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Backstory: Most Surprising and Unusual Honor


Published December 26, 2018 at 10:00 a.m.


In June, I wrote a story that recalled the youthful adventures of noted Northeast Kingdom politico John McClaughry. He's the founder of the Ethan Allen Institute, a conservative Vermont think tank. He was a policy adviser in the Reagan White House, a prominent Republican state legislator and a candidate for governor. He's been the Town Meeting Day moderator in his hometown of Kirby for more than half a century. And for a few years in the 1960s, he was also, of all things, a hobo.

The tale of the train-hopping exploits of Feather River John — that's McClaughry's hobo name — was among the most surprising and unusual stories I've uncovered in my 12-plus years with Seven Days. And it led to an unexpected and unusual honor.

On August 12, by nothing less than a royal proclamation of Hobo King Jeff the Czech at the annual National Hobo Convention in Britt, Iowa, I was named an honorary hobo and given my very own hobo name: Newshound Dan.

I've even got the certificate to prove it. And I've got Rik Palieri to thank.

In the summer of 2017, the local folk singer tipped me off to McClaughry's alter ego when I was reporting on efforts to move the renovated 1890s train car formerly occupied by the late hobo and folk singer Utah Phillips from the former Philo Records site in North Ferrisburgh to a railroad museum in California. Phillips was both a friend and mentor to Palieri and once gave the Hinesburg folkie a hobo name of his own: Totem Pole Rik.

That reporting on Phillips' boxcar led to two stories: a straight bit of reporting on a benefit concert to raise money for the move, and a cartoon that I wrote with artist Emily Rhain Andrews. A year later, those stories led me to Feather River John.

If such a thing as a hobo scholar exists, Palieri is it. His research on hobo culture is extensive, and much of it resides in the Library of Congress. The hobos have honored him on numerous occasions. In fact, he's hobo royalty, having once been dubbed the "Grand Duke of New England Hobos," which involved a sort of knighting ceremony with hobo sticks.

As it turns out, while I was writing about hobos in Vermont, hobos around the country were reading those stories, largely because Palieri was feeding them into the hobo-verse — presumably via Facebook, but I suppose it's possible he tossed bundles of Seven Days newspapers on passing trains or tagged hobo symbols on water towers. Unbeknownst to me, he also nominated me to the National Hobo Convention — and he invented my nifty moniker.

"It means that you're a friend of that community," Rik told me of the proclamation. "When someone is good to the community and shows it in a positive light, that's the way they honor people."

And it's without question the coolest honor this (honorary) hobo has ever received.

Correction 12/27/2018: A previous version of this story misspelled John McClaughry's name.