A voice of reason bids adieu

Tomorrow night when Lincoln, Vermont gathers in Burnham Hall for Town Meeting, the big elephant in the room will be whether our school systems have let us down by creating a generation of adults who write only in CAPITAL LETTERS. Or in bold face. Or by underlining EVERYTHING. Or – most egregious of all – by presuming that exclamation points are cumulative, and the way to show you are SHOUTING in print is with lots of exclamation points!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Actually, the big issue is a vote on a school bond. It’s just that most of us in Lincoln have gotten a lot of mail the past month about the bond vote, some of which has been the junk mail equivalent of a no-holds-barred, diva meltdown on “Celebrity Rehab.” In other words, there has been lots of typeface SCREAMING!!!!!!!!!!!

Nevertheless, when Lincoln gathers as a town tomorrow for our annual Adventures in Democracy (the thrill ride is coming soon to a Disney theme park near you), I tend to doubt the print YELLING will migrate into Burnham Hall. The discussion may be animated because we in Lincoln are as opinionated as anyone, but I will be very surprised if it becomes unreasonable. And the reason for that, in part, is our Town Meeting moderator, David Marsters. Marsters has been wielding his gavel from the front of the room at Town Meeting for a quarter-century now, a master of ceremonies who keeps tempers in check and the town on task. He tells us what is germane and what isn’t – and no one wants to stand up and say something that isn’t germane. Saying something that isn’t germane at Town Meeting is sort of like showing up for a party at the Italian Prime Minister’s without contraception. It’s just embarrassing.

But this Town Meeting will also be a little wistful for all of us who appreciate the incredible service that Marsters has rendered as moderator, because this will be his last year as ringmaster. After 25 years, he is calling it a career.

“It’s been a great run,” he told me, “but I turn 65 in May. I don’t want to reach that point where someone has to whisper in my ear that it’s time to move on. I never want to be a disgruntled old fart.”

Marsters has spent his professional life as an educator, at different times being an English teacher, a social studies teacher, a principal, and Director of Migrant Education for Vermont in the 1980s. Currently he is a reading specialist at Mount Abraham Union High School in Bristol and the business manager for the Lincoln Volunteer Fire Company.

He says that town meeting has actually changed relatively little in the quarter-century he has been moderator. “Sometimes people seem a little more savvy and have done a little more homework,” he observed, “but town meeting still matters. In an era when so much of the communication is electronic and civility is lacking, it’s so important that we get together and do this.”

Among his favorite memories – and what typifies the tradition for him – is this: “I used to enjoy watching Lee Cassidy and Val Lust joke how their votes cancelled each other out,” he said. “They were great friends and people listened to them with respect, but they always seemed to be on different sides of an issue.”

He also cited Fred Thompson as a mentor: “We couldn’t have been more opposite in politics, but we were similar in our wish to give our kids a good school and a good education. He is the poster boy for being able to maintain your equanimity and disagree with people.”

That could describe Marsters, too. “It has been such an honor and such a privilege to be moderator,” he said. “This is democracy. This is what our ancestors fought for.”

And that just might be a sentiment that deserves a couple of exclamation points.

Godspeed, my friend, and a very big thank-you. See you next year in the audience.

(This column originally ran in the Burlington Free Press on February 27, 2011.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.