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Column: Goodbye, my friend

When the end came, it was a blessing. My dear friend and the guy who hired me into the Vermont newspaper business, Bill P., died in his bed with family around him a while back.

Five or so years ago, he started showing signs of dementia and wound up with Alzheimer’s, but recently had developed a big blood clot in his leg, which was painful and problematic. His doctors didn’t know if he would survive the surgery.

The family debated the issue and decided, wisely it turned out, to forgo the operation and surround him with hospice care at his beloved Vermont hillside home overlooking the pretty village of Adamant.

According to family, he was sleeping, then woke and waved his arms frantically, and then lay back down to quietly expire. We assume he had a stroke.

He was an Alabama boy with a fierce mumble who found his way to Vermont and newspapering, first at the Rutland Herald, then the Barre-Montpelier Times-Argus, where he ran the newsroom and against all odds brought me aboard as his first new hire. I had no newspaper experience, was a former Navy officer whose most recent work was various ski-bum jobs at the Sugarbush ski area. (This was the pre-resumé period of my life.)

All I remember telling Bill was that I wanted to be a reporter, could write and had a new 35-millimeter Pentax camera that I was pretty good with. I had always meant to ask Bill what in the world led him to hire me, but I never did. And now I’ll never know.

I was at the Argus six years, but it seems longer. Was Bill the greatest Vermont editor? Nope, but he was pretty good. His greater gift was his personality, which attracted people to his side with a combo of humor, frankness and common sense. You naturally wanted to spend time at Bill’s hillside farm and help with the chores, which most typically involved bringing in the hay every summer.

Bill and Ruth, his wife, over the years had animals: horses, a cow or two, sheep, pigs and always a couple of cold-hearted dogs. But the farm operation was drenched in amateurism. They knew what they were doing — or what needed to be done — but it never felt like they were totally on top of the situation.

That’s what made it fun. Most of the haying operation — cutting, tedding, raking, baling, stacking — took place in what seemed a slow-motion agrarian play.

Six-packs of Budweiser from the Adamant Co-op down in the village fueled the haying work, and I’m certain that there are several six-packs that have been marooned for years in the fields in hiding places long forgotten.

Last summer, much to my relief and satisfaction, we visited Bill before the trouble with the blood clots. He was quiet and not his old self, but looked pretty much the same. In his salad days, he would have been holding court, characteristically raising an eyebrow to make some sarcastic point. I don’t think he said a word.

Amazingly, he had been working on a novel, a Vermont newspapering story, of course, and managed to finish it before he started losing his mind. It’s a well-done piece of fiction, and although he didn’t say a word during the visit, he inscribed my copy of his novel with a note, which now seems beyond value.

He wanted me to tell him what worked and what didn’t. I decided to write him an actual letter with my thoughts (mostly high praise), but by the time I sent it, Ruth couldn’t tell if he understood when she read it aloud.

Bill and Ruth have three kids and an adopted Canadian Indian girl, Chrissie, who had been out of the picture for decades. She had returned when she learned of Bill’s condition. Bill and Ruth’s kids all live in the Adamant area and they are tight-knit and do not stand on ceremony of any kind, including burial.

Molly, the oldest and most inscrutable, manned a small excavator to dig a grave up the hillside behind the homestead with a view of the beaver dam down in the village. It was to be a so-called green burial, with no undertaker involvement.

I’m told that the coffin had some personal items placed alongside Bill. Two were, to me, noteworthy and a little heart-breaking: his novel and an old typewriter. I’m certain this was Bill’s idea.

Molly moved a couple of boulders to mark the grave. And that was the end of Bill, a fine fellow, a dear friend and a haying wizard.

Happy trails, pardner.