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Fanfare for a modest man

At his memorial, friends and family remember Bob Gannett, his humility, and his character

BRATTLEBORO—Friends and colleagues gathered at Centre Congregational Church on Saturday to pay tribute to the life of former state Sen. Robert Gannett, who died on Aug. 26 at the age of 94.

His sons, Bill and Bob Jr.; his 91-year-old sister, Dorothy Gannett West; and former House Speaker Stephan Morse offered remembrances of a man who loved his family, his community, and the honor of representing Brattleboro in the Vermont Legislature.

“While, for the rest of you, you know him as a friend, a business partner, a teammate, or a combination of all these things, as his only sister, he gave me a special bond of love and support throughout my life,” said West. “I have admired and loved him all my life, and I am so thankful we had 91 years together.”

Gannett grew up in Boston and attended Harvard University as an undergraduate and as a law student. Bill Gannett said it was serendipity that brought his parents together.

His mother, Sarah Alden “Aldie” Derby, had met Bob Gannett at Harvard and they had known each other casually, but it wasn’t until she attended a Harvard/Columbia baseball game in Cambridge and saw who the center fielder was for the Crimson that she took notice.

“My dad had a terrific game,” Bill said. “He patrolled center field and hit two doubles, and my mother thought this was a positive thing.”

They started seeing each other more, and spent some time at Sarah’s parents’ small farm in Windsor County. That was where the seeds of a lifelong love affair with each other, and Vermont, began.

They were wed in August 1941, and the Gannetts returned to Cambridge for what was Bob’s final year at Harvard Law School. Then came Pearl Harbor, and the United States’ entry into World War II.

”Dad enlisted two months later, Harvard Law School conferred its diploma by mail, and Mom and Dad spent the next two years at various Army training bases throughout the South,” Bill said. “When Dad went to Europe, Mom resumed her nursing career, and in her typical fashion, looking ahead to a lifetime with Dad, learned how to play golf.”

Bob Gannett served as an officer in a field artillery unit in the European Theater, rising to the rank of major. But when he returned home from the war and he was reunited with his family, the Gannetts decided to take a different path.

“Like so many members of their generation, the war was a seminal event,” Bill said. “My father came in contact with a broader range of people and ideas than perhaps he had up until that time. After the war, both he and my mother were reluctant to move back into what, for them, would have been a traditional role in life in New York or Boston.”

After much discussion, they remembered how much they enjoyed being in Vermont before the war, and resolved to move there. They considered Rutland, Burlington, and Brattleboro, and eventually settled on Brattleboro or, more specifically, Putney, as their first home in 1946.

“It was a wonderful decision for everyone,” Bill said. “Both of them found opportunities in Vermont, and could expand upon interests from the past.”

Bob Gannett’s longtime involvement with Brattleboro Memorial Hospital and the Brattleboro Retreat came from his family’s involvement in medicine, while Aldie Gannett’s work in expanding and preserving the Long Trail was a way of carrying on the legacy of conservation begun by her grandfather, President Theodore Roosevelt.

“They brought to these, and other projects, the ability to listen to others and to draw out the best that they had to offer,” said Bill. “They knew when to speak, and when not to.”

That ability to listen and the measured use of his words was recalled by Morse.

“There was not a selfish, self-serving bone in his body,” Morse said. “Everything he did was for others. He was a quiet, gentle presence in Brattleboro, providing stability for whatever he was involved in.”

Quietly charitable

Morse said the Gannetts gave generously of their time and money to local causes, and did it quietly and with little fanfare.

“I learned early on that the name ‘Anonymous’ was synonymous with the name ‘Gannett,’” he said. “It was very difficult to get his name attached to a building at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital. It was not an easy decision for Bob.”

His reluctance to be recognized publicly for his work, Morse said, was typified by his reaction to an effort to have the town name the park created at the corner of Main and High streets in his honor. He remembers that the effort had gained momentum but, knowing Gannett, he thought it might be smart to ask him first.

“It was not easy, but I made the phone call, and I remember his words clearly to this day,” Morse said. “He said, ‘If you value our friendship, you will stop the efforts now.’ And he promptly hung up.”

Morse said Gannett’s reputation at the Statehouse was as strong as his reputation in Brattleboro, and noted how many past and present members of the Legislature were at Saturday’s service.

“There’s not a former legislator that was more respected than Bob Gannett,” Morse said. “Usually legislators are forgotten once they leave Montpelier. Not Bob Gannett. He was revered and remembered by many who serve there today.”

During his tenure in the House, from 1953 to 1961, Morse said Gannett could have been elected Speaker, but chose not to run for a leadership position — a pattern he repeated when he was in the Senate from 1973 to 1993 — because ”he was unwilling to trade for votes like most Speakers do. His ethical standard would not allow him to do that.”

As a committee chair in both the House and the Senate, Morse said Gannett had the reputation of “being completely trusted by all the parties in Montpelier.”

At the same time, as Bob Gannett Jr. pointed out, his father’s “belief in others, and involvement with others, did not require him to surrender his competitive spirit and the desire to beat others. Just ask his golfing partners and opponents who are here today.”

Bob Jr. remembered how some of the dinner-table discussions could get heated during the days of tumult that were the late 1960s and early 1970s. There were times, he said, “that he could have used Brattleboro’s Town Meeting Moderator at many of those dinner discussions. As much as Dad believed in process, it wasn’t always evident in those discussions.”

The elder Gannett was a proud Republican, and could be partisan when he needed to be, but Bob Jr. remembers that his father’s strength was that he knew that he “was not representing some of the people in Vermont, but all the people in Vermont. When crucial votes came, he could negotiate effectively and thoughtfully. I like to think the legacy he left in his political life exemplified that.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #169 (Wednesday, September 12, 2012).

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