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What's in a Name? Ferreting Out the Founders of Burlington's Public Schools

State of the Arts

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Burlington residents can easily deduce the sources of the straightforward names of two of the city’s nine public schools: Burlington High School and Champlain Elementary. But who was Lyman C. Hunt? How about Lawrence Barnes? H.O. Wheeler? And did Edmunds even have a first name?

Don’t look to those schools’ websites for answers. They have nothing to say about the historical figures who gave them their names. That seems odd, given today’s obsession with localism. Besides, doesn’t a school have a responsibility to acquaint its students with some basic facts of history — starting with, say, information about the person for whom it is named?

Props, then, to J.J. Flynn and C.P. Smith elementary schools, both in the New North End, for providing easily accessible biographical summaries of their namesakes.

Cursory internet searching, meanwhile, yields plenty of info on U.S. Senator George Edmunds (1828-1919). The Burlington-based lawyer can be seen as a precursor to Sen. Patrick Leahy, in that he acquired political power on a national scale as a result of his Senate seniority and legislative prowess. Edmunds is best known for drafting a law (the Edmunds Act) suppressing polygamy in Utah, as well as for his role in shaping the Sherman Antitrust Act, which sought to bust monopolies during the age of robber barons.

A typically progressive Vermont Republican, Edmunds also advocated voting rights for black people. But his reputation is besmirched by a blatant conflict of interest that would today earn Edmunds public scorn and possibly a rebuke by his Capitol Hill colleagues. He pocketed fat fees from railroad companies while simultaneously voting on railroad issues in the Senate.

In contrast to Edmunds, there aren’t any Wikipedia entries for Barnes, Wheeler or Hunt. A fairly intense search of other web sources produces little on these men, who were undoubtedly great in their day but have since receded into obscurity.

John J. Flynn (1854-1940), by contrast, may be the most familiar of the local luminaries whose handles are affixed to several Queen City institutions. Along with the school on North Avenue, his memory is preserved through the performing arts center on Main Street. There’s also Flynn Avenue in the city’s South End.

It’s common practice to name prominent sites for wealthy local businessmen. Such is the case of Flynn, developer of the Chittenden County streetcar network, a gas plant in Barre and summer homes on Lake Champlain. He also founded a Burlington bank.

Flynn’s fellow citizens’ respect for this paragon of capitalism was likely enhanced by his self-propelled ascent from humble origins. The son of an Irish immigrant laborer, he dropped out of school in Dorset and found work on a dairy farm in Burlington. Soon he was managing the farm, which led to involvement in a variety of commercial ventures, including the Queen City Realty Co., which developed the Starr Farm beach community.

Charles P. Smith (1891-1967) was another Burlington tycoon. He got his start as an auto dealer, establishing the Ford Agency in 1924. Smith also launched a petroleum business and an appliance company. A University of Vermont alumnus, he became a civic celebrity, winning election to the state senate and serving as president of the Burlington YMCA and chairman of the Vermont Board of Education. In 1958 Smith broke ground on the school that bears his name and still displays his picture in its lobby.

Lawrence Barnes (1815-1886) was just as much an entrepreneurial go-getter as were Flynn and Smith. The Vermont Encyclopedia says Barnes was “noted for his indomitable cheerfulness and good luck.” The businessman behind the North Street school that today is called the Sustainability Academy made a fortune as a lumber dealer. Barnes is, in fact, considered the figure most responsible for elevating Burlington to third place in the ranks of U.S. inland lumber ports. Only Chicago and Albany shipped more wood in the 1870s.

Aptly, schools are often endowed with the names of notable educators. Enter Wheeler and Hunt.

An acronym that probably sent pupils into hysterics may have motivated the Archibald Street School to change its name sometime early in the 20th century to H.O. Wheeler. The name changed again five years ago with the introduction of the Integrated Arts Academy.

Henry Orson Wheeler (1841-1917) was the son of a South Hero school principal; he joined the Union Army during the Civil War and afterward studied at UVM and became a lawyer. During his 32-year tenure as superintendent of the Burlington school system, eight schools were built in the city, according to a 1995 precis by UVM’s historic preservation program seeking Wheeler’s inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

As for Lyman C. Hunt, a plaque in Hunt Middle School indicates he was superintendent of the Burlington School District from 1922 to 1957. Neither school officials nor local historic records offer more information about the man. Too bad that Burlington educators seem to have forgotten his decades-long contributions to learning.

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