BRATTLEBORO—In 2017, after 44 years of running his medical practice, Robert Tortolani, one of the town’s most beloved doctors, retired quietly. His soft-spoken, modest nature would have it no other way.
So the award he received on Jan. 24 — Person of the Year — from the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce came as a total surprise to Tortolani, who said he “was in a state of shock.”
Groundworks Collaborative received the Chamber’s Member of the Year award for its work on behalf of the most vulnerable people, making community service an overriding theme at the BACC’s annual awards breakfast, which took place at the Brattleboro Retreat.
In addition, the Entrepreneur of the Year Award went to Saxtons River Distillery founder Christian Stromberg, who grew his business from a one-person operation in Saxtons River to a distillery, store, and tasting room on Route 30 that employs five workers.
From the Army to Brattleboro
Even though he really didn’t want the attention, Tortolani — who was also surprised to see his daughter Liz, who came up from Brooklyn, N.Y., for the ceremony — wanted to stress that “this award is for everyone in this community who takes care of other people.”
The son of a Connecticut physician, Tortolani earned his medical degree at the University of Rochester Medical School. He was interning at Mary Fletcher Hospital in Burlington in 1967 and, with the Vietnam War raging, knew he would probably get drafted.
He enlisted in the Army and served as a doctor in 1968 and 1969 at the height of U.S. involvement in the war. He was a surgeon assigned to an infantry battalion in the 1st Air Cavalry Division, and, as he once described it, “I was doing house calls constantly in helicopters.”
After his military service, he began his medical practice in northern Vermont, first at the Medical Center Hospital of Vermont in Burlington and, later, at Copley Hospital in Morrisville.
When Tortolani and another physician were looking for another place in Vermont to set up a family medicine practice, they decided upon Brattleboro.
Tortolani said that coming to Brattleboro was “one of the best decisions of my life” and that “practicing medicine here has been a joy. It’s been a great privilege to take care of people.”
As a primary-care family physician, he saw patients young and old and, in 1991, was named Vermont Family Physician of the Year by the Vermont chapter of the American Academy of Family Physicians. He was also involved in starting up the Brattleboro Walk-In Clinic in the early 1990s, to provide primary medical care for people without insurance.
As passionate as he was about caring for others, Tortolani has been equally passionate about helping younger colleagues become better physicians, mentoring medical students from Dartmouth, the University of Massachusetts, and the University of Vermont.
In it for the long haul
Groundworks, formed in 2015 after the merger of Morningside Shelter and the Brattleboro Area Drop-in Center, operates the second-largest food shelf in Vermont and the only year-round family homeless shelter in southeast Vermont. The organization also operates a seasonal 33-bed overflow shelter at the Winston Prouty Center campus.
In 2017, the nonprofit sheltered 253 people, fed 3,837 people, and found permanent housing for 27 households.
Executive Director Josh Davis was also surprised at the honor, since his team was at the breakfast to accept a plaque honoring 40 years of operation since Morningside Shelter opened in 1979.
“This organization would not be who we are today without our staff,” said Davis, who was joined in the spotlight by Operations Director Rhianna Kendrick, Development Director Libby Bennett, Drop-In Center Coordinator Karli Schrade, and Business Manager Jon Hoover.
Davis said that the longevity of the organization “is a testament to two things on opposite ends of the spectrum — that I am fortunate to live and work in such a generous community that has supported the work of Morningside Shelter and, now, Groundworks has done for 40 years.”
At the same time, he said, he and his staff must do that work “year in and year out, and each year the need grows, and we try to meet the need every year.”
“It is very challenging to come back year after year and ask for more and to try to do more, but that is the state of the world that we’re in right now,” Davis said.
For Stromberg, Saxtons River Distillery has been “a big change in my life to start a business and leave the security of regular employment and things called ‘paychecks.’ But I’m glad to be in Brattleboro, and we’re committed to growing here,” he said on receiving the Chamber’s Entrepreneur of the Year Award.
Stromberg said he was getting ready for his next big expansion, moving the distillery into the former Woodman Athletics building on Chickering Drive in Brattleboro.
Unfortunately, he said, the permitting for the new distillery had been held up by the partial shutdown of the federal government.
“If the government reopens, we’ll get a permit,” he said.