Stephen Terry: The many legacies of Phil Hoff

Editor's note: This commentary is by Stephen C. Terry, who is co-author of a political biography of Gov. Phil Hoff. He also covered the Hoff years in Montpelier as a Vermont Press Bureau reporter from 1965 to 1969.

[T]he recent death of former Democratic Gov. Philip H. Hoff serves as an indelible marker of how much Vermont has changed since 1962 when the first-term Burlington lawmaker surprised the nation and was elected governor.

Until Hoff became the first popularly elected Democratic governor in state history — the first Democrat to hold the office in 109 years after the previous one was elected by the Legislature — Vermont was the gold standard as a rock-ribbed Republican state.

Vermont had a solid GOP-dominated Legislature, and until 1964 it had never voted for a Democratic presidential candidate. It literally was then a state with more cows than people. Other than Burlington there were no cities or towns in the state with more than 20,000 residents.

A memorial service for Philip Hoff will be May 12 at 11 a.m. at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul in Burlington.

Small towns with small farms, dirt roads, and one-room schoolhouses were dominating features on the Vermont landscape. The Vermont House was then composed of 246 elected members -- one for each town and city in the state.

The bulk of the Interstate Highway System was still on the drawing boards, as the project got started in 1958 and was not finished until 1982. Meanwhile, poor and substandard roads were the major arteries of the state for travel.

Vermont’s population in 1962 was 393,000, as the big jump in population occurred later in the '60s and '70s.

The last two towns in Vermont -- Victory and Granby in the Northeast Kingdom -- finally got electric power in 1963, to bring to a symbolic end the state’s "Kerosene Culture."

Vermont was a sleepy place in the early 1960s. The day my parents drove me most of the day from Windsor to enroll as a freshman at University of Vermont in September 1960, Williston Road, one of the two major highways to the state’s biggest city, was a quiet two-lane affair.

It was against this backdrop that Phil Hoff, a handsome Kennedy-like candidate at age 37, found himself elected governor in November 1962 by just a 1,348-vote margin, or 50.6 percent of the vote.

With his unexpected victory came the expectation that Hoff would launch in 1963 the “bold new approach” that he promised during his campaign. But then reality sunk in when he stepped into the governor’s office for the first time on the day he was inaugurated. He found that all the filing cabinets had been entirely cleaned out. There was no transition budget. There were no state plans on projects.

Hoff was a fervent believer that government should play a strong role in solving people’s problems through new state programs. The previous Republican administration had just the opposite view.

So, it came as a shock when the young new governor asked the Legislature in 1963 to hold an abbreviated session to allow time for a complete inventory of state problems and then to return for a special session in 1964 at which major legislation would be proposed.

His 1963 inaugural address asked for time with this request:

“The time has come to sit down and take a good look at ourselves and try to analyze who we are, what we are, and what we have in possible revenues, what we can raise and still make Vermont an attractive place to live.”

Since Hoff’s death there have been many excellent news stories and commentaries recounting the many important initiatives launched during the Hoff years from 1964 to 1969, much of it stemming from the many citizens involved in study committees Hoff created in 1963.

Most prominently mentioned are Hoff’s efforts to improve the state’s elementary and secondary school systems, the creation of the Vermont State Colleges, the transformation of the state’s welfare system, the abolishment of billboards, the reform of Vermont’s judicial system.

Not all of his programs were successful. To his life-long dismay a proposal he made in 1966 to important cheap hydroelectric power from Canada did not become a reality until the 1980s. Hoff’s 1964 proposal to consolidate schools and create 12 big districts was shot down. Today, 54 years later, the perennial school district size debate continues in the Statehouse.

A key to getting many of Hoff’s reforms accomplished was the reapportionment of the Vermont Legislature in 1965. Hoff played a major role, along with the Republican majority legislative leadership, to comply with a federal court order to ensure that all Vermonters had equal votes by reducing the Vermont House from 246 members to 150, the same number that exists today along with a 30-member Senate.

Always an overriding concern for Hoff, before and after his election as governor, was civil rights. His concern for disadvantaged people had its start early in his life growing up in Turners Falls, Massachusetts.

Hoff recalled during interviews for our 2011 book, “Philip Hoff -- How Red Turned Blue in the Green Mountain State” (co-authored by Samuel B. Hand, Anthony Marro and Stephen C. Terry, published by Castleton University and University Press of New England), how he stopped boys from bullying a young girl from what Hoff described as a “dirt poor family, dressed in rags.”

The young Hoff, who was tall, muscular and ruggedly athletic, told the boys that if they continued to taunt the young girl that “they would have to deal with me.” The harassment stopped.

Later as governor in 1968, Hoff teamed up with then New York City Mayor John V. Lindsay to create a Vermont-New York Youth Project that brought together a total of 1,152 black teenagers from Harlem and the Bronx with white teens from Vermont to participate in an arts and trade skills program. The primary focus of the effort was for young people to learn how to live with one another.

The main goal of the program was to try to stop the drift to two separate societies, one white and one black, that was forewarned by the National Advisory Commission on Urban Disorders, chaired by Mayor Lindsay and Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner.

The effort proved to be very controversial and stirred up a lot of latent racism in Vermont that overshadowed Hoff’s earlier efforts in creating a Vermont Human Rights Commission and a Vermont Housing Authority and, a fair housing law to stop discrimination.

Hoff didn’t win all the battles, but he never walked away from a fight.

It has been my privilege to have been on the scene during the past half-century to have closely observed in my various capacities as an author, reporter, editor and a business person, the Hoff influence on Vermont.
There can be no doubt that Philip H. Hoff will be long remembered as the individual who deserves much credit for the transformation of Vermont that we know today.

What I now marvel at is the courage and leadership it took for Hoff to ask for a pause in 1963 to give time for his new administration to focus on Vermont’s problems and offer up solutions -- all the more remarkable given his narrow election victory and the fact he faced re-election in 1964 as a Democrat in one of the most Republican states in the Union.

For Phil Hoff government was all about people and trying to improve the way people lived. This is an epitaph he would approve.

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