The oddest thing about Fred Tuttle passing away last weekend was that, even in dying, the Tunbridge farmer-actor made a lot of people feel good inside. Fred was 84. He was out digging potatoes on Saturday, the day his heart finally started giving out on him.
Usually there's sadness in death. But Fred's dying was different because it caused so many to remember the man, the character, the curmudgeon on crutches, who made it to the Jay Leno show way before Howard Dean did. Time magazine took Fred's story national in 1998. This week, The New York Times ran a long and admiring obituary.
As the one-of-a-kind star of John O'Brien's film Man With a Plan, Fred brought laughter to many people who've never been to the Green Mountains. The film was true to Fred and the lives of the oldest generation among us. The life of milking cows on hardscrabble hillside farms; the life of dirt roads and wild strawberries; the life with the "you can't get there from here" worldview.
Fred's run for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate in 1998 started as a publicity stunt but ended up with a message -- Vermont is not for sale!
The Man With a Plan's candidacy upset the plan of another man, an unknown, untested Massachusetts multimillionaire who'd never before voted in Vermont. Jack McMullen shelled out almost $300,000 of his own money on the race.
Fred coughed up just $13 for one tiny print advertisement that ran in Seven Days next to this column.
Talk about a feel-good election, eh? Never has money in politics been rendered so impotent.
In modern times, only two Vermonters have been so beloved by so many that they're on a first-name basis with the populace. One was Fred. The other is Bernie.
Monday morning, the day after Fred's death, Congressman Bernie Sanders held a press conference on the deadly serious topic of the Bush administration's Iraq debacle. Bernie declared he would vote against President George W. Bush's request for $87 billion to "rebuild" the Arab country he obsessively invaded.
Given the ultimate sacrifice paid, so far, by 300 young American soldiers and their families, Sanders wondered aloud why the "richest 1 or 2 percent," who were just handed "huge" tax reductions by Mr. Bush, couldn't be tapped for the Iraq rebuild.
But when the subject of Fred Tuttle's death was mentioned, Sanders' mood changed. A warm, wide smile spread across Bernie's face.
"I thought the movie Man With a Plan was brilliant," said Sanders. "I thought it was one of the funniest movies I've ever seen. I cracked up when I saw it.
"Fred was a wonderful man who really did represent a lot of what his generation in Vermont was about. Those folks are dying off," lamented Bernie, "and they're missed very much. They had some wonderful, wonderful qualities as human beings, down-to-earth people. Practical people. Very good people."
They're also the people that Vermont's political champion of the little guy has grown close to over the years.
"It's a very good thing," said Sanders, "that in the last five or six years of his life, he was able to do what he did."
We'll always remember Fred sitting at Three Needs, a pub on College Street in Burlington, with a line of pretty young women waiting for the chance to be photographed sitting on his lap and giving him a smooch. It was a Vermont farm boy's dream come true.
"Fred was a very smart man and a very wonderful man," said Ol' Bernardo, "and we're going to miss him very, very much."
John the Tunbridge filmmaker and sheep farmer had a particularly poignant message on his answering machine Tuesday. Mr. O'Brien quoted Winston Churchill: "I am ready to meet my maker. Whether my maker is ready for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter."
We trust that wherever Fred Tuttle is today, the rest of us will someday, somehow, be able to get there from here.
Speaking of McMullen -- Ol' Jack has started fundraising for his second run at Sen. Patrick Leahy. He's back!
Yours truly got a call early Monday morning from a local Fred Tuttle fan, a bit teed off to see Jack McMullen and a camera crew videotaping him in front of Burlington City Hall. How unseemly to be shooting a campaign commercial the day after Fred died, right?
We quickly hopped on the two-wheeler to check it out. Turned out it wasn't a campaign commercial but a new documentary series on lesser-known figures in Vermont history. It's produced by the Verde Group, formerly of the Big Apple. Mr. McMullen was serving as host of the first episode on former Burlington mayor Dr. Clarence Beecher, 1925-29, known as "Beecher the Builder."
Verde Group president and executive producer Denis O'Brien is a talented South Burlington native. His wife, Isela Marin, a native of Belize, is Verde's CEO. The two won an Emmy for their commercial work (www.verde group.com). In the post-9/11 world, said Ms. Marin, they decided living in Vermont beat the hell out of living in Manhattan.
According to Isela, McMullen was one of the first investors in their "Vermont Citizen" history project. They're hoping Vermont Public Television picks up the series.
McMullen, however, told us the following day that he was not an "investor."
"I lent them some money," said Jack, "to be paid back out of the profits of the enterprise."
As for Fred's death on Sunday, Mr. McMullen told Seven Days, "It was sad to see Fred's passing. Despite getting some pretty heavy ribbing on the farm quiz [a reference to their 1998 VPR debate when Fred asked Jack how many teats were on a cow and Jack answered six instead of four], Fred was a good guy. We all should live life so fully as we approach the end."
Mary Fanny Spanked -- Acting U.S. Attorney David Kirby said Monday the settlement agreement reached in the Fletcher Allen criminal investigation was both "fair" and "balanced."
The deal came down to a $1 million fine and no criminal prosecution of the hospital for the lies of its former white-collar leaders regarding the gazillion-dollar Renaissance expansion project.
Funny, but legendary blue-collar Vermont hash smugglers Billy Greer and Stephen Hutchins also got a $1 million fine ($500,000 each). Wavy Davy passionately prosecuted the case. Of course, Billy and Steve got about 20 years behind bars, too.
Until Mr. Kirby frog-marches former CEO Bill Boettcher and a couple of his cronies-in-crime into the same courtroom where he marched Greer and Hutchins, public confidence in our federal prosecutor's office will be less than what it should be.
Backus Comeback -- Former State Sen. Jan Backus of Winooski came out of the political closet last week. Jan of Arc let it be known she has her eye on the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor.
Ms. Backus paid her dues under Montpeculiar's golden dome, representing both ends of the state in the Senate: Windham County and then Chittenden County. Twice she took a shot at the U.S. Senate and lost.
Jan jumps in just as five-term State Rep. John Tracy of Burlington jumps out. Tracy had been thinking about a run for Gov-Lite but told Seven Days this week that, after talking it over with family and friends, he's decided to run for reelection to the House.
Other names mentioned in Democrat circles about possible bids for Gov-Lite include Windsor County State Sen. John Campbell and former State Sen. Cheryl Rivers.
But the race is a bit dicey for Dems, since everyone's concerned that the Progressive Party will put up Anthony Pollina again, split the left and thereby guarantee Republican incumbent Brian Dubie a second term.
"I hope that the Progressives don't [run Pollina]," Ms. Backus told Seven Days. Backus called herself a "progressive Democrat with a small p.'"
"I intend to reach out to Progressives," she said, "to talk to them so that they understand my voting record matches up with the kinds of things they're talking about."
A realistic approach, eh?
"The race is against Brian Dubie," said Jan of Arc. She described Doobie-Doo as "a very nice guy," but noted the American Airlines pilot "has a lot of right-wing conservative friends."
The lieutenant governor's sole responsibility is to preside over the Senate when it's in session. The Gov-Lite only gets to vote when there's a tie that needs breaking. Dubie has expanded that historic role in the 21st century to include standing silently, like a praetorian guard, behind Jim Douglas at the Gov's weekly press conferences.
In the case of breaking a tie vote in the Senate, asked Backus, "Who would you rather have? A progressive Democrat or a right-wing conservative?"
Backus is coming off the political bench after two statewide defeats, but she certainly was pumped up after Monday night's American League playoff game.
"If the Red Sox can do it," said Jan of Arc, "so can I!"
Battling Barnett -- Vermont Republican Party chairman Jim Barnett kicked up the dust on VPR's "Switchboard" last week, appearing with the chairs of the Democrat and Progressive parties. The twentysomething GOP strategic whiz kid launched a full-frontal assault on Burlington Mayor Peter Clavelle's gubernatorial bid as a Democrat.
Barnett dubbed Mayor Moonie "an angry socialist" who learned his politics at the knee of Bernie the Socialist!
Prog Chair Martha Abbott politely pointed out to young James that Clavelle actually got his political education growing up as a Winooski Democrat.
A couple days later, Clavelle made a surprise visit to GOP headquarters in Montpeculiar to ask Barnett if he really looked like an angry socialist.
Barnett told the affable Clavelle, "Well, you don't look angry."
Clearly the Barnett strategy is to paint Mayor Moonie as an extreme left-wing radical. Asked what he saw in Clavelle's long record as Burlington's mayor that justifies the "extremist" label, Barnett replied, "There will be plenty of time to examine Peter Clavelle's record in Burlington."
P.S. According to Young James, the Vermont GOP has yet to finalize plans for their big fall fundraising dinner. No date has even been set yet, as the party tries to line up "a very prominent speaker."
"Rush Limbaugh?" we asked.
"Probably not," replied Barnett with a chuckle.
Not enough black quarterbacks in Vermont to attract Limbaugh's interest, eh?
Media Notes -- Kudos to Ch. 5 for going live with Monday's Fletcher Allen press conference at Burlington's Costello Courthouse on Cherry Street.
WPTZ News Director Andy Wormser told Seven Days the announcement about developments in the criminal investigation into Vermont's largest financial scandal "was an important story for people to know about."
Ch. 5 and its sister station WNNE in White River Junction interrupted the NBC network broadcast of the popular soap opera "Days of Our Lives" to air the courthouse news conference.
"When your motto is Where the News Comes First,'" said Wormser, "this is what people expect."
Ch. 5 did receive "a couple complaints" from soap viewers, Andy said. "We're certainly sensitive to that," he added, "but we felt on this occasion, where it was big news, we were not going to wait until 5 to report it."
In other local TV news, former Ch. 22 anchor Lara Yamada has landed on her feet. Yamada told Seven Days she's been hired as an anchor-reporter by the Fox/UPN TV operation in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
You'll recall that WVNY, our local ABC affiliate, threw in the towel and shut down its news operation a month ago. Ms. Yamada, a Hawaii native, definitely impressed during her stint in Vermont, and Vermont definitely impressed Lara.
"As the Green Mountain State blends into the past," wrote Lara in an email, "my husband and I look back with a pain in our heart. We met great people in Vermont -- people we expect to be friends with for a long time. The more we travel, the more we realize Vermont's a special place."
Our bet is, the bright and talented Yamada will be snapped up by a national network within two years. That way, her fans back home in Hawaii and Vermont will be able to watch her on a regular basis.