A Tribute to Philip Henderson Hoff

Theodore Roosevelt said:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Philip Henderson Hoff did not shy away from the arena. He confronted the issues of the day, and often, the issues of the future.

He played high school football and tasted victory, scoring the winning touchdown in the longstanding rivalry between his hometown, Turners Falls, and arch-enemy Greenfield. He went to Williams College, but left early to do his bit in World War II. He signed up for training as a pilot, but after he damaged his third trainer, the Navy persuaded him that it was not to be. So, he volunteered for the submarine service.

He met Joan while he was training in Connecticut. On one date, he took a red kerosene lantern from a construction site and gave it to her as a gift.

Phil saw combat in the Pacific Theater aboard the USS Sea Dog, a submarine, where he earned two battle stars.

After the war, Phil returned to Williams College. Joan heard that he was back and had asked about her, so she boxed up the red lantern and sent it to him with a note: “Phil, it’s your turn to polish it for a while.”  The lantern rekindled their romance and led on to almost 70 years of marriage.

Phil finished at Williams and went to Cornell University Law School.

In 1951, Phil accepted an invitation from another Cornell graduate, J. Boone Wilson, to come to Burlington, and join the respected law firm then known as Black and Wilson.

Phil developed a successful law practice with Boone. He was good with a jury and had the largest jury verdict in a personal injury case of the 1950s.

Phil and Joan settled in a lovely home on South Prospect Street, where they raised their 4 daughters, Susan, Dagny, Andrea, and Gretchen.

Phil is often given credit for making the Democratic Party dominant in Vermont, and for ushering Vermont into the American mainstream. He deserves a great deal of credit on both counts, but even he would not claim it all. Politics and government are team sports, and Phil would be the first to acknowledge that what was accomplished was not his alone, not by any means.

But to see how broad and deep his legacy is, it is important to put it in context. Vermont in those days was a sleepy state. Most Governors acted as caretakers. The real political power in the state rested with the towns. Vermont had more dairy cows than people.

And the Democratic Party was sleepier still. A Democrat had only held the Governorship only once in history.  For many years a handful of Democratic cronies traded the nominations for statewide offices, not in hopes of getting elected, but to have a stake in distribution of political patronage from Washington.

How sleepy was it? In the 1946 election, Vermont’s Democratic National Committeeman was asked who the party’s candidate for Governor was. Unable to remember, he replied “Oh, some fellow from up north.” “But we don’t concede his defeat.”

Change was in the wind. In 1950’s two of Phil’s friends, Bob Larrow and Bernard Leddy, ran between them, three serious campaigns for Governor. Leddy came within 719 votes of victory. In 1959, the Party hired its first full time executive director, Sam Miller, who is with us here today. We were poised for victory.

Phil ran for Burlington Board of Alderman in the winter of 1960. He lost, but politics was in his blood. That fall he was elected to the Vermont House of Representatives.

In the House, Phil helped bring together a group of young, well-educated and energetic legislators, Democrats and Republicans, who wanted to see government take a more active role in the development of the state. Its members included many who would play important roles in the days ahead. Together, among other things, they set out to end the poll tax. At the time they failed. But they started a political revolution that has not ended yet.

In 1962, Phil and Joan ran an energetic and charismatic campaign against the incumbent Governor. The Hoffs were everywhere, even at my mother’s door in Rutland. With the help of about 5,000 votes on two independent party lines, Hoff prevailed. Phil told the crowd in Winooski that night: “100 years of bondage broken.”

Winning is one thing; governing is another. Phil found that state government could neither forecast expenses nor revenue. Within weeks, he appointed a series of task forces made up of legislators, officials and citizens, who reviewed the state’s problems and inventoried its needs.

By the beginning of the 1964 legislative session, Hoff came forward with a substantial legislative program.

The accomplishments of his six years as Governor changed the face of Vermont: Hoff opened state government’s first planning office, ended the Overseer of the Poor system of administering welfare benefits, and founded the Vermont District Court, and the Judicial Nominating Commission. He established the Governor’s Commission on Women, the Vermont Council on the Arts, and the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation.  He promoted regionalization in the delivery of government services, establishing regional airport and library systems.  He presided over the reapportionment of the Vermont legislature to comply with the principle of one man, one vote.

And as important as those accomplishments were, the issues he took on dominated the political agenda for the rest of century and on to today.

Phil took on the cause of racial justice in Vermont.  As freshman legislator he proposed prohibiting race discrimination in employment. The bill failed, but after his election as Governor, his bill was adopted and included a prohibition against discrimination based on sex. He established the Vermont Human Rights Commission with jurisdiction to prohibit discrimination in housing and public accommodations.

And then, in the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. — with more than 100 American cities still smoking from riots that followed — Phil worked with New York City Mayor John Lindsay to form the New York/Vermont Summer Youth Project, bringing hundreds of African-American and Hispanic high school students from New York City together with Vermont high school students to build understanding by working together on educational and recreational programs.

When an African-American minister’s home in Irasburg was raked with shotgun fire –night rider style — some tried to blame the victim. Phil insisted on a fair investigation even in the face of stern opposition.

Phil fought to import and sell public hydroelectric power from Quebec. His plans were frustrated by the big power companies, who claimed that electricity from Vermont Yankee would be “too cheap to meter.”

He sought to the equalize burden of the cost of public education and to bring efficiency to it through regionalization.

Phil had been befriended by President Lyndon Baines Johnson. in 1967, Johnson sent him to the Vietnam to get a firsthand look at the “light the end of the tunnel.” But Phil knew an oncoming train when he saw one and was the first Democratic governor in the nation to split with Johnson over the Vietnam War.

Phil endorsed the antiwar candidacy of Bobby Kennedy and became an important spokesperson for him. After Kennedy’s assassination, Phil laid aside his grief, and supported the campaign of Gene McCarthy. At the convention, Hubert Humphrey seriously considered offering Phil the vice-presidential spot on his ticket before settling on Phil’s friend, Ed Muskie.

In 1970, Hoff challenged incumbent Senator Winston L. Prouty for a seat in the United States Senate. The war, gun control, and racial justice were dominant themes of the campaign. Although Phil mounted a vigorous effort, Prouty was reelected.

In the 1970s, Phil practiced law and in 1972 and 1973, served as chair of the Vermont Democratic Party. But most importantly, he took on his own personal demon, alcohol. He won the that battle but lived ever after with an understanding and sympathy for the victims of addiction.

In 1982, Hoff returned to elective politics, winning a seat in the Vermont Senate and serving three terms. In the Senate, he was instrumental in revitalizing the Vermont Human Rights Commission and promoting prevention of social and health problems. Hoff remained steadfastly committed to the cause of racial justice, serving for many years on the Vermont Advisory Commission to the United States Civil Rights Commission.

Phil’s efforts in the world of politics overshadow his contributions to the practice of law. But they are not to be forgotten. In the early 1980s, he chaired a blue-ribbon commission that reorganized the Vermont Bar Examination and established the first mandatory continuing education requirement for Vermont lawyers. For many years he chaired the Vermont Judicial Nominating Commission. As a trustee at Vermont Law School from 1983 to 1999, and as its President from 1990 to 1995, he helped lead the school’s continuous growth in clinical and experiential education, in building a strong faculty, and in adding a new library and classroom buildings.

Phil inspired and supported scores of young people to become involved in the political process. And he supported the political campaigns of virtually every successful Democrat candidate since 1962. Most notably, in May 1966, he called a young lawyer in his law firm and told him to meet him at the Chittenden Courthouse the next day. The young lawyer was Patrick J. Leahy, and Phil swore him in as Chittenden County States Attorney. The senator still claims it’s the best job he’s ever had!

Phil was the first mainstream politician to endorse Bernie Sanders during his historic independent run for congress in 1990.

With his friend and former state police driver, Representative Michael Vinton, Phil was an early supporter of the adoption of civil unions and same-sex marriage.

I think Phil’s attitude towards public life was summed up by his answer to a question that his grandson, Nathaniel, asked him:

“Why is it that people won’t stand up for the things they really believe in anymore?”

Phil told Nathaniel. “There’s been a tendency for people who are in office to simply be involved with re-election as opposed to what they really should do. If you’re only interested in holding the office, what’s the sake of holding the office? It seems to me you ought to stand for what you believe. You may lose, but in the overall thrust of history, you will make a difference.”

Phil Hoff made a difference. He tasted victory and defeat. If you’re looking for his legacy you don’t have to look far. The state we live in today reflects the courage with which he grappled with the issues.

The death of Philip Henderson Hoff came as no surprise to those of us who loved him. He had certainly lived a long and full life. Still, we grieve. I am reminded of Robert Kennedy speaking on the night of the death of Martin Luther King Jr.  Kennedy quoted his favorite poet, Aeschylus. He said:

“He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain, which cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.

I finish, as Bobby Kennedy finished later that evening, and in the spirit of the life of Philip Hoff:

“Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”

— Rich

4 Replies to “A Tribute to Philip Henderson Hoff”

  1. I love your wisdom, dearest wise Uncle! I’m sorry for your deep loss. Governor Hoff was a kind mentor, friend and second father to you. Your tribute to this fine man, is beautiful!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *