Thursday February 04, 2016
When it comes to affecting the lives of students, the community, and the country, Bob Walsh has done it all.
Former Representative of South Burlington, retired South Burlington High School teacher, author, retired Marine Lieutenant Colonel, and Vietnam veteran Robert “Bob” Lawrence Walsh has lived an engaged life, and some of his accomplishments were recently highlighted.
Vermont Veterans’ Memorial Cemetery
On behalf of the House Committee on General, Housing and Military Affairs, Walsh was recognized at the State House January 12 for his advocacy and service on behalf of the Vermont Veterans’ Memorial Cemetery, which is located in Randolph Center.
Throughout Walsh’s career as a State Representative, which spanned from 1983 through 1988, he was dedicated to the cemetery’s inception, upkeep, and plans for future enhancements.
Walsh said it all started in his first term in the legislature when he was approached by Wayland Bowen from Richmond.
“He had been trying to get a bill put in for a number of years and asked me if I’d do it, and I said ‘sure.’”
Walsh received about 40 sponsors, mostly veterans who were in the legislature, and was able to get the bill passed.
With the enactment of Act 69 of 1989, the cemetery was established, and then-Governor Howard Dean dedicated it in 1993.
“After the cemetery was dedicated, who comes to my door other than Wayland Bowen, who says, ‘now we need to build a chapel. Will you help me with that?’” Walsh said.
In response, Walsh and Wayland set up a nonprofit organization to raise funds for the chapel.
“Over a period of five years, we raised over $200,000 dollars, and we turned that over to the state, and that money plus the money from the federal government, and in-kind service donations went into building the chapel,” he said.
“I could spend all night telling you the stories about people who did certain things, and who donated to what,” he said.
In 1998, he was appointed to sit as a member of the Vermont Veterans’ Memorial Cemetery Advisory Board. The mission of the board is to advise the adjunct general, Walsh explained.
In that time, Walsh lobbied to have a master plan for the cemetery. He was unsuccessful until he reached former representative Michael Obuchowski, Vermont’s Buildings and General Services Commissioner, who was able to get the money from the federal government.
In the summer of 2015, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs awarded the state a $5.7 million grant to add 1,640 new burial spots, construct a new main entrance, public information center and road system, and to expand its operations from seasonal to year-round.
Satisfied after seeing his vision become reality, Walsh sent his letter of resignation in 2015. He recommended Major General Tom Drew of the Vermont Air National Guard, who used to be the adjutant general, take his place. Drew accepted the offer.
The Political Life
“When I was in the military, I was always very interested in politics and international affairs,” Walsh said, turning back the clock. “It’s a natural outgrowth of being in the military because you never know where you’re going to be or what’s going to happen.”
After retiring from the military and earning a degree in English and Education from Colgate University, Walsh went on to teach U.S. History and African American History at South Burlington High School. He saw his political opportunity in the early 80s.
“As luck would have it, they created a new district by the airport and they had no incumbent.”
Walsh was elected and served three terms. In his first term, he served on the House Committee on Government Operations. In his second term, he was on the House Committee of Ways and Means (he was the clerk), and in his third term, he was on the House Committee of Fish, Wildlife, and Water Resources.
“Since then, I’ve advised a number of candidates,” he said. He referenced South Burlington Representative Maida Townsend as an example. “I’ve keep my foot in politics over the years.”
“It was the best education I could possibly get,” he continued. “You learn all about government, how it works, and the nuances of how to get things done. I’ve been out of the legislature since 1989, and I’m still benefitting from it.”
‘The other benefit is that you can’t go anywhere in the state where you don’t know somebody. It breaks a lot of ice.”
The African American Experience
Walsh has made long-lasting friendships over the years, including Francis Brooks, the former Statehouse’s Sergeant-at-Arms and a former Montpelier teacher. They went into the legislature on the same day.
“We’ve been best friends ever since. In fact, I wrote a book about him.”
The book, “Brooks in Montpelier,” was just one of many efforts Walsh made throughout his political and educational life to spread awareness of African-American history and current experiences.
“When I went into the Marine Corps, part of the services had been integrated at that time. When I went to Vietnam, I was the second in command of an infantry battalion,” he said. “I ran into something I didn’t expect, and that was severe racism toward the African American marines in our unit. It really upset me.”
When Walsh taught U.S. History in South Burlington, he noticed the course, “Black History,” which was taught one semester every other year, still needed a teacher. He stepped in.
By this time, Walsh had written his first book, “The Other America: The African-American Experience,” in 2001, which was meant to augment U.S. history instruction. He wrote it with Leon Burrell, an African-American professor at the University of Vermont.
Together, Walsh and Burrell approached the Department of Education for grant funding. They wanted to provide the book, at cost, to principals and superintendents, and they would provide service training for teachers at no charge.
Even though the grant did not come through, Walsh did not give up.
“At that time there was a report out by the U.S. commission of Civil Rights that was called Racial Harassment in VT Public Schools,” he said. “That’s when I decided to write ‘Through White Eyes: Color and Racism in Vermont.’”
In another effort, Walsh contacted Howard University in Washington D.C., and made an agreement to create an online course for “The Other America” publication. Vermont teachers could take this course at home, and they would receive free graduate credits.
A few teachers took the course; Walsh discovered that superintendents, who had to approve the salary credits earned through the class, could not approve them if the subject was outside the teacher’s specialty area.
“The biggest problem in Vermont in regards to racism is denial - people who deny that it even exists,” he said.
Walsh published his third book, “Brooks in Montpelier” about the life of Francis Brooks. He is considering writing a fourth book, a biography of another Vermont African American.
A Full Life
Not everything is politics and class work for Walsh. You can often find him on the green.
“I play a lot of golf, even in the wintertime at Gonzos. You can go there and play any course in the U.S.!”
He plays with his wife, Sandy, frequently. “She beats me more often than I care to admit.”
“We met when I went over to what’s now Trader Duke’s—a piano bar was there. She was with friends. Her sister was the organist. Her sister’s boyfriend said to me, ‘Why don’t you go dance with Sandy.’ So I did. One thing led to another.”
“It also turned out that I had her children in school,” he said.
“When I came to the house to take Sandy out, her daughter, Amy, who was in my class. would meet me at the door and say, ‘Mr. Walsh, what time are you bringing my mother home?’ We had a lot of fun. We’ve been married for 28 years. “
Walsh resides in South Burlington. His children, who live in Virginia, have fond memories of growing up in the Green Mountain State.
“I realize as you age, this stuff isn’t guaranteed to you,” he said. “Live the best you can and treat people the way you want people to treat you. I live one day at a time.”
SOURCE: Miranda Jonswold, Correspondent