(HOST) Honors and recognition are usually bestowed in large, pubic ceremonies, but commentator Howard Coffin says that “small and private” can be an equally satisfying way to celebrate a lifetime dedicated to education and public service.
(COFFIN) On one of those recent weathery Vermont days, with clouds set low on the surrounding deep green hills and mountains, an honorary degree was conferred on the Northeast Kingdom’s foremost citizen in his St. Johnsbury home. This year’s time of diplomas and honors perhaps witnessed no finer moment than when Graham Stiles Newell received an honorary doctor of letters from University of Vermont President Daniel Fogel.
Newell, former state senator, Lyndon State College history professor, and Vermont Historical Society president, now in his nineties, was honored while twenty-five friends watched. President Fogel and Newell, both clad in full academic regalia, stood before Newell’s living room fireplace while the president read a citation that stated, in part: “Bringing the classics to life for generations of Vermonters has been the work of a lifetime for Graham Stiles Newell, teacher, historian, and scholar who inspires students with a passion for sharing the knowledge of the ancients even in the age of Xbox and Ipod.”
In accepting, Professor Newell said that his great historical heroes have always been those scholars who wandered through Europe during the Middle Ages, and eventually formed academic communities that became universities.
It was my privilege forty-five years past to take a course in Medieval history offered by Newell at Lyndon State Teachers College. Newell presented a view on Medieval history gained very much from his own research in repositories of ancient manuscripts. I came to know Elinor of Acquitaine, Richard Coeur de Lion, the Venerable Beade, as living, breathing human beings. I learned that research held possibilities not only of wonderful discovery, but also of pure joy.
Later I encountered Newell while covering the State House for the Rutland Herald. Not surprisingly, I found him to be one of the Legislature’s most respected members, and when word circulated through the halls that Senator Newell of Caledonia County was about to speak, the Senate galleries quickly filled.
Graham Newell is frail now and couldn’t attend UVM commencement in Burlington, but he’s still as brilliant and insightful as ever. When St. Johnsbury Academy’s controversial commencement speaker John Negroponte mistakenly assumed that the city where Newell has lived his entire life was named for a biblical figure, Newell was quick to point out that it was actually named for a Frenchman who wrote a best-selling book about life in early America. Incidentally, Newell still teaches. St. Johnsbury Academy students come to his home for instruction in Latin.
At the close of the honorary degree ceremony, Newell invited everyone to his sun porch for an elegant luncheon. In Latin he invited his guests to partake in the spirit of “carpe diem.” Newell, a Vermont treasure, still seizes every precious day.
Howard Coffin is an author and historian who’s specialty is the civil war.