Donald Vern Webster, who called Brattleboro home since 1978, died peacefully in his home on July 12, 2018, after several months of declining health. A memorial service will be held Sunday, August 12, at 2:00 p.m. at Centre Congregational Church on Main Street in Brattleboro, with Rev. Scott Couper officiating.
Don was born to Rev. Max Harris Webster and Mary Small Webster on June 9, 1936 in Westfield, VT. He and siblings Harris Webster (Montpelier, VT) and Susan Chamberlain (Piedmont, CA) were raised in Burlington, VT, where their parents’ commitment to the Social Gospel and concern for issues of equality and justice shaped them into adults who cared deeply for those same values.
Don’s career was varied and followed a winding path guided by several lifelong passions: a valuing of strong educational options for people of all backgrounds, a drive towards social justice fostered by wise, compassionate, and progressive policy work, a dedication to Vermont and Brattleboro, his love of his family and his deep respect for young people, and the joy he found in music and baseball.
Educated at Oberlin College (BA in political science, 1958), New York University (MAT in 1959), and UMASS/Amherst (M. Phil. in Political Science, 1966), he began his career teaching high school social studies in Burlington and Stowe, VT. He spent four summers working at Camp Pemigewassett (NH), a place that remained close to his heart as he became a parent and grandparent of Pemi campers. He also enlisted in the Vermont Air National Guard, serving for two years in the early 1960s. He explored his love of theater in those days by starring in local productions of musicals such as The Music Man, My Fair Lady, and Guys and Dolls, along with several Gilbert and Sullivan operettas at Camp Pemi. In the late 1960s, he was a professor of Political Science at Hamilton College. Later in his career, after sojourns in other fields, he returned to education, chairing the Brattleboro Union High School Board of Directors in the era when they oversaw the building of the “new” science wing, and serving on the State Board of Education. He then went on to become an Assistant Superintendent in the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union, and Superintendent of Schools for the Rutland Central Supervisory Union.
Don believed strongly in the power of good government and good policy to shape a strong society in which the needs of all are addressed. After teaching about these values to his students at Hamilton College, he was drawn back to Vermont in 1969 by the Vermont Democratic Party, who hired him as their chairman. He worked for the Party in several capacities before becoming Campaign Manager for Tom Salmon’s successful 1972 campaign for Governor of Vermont. Don was named Secretary of Development and Community Affairs in 1972, and during his four years of service in that capacity he engaged in some of the work of which he remained most proud: developing the Vermont Housing Finance Agency, overseeing the elimination of billboards from the Vermont landscape, and directing the statewide recovery efforts following the historically destructive floods of 1973. Election nights were highlights of this time, with a buzz that his whole family remembers fondly.
After his career in government, Don formed a partnership to buy WKVT radio station in Brattleboro and moved his family from South Burlington to Brattleboro in 1978. He served as General Manager for the station for five years, and his position led him to fall in love with the community through covering politics, sports, and local culture. Election nights again became highlights, though from a reportorial point of view. His love of Brattleboro and Vermont continued to guide his career choices, and he was elected to the Vermont Legislature, serving as Brattleboro’s District 3 Representative from 2000-2002. He served as a representative to Brattleboro’s Town Meeting for many years, led Building a Better Brattleboro in its early days, served on the Windham Regional Commission, and worked with SmartGrowth Vermont and Brattleboro Area Affordable Housing. In his older years, his drive for equality and justice led him to become more of an activist, and he and his brother Harris traveled together to Occupy Wall Street, local protests, and political rallies, bringing grandchildren along so they could experience free speech and democracy in action. His passion for the vitality of Brattleboro’s downtown was one driver of his decision to open Riverview Café in his retirement, a partnership in which he was joined by son-in-law Tristan Toleno as chef-manager for the eleven years of its operation, along with his sister Susan Chamberlain and brother-in-law John Chalik as original partners.
Don met his wife-to-be, Beverly Stackpole, in 1961, and they were married in Johnson, Vermont, on August 25, 1962. They were together nearly every day of that 56 year span and remained deeply in love, walking hand in hand through life. Don always appreciated that Beverly’s trust and sense of adventure allowed him to pursue his wandering path through career and life. Together they had four children: Carrie (Jaffrey, NH), Andrew (Edison, NJ), Jacob (New Orleans, LA), and Susan (Brattleboro). Don’s love for his family grew to embrace his children’s spouses, whom he loved very dearly: Aurea Hernández-Webster, Michelle Legault, and Tristan Toleno. He celebrated and enjoyed his nine grandchildren: Rachel and Adrienne Kennedy; Max, Julian, Tomás, Nick, and Leila Hernández-Webster; Owen and Malcolm Toleno. He attended as many of their sporting events, artistic endeavors, and other milestones as possible, and took great joy in doing so. He engaged all of them in thinking deeply about the values that guided his life, and encouraged them to live life fully and courageously. In addition to his immediate family, Don also leaves behind his brothers-in-law, David Stackpole and John Chalik and many loving nephews and nieces for whom he was an engaging and caring uncle.
Don was a lifelong, passionate fan of the Cincinnati Reds, which tried his patience greatly in his last several decades, and a lover of music of all kinds, occasionally lending his tenor voice to local choral groups, and, long ago, to the Oberlin concert choirs and a little-known vocal quartet called The Lettermen. He played first base for Oberlin’s baseball team, for an Air Force traveling team, and in local men’s softball leagues well into his retirement years, where his earlier nickname “Sweet Swing” continued to be apt. Don was also an active member of Centre Congregational Church UCC and of the noon Rotary Club.
Towards the end of his life, Don and Bev were particularly grateful for care provided by Speech Language Pathologist Kristi Nicholson and Home Care Aide Nina Honeycutt, as well as the team from Bayada Hospice.
In lieu of flowers, donations in Don’s memory may be made to Centre Congregational Church, UCC (193 Main St, Brattleboro, VT 05301) or Brattleboro Area Affordable Housing, Inc. (PO Box 1284, Brattleboro, VT 05302).