Great thoughts: Philip Hoff and public service

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(Host) As VPR continues to explore Great Thoughts of Vermont, commentator Allen Gilbert examines former Governor Phil Hoff’s philosophy of public service: his conviction that individuals can make a difference, and his belief that government can do good.

(Gilbert) When Democrat Phil Hoff won the Vermont governorship in 1962, he not only upset a century of Republican dominance in the state. During his time as governor – over a span of just six years – Hoff guided Vermont through a stunning series of sweeping changes, from the structure of government to the average Vermonter’s sense of his or her place in the world.

In his first re-election inaugural address in 1965, Hoff set the agenda for reapportionment, and a great deal more. He said, “Two years ago I urged that we re-evaluate and reform our program of public service in light of the dramatic changes underway in our society. Vermonters realize that we cannot divorce ourselves from the world, that the events in far-off corners of the globe directly affect our daily lives. This fact is one we cannot afford to state and then ignore. This fact must be reflected in our approach to education, to the conservation of our natural resources, to economic development and the very organization of our system of state and local government.”

Perhaps the most striking feature of the address is its strong, upbeat optimism. Hoff concluded his remarks by speaking of the need to be “stewards of hope.” He said, “Ours is a time not of triumph, but of dedication. We meet here not as exponents of party but as stewards of hope. We share a sacred trust, the future of our great state. Let us draw that future in bold strokes with confidence in our mission and faith that men of reason and good will can chart a course of action that will serve humanity.”

Phil Hoff embodied the idea that each of us as individuals can make a difference. He battled incredible odds to win a position of power. From that position he worked to show that government can do good. And he inspired average citizens to believe that they could make a difference in their communities, state and country.

In 1965, Phil Hoff saw how Vermont’s small size was an asset to citizen involvement. He said, “With imagination and the determination to creatively utilize our traditions and resources, we can set the pace for progress in combating educational deficiencies, poverty, and other problems. Vermont has the talent and the resources to achieve this goal. We also are small enough so that the magnitude of the problem can be clearly seen and our progress can be easily demonstrated.”

Long after leaving the governor’s office, Phil Hoff continues to stand up for basic human dignity and fairness. He has served on countless boards and committees – even long after he passed retirement age, when others might have disengaged themselves from public life. With his wife, Joan, he is a steady beacon for others who are younger and less experienced when they question if an individual, or a government, really can effect positive change. During times when government is often seen as the problem, it’s refreshing to recognize people who believe, almost religiously, in the power of government to do good.

This is Allen Gilbert.

Allen Gilbert of Worcester is a writer and parent who is active in education issues. Learn more about the Great Thoughts in this series and give us your feedback.

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