Tom Whitney’s self-published anthology about his high school classmates — The Book of Years: Vermonters tell stories from their lives fifty years after high school — is full of surprises. For starters, it was conceived on top of a volcano.
Whitney grew up in Burlington and graduated from Burlington High School in 1957. Two days after earning his diploma, he packed his suitcase and hitchhiked south on Route 7. He ended up in Florida, later moving to Louisiana and California. Eight years ago, he headed to Hawaii.
Whitney is a photographer and graphic designer. In 2000, he was shooting a native Hawaiian ceremony atop volcanic Mauna Kea when he began to wonder about his own roots. “I finally started asking myself, ‘What’s my culture? What’s my sacred land?’” he recalls. His grandparents were Finnish, English and Irish, but he hadn’t inherited their traditions. Vermont, he reasoned, was his true home. And if he wanted to learn more about it, he needed to go back to high school. Or back to his classmates, anyway.
“The person I am today is the person that I became in interacting with all these people I went to school with,” says the bearded 68-year-old, who ties his hair back in a ponytail. “They were the people who helped shape me, besides my parents.”
Three years ago, Whitney crafted a 70-question survey — later pared down to 30 questions — which he mailed to the 188 surviving members of his graduating class. This wasn’t a typical alumni inquiry. Whitney asked about jobs and achievements, but also invited his classmates to share their “basic values” and “spooky, terrifying or exhilarating experiences.” One question asked, “How have you turned the challenges and sadnesses of your life into growing experiences?”
Sixty-one people wrote back. Whitney compiles their responses in The Book of Years. The weighty, 376-page tome is a bit unpolished and at times repetitious, but it’s also a remarkably frank and engaging piece of populist American history.
Whitney organizes the book thematically, grouping tales of occupations or adventures with others of the same kind. Some of the stories he elicited from this nearly all-white group of Vermonters are exotic — one alum worked in the space program; another was robbed on the Amazon River by masked men who boarded her boat carrying machine guns. One woman spent four years as a Methodist missionary on the small Pacific island of Tonga.
But some of the book’s most compelling stories were contributed by those who stuck around. Joyce Wagner Carlin of Jericho penned a moving account of her marriage to her husband, Bill — they met in first grade at Christ the King School in Burlington. He succumbed to cancer in 2003.
“Bill’s death was the hardest thing life has given me to handle,” writes Carlin. “I mourned him from day one and keep very busy. If I stop, it hits me that the man I knew from first grade who asked me to marry him — no, he actually told me at age seven: ‘Someday I’m going to marry you’ — is no longer in my life.”
Margo Hathaway Thomas of Johnson writes about losing her home when the Lamoille River flooded in 1995. When the volunteer firefighter came to evacuate her, she stepped onto the top step of her porch and found that it was floating. “I sank to my waist in water,” she writes.
Thomas and her husband lost nearly everything, but she managed to keep her sense of humor. “My stationary bike was salvageable,” she writes. “[My friend] and I would sometimes hop on it in the yard just to work off some unproductive energy. We got to giggling about what we must look like pedaling away in the middle of all that destruction.”
The books were on display — and for sale — last Saturday night at the Class of ’57’s 50th reunion, at the Burlington Elks Lodge. Whitney says buyers will soon be able to order them on Amazon.com.
The contributors were eager to get a peek at the final product. “This is so exciting,” remarked Clare Adams Whitney when she saw the book. She shared her experiences in Tonga.
Clare Whitney isn’t related to Tom, and said she didn’t even remember him when he contacted her. She sent him a few short answers to his questions, and he wrote back, urging her to elaborate. Over two and a half years, he coaxed four pages out of her.
“My husband finally asked me, ‘Who is this Tom?’” she said with a laugh.
Tom Whitney confirms that he got much of his material by asking follow-up questions. It may have been pesky, but he insists that it was important work. Whitney hopes the book will inspire other high school classes to undertake similar 50th-anniversary projects. And he’d also like to see today’s youth take an interest.
“There’s so many people that we experience in life, like all those people in high school,” he says. “You go by them, and then you’re just amazed at what they become. Everybody’s got stories.”