Sen. Patrick Leahy visited the Retreat Farm in Brattleboro in 2021 to announce $3 million of federal funding to create a food center at the historic site.
Randolph T. Holhut/Commons file photo
Sen. Patrick Leahy visited the Retreat Farm in Brattleboro in 2021 to announce $3 million of federal funding to create a food center at the historic site.

The lion in winter

After nearly a half century in the U.S. Senate, Patrick Leahy is enjoying his retirement years

Some people call him St. Patrick.

Former U.S. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, along with his wife, Marcelle, are beloved by many in Vermont for many reasons.

First, for their accessibility, and second, for their clear and obvious love of Vermont. Third, for being on the right side of most of the issues Vermonters care about. Fourth, for their wit, charm, warmth and grace. And fifth, for Sen. Leahy's record of ensuring that Vermont would get its slice of the federal-funding pie.

When Leahy went to Washington in 1975, he was Vermont's first-ever Democratic senator. He was the most junior in status but only the second-youngest member of the Senate - the youngest was a whippersnapper from Delaware named Joe Biden.

By the time he retired in 2023, Leahy was the longest-serving member of Congress to have served solely as a senator. He was also twice president pro tempore of the U.S. Senate - meaning he was two heartbeats away from being president of the United States - from 2012 to 2015 and again from 2021 to 2023.

While the 83-year-old Leahy enjoys his retirement, his former Senate colleague is running for a second term as president. That explains why Leahy was in Washington for President Biden's State of the Union speech on March 7, and maybe why Marcelle was invited by Jill Biden to have lunch at the White House with a few current and former Senate spouses while they were in town.

"Marcelle got the biggest hug from Jill Biden when she came in," Leahy said. "That was nice. I had a chance to chat a little bit with the president. 'Hey, do you remember that time in Vermont...?' We were laughing our heads off."

The Commons had a chance to talk to Leahy recently following several years of health challenges for both him and his wife of nearly 62 years, Marcelle.

In 2022, the family had planned a trip to Ireland following Leahy's announcement that he would be retiring.

"And literally hours before we made our way up the stairs to pack, I smashed my right hip and spent a month in the hospital," Leahy said. "And we never got to go."

Then the country of Vietnam was planning a special parliamentary honor for Leahy.

"I was supposed to go to Vietnam," he said. "They were meaning to honor me because of the work I've done over the years because of the Leahy Fund for War Victims, for those who have mostly been injured by U.S. weapons. Even though they have an airplane doctor on board and everything else, there was the possibility of a blood clot so I didn't go."

He's recovered from those health issues, and he says he's fine.

"I kind of go on long walks most days," he said. "I usually take a cane if it's rough terrain. But most of the time I just carry it in my hand. I love going to a grocery store just walking down Church Street and seeing people I haven't seen for years."

Also doing better is Marcelle, a registered nurse. Leahy said she has now finished with chemo. "We're really fortunate to have time," he said.

Bringing home the bacon

Leahy's many years of being chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee earned him his "St. Patrick" nickname. Leahy was not shy about getting federal money flowing back to Vermont.

"Thanks to the restoration of earmarks in the congressional appropriations process - and the outsize influence of Vermont's senior U.S. senator," VTDigger reported in September 2022, "Vermont is seeing disproportionately high federal funding per capita for projects throughout the state."

The $1.5 trillion federal appropriations omnibus bill passed by Congress that year was the first time in more than a decade that lawmakers were able to request funding for specific projects in their states, commonly known as earmarks.

"As chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Leahy has significant influence over federal spending and often secures outsize sums for his home state. The return of earmarks was no exception," VTDigger reported.

"According to an analysis conducted by CQ Roll Call sourced from data compiled by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, Vermont saw the second-highest per capita earmarked dollars from March's budget omnibus: $321 per person, totaling $207.2 million for the state. (Alaska topped the list at $339 per person.)"

It has been estimated that Leahy has shoveled billions of federal dollars into the state, and that may explain why so many things in Vermont have his name attached to them.

There's the Patrick Leahy Burlington International Airport. There's the Patrick and Marcelle Leahy Fund for Vermont, established at the Vermont Community Foundation with $500,000 from his remaining campaign funds.

Leahy diverted $30 million to support academic excellence at the University of Vermont, and an additional $50 million for other Vermont issues; the university named a building after him and established the Leahy Center for Rural Partnerships.

UVM isn't the only center of higher education to benefit from Leahy's generosity.

"As one of his last acts as a U.S. Senator, Leahy secured a $6.5 million appropriation through the 2023 Omnibus Appropriation Bill for St. Michael's - one of the largest grants in the College's history," wrote Vermont Business Magazine.

Leahy is a graduate of St. Michael's College, which now has the Patrick '61 and Marcelle Leahy Center for the Environment. Champlain College has the Leahy Center for Digital Forensics & Cybersecurity. The Senator Patrick Leahy School of Cybersecurity and Advanced Computing is at Norwich University. There's a street off the Church Street Marketplace in Burlington called Leahy Way. UVM's new research ship, the R/V Marcelle Melosira, is named after Marcelle.

You get the idea.

The Senator says he gets teased about having his name on so many buildings, but "there are an awful lot of buildings that don't have my name on it," he told WCAX. "What I like are the projects that employ and keep people here in Vermont."

Senator Shutterbug

As most everyone knows, Leahy has had a lifelong passion for photography. He's taken a camera everywhere he's been in his extraordinary life, and galleries in Vermont and Washington, D.C. have exhibited his photographs, which feature everyone from Leonid Brezhnev to Yo Yo Ma and Nelson Mandela.

Leahy explained how the photography thing began.

"Sen. Howard Baker, one of the key Republicans, was going down to a meeting with President Ford and he said, 'Why don't you come along with me?' And I said, 'I'm too new.' But Baker said, 'Come along, you'll get a kick out of it.' So I came. The president was very pleasant. Now, Sen. Baker is an avid photographer. He had a small pocket camera - it was all film at that time.

"I said, 'I love photography. Maybe I should be a Republican so I can bring a camera.' He laughed and said, 'Bring a camera. You're a senator. Just don't use flash.'

"And that was that. I got nice private pictures of every president. Presidents would say, 'Patrick, got your camera with you? Take a picture of this.'

"And I'd say, 'OK,'" Leahy concluded.

"You know, I was born blind in one eye," he observed. "But with photography, you only need one eye."

Leahys will visit SIT for anniversary

On April 5, the School for International Training (SIT) will hold a half-day 60th anniversary event on the Brattleboro campus featuring the Leahys as special guests.

Before leaving the U.S. Senate, Leahy submitted a statement recognizing the global impact that World Learning, SIT, and the Experiment in International Living have had over nine decades.

In the statement, Leahy said, "As the first stop in Vermont for newcomers from Afghanistan, Ukraine, and elsewhere, World Learning and SIT bring together staff, faculty, alumni and neighbors to offer language, cultural orientation, and friendship in a program that is a national model for effective refugee integration."

Leahy said he is looking forward to coming down to Brattleboro.

"I'll be down your way in spring," he said. "The nice thing about doing things like that in Vermont is that you don't have to get on an airplane."

This News item by Joyce Marcel was written for The Commons.

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