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Remembering Milton's Fred Fayette Jr.: 'He Knew Just What You Needed'

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Published December 27, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.


Fred Fayette Jr. with the University of Vermont women's Nordic ski team - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Fred Fayette Jr. with the University of Vermont women's Nordic ski team

This "Life Stories" profile is part of a collection of articles remembering Vermonters who died in 2023.


In spring 2015, Stella Holt, then a competitive skier and graduating student athlete, made a 13-minute documentary film that chronicles the life of Fred Fayette Jr., a longtime assistant Nordic ski coach at the University of Vermont. In one scene, Fred stands along a racecourse calling out times and words of encouragement to the skiers as they speed by.

To those who knew Fred from his four decades of volunteering with the UVM athletics department, it was no surprise that he inspired a student athlete to tell his story in her senior project.

What's remarkable is that Holt didn't ski for UVM but for rival Middlebury College. As UVM director of athletics Jeff Schulman explained, the film is a testament to the deep affection that scores of student athletes and fellow coaches felt for Fred.

"I've been working in college athletics for 30-plus years, and I've never met anyone like Fred Fayette," said Schulman, who was himself a UVM student athlete in the 1980s when he first met Fred. "The impact he had on generations of skiers can never be overstated. He was a beloved figure in collegiate skiing."

And beyond. Fred, who died in April, was many things to many people: an accomplished mariner who charted the depths of Lake Champlain and helped discover and preserve many of its historic sunken wrecks; a mechanical wizard with MacGyver-like problem-solving skills who adopted cutting-edge technologies years before most people ever heard of them; an adored husband and family man who led the restoration of Juniper Island, which his family owns; and a selfless individual who always had a smile on his face and made strangers feel welcome.

"He infiltrated everyone's life in such a gentle way," said Fred's older sister Kathy Baumann. "He knew just what you needed. If ever there was a problem — with anything — he was the one we all turned to."

Fred Fayette Jr. was born in Burlington on May 7, 1942, the third child of Ellen and Frederick Fayette Sr. Fred's father was a lawyer and longtime Democratic state lawmaker who ran, unsuccessfully, for the U.S. Senate in 1958 and 1964. Fred's mother died of a brain tumor when he was only 7.

The eldest son of 11 siblings, Fred grew up in South Burlington, where he developed an early passion for boating on Lake Champlain. In 1956, his father purchased Juniper Island from the U.S. government for $7,000. The 13-acre isle, three miles west of the Burlington waterfront, was home to Lake Champlain's first lighthouse until it burned down in 1963. Years later, Fred, Kathy and their siblings rebuilt the lighthouse keeper's residence using the original bricks.

In 1961, Fred enlisted in the military and was sent to the U.S. Naval Training Station in Great Lakes, Ill. With a keen interest in aviation, he enrolled in every course available to new recruits and was eventually assigned to an elite air reconnaissance squadron. There, Fred learned nautical and electronics skills that later proved essential to his career as a ship's captain and aquatic researcher.

After leaving the military, Fred attended UVM, where he ran track and cross-country. A natural athlete, he was recruited by the Nordic and Alpine ski teams, though at the time Fred didn't even know how to ski.

A decade after graduating, Fred was still skiing and also training younger athletes; in all, he helped coach 21 individual national champions and five national championship teams.

Schulman pointed out that, for decades, Fred took pride in the fact that he wouldn't accept a paycheck for his coaching — he did it out of sheer love of the work. It wasn't until UVM's risk management department decided that only paid employees could drive the team vans that the athletics director "broke the bad news" to Fred that he had to get paid. "He said, 'Jeff, how can you do this to me?'" Schulman recalled with a laugh.

Fred with his wife, Susan Walter - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Fred with his wife, Susan Walter

In 1979, while visiting the Craftsbury Outdoor Center, where many of his athletes trained, Fred met the love of his life, Susan Walter, who at the time worked in the kitchen. Because Susan was very busy — and Fred was too shy to ask her out — he missed his initial opportunity to get to know her. Nevertheless, Fred kept returning to Craftsbury hoping to find Susan.

It took 15 years, but on January 4, 1994, their paths finally crossed again.

"Suddenly, I see this beautiful face coming up these stairs," Fred recounts in Holt's film. "[Susan] stopped and looked at me. I looked at her, and she remembered me ... It was this great joy in my heart that, suddenly, here she is."

"The first thing he said to me was, 'Are you married?'" Susan remembered. "I wasn't, and that was the beginning." The couple married in 2002.

Susan said she was always impressed by Fred's ability to stay calm — an invaluable trait when you're coaching elite skiers. As Fred explains in the film, his favorite part of coaching was ensuring that the competitors were having a good time, "and if they're not, trying to see if there's something I can say or do to make them a little happier."

"He'd always say, 'Life is a series of moments, and every moment is wonderful,'" Susan added. To Fred, "Everything was possible, and everything was positive."

Fred's boundless enthusiasm extended to his life's other great love: Lake Champlain. From 1972 to 1987, Fred and his brother Dave owned and operated Colchester's Marble Island Resort on Malletts Bay, which had a marina, tennis courts, a golf course, a hotel and a banquet hall.

"People came for years just because they loved Fred and Dave so much," Susan said. "It was like one big family."

It was through the resort that Fred first met Art Cohn, cofounder and now director emeritus of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum. In the 1980s, Fred needed help moving a 100-foot barge that served as a breakwater for the resort's marina. Because Cohn was an experienced diver, Fred enlisted his help.

Fred was known by many as an accomplished mariner. - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Fred was known by many as an accomplished mariner.

The two soon became regular work colleagues and best friends. Cohn credits Fred and their third partner, Peter Barranco, a local navigator and historian who also died this year, with completing the first-ever comprehensive survey of Lake Champlain's bottom.

During the 10-year project, Fred piloted his 40-foot research vessel, Neptune, more than 6,300 miles, identifying and cataloging the lake's 300-plus shipwrecks. They include Benedict Arnold's Revolutionary War gunboat Spitfire, which Cohn called one of the most significant shipwreck discoveries in modern times.

Cohn, who considers Fred a brother, described him as a master mariner whose mechanical and problem-solving abilities were second to none. When the new Champlain Bridge was being erected between Vermont and Crown Point, N.Y., it was Fred who plotted the route of the barges that hauled the prefabricated archway up the lake and into position.

"If you were going to be out on the broad lake and the wind was blowing and you had six-footers out there, which is terrifying, you wanted Freddy at the helm," Cohn said. "He just had a skill set and a personality that inspired confidence."

Indeed, Fred was an early adopter of such technologies as GPS, cellphones, laptops and the internet.

"Freddy was out doing deepwater research on Lake Champlain before anyone even knew what that was," Cohn added. "Who builds, then sends down a camera, into 300 feet of water in the 1970s? That just wasn't done."

Despite his love of intricate devices and complex challenges, Fred had simple tastes. According to Susan, his favorite meal was pasta and tomato sauce, and his favorite restaurant was any gas station where he could find a giant cookie and freshly brewed coffee.

Even in such quick-stop eateries, Fred could forge enduring friendships. That's where Jen Mathews, now a spiritual life coach living in Bristol, met Fred. In 1993 she was working behind the counter at a Burlington coffee shop — now the site of Zabby & Elf's Stone Soup — where Fred was a regular customer.

"He was always so smiley and friendly and funny," Mathews recalled. "Even though we had very short moments in between customers ... he would always ask what was going on in my life and would genuinely want to know."

Despite their three-decade age difference, the two became fast friends. Fred gave Mathews her first pair of cross-country skis, and in the warmer months he took her out on Lake Champlain and showed her Juniper Island.

"Fred was someone who was engaged in life so fully," Mathews added. "He was one of the most enthusiastic people I have ever met."

Though Fred didn't have children of his own, his extended family all looked up to him. Fred's brother-in-law Walter Baumann recalled the time when Fred's then-6-year-old niece wrote a story about him, in which she referred to her uncle as "our leader."

"After that, everyone called him 'The Leader,'" Walt said. Though Fred was slightly embarrassed by it, the name stuck.

Even into his eighties, Fred never lost his independence or mental sharpness. He remained active until the final weeks of his life.

"Fred was never going to die," Susan said about her late husband's optimistic mindset, "because when you're positive and live in the moment, death is not something that ever comes into your head."

Fred died after a brief illness just days shy of his 81st birthday. When death finally stopped him, it happened quickly, like a boat gently running aground on a sandy shore.

"He was a free spirit, until he wasn't," Susan added. "He got older but never got old. And that makes me happy."

In addition to his wife, Fred is survived by eight siblings and numerous nieces, nephews, grandnieces and grandnephews. But Susan emphasized that Fred never wanted family and friends to talk about how he died — he would rather they focus on how he lived.

As Fred puts it in the film, "Whether you're ski racing ... or trying to map the bottom of Lake Champlain, it's the journey that's the important part."

The original print version of this article was headlined "'He Knew Just What You Needed' | Fred Fayette Jr., May 7, 1942-April 26, 2023"

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