Barbara Snelling’s decision to leave the Vermont State Senate brings to a close a remarkable period in Vermont politics. Very few people have contributed as much to the public life of the State of Vermont as Mrs. Snelling and her late husband, Gov. Richard A. Snelling.
I knew both of them for several years, crossed swords with them as a journalist on occasion, but also developed a strong respect for their intelligence, energy, and principled devotion to the good of the state, as they saw it.
Both had successful business careers, but willingly stepped into the fray of public life as well.
In addition to being elected lieutenant governor — the third female lieutenant governor in the history of Vermont — Barbara Snelling has served in the Vermont Senate, was vice-president for Development and External Affairs for the University of Vermont, served on the state Board of
Education, and a wide array of state and local boards, committees, commissions, and institutes.
In all those positions, she has applied her considerable energy and intelligence in pursuit of her strong belief that education matters and can make a difference both for individuals and for society. She has been, as many have noted, a Republican voice of moderation and was praised, as she retired from the Senate, by members of her own party and by Democrats for her fairness.
Her decision to remain in public life after a brain aneurism forced her to cut short her campaign for governor in 1996 took no small amount of personal courage. Her work in the Vermont Senate since then has been clear evidence of the depth of Barbara Snelling’s determination to serve the State of Vermont. And her husband, the late Gov. Richard Snelling had that determined conviction also — the belief that government could be a force for good, and that government service was a grand calling.
When Gov. Snelling died in office in 1991, it seemed that the landscape of Vermont literally changed overnight. He was such a forceful, powerful man that his large frame and larger personality dominated the Vermont political scene for most of the years he was governor. Covering his administration for the Rutland Herald, I got to know him well and though he could be irritating, he was always fascinating and fun to be around. He enjoyed life as much as anyone I knew and was ready for any confrontation, any argument, any chance to triumph over his opponents.
He could be ferociously charming and witty as well. Once toward the end of his first series of terms as governor, Snelling had hurt his foot. Some wisacre in the press corps asked if he felt like a lame duck. As always, Snelling was equal to the occasion.
“The quality of lameness has come over me,” Snelling said, “But not the quality of duckness.”
As Barbara Snelling retires, bringing to an end the public career of the elder generation of Snellings, I am reminded that Vermont has been blessed down through its history with several public-spirited families, starting with the first and most archetypal of all — the Allen brothers, Ethan and Ira.
In the 19th century, there were the Proctors, the family that eventually lent its name to the village of Proctor. And more recently, one thinks of the Bloomers in Rutland, and another strong and important 20th century governor, Philip Hoff and his wife Joan. All, like the Snellings, examples of families who had a deep commitment to Vermont — and made a great contribution.
There will continue to be a Snelling in the Vermont Senate. Gov. Howard Dean last week appointed Diane Snelling to fill her mother’s unexpired term, and the next generation of Snellings may well make their mark in Vermont’s public life in years ahead.
But for me, Barbara Snelling’s retirement was a reminder that two bright stars will no longer shine in Vermont’s political firmament – and that all Vermonters will miss their sparkle.
–Tom Slayton lives in Montpelier and is the editor of Vermont Life Magazine.