At first, Rick Bessette thought he had done something terribly wrong.
The lifelong Shelburne resident had been asked by the town’s Veterans Monument Committee to write a few lines for a veterans’ memorial, which would be carved in granite.
Bessette is not a veteran, so he asked several local vets to give him “one or two words that they carry in their hearts every day.” Several weeks later, while visiting the farmers market, he found a veteran whom he knew and asked him to read the draft.
“I still get choked up about this,” Bessette recalls. “I gave him the draft and he started to cry and then he nodded his head and just walked away. I thought I had hurt his feelings but when I brought it to the committee’s table they said ‘You didn’t hurt him; you were able to touch his heart’.”
Impressed by the poem, the Shelburne town manager, library director and the selectboard created a Poet Laureate Program and asked Bessette if he would be Shelburne’s first poet laureate.
That was nearly two years ago. Bessette is now nearing the end of his two-year term which has required him to conduct local readings and write a verse each year for the town’s annual report.
One thoroughly enjoyable byproduct of his term was filming a “Stuck in Vermont” video with Eva Sollberger and a group of Shelburne Community School fifth graders at Shelburne Farms last month. Bessette and the students used the field trip as inspiration for their writing. “The children were so excited,” he said. “What a joy it is to see them writing and thinking and seeing these things.”
Bessette grew up on the property that is now Shelburne Farms. “We lived a very simple life,” he said “and my dad worked the fields and at the dairy. I had full reign of the farm as a child. I’m proud of what they’ve been able to do with the property. Nature abounds.”
A little over a decade ago, Bessette left Shelburne Farms for a house in Shelburne Village where he works part-time at Aubuchon Hardware.
While Bessette is a big fan of Robert Frost, he credits his uncle Joe Thomas, Shelburne school custodian, with being his poetic inspiration. “I have an enormous collection of Robert Frost books,” Bessette said “but Uncle Joe wrote rhyming quatrains and he is my hero.”
Bessette didn’t always write poetry. That side of him emerged in adulthood while recuperating from an injury. Subsequent to a knee replacement, Bessette broke other bones in his leg and while lying in a hospital bed for two months he realized he missed the wind in his face and the sounds of the birds.
“It gave me an eye-opening about the treasure of growing up on the farm and having those things surround you every day,” he said, recounting how that led to his decision to write about nature and his childhood home. In 2010, Bessette published a book of his poems called “A Vermonter’s Heritage, Listening to the Trees.”
Today, Bessette’s verse honoring the veterans can be found prominently displayed on the stone memorial in the center of Shelburne Village.
“I’ve never moved more than five miles in my life,” Bessette said. “So for me to give our veterans something engraved in Vermont granite for eternity is special. I’ve been a fireman, a Cub Scout leader and Little League coach but to give the town and the veterans that gift, there is nothing to compare that to. It’s an honor and a great privilege to have been able to do that and it’s something I will treasure forever. I feel like I’ve given back to the community and that’s important to me.”