighbor [of Shapiro’s], and she said she hadn’t seen him come down the hill for a while.”

At that moment, Townshend Post Office Clerk Dan Novotney came into Town Hall and overheard Bean’s conversation.

“It was a sort of ‘what’s-up-with-him’ conversation, and I told them to don’t bother sending him mail, because he hasn’t picked his up for a while,” Novotney said. “Later on, I felt kind of bad that I hadn’t said something before, but Dave didn’t come in regularly, so I didn’t really think about it.”

“I got suspicious after hearing Dan,” said Bean, “so I called [Postmaster GailAnn Fisher] and asked her how long the mail had been piling up. She checked and said ‘since December,’ and that was when I called the sheriff.”

After talking with Bean, Badgley drove to Round Hill Road and found things undisturbed, no tracks in the snow, and Shapiro’s car buried in snow.

“I thought probably he’d gone to visit Shane,” Badgley said, referring to Shane Brodie, the son of painter Jocelyn Brodie, Shapiro’s partner, who owned the house and had died in December 2009.

On Tuesday, Feb. 15, Badgley called Shane Brodie, who lives with his wife Charlotte in Burlington, to ask if they had seen Shapiro.

The next day, Badgley explained, “I went to see Dave’s medical doctor at Grace Cottage and he recommended going into the house.”

Badgley had an appointment the next day in Manhattan, and while driving back to Vermont on Thursday, he learned from his wife of Shapiro’s death.

What followed were the rituals connected to such events: a state police investigation, transportation of the body to Burlington for an autopsy, burial plans for May in Round Hill Cemetery, just down the road from the house and where Jocelyn Brodie is buried, and storage space before that.

Not to mention the allocation of property, most of which belongs to Shane Brodie, although Shapiro’s belongings, including his beloved bass, will go to Shapiro’s sister, Susan Barth, of Staten Island in New York.

Brodie said he asked friends of his who live down the road, Steve and Clare Adams, to go into the house and more or less secure things until he could get organized.

Adams reported that she went to the house a few days after Shapiro was found and noted that the refrigerator was filled with food and plenty of wood was stacked near the stove.

Yet Dave Shapiro froze to death there.

A man estranged

Before moving to West Townshend in 1987, Shapiro played regularly in New York with such jazz legends as Woody Herman, Chet Baker, Lee Konitz, Howard McGee and Mel Lewis, as well as singers Ray Charles, Anita O’Day and Chris Connor. And that’s just a partial list.

A warm and touching memorial and jam session held at the Vermont Jazz Center in Brattleboro, about a month after he died, celebrated Shapiro’s remarkable life as a musician, a versatile bassist, and as a mentor to countless jazz musicians.

“He spoiled you for anyone else around here,” said Peter Solley of Newfane, acclaimed keyboard musician, who played with some of the 1960s and 1970s signature bands, including Procul Harum. Solley played from time to time with Shapiro at Rick’s Tavern in Newfane.

Shapiro also taught reading to adults in Vermont. He also taught math and jazz history, and he conducted jazz ensembles at Westfield State College and Holyoke Community College in Massachusetts.

About 75 friends came to the memorial event, some to play and others to offer remembrances.

Several mentioned Shapiro’s penchant for humor and humorists, pointing to examples on his Facebook page, where he wrote about and shared links of favorites.

His sister, Susan Barth, a cabaret singer, came up with her husband Perry from Staten Island and spoke of her brilliant little brother. Someone else also described Shapiro as a comedian.

But the undercurrent of sadness hovering over everything relating to Shapiro’s life gave the way he died special poignancy and confusion.

In talking with more than a dozen people who knew him as a friend and a musician, it becomes clear that Shapiro had suffered from severe psychiatric problems during the last years of his life. He spent significant periods in several hospitals, including the Brattleboro Retreat and Grace Cottage Hospital in Townshend.

Friends say he fought with most everyone he knew, and his anger precipitated several calls to the police.

By the time of his death, Shapiro was barred from places where he used to hang out, including the Townshend Dam Diner and the community post office in West Townshend.

Driving friends away

Dr. Fritz Engstrom, medical director at the Brattleboro Retreat, knew nothing of Shapiro’s story, nor of his stay at the institution.

But Engstrom said in general that it’s unusual for serious mental disease to begin in mid-life. And when he sees someone with new mental health issues in his 50s or 60s, “We start searching for medical causes.”

“Classic mental illness — such as personality disorder, borderline personality, or dependent personality — typically start in late adolescence,” he said.

When antisocial behavior, such as the variety described by Shapiro’s friends — including being difficult, abrasive, and self-centered — emerge in mid-life, those traits have come to the surface after having always been there, according to Engstrom.

Shapiro had suffered two losses a year apart, when his mother died in 2008 and his partner died a year later. Those losses probably played into Shapiro’s confrontational behavior, Engstrom conjectured.

“I think a lot of chickens are coming home to roost,” he said. “You burn so many bridges.”

He also talked about the different ways men and women behave in the face of trouble.

“I come to the bigger question,” Engstrom said. “It really relates to death after a spouse dies. In the next year, men have twice the death rate when women die. Women have a richer fabric of friends.”

‘That intimacy, those warm relationships, are to be prized,” Engstrom said. “The key to a healthy society is relationships.”

Seemingly not surprised by the path Shapiro traveled, Engstrom said that “the well-adjusted person has three things: work, love, and play. These existential issues, love, intimacy, connectedness — these are essential for existential happiness.

The privacy paradox

Shapiro’s death challenges the brain and the heart. Some would say this is especially true in Vermont, where the values of community are deeply engrained.

So why did it take a community two months to the day of Shapiro’s final Facebook post to check on him?

Although Fisher said that rural carriers are encouraged to check on suspicious conditions, the postmaster emphasizes the line separating customers’ mail and their personal lives.

“We don’t contact people whose mail is piling up,” Fisher explained. “We keep the mail until the customer doesn’t pay his box bill and then we send it back.”

Frank M. Bryan, professor of political science at the University of Vermont, who may be best known for his two books on town meetings and at least four others on Vermont and rural politics, says the contradictions between freedom and unity — the state’s official motto — are numerous and strong.

“A couple of things are going on here,” Bryan said, commenting that the Shapiro story amply demonstrates how much community life has changed.

“The community used to have a legal responsibility to the poor and indigent,” Bryan said. ‘They were often criticized for their standards of care. But compared to today, the care was probably better. Over the last half century, the state has taken on the legal responsibility.

“When our mother [needed help], my brother and I took turns caring for her. But I think there were 16 different numbers we needed to know. These were all state agencies and probably they were all staffed by hard-working, good, ethical people,” Bryan said.

“But the problem is coordination,” he continued. “Here were my brother and I, both with doctorates, and we couldn’t figure it out. The community is no longer in the habit of bearing that responsibility.”

Bryan said Shapiro’s “unique story, the social behavior juxtaposed with the geographic logistics” — Shapiro lived at the end of a narrow dirt road off Route 30 in West Townshend — played into the story of his lonely death.

“This whole notion of freedom and unity — of the person who is logistically available, yet something like that happens — [speaks to] individualism, the freedom to be a hermit if you want. We have trouble dropping in,” Bryan pointed out. “People want to be left alone, and it’s a delicate balance. We revere that.”

Bryan pointed out that it is human nature to be private.

Also, as a consequence of industrialization, Bryan said that many Vermonters no longer work where they live, and that has a hollowing effect on community life.

“When I was in high school in Newbury we did everything together, everyone participated,” Bryan recalled. “Now, it’s nothing to commute 25 or 30 miles.”

But Bryan believes that “we have turned a corner on the centralist imperative. The urban and industrial brought us together, but now technology is allowing us to live and work in the same place.”

“By the year 2020, there will be less [need for] mass transit,” he predicts.

Bryan used a new word, “glocalization,” to describe our capacity to now communicate to anyone, anywhere, while physiologically staying in one place. He believes this will reintroduce the notion of community.

And Bryan says, “I have the most poignant sympathy for those who do something,” in the face of challenges.

Alice Fothergill, associate professor of sociology at the University of Vermont, agrees that Vermont cherishes two values.

“We really do value being part of community, helping in a crisis, bringing food,” she said. “But we also value privacy in particular,” citing the preferences of Russian exile Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who lived 18 years in seclusion in Cavendish, Vt., before returning to Russia in 1994. For years, the people of Cavendish took great pride in the way they shooed visitors away from Solzhenitsyn’s home.

“He liked his privacy,” she said, adding that the Nobel laureate always maintained he was getting his best work done in Vermont. “You can’t do that with people bothering you.”

Our relationship with privacy is paramount, Fothergill believes. However, Fothergill said that society “still sees the family as the main economic unit, and the primary source of relationships and family members would be the ones to step in to help.”

Another support network is what Fothergill called “fictive kin,” or acquaintances we depend upon.

From what she knew, Shapiro no longer had family near, nor did he have fictive kin to lean upon.

Yet, she said, it was perfectly plausible for Sgt. Badgley to assume that Shapiro had gone to visit family on the day he found the undisturbed and still scene at Shapiro’s house on Round Hill Road.

Fothergill, who is finishing a book, Children of Katrina, specializes in the sociology of disaster. She points out that humans are altruistic in these events.

“It’s hard for people to ask for help. There’s a stigma about being helped.”

And she says that Shapiro’s aloneness demonstrated all the risk factors for what finally happened: no family, no job.

“These are things that integrate you in the community,” she said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #98 (Wednesday, April 27, 2011).

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