Life Stories: Remembering Vermonters Who Died in 2017 | Culture | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

Arts + Life » Culture

Life Stories: Remembering Vermonters Who Died in 2017

by

2 comments

Holiday decorations filled the display windows of stores in Burlington this December, but Michael Valente didn't create any of the seasonal scenes. The Waterbury artist, who worked as a visual merchandiser for dozens of downtown shops over the past 40 years, didn't make it to Christmas. He died of cancer in October.

Valente is just one of thousands of Vermonters whose lives ended in 2017. Some deaths garnered headlines — such as those of drowning victims Christian Kibabu and Ali Muhina, or lawyer and conservationist John Ewing, or perennial political candidate Peter Diamondstone. But most who died quietly slipped away, remembered mainly by the families, friends and colleagues they left behind.

We chose eight of them for this package of stories reflecting on Vermonters who died this year — an annual exercise since Seven Days began publishing obituaries in 2014. We looked for individuals whose lives were remarkable in some way; people whose deaths signified the end of an era; people who made the most of their time on this crazy, messed-up planet; or people who inspired us.

We're grateful to their families and friends for sharing their remembrances.

— Cathy Resmer



Michael Anthony Valente

February 14, 1949-October 3, 2017
Michael Valente in front of one his displays
  • Michael Valente in front of one his displays

You might never have known of artist Michael Valente by name, but if you strolled through downtown Burlington any time over the last four decades, you've seen his work. He might even have inspired you to buy a new set of plates, eyeglasses or a mountain bike.

Valente's canvases were the display windows of Burlington businesses, dating back to the early 1970s. It might be quicker to list the stores the freelance visual merchandiser didn't work for than all of those he did. Among his regular clients were the Optical Center and Expressions on Church Street, Bennington Potters North on College Street, and Skirack on Main Street, to name a few.

Bob Paolini, his partner of 41 years, suggested that Valente "had a very familiar face," since the designer himself was often on display while he worked.

"I think a lot of people knew him, even if they didn't know him," Paolini continued.

Valente, born on Valentine's Day in 1949, got his start in visual merchandising after graduating from high school in Troy, N.Y. He moved to Vermont in 1973 and took a job with Magram's Department Store on Church Street. When that store closed in the 1980s, Valente struck out as a freelancer and built a reputation as the area's go-to designer for retail displays.

"His work was so detailed and over-the-top," recalled Tom Jennings, owner of Green Mountain Florist Supply in South Burlington. "People would come in just to see our displays, what Michael would do."

Valente designed displays for the wholesale flower company for the better part of 25 years. Jennings considered him "a great friend, a pizza buddy" and, as many clients did, "part of the family." Jennings also hired Valente to deck out his flower warehouse for his wife's 50th birthday party.

"It's a warehouse, but Michael made it the Taj Mahal," he said.

According to Jennings, Christmas was when the artist truly shined — so much so that when Valente, who died of cancer in October, was too ill to decorate for Christmas last year, Jennings hung a poster apologizing to customers that "the mastery of Michael" wasn't there.

"I knew people would notice that our Christmas displays weren't as beautiful as they always were," he said.

Skirack co-owner Karen George agreed that Valente's work at Christmas was masterful — and magical. She recalled one window display in particular for the Main Street outdoor sporting goods store in which Valente played with a traditional holiday trope. In his elaborate version, Rudolph — and all of the other reindeer — pulled Santa's sleigh while riding children's bicycles.

"It was a wonderland, like you were walking by a fantasy," George remembered. "It was such a masterpiece, we just kept using it for about six years."

Valente worked on displays at Skirack once a week for more than 20 years. His style could be elegant or playful, George recalled, citing a Halloween display in which the designer turned a Thule car carrier into a coffin, complete with skeleton hands emerging from the grave.

"His style always suited what the subject matter and environment was, what the retailer was," she said. "He was a master of his work — a natural-born artist."

Valente often made his own props for displays — a reflection of his varied artistic interests. He was a painter and a potter, as well as an accomplished stained-glass artist.

"He was just into a lot of stuff," said Paolini. "And everything seemed to come so easily to him, which was always frustrating to me," he added with a laugh.

Among Valente's more unusual talents, according to Paolini, was an ability to write backward — an important skill when writing on the inside of windows.

"People would stop and watch as he was doing it," he said with admiration.

Paolini and Valente met one night in 1976 at a College Street bar. "And we were together ever since," said Paolini, who held Valente in his arms as he died.

A retired lawyer and former executive director of the Vermont Bar Association, Paolini described his late partner as "a genius, very good with his hands and very visual." Paolini added that Valente was also a talented gardener — he designed the landscaping at the couple's Waterbury home — and was quite a handyman, to boot.

"I'm burdened with being a lawyer, so, for me, everything is linear: If A, then B, then C," said Paolini. "Not so with Michael. He would see the end result and figure out how to get there."

He paused before continuing. "He was just a sweet, generous guy," Paolini said. "I miss him."

— Dan Bolles



Samuel Francis Esposito

December 19, 1917-October 23, 2017
esposito.jpg

As his B-17 bomber crashed in a field near Ostedt, Germany, on March 15, 1945, navigator Samuel Esposito — Sammy to his family — was thinking of his mother. "His biggest concern was for my mother," said Sammy's 86-year-old younger brother Richard.

Stella Esposito had six daughters and six sons, five of whom served in World War II. Sammy's brother Eugene was killed in 1942 when his plane went down off the coast of Australia. His brother Amalio was wounded when he dove under his gun to escape artillery fire during a 1944 battle at the Meuse River.

Sammy's plane had been hit by debris from another plane in his formation that had been gunned down. As his aircraft plummeted, Sammy later told his family, he was praying for his mother back in Rutland.

"He kept thinking, She's going to get another one of those damn telegrams," said Sammy's daughter, Carol Perkins of Proctor.

The airplane, known as a Flying Fortress, hit a tree on its way down, which stopped it from cartwheeling. Sammy, then a 27-year-old first lieutenant, and the eight other servicemen onboard survived. After emerging from the wreckage, the men split up.

Sammy and his top-turret gunner headed for neutral territory on foot. With the Vermonter leading the way, they walked mostly under cover of night, lying low in the daytime and sleeping in ditches. In 10 days, they covered about 110 miles.

Decades later, Sammy would tell his family that his experience hiking in Vermont helped him survive the wartime trek in the late winter of 1945.

"It was March, so it was cold, and there wasn't a lot to eat," said Perkins, relating the story her father told her. "They did find a potato, and they split it. In their escape kits, they had a D-ration bar — a chocolate bar with vitamins. My father kept telling [his companion], 'Just eat a little bit. Just eat a little bit.'"

As fatigue overtook the pair, Germans captured them. Sammy was held as a prisoner of war for six weeks at Stalag Luft 1, near Barth, Germany, before the camp was liberated at the end of April.

Born in Stephentown, N.Y., a small town in the Berkshires, Sammy was the fifth of Ralph and Stella Esposito's 12 children. He moved with his family to Rutland at age 6. Ralph and Stella immigrated to the U.S. from Italy, entering at Ellis Island.

Sammy, a 1935 graduate of Mount St. Joseph Academy, was working as a produce manager at a grocery store in Whitehall, N.Y., when he was drafted into the army. He went to mechanic school and trained as a navigator, a job he performed on 55 missions.

After the war, Sammy returned home to Rutland, married Jane Loyzelle and raised two daughters — Perkins, now 56, and Donna Paine, now 59, of West Swanzee, N.H. He worked in the foundry of a scale company before becoming a clerk with the U.S. Postal Service. After Jane died in 1999, Sammy married Helen Cline Phillips, who predeceased him in 2006.

Sammy was happy in his backyard vegetable garden, and hiking with his daughters, nieces and nephews, and neighborhood kids, said Perkins. He died at home in Rutland a few weeks before his 100th birthday.

"He was a family man," Perkins said.

To his grandson Brad Gordon, Sammy was a hero and beloved companion. Gordon, who now lives in South Burlington, spent every day after school with his grandfather. They played with toys Sammy made in his woodshop — a jeep, hockey sticks, a rocking horse. Sammy shared his war stories.

"I think what always stands out about his retelling of that [POW] experience is that he harbored no ill will for those men who held him captive," Gordon said. "He was never mistreated there, but he did say they threatened to shoot him."

Sammy told Gordon he replied to the threat by saying: "If you shoot me, my buddies — the Americans — will shoot 10 Germans."

His captors replied: "You think you're worth 10 Germans?"

"No," Sammy answered. "But my buddies might."

When news reached Rutland that Sammy was missing in action after the plane crash, the Western Union man couldn't face Stella, knowing she had already lost one son. Instead, he went to the railroad to find Ralph, who gathered family members to bear the news together.

The Esposito family still has that April 5, 1945, telegram from the War Department informing them that Sammy was missing in action; it's kept in a scrapbook of newspaper clippings and war correspondence. There's also a follow-up confirmation letter from Adjutant General J.A. Ulio, who concluded: "Permit me to extend to you my heartfelt sympathy during this period of uncertainty."

Another letter from May 10, 1945, contains happier news. "Dear Folks," Sammy wrote from Barth, Germany, "Am writing this letter in the hopes that it will get home before I do. I am well and in good health, we have been liberated by the Russians."

In an earlier telegram dated December 6, 1943, Esposito foretold the legacy he would leave his family.

"ALL WELL AND SAFE. WRITING. LOVE = SAMUEL F ESPOSITO."

— Sally Pollak



Anne Rowley Howrigan

January 19, 1932-August 9, 2017
Anne Rowley Howrigan (seated) surrounded by 10 of her 13 grandchildren - COURTESY OF BRIDGET HOWRIGAN RIVET
  • Courtesy Of Bridget Howrigan Rivet
  • Anne Rowley Howrigan (seated) surrounded by 10 of her 13 grandchildren

In the early 1900s, William and Margaret Howrigan and their 10 children ran a modest dairy farm in the hills of Fairfield. Their youngest son, Harold, acquired the farm in the 1960s and expanded it into an award-winning operation with his wife, Anne Rowley Howrigan.

Born in Milton, Anne was also one of 10 children and grew up on her parents' farm. A musician and athlete, she caught Harold's eye in her junior year of high school. They married after she graduated from the University of Vermont in 1953.

Harold and Anne had five children of their own. In addition to caring for them and working full time as a teacher, Anne managed the farm finances, drove teams of draft horses, kept a well-stocked kitchen open to family and friends 24-7, and managed every aspect of their household.

Harold's role on the farm was both private and public — in 2001, the National Dairy Promotion and Research Board honored him with an award recognizing his years of "distinguished service." In 2007, University of Vermont Extension and the Vermont Dairy Industry Association named the Howrigan farm Vermont Dairy Farm of the Year. And, until his death in 2009, Harold served on multiple agricultural and legislative bodies, both locally and nationally.

But he was quick to credit Anne for her work behind the scenes. "He would say he couldn't have done it without Mom's support at home," recalled daughter Bridget Howrigan Rivet.

In a public acknowledgment of their appreciation, Harold and the children nominated Anne for Vermont Mother of the Year in 2004 — and she won. Not one to seek fanfare or the limelight, Anne was most pleased not by the award, said Bridget, but by the fact that her children believed she was mother of the year.

Family was Anne's highest priority and her greatest source of joy. Of all the farm activities, sugaring was her favorite because she could count on catching up with relatives near and far after the long winter.

"When you're sugaring, you're working with your family every day," said her son Michael Howrigan. "Family made her happiest."

Anne spoke with her siblings weekly — and "each was her favorite," said Bridget. Devoted to her five children, 13 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, Anne acknowledged every birthday, anniversary and other special occasion in person or with a handwritten card, said son Harold Howrigan Jr.

Anne also welcomed many extended family members into her home — teenage cousins would stay for weeks or months at a time while helping on the farm.

"Mom did all of this seamlessly," said daughter Ellen Howrigan Paradee, "the meal preparation, the laundry, all that goes with having extra young people in your house. And she did it very graciously."

Her skill with youth also touched children in the community. Anne held a full-time teaching position for 38 years, primarily at Fairfield Central School.

"Anne was an outstanding teacher," said Richard Shanley, principal of the school for 11 years. During his tenure, Anne was named Teacher of the Year for Franklin Central Supervisory Union by the UVM College of Education and Social Services. As a colleague, Shanley consistently solicited her feedback. "She made me a better principal," he said. When school board tensions rose, she was a fierce advocate for teachers and students, insisting that students be treated equally regardless of family background or ability.

Anne cared about civics, both in the classroom and in her community. Harold Jr. recalled that during Sen. Patrick Leahy's (D-Vt.) first senatorial campaign, his parents would "drop us [kids] off with a bucketload of pamphlets, and we'd go to the church and college parking lots and put them on the windshields."

Leahy remembers those days, too. "She and her husband were dear friends and were there from the first race, when everyone said I couldn't win," the senator recalled. Anne provided meals and canvassing advice in a part of the state where few knew him.

Devout Roman Catholics and members of St. Patrick's Catholic Church in Fairfield, Anne and Harold never missed a Sunday Mass. Son Lawrence Howrigan said his mother shared her faith by example. Leahy, who attended her funeral, noted that, after Anne's Mass of Christian Burial, "Almost everybody ... talked about 'the time when I was sick or when I needed this or I needed that ... and she was there.'"

"She always put everybody else before herself," said Lawrence.

He and his brothers, Michael and Harold, now run Howrigan Family Farms with their six sons.

The farms' veterinarian, Steve Wadsworth, observed that the nine men get along remarkably well — "probably better than any of my clients," he said. "They work together respectfully, and ... I think Anne was behind all that. She and her husband ... showed their sons and grandsons how to function as a family."

At about 3 a.m. the night Anne died (of heart failure), a huge roll of thunder went through Fairfield, and many of her children heard it. "We laughed the next day, saying, 'Well that must've been the gate opening for Mom,'" said Bridget. Noting that Anne's husband and siblings were already in heaven, Bridget said, "There are plenty of them up there waiting to greet her.'"

— Elizabeth M. Seyler



Steven Attree Hopkins

June 2, 1950-August 19, 2017
Steven Hopkins on his boat
  • Steven Hopkins on his boat

Winooski's Onion River Cobbler shop was never well suited for gatherings, even small ones. The cluttered storefront space on West Canal Street was crammed with sewing machines, hunting trophies, bolts of uncut leather, and wall-to-wall shelves filled with wrinkled boots, handbags and dress shoes awaiting repair. For years, customers also had to step carefully around Blockhead, the chunky tan pit bull/boxer mix who napped by the door.

But on a November evening, eight people crowded into the shop to remember Steve Hopkins, the larger-than-life cobbler who owned it for more than three decades. Once again, it became a neighborhood gathering place where locals swapped fishing stories and traded good-natured barbs while nibbling the free chocolates, apples or venison jerky the cobbler offered his customers.

Steve, who insisted during a 2007 interview that a journalist not repeatedly call him "Hopkins this and Hopkins that," kept alive the age-old craft of leather and shoe repair. In an age when most people throw away worn hiking boots, jackets and suitcases once they're torn or zippers fray, Steve was a holdover from simpler and more frugal times.

Most days the bearded bear of a guy, who rode a thundering Harley-Davidson, could be found hunched over one of his 1940s-era industrial sewing machines. Though he often labored alone, he was never lonely and always made time for others — especially his older brother, Fred.

"He wasn't just my brother," said the elder Hopkins, who was born two years to the day before Steve. "He was my best friend, too."

Fred occasionally helped Steve at the shop and has since taken over his business until he finds a buyer. When the brothers weren't working together, they could be found bass fishing on Lake Champlain, hunting in New Brunswick or watching the sunset from Steve's lakefront house in St. Albans. For decades, the brothers lived across the road from each other and ate dinner together almost every night, along with Fred's wife, Maureen.

The outdoors was Steve's sanctuary. Most of the year, he worked five days a week in the chilly and dimly lit shop. But for several weeks each fall, the avid bow hunter escaped to the woods in search of black bear, moose and whitetail deer. Homemade wall calendars hung above the shop's counter featured sunset photos that Steve and Fred shot from Steve's dock.

Steve didn't only socialize with sportsmen. He befriended people from all walks of life: the Tiny Thai Restaurant owners from around the corner, the Sudanese men who lived upstairs, the University of Vermont professor who lived across the road.

Burlington singer Jenni Johnson remembered meeting Steve four years ago while looking for someone who could save her favorite pair of shoes. Steve repaired them, she recalled, for a price she felt was too low considering his level of craftsmanship.

Johnson, who grew up in New York City, saw Steve as a kindred spirit, as he'd grown up just across the Hudson River, in Mahwah, N.J. His shop reminded her of the African American hair salons she frequented in Harlem and the Bronx.

"I liked his work and his attitude," said Johnson, who often called Steve "Doctor." Why? "Because his work was so fine," she said. "He was like the surgeon of the soles."

New customers could find Steve a bit terse, even gruff, she noted, especially those who looked down on him or his shop. Said Bill Rowell, a Sheldon farmer and friend of Steve's for 35 years: "When you pushed him to the point where enough is enough, he'd straighten you out. It didn't matter whether it was an old lady or a young, muscled-up guy."

But Johnson and others remembered Steve as a gentle giant who'd do anything to help a friend or a stranger. In 2000, after Rowell's trucking company suffered a devastating fire and he couldn't get a loan from his bank, the cobbler dug deep into his savings and loaned his friend $50,000.

"He said, 'I'd probably only do that with family, but, as far as I can tell, you're my brother. Pay me back when things start moving,'" Rowell recalled. "I had great respect and great love for him, and it was mutual."

Arden Johnson (no relation to Jenni) credited Steve for bringing him to Vermont and teaching him the craft of leatherworking. Johnson grew up with Steve in New Jersey and considered him "another big brother ... and a very big part of my life." He, too, cited Steve's unwavering generosity: "I don't know how his heart fit in that chest of his, it was so big."

Steve died on August 19 at the age of 67, just days after being diagnosed with lung cancer. Fred and Maureen set up his hospice bed in their dining room, where the three had shared countless meals together. From there, Fred said, Steve watched the sun go down one last time on a Saturday night, then died a few minutes later.

"For him," Fred added, "it was just another sunset."

— Ken Picard



Laure Isabelle Marie Angel

March 30, 1980-February 5, 2017
Laure Angel on top of Camel's Hump - COURTESY OF AMY KIRK
  • Courtesy Of Amy Kirk
  • Laure Angel on top of Camel's Hump

Hiking was one of Laure Angel's greatest pleasures in life. "She hiked so freaking fast," remembered her best friend, Amy Kirk. The 5-foot-2-inch U-32 Middle School social studies teacher was "like a little hedgehog," Kirk recalled.

But hitting the trail was something Angel only grew to love as an adult. Born in Villeubanne, France, she moved to the U.S. at 14 to live with her mother, who had remarried an American. Angel attended the French International School in Maryland; the family lived a short distance away in Virginia. Angel's mother, Françoise Hatfield, recalls Angel grumbling when she had to walk from the metro station to get home after school. "It was less than one mile," said Hatfield, but "it was really a big problem."

Angel initially planned on returning to France for college, but she changed her mind, enrolling instead at Bridgewater College in Virginia. But marijuana and alcohol use derailed her studies; she left school, took classes at a local community college and worked for an outdoor outfitter.

In 2000, Angel took her first hike — she and her then-boyfriend decided to tackle the Appalachian Trail. The nearly 2,200-mile route runs from Georgia to Maine, an ambitious trek for a beginner such as Angel. Said her mom, "When you're in love, you go to the moon, no?"

The couple broke up during the trip. Angel was heartbroken, Hatfield remembers. She met up with her daughter in Virginia and urged her to stay on course. "You cannot come back, crying," Hatfield recalled saying.

Angel didn't finish the hike, but Hatfield remembers that when she returned from the trip, it marked the beginning of her daughter's journey to becoming "happy, joyful and free." Angel seemed to have discovered her purpose in life during her maiden hike. "She found herself on the trail," said her mom.

As part of that awakening, Angel enrolled in the University of New Hampshire, where she eventually earned a master's degree in education in 2006. According to Hatfield, Angel moved to Vermont for a position as a teaching aide.

She also started going on regular hikes with her new friends. According to Kirk, her favorite spot was Mount Mansfield. "That was what she worshipped — the mountains," Kirk said.

"The night before going out on a hike, she would have all these maps on the table," her friend Kate Barash-Engel recalled. She chose her routes carefully. Barash-Engel said she always felt safe with Angel, "like I wasn't going to get lost," she remembered.

Angel seized every opportunity to be outdoors. Sometimes, on her drive home from work, she would stop to hike the Pinnacle Trail, said former colleague Abbey Kalman. Both women taught at U-32 in East Montpelier and drove to school together every day. Hiking was a way for both of them to blow off steam, said Kalman, who now lives in Massachusetts.

Angel's friends also remember her as someone who managed to pack a lot into every day. Despite her daily two-hour commute from Williston, Angel still found time to read books regularly, knit, make phone calls to friends, do yoga, check Facebook posts, send video messages, and make jewelry and collages.

"That is what I never understood," said Barash-Engel. "Where is all the time coming from?"

"She had 14 lives in a day," said friend Gwen Pokalo. "She felt like she had to consume everything."

In February, Angel and her fiancé, Kevin Wood, went snowmobiling. Angel, an inexperienced rider, lost control and veered off course, striking some trees.

She died a few weeks before becoming an American citizen. She had finally decided to apply for citizenship more than 20 years after arriving in the U.S.

Preparing for the civics test had been easy for Angel, said Pokalo — she took her seventh- and eighth-grade students to Washington, D.C., every year to learn about the government and meet Vermont's congressional delegates. "Laure was a better American citizen than most of us," Pokalo said.

Last year, Pokalo drove her friend to St. Albans to take the citizenship exam. "She went in. She was quite nervous," Pokalo recalled. "She came out 10 to 15 minutes later and she was like, 'I'm a citizen!'" The two celebrated by eating at a diner and going shopping.

But Angel wasn't a citizen yet. She would have had to go through a citizenship ceremony and take the oath of allegiance to complete the process.

On May 1, Hatfield, Kirk and Pokalo attended a naturalization ceremony in the Burlington courthouse, where Judge John M. Conroy recognized Laure's quest to become a citizen.

Not long ago, Pokalo went hiking at the last place she and Angel had hiked — Owls Head Mountain in the Adirondacks. "We had always said we were going to do sun prints," she said. The activity requires photosensitive paper. "You put things down, and the sun casts a shadow and leaves sun prints," she explained. But, she added, the two would always forget to bring the paper.

This time, Pokalo remembered. "I did a sun print," she said, "and it turned out absolutely perfect. A lot of people say when they see the sun, they think of her."

— Kymelya Sari



Dominic John "Zip" Aloi

February 13, 1933-October 10, 2017
aloi.jpg

Nick Aloi remembers how he got his first pro gig as a drummer. It was New Year's Eve, 1968; he was 14. That night, one of his dad's numerous jazz combos was supposed to ring in the New Year with a show at the VFW in Burlington. But Dominic "Zip" Aloi wasn't feeling well. So, when the car pulled in the driveway to pick up Zip, Nick's mother made an executive decision.

"Dad's not feeling well, so you're up," Dorothy "Dot" Aloi told her young son. It would be the first of a lifetime of gigs that Nick would inherit or share with his dad over the years.

"He's a big part of why I'm playing today," said Nick, 63, as he set up for a recent gig with the local blues band Left Eye Jump at a downtown Burlington bar.

The younger Aloi has played with Pine Street Jazz, Jenni Johnson, and Big Joe Burrell & the Unknown Blues Band. But even with nearly four decades of experience, he'll have a ways to go to catch up to his dad. Dating back to the early 1950s until his death this year at 84, Zip was among the busiest jazz drummers around — and one of the most likable.

Zip started playing drums in high school in Norwich, N.Y. He served in the Air Force during the Korean War and, in 1951, transferred to Fort Ethan Allen in Colchester. He soon started playing in local jazz combos, most notably with a quartet called the Four Dots that played six nights a week at a Stowe hotel bar. Other drummers might have been flashier, but Zip was a favorite among fellow musicians because of his understated style.

"He was excellent with brushes and always kept a good, steady beat," said guitarist Mike Martello. "He had a really fine, finessed style."

Martello, who just turned 90, started playing with Zip in jazz combos, including the Queen City Quintet, in the late 1960s. That group still plays, albeit with an occasionally changing membership.

"Zip never overplayed and had a great rimshot," said Jeff Wheel, QCQ's bassist for "only" about the last 25 years. "He was always concerned with locking in with me on bass for a real steady rhythm section," he continued. "I always felt like he had my back, and I had his."

Wheel, who co-owns Advance Music Center in Burlington, described the charismatic drummer as "gregarious" and "very Italian."

"He'd always grab and pinch your cheeks," Wheel recalled. He added that Zip "was a great appreciator of the ladies, but innocently so."

QCQ play regularly at the Harbor Lounge at the Courtyard Burlington Harbor hotel, often in a corner with windows overlooking the street. "Sometimes he'd be looking out the window at the girls going by," remembered Wheel. "And I'd say, 'Zippy, Zippy, the gig's in here.'"

"He was one of the sexiest drummers you ever saw," said blues guitarist Dennis Willmott. "He had his head going from side to side, smile on his face — you could just tell he was a player."

Willmott played regularly with Big Joe Burrell and Friends, a group that also included Nick. For many years, that band and its larger-than-life leader, Burrell, hosted a weekly Thursday night session at Halvorson's Upstreet Café in Burlington. Zip would sit in for Nick on a few tunes most weeks. When he wasn't playing, he was often on the dance floor with Dot.

"They could really dance," recalled Willmott, now the leader of Left Eye Jump. "They were beautiful to watch, and their timing was perfect."

"He was smooth on the dance floor," said Nick. "He had the gift."

"Smooth" is also how his son and others described Zip's old-school swing drumming style. "Smooth" could well have described his bowling game, too. Zip carried a 200 average and was inducted into the Vermont Bowling Hall of Fame in the 1990s. He was also an avid golfer and a member of the Burlington Country Club since the 1960s.

Music and family, however, were paramount in Zip's life; along with his wife and son, he leaves behind a daughter, six grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren, as well as two sisters, a brother, and several nieces and nephews.

A few months before he passed away, Zip pulled Wheel aside before a gig.

"He told me, 'When I can't do this anymore, I hope you'll have Nick carry on for me,'" Wheel recalled. "It was so important to him to have that legacy continue through his son."

— Dan Bolles



Toby Ruth Schwartz

December 2, 1954-October 14, 2017
Toby Schwartz working with glass - COURTESY OF HANK SCHWARTZ
  • Courtesy Of Hank Schwartz
  • Toby Schwartz working with glass

Glass artist Toby Schwartz was a passionate Circus Smirkus fan. Every summer, she and her husband, Hank Schwartz, could be found at multiple Big Top Tour performances of the Greensboro-based nonprofit youth circus.

Toby looked forward to one day each season in particular: when she and Hank would put on their own show, hosting a gaggle of the season's young performers at their sprawling, hand-built Jamaica home. A photo of the July 2017 visit on the Circus Smirkus website shows Toby smiling broadly; she died of cancer a few months later.

A memorial on the website notes that the troupers would swim in Hank and Toby's pond, eat Ben & Jerry's and home-baked treats, and even make their own custom creations at Hank and Toby's glass shop, Hot Glass Works. "Hot" stands for Hank or Toby, or, alternately, Heirlooms of Tomorrow.

"Their place is just its own form of Vermont miracle," said Circus Smirkus producer and executive director Ed LeClair. "It's wild, happenstance — every corner of every piece of it is filled with some kind of artistic magic."

Indeed, Toby seemed to channel creative inspiration at every turn. She and Hank first began building their creative oasis in 1978 on land that had belonged to Toby's grandfather. Raised in Teaneck, N.J., Toby spent her childhood summers on the property. As her daughter, Aurina Hartz, put it, "Vermont was where her heart was."

The couple started with a rustic, off-the-grid cabin. They bartered and traded their glasswork over the years to create the home as it stands today — still attached to that first structure. "She didn't want to lose the cabin by leaving it somewhere," Hank recalled. "I'd add another room for her," he said. "She'd fill it, [and] I'd add another one."

Toby was an incorrigible collector. She accumulated puzzle boxes, wind-up toys and rubber stamps. When she broke her jaw, she asked the anesthesiologist, just before he put her under, if she could have the label from his scrubs. The tag — which Hartz says the anesthesiologist handed over — would become part of one of Toby's many ongoing artworks, breathtaking textiles painstakingly hand-sewn from clothing tags.

Toby also collected creative skills and vocations. Not only was she among the rare cohort of female glass artists, she was also a belly dancer, a dulcimer player, a knitter, a handwriting analyst and an avid letter writer.

Claiming firm connections to the spirit world, Toby was a practitioner of Reiki, tarot and astrology. Later in her life, she developed her own technique of "messaging," delivering uncannily accurate bibliomancy-style messages for friends and family by selecting a passage from a book on a shelf.

"She did everything," marveled Hank. "She was not afraid of anything. She was into everything. She collected everything."

Together over the years, Hank and Toby grew their glass-art company. Among their best sellers were their suncatchers, small glass rounds pressed with designs that Toby carved from graphite — many of flora, fauna and the natural world. The front door of their home is adorned with dozens of them. "Our religion was creativity and nature," Hank said of their life and work together.

In addition to the suncatchers, Toby became known for her glass etching of clean-lined, folk-inspired motifs featuring suns and moons, flowers and trees, hearts and stars, as well as her "lady goblets," glass vessels in the shape of a woman. Today, her work is in public and private collections, including the Museum of American Glass at Wheaton Village in New Jersey.

To the delight of friends, family and strangers alike, Toby extended her love of earth and sky beyond her glasswork — specifically, to her car. Over the years, what began as an effort to cover rust spots in one of Hank and Toby's early cars would lead to Toby's masterpiece "star car," a 1999 navy blue Saab covered with stars cut from industrial reflective tape. According to Hank, Toby brought her supplies with her and decorated her new vehicle before even leaving the showroom.

The star car, said Toby's son, Eli Schwartz, "was sort of like her personality: Hey, if you want to be my friend and have fun, here I am."

"Toby delved into so many different art forms," LeClair said, "and she allowed her fascination to drive her life." For the young artists of Circus Smirkus, he said, "she provided a model of someone who fashioned her life around her creative curiosity. In her own unassuming, welcoming, friendly manner, she mentored and was a role model for hundreds of kids."

And she had a great sense of humor, LeClair added. "You know you're funny when clowns look up to you."

It was not unusual for Toby to keep a red clown nose tucked in her cleavage, Eli noted, in case the moment called for it. Often, he added, she would carry a scrap of paper around with jokes scribbled on it; she was famous for forgetting the punch line or accidentally delivering it first.

"She was just so much fun," remembered her daughter.

As LeClair put it, "She wanted you to come play with her."

— Rachel Elizabeth Jones



John Kenneth "Ken" Lawless

August 28, 1939-October 13, 2017
lawless.jpg

If there was a protest in Burlington over the last 20 years, it's a good bet that Ken Lawless was there and that he'd written a clever tune for the occasion. With his distinctive white beard and long white hair, the septuagenarian activist was a fixture at local demonstrations and Burlington City Council meetings. He'd often share his original compositions during the public comment period.

"If he had strong feelings about an issue, like Burlington Telecom, he would go to a meeting and do a song about it," recalled his longtime friend Jeff Miller. "But he never got mad at anyone. He would just sort of sum up the debate and ask, 'Is this really what we want to do?'"

Lawless, who died in October of an undisclosed illness, was a devoted member of the Industrial Workers of the World; he contributed to the labor union's newsletter. Not surprisingly, he had an affinity for populist folk pioneers Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger.

Take, for example, his song "This Land Was Stolen From You and Me," written in honor of Guthrie's 100th birthday. Lawless performed the tune in a 2013 segment for cable access channel CCTV — one of many cable television appearances he made over the years. Before he began, he said he'd tried to imagine "what kind of a song [Guthrie] would have written if he were alive today."

Modeling his song after Guthrie's iconic "This Land Is Your Land," Lawless excoriated America's elite: "This land is not your land / this land is not my land / it belongs to the super rich / from the Hamptons on Long Island," he sang. Then: "We're exploited by the old bourgeois / This land was stolen from you and me."

According to Miller, songwriting was a pastime that Lawless took up after moving to Burlington in the late 1990s. The two met in 1999. At the time, Miller was running the popular Burlington Coffeehouse folk music series at the now-defunct Rhombus Gallery downtown. One night, Lawless wandered in and wanted to watch the show. Informed of the nominal cover charge, he turned and began to walk away. But Miller stopped him.

"I thought he might be down on his luck or something," Miller recalled. "So I told him he could stay for the show if he'd help me clean up after." Lawless agreed, and the two became fast, lasting friends.

"He was my wingman," said Miller.

Lawless immersed himself in the folk scene that orbited Miller's music series, initially as a fan. It wasn't long before he joined as a performer.

"He had been going to watch the open mics for a while," said Miller. "One day he just said, 'I bet I could do that.' And then he did."

Lawless began writing songs — lots of them. By the time he died, he had recorded at least a dozen albums. Most were done in his signature style, a melodically spare sound that might be described as "folk drone" — though Miller had his own term for it.

"I called him the original folk-rap poet," he said.

Lawless would typically strum a single note on guitar — or maybe, on his more complex songs, a two-note chord fragment. Over this he would speak-sing politically charged lyrics — what Vermont folk singer Rik Palieri called "punk poetry" — in an almost tuneless melody.

Thanks to his distinctive style and maybe his Willie Nelson-esque look, Lawless became well known in local music circles. But there was more to him than met the eye — or ear. "Ken was like an iceberg," said Palieri. "The biggest part of him was hidden."

Before he moved to Burlington, the eccentric songwriter was a college English professor who taught at Michigan State University and in the New York state university system, according to his obituary, compiled by Miller. He was an Andrew W. Mellon scholar with a master's degree from the University of Pittsburgh, as well as a published author, poet, essayist and humorist. Lawless reportedly received an honorary Olympic gold medal for his work organizing arts events in conjunction with the 1980 Winter Games in Lake Placid, N.Y.

Miller said he wasn't sure about the details, but he knew that Lawless left his teaching career following a profound family trauma. He moved to Burlington to start over.

Lawless was predeceased by his son, Seumas. His daughter, Mary Lawless, lives in New York City, where she's the director of legal and business affairs at MLB Advanced Media, a partnership of Major League Baseball owners.

Shortly after Lawless passed, the Vermont Workers' Center in Burlington hosted a small memorial gathering in his honor. Miller and others performed. The assembly also listened to several of their late friend's recordings, all of which are now available at the VWC.

"We realized that, even though his art was very strange and a lot of us didn't really understand it, it had an effect on us," said Palieri.

"That's the important thing about art," he continued. "You don't have to understand it or even like it for it to be valid. All it has to do is have an impact. And his did."

— Dan Bolles


Did you appreciate this story?

Show us your ❤️ by becoming a Seven Days Super Reader.

Read all of the 2017 obituaries posted in the Seven Days' Lifelines section here. Please feel free to share memories of other lives lost this year in the comments section below.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Life Stories"

Comments (2)

Showing 1-2 of 2

Add a comment
 

Add a comment

Seven Days moderates comments in order to ensure a civil environment. Please treat the comments section as you would a town meeting, dinner party or classroom discussion. In other words, keep commenting classy! Read our guidelines...

Note: Comments are limited to 300 words.