Raising the Bell

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(HOST) Recently, commentator David Moats has been thinking about what it is that defines a community and holds it together.

(MOATS) People in Vermont have been talking about “the creative economy”, by which they mean the coming together of culture, arts, education, business and community. It was on full display a few weeks ago in Middlebury. The idea is that towns with a thriving cultural life also stand a good chance of having a thriving economic and community life.

Culture is not the frosting on the cake. It’s the yeast within the bread. It’s not a luxury reserved for a few fancy towns. It’s a fund- amental need of any lively community. It’s not just Woodstock or Manchester or Burlington. It’s Bellows Falls, Vergennes, Barre and Rutland. And Middlebury.

There’s a group in Middlebury that’s been working for several years to restore the old town hall building into a performing arts center called the Town Hall Theater. It’s the usual grueling task of fund raising and grants and painstaking construction work, all to bring alive a beautiful, historic building in the heart of Middlebury.

For about 50 years, a huge, 1500-pound bell, formerly in the tower of the town hall, had been kept at the nearby Sheldon Museum. The people running the project decided that returning the bell to the tower would be a great symbolic act and a cause for celebra- tion.

So a few Sundays ago, they got the bell onto a truck, they got a jazz band on a horse-drawn wagon and 200 or 300 people gath- ered at the museum to hear speeches. Then everybody marched down the middle of the street from the museum to the town hall, horses pulling and jazz band playing, and they gathered for more speeches, including a word of congratulations from Jim Jeffords. A women’s a cappella group gave Jeffords his own serenade, and you should have seen him swoon.

There was about an hour’s wait as the machinery operator lifted the huge bell up to the tower and workers put it in place. Finally, the bell began to ring. Cheers rose up from the crowd. And then something remarkable happened: The bell began to ring at the nearby Congregational Church, then at the Baptist Church, the Episcopal Church, the Methodist Church, the Catholic Church. Everyone joined in.

I was thinking what an amazing thing it was that, at a time when religious division seems to dominate the news, here were all the churches of Middlebury celebrating together the ringing of the bell at the new, quite secular, venue overlooking the village green.

At one point during the afternoon, an onlooker murmured to her- self, “What a great town.” It wasn’t boasting or boosterism. It was pride and satisfaction. It’s what happens when we make common cause, all the bells ringing out together.

This is the creative economy, but it’s a lot more than that. It’s our life together as a community. If we work at it, whatever town we live in, we can say the same thing: “What a great town.”

This is David Moats from Salisbury.

David Moats is the editorial page editor for the Rutland Herald and winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing.

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