Jeffords service honors his humanity
By Kevin O’Connor
Staff Writer | August 23,2014
Albert J. Marro / Staff Photo
The folded flag that draped the coffin of former U.S. Sen. James M. Jeffords is presented to his children, Laura and Leonard Jeffords, during the funeral service Friday at Grace Congregational United Church of Christ in Rutland.
As the children of former U.S. Sen. James Jeffords listened to speaker after speaker laud their father at his funeral Friday, they knew a few things were left unsaid.
“My dad enjoyed a lot of simple things in life,” interjected his son, Leonard.
Take his tractor. His dogs. His favorite sandwich: peanut butter, lettuce and mayonnaise.
“I know,” his daughter, Laura, responded to the collective groans and grimaces.
Jeffords’ political career spanned four decades, including his election to the Vermont Senate in 1966, the attorney general’s office in 1968, the state’s lone congressional seat in 1974 and the U.S. Senate in 1988. But the man who climbed to the loftiest rungs of the political ladder was eulogized as, first and foremost, a down-to-earth father and friend.
“One of my earliest memories was when I was 5 and he was my hockey coach,” Leonard Jeffords said. “He couldn’t skate. But he always tried to be there for us.”
U.S. Sens. Patrick Leahy and Bernard Sanders and U.S. Rep. Peter Welch joined a slate of Vermont dignitaries, former congressional staffers and several hundred locals for a 1½-hour service at Grace Congregational United Church of Christ in Rutland.
The sanctuary — where James Jeffords went to Sunday school as a child — was the same place that hosted past memorials for his wife, Liz, and his predecessor in the U.S. Senate, fellow Rutlander Robert Stafford.
Although many in the crowd attended all three, Friday’s program was unique from the moment the choir sang its first note to the pluck of a banjo (on folk musician Pete Seeger’s “To My Old Brown Earth.”)
Jeffords’ children skipped repeating their father’s public résumé and instead offered private remembrances.
“My father hated green bean casserole,” Laura said. “Because when he married my mom, that is all she knew how to cook. My father loved to chop wood, and he thought Leonard and I did, too. My father had two left feet. And so he danced with Liz, and it was magic.”
Leonard recounted how their father took time to be a dad. The family played cards, Monopoly, Risk and, every April Fool’s Day, practical jokes. Take the year they faked the theft of his tractor.
“Jim, I can’t talk right now,” Leonard recalled his mother saying on the phone, “the state police are here.”
Former classmate George Hansen said he not only had known Jeffords since age 4 but also introduced him to Liz.
“From Jimmy to Jim to Gentleman Jim to Jeezum Jim,” Hansen said, “we say, ‘Well done, classmate, well done, best friend, well done, good and faithful servant.’”
Former Gov. James Douglas, seated with peers including predecessor Howard Dean, noted Jeffords helped adopt the state’s ban on billboards and worked with the Legislature to draft the Act 250 land-use law and bottle-deposit rules.
“I often wonder what Vermont would look like today,” Douglas said, “without the efforts of Jim Jeffords.”
Douglas acknowledged that, as a Republican, he disagreed with Jeffords’ historic 2001 departure from the party to become an independent, which tipped control of the 50-50 U.S. Senate to the Democrats.
“But I knew as a Vermonter,” Douglas said, “his commitment to us was as strong as ever.”
Jeffords’ former aide Mark Powden said his boss didn’t have separate public and private faces.
“Lord knows on more than one occasion we wished there were two Jim Jeffords,” Powden said of the man whose mix of eagerness and anxiousness often hampered him from offering clear, concise quotes.
But Jeffords could speak volumes with a smile, added his children, who savored his rejoicing over 9-year-old grandson Patton and 7-year-old granddaughter Hazel.
“That’s perhaps my fondest memory of my dad,” Leonard said. “That’s how I will remember my father.”