From State Ward to the Statehouse: Meet Sen. Dick Sears

| June 18, 2014
Sears leaves a DCF public meeting in Winooski - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Sears leaves a DCF public meeting in Winooski

Route 2 runs directly from Montpelier to downtown St. Johnsbury, requiring little in the way of navigation as it passes through small towns and farms. Nonetheless, state Sen. Dick Sears fumbles with a GPS for several minutes before slipping his Ford Fusion into drive and starting the trip on a steamy June morning.

Sears, who lives two hours away in North Bennington, played golf in a charity tournament in Montpelier the day before, spent the night at the Capitol Plaza Hotel and squeezed in a breakfast meeting with three drug company representatives eager to brief the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee on their latest plans to treat opiate addicts.

Vermont Senator Dick Sears - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Vermont Senator Dick Sears

But his primary task on this day is to attend three public hearings of a special legislative committee he cochairs that is considering reforms to the Department for Children and Families, an agency under fire following the recent murders of two young children.

At forums across Vermont, Sears and seven other lawmakers on the Committee on Child Protection have listened as dozens of people shared stories of broken families and debated whether the state should steer more toward reuniting children with troubled parents or toward placing more children in protective care.

Many know that Sears, 71, brings relevant professional experience to the committee: He spent 30 years working with at-risk teenagers running an intensive residential program in Bennington.

But only a few in the Statehouse and the public are familiar with Sears' personal history, which has been plagued by some of the very problems his committee is struggling to solve.

Sears was born inside a Massachusetts prison to a mother he never knew. He spent the first nine months of his life in three foster homes before a couple adopted and raised him as their only child.

He empathizes, he says, with kids like him. "I'm lucky. I'm extremely lucky. Who knows what would have happened to me if the Sears didn't take me?"

He later served as a foster parent to five teenagers.

In the years he spent crafting laws governing adoptions, prisons, drug treatment and sex offenses, Sears spent his free time visiting town clerks' offices and probate courts in a frustrating search for answers to some fundamental questions.

Who was his mother? Where was his family?

On the Road

Sears has ESPN radio on low when a call comes in en route to St. Johnsbury.

"Hey, bud," Sears says.

"Hey, bud," answers John Murphy, formerly one of the troubled kids at 204 Depot Street, the youth residential center to which Sears dedicated himself for more than 30 years. Sears took a liking to Murphy, and when the boy turned 18 and graduated from the program, he opted to stay in Bennington to be closer to his mentor.

The two now consider each other father and son. They vacation and go to ball games together. During the legislative session, they grab dinner once a week near Murphy's home in Barre. When Murphy landed a job coaching football at Montpelier High School, Sears volunteered as an assistant coach, often making the four-hour round-trip for practice. Murphy and his two kids all have rooms in the home Sears shares with his second wife, Beverly.

From left: Sears with Irene Machemer, Sears' wife, Beverly, and Irene's husband, William - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • MATTHEW THORSEN
  • From left: Sears with Irene Machemer, Sears' wife, Beverly, and Irene's husband, William

"If there's anything else that a father should do, I don't know what it is," Murphy, 31, explains later. "I think he always wanted kids and never had any, and me not having a dad ... He wanted to help me. And I helped him. Getting to be a grandfather — I gave him that. He's everything to me."

Murphy knows Sears' committee is holding three hearings on this particular day — the last of which will be in Montpelier. Murphy, who runs an ice rink there, hopes to swing by to say hello.

"Hope no one gives you too much grief," he tells Sears.

"If they do, I'll vent to you," Sears said. "Love you."

The affectionate words are delivered in Sears' signature deep, gravely voice, which makes an impression even if his words are sometimes muddled.

In truth, the St. Johnsbury crowd turns out to be much like those at the other eight hearings the committee held — fairly tame.

Surprisingly few mention 2-year-old Dezirae Sheldon of Poultney, who died on February 21, days after DCF returned her home after she had previously suffered broken legs and other injuries. Her stepfather faces second-degree murder charges.

Two months later, 15-month old Peighton Geraw of Winooski was found dead an hour after a DCF investigator visited his home to investigate suspected abuse and saw bruises on his neck. Prosecutors have charged Peighton's mother with second-degree murder.

Investigations have been launched into both the deaths and DCF's handling of the cases. A state police inquiry into Dezirae's death, released last week by the Attorney General's Office, found that while no DCF workers should be charged criminally, poor communication between various public agencies and lack of a complete picture marred the investigation into her broken legs.

If there's any chance for reform, it is likely to come from Sears' bipartisan committee, composed of nine senators and representatives armed with subpoena power. After taking testimony all summer, including from officials and experts, the group hopes to draft a bill in time for the next legislative session.

Sears said he fears that DCF is perhaps placing too much emphasis on keeping families intact and should be more aggressive about getting children into safer environments. "We have to be extremely careful when we're placing kids back into those situations," he said.

Meanwhile, Sears has been shuffling into hearings around the state. Broad and thick, he played defensive tackle in high school because his coach thought he was too slow to be a linebacker. The passage of decades has had the predictable effect — particularly on his hairline and waistline. He often wears black sneakers, or well-worn loafers, with his suit and tie.

Sears has a habit of introducing sentimental thoughts with "It's kind of corny, but," and has earned a reputation for moments of candor.

One example: "I don't like being told I'm 'Just one of those politicians, blah-blah-blah,'" Sears says.

That's exactly what happens later that day during the committee hearing in Morrisville, when an older man uses his allotted three minutes to rage against lawmakers.

"I have a feeling this is nothing but a touchy-feely thing to make Shumlin look good," the man tells lawmakers. "It's time you people wake up. I'm so fed up with our government I could scream. I hope you people can sleep at night, because you're responsible for the deaths of two children."

"I'd like to meet that guy in a dark alley," Sears says as he lowers himself into his car after the meeting. "Probably shouldn't have said that."

'Incredibly Intense Work'

Sears grew up with his adoptive family in Ashland, Mass. His father, Richard Sears Jr., worked as a laborer in an electric clock factory for which the town was once known; his mother, Charlotte, stayed at home. Both have long since passed away.

Sears describes it as a loving home. He was still quite young when his parents told him he'd been adopted. They shared little else about his family history. He is still unsure of how much they knew.

Sears was the first member of the family to go to college when he enrolled at the University of Vermont. As a freshman, he made the football team and studied political science.

But then he lost his way: Sears flunked out after his sophomore year — "drinking and partying," he explains — and was forced to retreat to Massachusetts. He eventually returned to Burlington, took night classes and graduated from UVM in 1969 with very little idea of what he would do next. Like so many flatlanders, he decided to make Vermont his home.

An ad for the Vermont Department of Corrections led Sears to a job counseling young offenders in St. Albans — and later, Burlington. But Sears eventually left to open up a nonprofit residential center for troubled teenagers in Bennington. 204 Depot Street offered housing, counseling and support to young criminals and kids who had fallen out with their parents or had nowhere else to go. Most would live at the center for a year or two before moving on.

Fights were common. Breakdowns frequent. Some residents went on to have families and careers. Some went on to become murderers.

"It was incredibly intense work," said Scott Johnson, who ran a similar home and has known Sears for decades. "When you run a group home for adolescents, you're dealing with kids who have fallen out of favor [with] their family and kin supports, and there's a lot of trauma in that and in their backgrounds. The tolerance level, and empathy level and the sophistication of the interaction was very important. In many cases, the kids were bigger than you. It was intimidating. You have to put up with a lot. You had to have a certain type of temperament, because there were days when it would have been easy to throw in the towel and say, 'What am I doing with my life?'"

For years, Sears worked the noon-9 p.m. shift at 204 Depot. He also led the kids on three-week camping trips in Canada before rising to a more administrative role.

"Sometimes I can come off a little gruff. I don't mean to be," Sears said. "It's a part of the firmness. A lot of times, what kids are looking for is structure and consistency." At the DCF hearings, "That's what we're hearing, if you listen to what the parents and grandparents are talking about," Sears said. "It's a lack of structure, and that's what's frustrating them. I can remember them sitting on a Sunday afternoon, waiting for mom to show up, and mom never does. They want to act tough, but they're like everyone else. There's nothing worse than watching that."

Sears' first lessons in politics came from building support for 204 Depot, located in a downtown area that wasn't necessarily thrilled about its new neighbor.

It helped that some of the 204 Depot kids had lent a hand to put out a fire at a neighboring home. So too did Sears' willingness to have an occasional beer with the selectman who happened to own a bar across the street.

"When you run a place like 204 Depot Street in downtown Bennington, on the main drag, you have to know your community, your politicians, your selectboard," Johnson said. "You have to be good at building relationships. New police chief comes in, the next day you're there saying, 'Hello, let me tell you about my program.' Dick learned to be a politician because he wanted it to be accepted by the community."

Sears eventually won a seat on the selectboard — after losing in his first attempt — and stayed on until 1993, the year he took his place in the Vermont Senate.

In the late 1990s, Sears threw his weight behind a bill that dramatically bolstered the rights of adopted residents. Adoption records had been sealed, even to the adoptee, unless a biological parent expressly gave permission to have his or her identity revealed. Sears led the charge to change that. Now, records are provided unless parents expressly forbid their names from being released.

Given his background, it was probably inevitable that Sears would be assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which spends much of its time on issues involving police, the court system and prisons.

Sears — who has been chair of the committee since 1996 — has never been in serious jeopardy of losing his seat. In fact, the only time he wasn't the top vote-getter in his county was after casting a "yes" vote during the contentious battle to legalize civil unions in 2000.

Not surprisingly, he's been at the fore of most of Vermont's major law-enforcement initiatives in recent years.

Sears led the charge to reform Vermont's sex-offender laws so they'd include tougher sentences and more funding for investigative teams after repeat sex offender Michael Jacques murdered his 14-year-old niece in 2008. Jacques was on probation at the time of the crime.

This past session, after Gov. Peter Shumlin warned of the "rising tide of opiate addiction," Sears helped push a package of reforms through the Senate designed to steer addicts out of the court system and into treatment.

"He has dedicated his life to trying to help the kid he could have been," said Shumlin, who entered the Senate with Sears in 1992 and is one of his oldest friends. "He's someone who had a real difficult start to his life, and it's made him who he is. He spent his life trying to create opportunity for people who were born with a mountain full of nothing."

As chairman, Sears has a lot to do with which bills get a hearing, not to mention a vote. From years in the Statehouse, he has a big stack of chits to call in. And he recently landed a spot on the Senate Appropriations Committee, giving him another lever to pull.

In person, Sears can come across as a bit bumbling, like an endearing, crusty grandfather. But he uses that first impression to his advantage: Recognizing he didn't have the necessary polish, patience or broad ambition for higher office, Sears has perfected his inside game. Cagey and convincing, he has a reputation for grasping the most minute policy details, and for bulldog negotiating tactics.

"Dick Sears has the best dumb act of anyone I've ever known," Shumlin said. "If he's trying to get information out of you, and he's choosing to do it by appearing to be slower than you, watch out."

Search for Roots

As Sears matured, he wondered about medical history — he had a cancerous tumor taken off his lung in 2000 — and became more desperate to learn about his origins.

"The older I got, the more important it became to me," Sears said.

Finally, in 2006, through "a friend of a friend of a friend who knows somebody," Sears managed to pry a short letter out of the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families.

The agency told him the name of his mother, Laura Foster, and noted she had died of lung cancer in 1995.

They also told Sears his birth name, Stephen Story, which he now keeps in his cellphone, in case he forgets. (He tried to think of himself as a "Steve," for a few days, but it didn't take.)

And they told him that, living just a couple of hours from his home, he had a relative: his sister.

The agency enclosed a sample letter he could send her, if he wanted to reach out.

Sears thought about it for a day or two, then pulled out his clunky old laptop — he worried she wouldn't be able to decipher his handwriting — glanced at the sample letter one more time, and tried to summon the words.

"My name is Richard Sears and I am 63 years old and live in Bennington Vermont with my wife," he tapped on the keyboard. "You don't know me, but as you read this letter, you will realize why I am writing to you, and the special connection we share.

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"...Please understand that I do not wish to upset you, or intrude on your life in any way. I would love to be in touch with you, either through letters, e-mail, phone, or face-to-face, whatever you feel comfortable with."

Irene Machemer had grown up believing she was an only child — her father, who is not Sears' father, left when she was 2 years old. She and her husband became professors at a community college. They had three children — and grandchildren.

Her mother, who is also Sears' mother, had never mentioned having another child. So Machemer was stunned when the State of Massachusetts notified her that a brother might be looking for her.

She remembers asking herself: Could it be true? Was it really worth finding out?

Her sons urged Machemer to reply to Sears — if they had an uncle, they wanted to meet him.

She googled Sears and read about his public life. She figured reaching out was brave on his part; he knew little about her.

A few weeks after Sears mailed the letter, he picked up the phone and heard a woman say: "You wrote me a letter."

That conversation was awkward and lasted for about a half hour. They spoke of their own families, of what they knew of Massachusetts, of their jobs.

They had grown up about 20 minutes apart, and Machemer and her family often visited a huge mall not too far from Sears' home in Ashland. Neither was ready to discuss the obvious next step, though they agreed to speak again soon.

Eventually, in the summer of 2006, Sears and Machemer agreed to meet at a restaurant off Interstate 91, not far from the Yankee Candle tourist trap.

Sears was nervous about what to wear, finally settling on casual pants and a flowery shirt. He was embarrassed when he saw his sister wearing a dress, and her husband Robert in a collared shirt and tie.

Machemer took stock of her brother: a big guy, but gentle, and a little shy, especially for a politician. And with a good sense of humor.

That first meeting led to more. Sears peppered his sister with questions about their mother, but before long, the talk turned to vacations, grandkids, health and jobs.

"I was an only child until I was 60 years old," Sears said. "Thank God she is still alive ... Having a sister who cares about you, that's nice."

Brother and sister see each other three or four times a year. The Machemers have come to the Statehouse for a few of Sears' swearing-in ceremonies, and Sears has introduced them to governors and senators.

Now they're like so many families who live in different places — they don't get together as much as they'd like. Life gets in the way. "I always think I've got to see him more often," Machemer says. Machemer says she'll think at 2 a.m. that she should call Sears the next day, but the day gets away from her. And Sears, of course, always has a packed schedule. He's traveling the state, listening to people from fractured families trying to make their lawmakers understand the myriad challenges in their lives.

The original print version of this article was headlined "From State Ward to the Statehouse"

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I played a role in getting Dick to Bennington. We always have been friends and I am proud to say that. I have many fond memories of our 204 experiences. There are a lot of adults out there who were helped by Dick when they were kids. Dick is a big guy with a big heart.

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Posted by Robert Poblocki on 06/28/2014 at 12:25 PM
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