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Friends, colleagues remember ‘the conscience of the Senate’

Robert T. Gannett, 94, leaves legacy in politics, public service, and civic engagement

BRATTLEBORO—There are few figures in the history of Brattleboro over the past seven decades who match the list of accomplishments of former state Sen. Robert T. Gannett.

“He never stopped having an interest in helping others,” said retired Brattleboro attorney Chuck Cummings. “He was a good friend to a lot of people, and a special friend to me.”

The longtime resident of Pleasant Valley Road died on Sunday at the age of 94, exactly one month shy of his 95th birthday. He leaves a considerable legacy of public service and civic engagement on behalf of his adopted hometown.

Gannett was born in Boston on Sept. 26, 1917. He graduated from Milton Academy, and then got his undergraduate (1939) and law degrees (1942) from Harvard University.

In August 1941, a year before his graduation from law school, he married Sarah Alden “Aldie” Derby, a granddaughter of President Theodore Roosevelt.

During World War II, he served in the Army from 1942 to 1946 as a major in a field artillery unit.

The Gannetts came to Brattleboro in 1946. He became a member of the Vermont bar the following year, and embarked on a 60-year legal career.

In the early days, he was a law partner with James L. Oakes, who later served as Vermont’s Attorney General and as a U.S. District Court judge.

A longtime Republican, Gannett’s political career began in 1952, when he attended his first Republican National Convention as a delegate for Dwight D. Eisenhower. The experience inspired him to run for office.

He was elected to the Vermont House of Representatives, serving between 1953 and 1959 and sitting on the Judiciary and Appropriations committees.

A good friend

It was during that time that Cummings arrived in Brattleboro. When he and his wife Ann moved into the area in 1956, Gannett was one of the members of the local legal fraternity who helped get him started.

“He provided a good role model to follow in my day-to-day living,” Cummings said. “Over the years, there were a lot of things that I did because Bob wanted me to do them. I’ll always be indebted to Bob and Aldie for being such ardent supporters of me and Ann over the years.”

Gannett took time off from the Legislature to tend to his local legal practice, but he eventually returned to the Statehouse and served 10 terms in the Vermont Senate between 1973 and 1993.

There, he sat on the Finance, General and Military Affairs, Institutions, and Transportation committees.

“They called him ‘The Silver Fox,’ because he had so much skill in getting bills passed,” said WTSA Radio News Director Tim Johnson, who covered Gannett for most of his Senate career. “He was thoughtful, and respectful of other people’s views, but he was forthright about his own.”

One of Gannett’s big legislative accomplishments was creating the representative town meeting form of government in Brattleboro in 1959. He served as a Town Meeting Representative from the town’s first meeting until last year, when he stepped down.

“He wanted to come to every Town Meeting,” said Cummings. “It was important to him to be there and participate.”

Gannett’s love for Town Meeting shaped his philosophy of government.

“I have often said that if we in Montpelier, in our Statehouse, cannot make the democratic process work, nobody can,” Gannett said in an oral history done with the Vermont Folklife Center a few years ago.

“And I think we do,” he continued. “And I think one of the main reasons why we do is because the town meeting process back home, we carry forward and apply it in the Statehouse, where people have an opportunity to express their opinion.”

Looking back on his career at the Statehouse, Gannett said that “the process, [in] which I was a piece, was a positive one, a fair one. [...] Ours is the way it should be.”

Because of the emphasis on local government and public participation, Gannett said that “the Statehouse is not that faraway capital that is out of touch or out of reach.”

Cummings said that while Gannett was a proud Republican, “he was also a man who sought out the best ideas regardless of party. He was the go-to guy when you wanted to be heard and have an advocate.”

“Even up to this year’s session, members of the Legislature sought out Bob’s advice, because he was such a good sounding board and had good common sense that people looked up to,” Cummings added.

“He set the tone for the chamber,” said state Sen. Vincent Illuzzi, R-Essex-Orleans, who served with Gannett between 1981 and 1993. “The Senate is a different place now than it was when Bob served, and I miss that.”

“Bob was the conscience of the Senate,” said state Sen. William Doyle, R-Washington, a member of that chamber since 1969.

“He never went in for heavy blows or floor debate,” Doyle said. “If he had a problem with a bill, he’d much rather speak privately with the sponsor, and suggest ways to improve it.”

“He did his work without press releases and without taking credit,” Doyle added. “He preferred to give others the credit when something was accomplished.”

Behind the scenes

Gannett also spent much time in the nonprofit sector. He was a corporator and past president of Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, a former trustee of the Brattleboro Retreat, former board member of the United Way of Windham County, and a former director of the Vermont Community Foundation.

He also served as director of National Life Insurance Co. and as a trustee for the American College of Probate Counsel. He was also a founding member of the Brattleboro Rotary Club in 1950.

His wife, Aldie, who died in 1999 at the age of 78, helped establish the Long Trail and hiked its entire length between 1970 and 1976. She led the Green Mountain Club’s efforts to acquire title or permanent easements for the length of the trail, and Gannett provided much help for those efforts when he was in the Senate.

“It may sound trite, but Bob always said that his proudest accomplishment was marrying Aldie, and his three children,” said Cummings.

Gannett’s last public appearance came on March 30, when he was honored by Illuzzi and Doyle with a Senate resolution during a special hearing of the Economic Development committee in Brattleboro.

“The most satisfying years for me were the years in the Statehouse,” Gannett said that day. “I miss it, and I would love to meet with you all up in Montpelier.”

“I hoped we would see him again,” said Doyle. “It’s still sad to think that was the last time.”

Cummings remembers when his friends gathered in town for a “roast” of Gannett.

“One of his friends, Jack Burgess, said that ‘roasting Bob Gannett is like trying to roast Mother Teresa.’ Bob was that kind of guy. He’ll be missed by the town in ways that many of the people in town don’t realize yet. He was such a great advocate for Brattleboro.”

Cummings said that the family is still working on funeral arrangements.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #167 (Wednesday, August 29, 2012).

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