Stephen Kiernan: Remembering Fred Hackett and the acorns he planted

By STEPHEN P. KIERNAN

One afternoon in 1991, Fred Hackett invited me to join him on a hike of Camel’s Hump. I considered it an honor, given that he had sponsored the legislation, years before, to make that mountain a state park.

The next day we hit the trail an hour earlier than I usually woke up, but it meant we had the peak largely to ourselves. I’d brought apples, bagels and chocolate for a summit snack, but Fred declined it all. His provisions amounted to unwrapping one of those green and white peppermint hard candies they keep beside the register at the Windjammer, where he ate lunch nearly every weekday for years (cup of soup, half a sandwich).

Another time, I stood beside him on the porch of the Mount Mansfield Trout Club, considering a swim in the pond. “Does it ever warm up?” I asked him. He gave me a big smile. “Never.”

Frugality can be a state of mind, and with Fred’s passing last week after a long bout with dementia, I can only admire his embrace of it. In countless ways, his care, restraint and concern benefitted the state he loved, and boosted the prospects of nearly everyone he interacted with.

Fred called it planting acorns: Serving on virtually every substantial nonprofit board, advising governors of all political stripes, advocating tirelessly for a robust economy.

I was lucky enough to be one of those acorns. When I wanted to return to Vermont in 1990, Fred introduced me to leaders in the business community, offered to serve as a reference though we were newly acquainted, and from time to time, gave me a gentle lecture – delivered as he peered sternly over the top of his glasses — about how I had some issue wrong. Always he was worth listening to. Always.

For a time Fred was a politician, a Republican of the old stripe. That means he was moderate, he supported Act 250 and other constraints on unwise development, and he felt government generally ought to leave people alone. When he ran for governor, in what he called the most naïve campaign in Vermont history, he demonstrably lacked the killer instinct. He wasn’t ambitious, he was just a guy who lost sleep worrying about the future of this state.

Ironically, Fred’s style is revealed in the lack of evidence: He disliked the limelight. When the Vermont Community Foundation celebrated its 25th anniversary with a party at Shelburne Farms, there was a moment that the founders one by one were invited to stand onstage. When Fred’s name was called, however, no one came forward. He wasn’t interested in being thanked. He was busy planting other acorns.

Another example: Fred was chairman of the University of Vermont board when the president resigned after failing to deal with student discontent. Who did Fred choose to take the helm, to bring stability and restore order? Thomas Salmon, the man who had defeated him in that gubernatorial race. Fred’s concern was not himself, it was the institution.

He was a devoted husband, a proud father, a doting grandfather. A generous friend, too. I recall a brunch in which he and his wife Sally served local hothouse tomatoes, when they were a new thing, and I ate an entire plateful without a word from them. Later I learned that I’d gobbled about $25 in tomatoes.

Frugality, humility, generosity – these words are like antiques now, in a world of noise and self-promotion. But over and over they made a difference, because Fred made a difference.

If someday you find yourself atop Camel’s Hump, please take a moment to reflect that someone had the vision to see a state park, to preserve that unique landscape for everyone to enjoy, and to seek none of the credit. He made Vermont a better place, one acorn at a time.

We shall not see his like again.

Writer Stephen P. Kiernan lives in Charlotte. This column appeared on VTDigger.org. An obituary for Luther Fred Hackett is on page 7.

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