BRATTLEBORO—“I just can’t imagine that tomorrow I’m waking up and not coming to work,” Vlasta Popelka said to the friends and well-wishers at Brattleboro Community Television’s annual meeting.
In this time of COVID-19, the longtime operations manager’s retirement party happened over videoconference. While the coronavirus might have kept people apart, it could not stop Popelka from receiving the deep, heartfelt gratitude for her 18 years of service to the local public-access television station.
Colleagues formally bid her bon voyage with a slideshow during the nonprofit organization’s online annual meeting on Sept. 16. Friends and family then offered good wishes and thank-you messages.
“I really like Brattleboro, I think most people do a lot for community,” Popelka told them. “I think I will miss the sense of belong somewhere, for like I belonged to BCTV for all these years.”
BCTV is a community media center that serves eight towns in southern Windham County. Launched in 1976, it was the first public access or PEG channel in the state. Devoted to public education and community-created content, BCTV covers governmental meetings, public events, and also trains community members on all areas of media production.
While she will miss working at BCTV, what Popelka is also looking forward to is having “freedom of time.”
Coming to America
Growing up in Czechoslovakia — which dissolved into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993 — Popelka entered the workforce at age 14. As an adult, she trained and worked as a teacher.
Once she arrived in the U.S., she held a variety of positions, such as pharmacy assistant, dental assistant, and purchasing manager. She liked learning new skills and meeting a variety of people. Working at BCTV was the longest job she’s had.
Her job at BCTV included running around, chasing people, helping producers, or carrying equipment for events such as the Leland & Gray Union Middle & High School graduation or Strolling of the Heifers.
Despite the satisfaction of a job well done when doing behind-the-scenes operations of such live events, “it’s hard work — it’s, like, physical work — and every time I’m like, ‘I’m too old for this,’” she later told The Commons. “It’s time for me to relax.”
Nearly two decades in any job is worth noting, but in media and it’s evolving technology, 18 years is a lifetime.
“Technology is changing every single year, and so we need to keep up with new equipment, new systems,” she said. Although the technical side was not directly part of her job, Popelka still needed to keep a finger on the pulse of that part of the organization.
The biggest technological change she remembers is the station’s shift from analog to digital in 2009.
Popelka said that when she would complain about needing to learn a new piece of technology, she and Executive Director Cor Trowbridge would joke about the learning curve. Trowbridge would reassure her that her family would end up thanking BCTV for keeping Popelka’s brain from aging, given all the new skills she constantly needed to master.
“I am not too technical, but I’m practical,” said Popelka, who, prior to arriving at BCTV, had never worked in media.
She moved to Vermont from Massachusetts in 2002 and started looking for work as a dental assistant. When she didn’t find any work in her field, she turned to the help wanted ads.
“I applied for anything, because I needed a job,” she said.
BCTV hired her as a part-time office manager after three interviews with the station.
“I was absolutely shocked because I had no experience in any video production or audio production,” she said. “But they were looking for an office manager, and I had bookkeeping background and customer service [experience], and I worked as a purchasing manager for nine years.”
Still needing benefits, Popelka continued her search for a full-time dental assistant job. By the time one such position came through many months later, she had fallen in love with her work at BCTV.
“I have to have common sense, I do need health insurance, I do need a full-time job to survive, so I would leave it if it was still a part-time job,” she recalled.
Popelka told the organization’s executive director at the time that she loved her job but needed it to be full-time. The organization’s board of directors ended up expanding the scope of the job to full-time, which made benefits available.
So she stayed. Later, as her role broadened and deepened, her job title changed from office manager to operations manager.
Popelka fell in love with her work at BCTV. Her day was not centered around paperwork: it also included camera work, working with producers, and attending events.
“It was different than just a desk job,” she said.
Many thanks for going above and beyond
During the BCTV annual meeting, Trowbridge said Popelka is the station’s longest-serving paid employee, though some volunteers and board members have had ties for approximately the same length of time.
She noted that Popelka entered the organization “at a turbulent time” as BCTV experienced rapid turnover of leadership and crediting her with keeping the organization together and the doors open for producers.
“She has been stuck with me since 2006,” Trowbridge joked.
In 2011, Popelka’s scheduling duties expanded with BCTV’s contract with Southern Vermont Cable, which expanded its municipal meeting broadcast coverage area from two towns to eight.
“For someone like Vlasta, who takes on literally everything she can do, it’s hard to quantify exactly what she did here,” said Trowbridge, noting that when Popelka would leave for vacation, her co-workers would find it difficult to pick up her duties because Popelka could keep most of the schedule in her head.
Trowbridge added that “you need somebody like Vlasta,” who, in addition to her administrative duties served as the face of the organization to the public and served as “chief receptionist and hospitality queen.”
Popelka would often make the extra effort to help staff and volunteers, doing things like meeting them downtown with spare batteries, Trowbridge said.
“Whatever it took,” she said.
As a former purchasing agent, Popelka would mind the bottom line for the organization — getting the best deals, eliminating sales tax charges for the tax-exempt nonprofit, and tracking invoices and payments to let BCTV put in place systems and procedures to charge for services.
“I hope you get what we’ve always joked about since we started working together — a very quiet week,” said Trowbridge to Popelka.
Trowbridge told Popelka that, at BCTV, her co-workers would keep living by the “staff motto you made so famous: ‘We are working, no matter what.’”
Members of the BCTV community past and present, friends from across the country, and even her son, Andy, logged in from his car to wish Popelka good luck and thanks.
In the meeting chat, one participant asked how many people BCTV planned to hire to do all of Popelka’s work.
“We’re only hiring one [person], we probably — if we had the budget — could stand to hire a couple more,” Board Chair Chris Lenois said. “Certainly, Vlasta has been a pretty valuable member of this organization for some time.”
Moved by the many messages and videos, Popelka said, “Please don’t make me cry, it’s very touching. It’s been a roller coaster of 18 years.”
After sharing how much she loved being a part of BCTV and how she has come to know so many people in Brattleboro, Popelka, who said she put her personal contact information in her final out-of-the-office email autoreply message, asked everyone to keep in contact.
Popelka lives in Dover but feels she knows Brattleboro better because of all the time she has spent in the town.
She admits that she never had childhood dreams of living in southern Vermont.
“It just happened,” said Popelka, who lived in Massachusetts until the winter of 2002. After a divorce, Popelka took charge of the family’s second home, near the Mount Snow ski area.
“In Massachusetts, I had a job but no place to live, but in Dover, I had a place to live,” she said. She said she plans to remain there.
Still, she has come to enjoy living in the area and the “easy commute” between home and work.
“If I have six cars in front of me, I begin to wonder what happened,” she said. “After driving in Boston traffic after nine years, it’s a piece of cake.”
Popelka has found a balance between rural and urban life. “When I miss the city, I go to Boston,” she said. “I really like Boston. It is my American birthplace.”
According to Popelka, when she emigrated to the states from Europe, Boston served as the family’s first home, even if only for a few months.
Popelka was 29 when she arrived in the states. At the time she didn’t speak English, but she describes herself as “happily married with two children, not knowing what we were doing.”
“It was crazy, it was hard, but you know, that’s life,” she said.
“I love America, I drove through all states twice — once when we moved to California and second when we moved back to Massachusetts,” she said. “So from sea to shining sea or whatever the song says.”
Popelka’s brother lives in Florida; her two older sisters live in the Czech Republic. So does their 91-year old mother.
Her older son, Andy, is married with children and works as a doctor in Massachusetts. The younger son, Milan, lives in New York City and works in production and film entertainment.
“They were 4 and 6 when we arrived in America, so they are total Americans,” she said.
As an aside, she said that her older son married a woman from the same town in the Czech Republic where the Popelka family had lived in prior to moving to the United States.
Popelka, who usually travels to the Czech Republic once a year, plans to spend more time there with her mother due to her advanced age — the main reason for leaving BCTV now.
With no work constraints, Popelka is looking forward to longer visits.
From coworkers to friends
BCTV has a nice mix of long-time and brand-new producers, said Popelka.
One of the long-time producers, Maria Dominguez, dropped by Popelka’s office during an interview for this story. The two women chatted and talked about getting together.
As the office door closed behind Dominguez, Popelka said that such members of the BCTV community have become like family.
Popelka laughed as she said that she is better behind the camera than in front.
“I just don’t feel that comfortable in front of the camera,” she said, though a recent interview on BCTV’s Here We Are, with its volunteer producer and host, Wendy O’Connell, might reasonably suggest otherwise.
Popelka said what she will miss most about BCTV are its people.
“It’s such a bittersweet feeling that I really want to retire because I want to travel and I want to spend time with mom, but I also want to be with people,” she said at the retirement celebration, clearly overwhelmed with emotion at the outpouring of good wishes and congratulations.
“You develop a bond with people so they are not just employees or co-workers,” she said. “They become friends and almost family.”