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Former Sen. Patrick Leahy: Montpelier Childhood and Vermont Values Kept Him on Track

Former Senator Patrick Leahy stands with 94-year-old Maxine Leary, who was one of his teachers at St. Michael’s High School, after his talk Nov. 5 about growing up in Montpelier. The program was held at the Montpelier Senior Activity Center, which is in the building that was originally St. Michael’s High School. Photo by Tom McKone.
For former U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy, sitting for an interview in front of a capacity crowd of 150 in the large basement room of Montpelier Senior Activity Center was a homecoming, of sorts. As the stone inscription above the front door indicates, the senior center used to be St. Michael’s High School, and — before the building was renovated and the ceiling was lowered — this packed room was the school’s gymnasium. Leahy was in the Class of 1957.

Leahy, who in January retired from the U.S. Senate after representing Vermont for 48 years, grew up on State Street in Montpelier, and in an hour-long Montpelier Historical Society program, he emphasized that growing up in Montpelier and learning and living Vermont values were at the core of his being.

“When you grow up in a community like that,” he said of the capital city in the 1940s and 50s, “that’s going to affect you for the rest of your life. I didn’t expect to be a U.S. Senator, but I tried not to forget the things I learned, so Montpelier has been special.”

Leahy told heartwarming and entertaining childhood stories, including the incident when — at four years old — he was (playfully) thrown out of the governor’s office while riding his tricycle in the Statehouse, visits to the Kellogg-Hubbard Library that helped to foster a passion for reading, and delivering daily newspapers. He told about how a part-time meat cutting job in a grocery store enhanced his appreciation of people who work hard, and he gave many examples of people helping others, including family trips to the store that included buying an extra bag of groceries to drop off for a family that needed it.

One person who shared stories about Leahy was 94-year-old Maxine Leary, who was the senator’s chemistry and sociology teacher during his senior year at St. Michael’s High School. “Why you are still here after that chemistry class, I do not know,” Leary teased him. “I decided not to become a chemist,” he joked back. She went on to explain that she was a Sister of Mercy and was assigned to teach chemistry, even though she knew “mighty little” about it. She said it was a miracle that he was there. Later, when asked to confirm the spelling of her name, she said, “It’s like Leahy, but with an r.”

Some of Leahy’s stories are in his 2022 memoir, “The Road Taken,” which begins with “Montpelier Mornings,” a short chapter about his early years, including the story of how he rode his tricycle directly into the governor’s desk.

Leahy told personal stories, as well as some from his parents and grandparents, that taught him that not everyone is treated fairly, but that we need to fight against that. Family stories included “No Irish need apply” signs that were once posted in Montpelier, which he said really meant, “no Catholic need apply.” Despite some stories like that, he said that overall, people were very accepting of each other, that over time those prejudices notably decreased, and that in his own childhood things were better.

He talked about how his Irish heritage from his father, Italian from his mother (including his maternal grandmother, who was born in Italy and spoke Italian), and marrying into a family that spoke French at home, showed him the value of diversity. He said his parents — who, when Vermont Republicans were a clear majority, were known as “the Democrats” — played bridge and socialized with Republican families, including that of Deane Davis, who was later governor.

Leahy said an important Vermont value he brought to the senate was knowing not to automatically judge people, and he lamented how harsh and divided politics in Washington have become. Living in Vermont guards against that, he said.

“This is real life … . Some of the people — and this is why there’s been such a deterioration in the Senate and the House of Representatives — have grown up in a make-believe, go-for-that-moment’s-headline life, and that’s not America.”

He said he is very concerned that the average age of Vermonters is increasing and that many young people are leaving wthe state. He said we need to do more to attract and keep jobs for an educated workforce.

“I don’t think I could have done 48 years or done the things I’m most proud of if I couldn’t come back to Vermont,” he said, emphasizing the importance of regularly talking with everyday people. “You realize that what you’re hearing from people in the store or walking down the street might be a lot different from what you’re hearing from the pundits on national television — from the right or the left — and that helped keep me anchored.”

In addition to drawing a crowd at the senior center, Leahy’s talk was live streamed and recorded by ORCA Media. It is available on the ORCA Media website.