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Backstory: Most Unexpected Connection


Published December 28, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.

Rep. Terri Williams (left) and Owen Tillery - ANNE WALLACE ALLEN
  • Anne Wallace Allen
  • Rep. Terri Williams (left) and Owen Tillery

This "backstory" is a part of a collection of articles that describes some of the obstacles that Seven Days reporters faced while pursuing Vermont news, events and people in 2022.

Last winter I covered the Vermont House's passage of Article 22, aka the abortion amendment. The floor vote was hybrid, and I was watching it remotely, so all I could see of the room was a dark box with miniscule figures in it. To ascertain who was talking, I had to rely on Speaker Jill Krowinski (D-Burlington), who would address lawmakers, per tradition, by the district they represented. In order to quote "the member from Granby" with confidence, however, I felt compelled to confirm the disembodied voice was really her.

So I called Rep. Terri Williams (R-Granby) to talk about her opposition to Article 22, and we ended up having a long conversation about raising children. She hadn't been able to have any of her own, but she told me about some other ways she and her husband had brought kids into their lives — through foster care, coaching and taking in teenagers who needed a break from home. 

Williams also mentioned a Fresh Air kid she'd hosted in the 1980s. She said Owen Tillery had recently gotten in touch on Facebook and would be visiting over the summer with his own wife and child. Six months later, she invited me up to her mountaintop farmhouse to meet him. 

The people I write about often try to craft an impressive narrative, which is understandable; I'd clean the house if I knew a stranger was coming over. But nobody did that here. Sure, the house was spotless, and Williams had made all the desserts that Tillery loved as a child. But neither of them was performing for me; I witnessed an intimate moment that few people would share with a journalist.

They both cried as we sat on the porch and they talked about the past. He had grown up in a housing project in Brooklyn with a single mother who struggled to provide a good life for him; she died last summer. The general store Williams once owned had been robbed.

But the reunion brought up joyful memories, too. Through Tillery, Williams and her husband found new appreciation for the serenity of their own life in the rural Northeast Kingdom by introducing him to activities such as milking cows and riding bikes on the dirt roads.

"We were just being people," Williams said. "We weren't trying to go out and set the world on fire. We just loved a kid that showed up on our doorstep."