Ever notice how almost every photograph of former Vermont governor Jim Douglas looks the same? The not-quite-convincing smile, the middle-disance stare, the resolutely dead eyes? It’s almost as if he’s thinking to himself, “I wonder what puppy tastes like.”
Well, something has finally shattered that phlegmatic exterior. What, might you ask, is capable of piercing Douglas’ impregnable fortress of blanditude?
An alleged insult against a dead white guy.
Douglas, who could have had his pick of Vermont media outlets to carry his thoughts, took to the digital-only pages of the New York Sun, a conservative outlet that has nothing to do with the original city paper, to post his screed about why he’d decided to boycott his 50th class reunion at Middlebury College.
He did so because the college had the temerity to rename the Mead Memorial Chapel. It had borne the name of former Vermont governor John Mead, but the college took down his name because, uhh, Mead had been a proponent of eugenics.
Pish tush, says Douglas. A lot of people were pro-eugenics in the early 20th Century. And aside from that little flaw, Douglas says, Mead was “a decent man, as well as a generous benefactor” and a veteran of the Civil War to boot.
Problem is, John Mead wasn’t just some random dude who thought the gene pool needed a little purification. He used his platform as governor to call for an official policy of eugenics in Vermont, which led to one of the darkest periods in our history.
[In 1912,] Mead gave a farewell address to the Vermont Legislature in which he advocated for the use of eugenic theory in creating legislation and policy. His comments in that speech about marriage restrictions, segregation and sterilization inspired the research behind the Eugenics Survey of Vermont and led to the legalization of voluntary eugenical sterilization two decades later.
Mead was the first Vermont official to advocate forced sterilization as a solution for the problem of “Our Degenerates.” He was, in other words, the guy who brought eugenics into the mainstream of Vermont political thought. In fact, the following year, the state legislature enacted a bill moving Vermont very close to legalization of eugenics.
Mead wasn’t just another person trapped in the benighted ethics of his time. He was an active proponent who played a significant role in Vermont becoming a hotbed of eugenics. And he was enthusiastic about it, telling the Legislature that the degenerate class was “increasing out of all proportion to the normal class of the population” because those damn degenerates were getting married and having kids! “If a defective marry a defective, as is very often the case, the off-spring will inherit the taints of both parents,” Mead said in his farewell address.
This guy was hard core. When you look back on his role in promoting eugenics in Vermont, it’s easy to see why modern college leadership saw his name as inappropriate for a campus building. I’d say it was doubly inappropriate on a house of worship.
Douglas’ ire is partly inspired by the fact that Mead and his wife donated the funds for the chapel’s construction. Well, his name was up there for a century or more; I’d say he got his money’s worth. No one gets guaranteed perpetuity because they donated money for a building. The Detroit Tigers’ ballpark was originally named Navin Field after its then-owner Frank Navin — until new owner Walter Briggs did some upgrades and renamed the place for himself. Briggs’ name came down in 1961, when a new owner decided to call it Tiger Stadium.
Ozymandias isn’t just a poem. It’s part of human existence.
Middlebury decided to remove John Mead’s name last fall, after the state Legislature had approved a measure formally apologizing for Vermont’s role in the eugenics movement. That provides some context for what Douglas depicts as a rushed, ill-considered decision.
Douglas’ essay whines about “cancel culture” and “The Thought Police” taking all the fun out of life. “I’ll miss seeing my classmates and reminiscing about our college days,” he wrote, but “for now, I’ll celebrate alone.”
Awwwww. Give that man a sippy cup.
There are arguments to be made on the question of how we handle public honors for people who, in retrospect, no longer seem quite so honorable. But if the honor is under the bailiwick of an independent entity like, say, a liberal arts college, then the college gets the final say on how and to whom it bestows its honors.
One more thing. “The College Fix,” an online site devoted to conservative-informed “news” about the academic world, posted a piece about Douglas’ op-ed that began by identifying Douglas as “one of the most prestigious graduates of Middlebury College in the Vermont-based institution’s 222-year history.”
I beg to differ. In fact, I’d say that Douglas isn’t even the most prestigious Vermont Republican to spring from the educational loins of Middlebury. That would be Bob Stafford, who was not only governor, but also U.S. Representative and U.S. Senator. Auditor, state senator and financier Randy Brock could also give Douglas a run for his money.
Beyond that narrow strip of human endeavor, the ranks of Middlebury alums are large, distinguished, and incredibly varied. Maybe we should rename the chapel in honor of 1849 grad Martin Henry Freeman, the first Black president of an American college. Middlebury is, in fact, a rich training ground for academic leaders. The most distinguished is John Martin Thomas (1890), who was president of Middlebury, Penn State and Rutgers.
The arts? How about Vermont’s own Anais Mitchell? The late actor Roscoe Lee Browne, who had a long and productive career despite his resistance to playing stereotypical Black roles? James Cromwell? Eve Ensler? Amanda Plummer? Kristen Connolly? Longtime New York Times theater critic Mel Gussow? W.C. Heinz, the greatest sportswriter you’ve probably never heard of?
Here’s one that resonates with this University of Michigan graduate: Ray Fisher, major-league baseball player who coached the Michigan team from 1921 to 1958, and for whom the Wolverines’ baseball stadium is named. Other sports alums include NFL placekicker Steven Hauschka, seven-time Olympic athlete John Morton, and three-time Olympian Dorcas Denhartog.
Lots of prominent alums in the business world, including John Deere (yes, that John Deere), hedge fund manager and one of America’s richest people Louis Bacon, New Balance chair Jim Davis, financier and diplomat Felix Rohatyn, former NPR CEO and now New York Times executive Vivian Schiller, and former U.S. Comptroller of the Currency and Chase Bank CEO A. Barton Hepburn.
There’s more. Henry Schoolcraft, explorer and ethnologist credited with finding the source of the Mississippi River. Ron Brown, former Commerce Secretary and DNC chair. Torie Osborn, LGBT activist. Ari Fleischer, press secretary for President George W. Bush. Myrtle Bachelder, chemist who worked on the Manhattan Project. Jill Seaman, physician with Médecins Sans Frontiéres and MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” recipient.
In that company, Jim Douglas is aiight, but he’s far from “one of the most prestigious graduates” in Middlebury history. And his shitfit over the renaming of the Mead Chapel reveals him to be a small-minded man and demeans his own stature as a Middlebury alum.