John Bisbee: Advocate for Vermont youths

Working as an optical system engineer, John Bisbee helped make the first camera that landed on the surface of Mars in 1976, as well as the cameras that circled the moon to find a place for American astronauts to land. Those are the ones he can talk about; many more remain classified. After retirement, Bisbee’s interests stayed closer to the ground as he volunteered as a guardian ad litem, representing the interests of children involved in court cases.

For the last year and a half, Bisbee, 90, and his wife Brenda have been living at Wake Robin. Bisbee grew up in Concord, Mass. but never really felt a sense of place since his father worked at a boarding school and the family lived on campus. Instead, he felt attached to the family’s vacation home in Fayston where he spent his summers. When Bisbee retired from his job in Carlyle, Mass., he and his wife moved to Vermont, living in Burlington and South Burlington before moving to Wake Robin.

Bisbee recognizes that engineering and social work are generally not associated with one another, but during his last 10 years in Massachusetts he spent time as a hospice volunteer. He tried to continue that work in Vermont but didn’t find it as satisfying, so when a Burlington neighbor suggested that Brenda become a guardian ad litem, he jumped at the opportunity in her stead.

“It’s not that dissimilar from hospice work,” Bisbee said. “You’re dealing with grief and you’re dealing with families in pain. A major difference is that you feel a certain amount of anger at what people do to little kids. Dying is part of life, but abusing and neglecting children should not be.”

Bisbee admits the work of a guardian ad litem is not fun, but he does find it interesting. “The atmosphere of a court is so alien to anything I’ve seen before,” he said. “The judge walks in and everyone has to stand up.” This spring, after 28 years in the courtroom, Bisbee retired from his position. First, he was feted at the courthouse and then he received a proclamation at the Vermont Statehouse. With his tongue firmly implanted in his cheek, he notes that his proclamation had nine “whereas” clauses, a number which he has been comparing to proclamations received by other Wake Robin residents.

These days, Bisbee has embarked on a new venture, trying to restart a Family Drug Treatment Court. Often, the underlying reason children are removed from their homes is their parents’ substance abuse, and the goal of the court would be to help get the parents off drugs or alcohol to reunite the family. “It’s difficult,” Bisbee said, “because it interrupts the normal adversarial atmosphere of the court.”

Bisbee continues to spend his summers at his childhood home in Fayston and while at Wake Robin, he spends time in the woodshop. He is currently completing work on a table crafted out of rock maple, which has worn out a number of chisels. Although he no longer works as a guardian ad litem, Bisbee found the position rewarding.

“There were times when I really did make a difference, although not a lot of them,” he said. “It’s a crazy system of judges and lawyers and social workers and service providers but the outcome is the right one in almost all cases.”

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