On Monday afternoon Edna Fairbanks Williams, a giant in Vermont antipoverty advocacy, died in a car crash. Vermont's large media outlets covered the story, including WCAX, The Rutland Herald, and Vermont Public Radio.
The irony is that probably not one person in ten who saw the coverage had ever heard her name.
Edna's funeral was yesterday, and it was attended by a throng of her admirers, including young and old, people who came in using wheelchairs and crutches, walkers and canes; as well as lawyers, judges, a Supreme Court justice, Vermont's member of Congress, and current and former state officials, lobbyists, and antipoverty activists. In all, a very unlikely collection of mourners for an impoverished, 77-year-old widow.
I wasn't sure I would have anything to add to the powerful remarks from important people who talked about her influence in Vermont public policy and the Legislature, her commitment to helping people every day of her life, or the way the professionals with their impressive educations would routinely defer to her insight and wisdom, but I found that I did have a few recollections that I'll share here.
I first met Edna Fairbanks Williams in 1983 when I came to Vermont to interview at Vermont Legal Aid. She was the President of Legal Aid's Board, and she had chosen to sit in on the staff attorney interviews. This is not a common choice, but it reflected Edna's view of the importance of Legal Aid to the antipoverty struggle. This began many years of working together on issues that affected the tens of thousands of Vermonters living in poverty.
You may remember that back in the 1980's there was a magazine called Vermont Magazine. One year they did a special issue on the Ten Most Influential Vermonters. It included the usual suspects: The head of National Life; probably one or two of those three-hundred dollar an hour lobbyists for the phone company or the electric company; possibly, although he denies it, John Dooley, who was Madeleine Kunin's chief of staff at the time, known as “The Little Governor”. Among all these powerful people was Edna Fairbanks Williams, recognized for the power of her dedication, commitment to understanding the issues she was working on, and the eloquence of her advocacy that grew out of her personal experience. Vermont Magazine was probably right: at that time, for that year, Edna was probably one of the ten most influential Vermonters. If you look at her body of work, from the years before this issue through all the years that followed, though, there is no question that Edna's influence was greater than any of the other listed Influential Vermonters.
As I have sat listening to the comments of other people I have heard repeated mentions of people attending the annual Legislative Supper put on by VLIAC, the Vermont Low Income Advocacy Council, every winter. On the night of this particular Legislative Supper people talked about how Edna was able to make it to the supper despite a blinding snowstorm. As I sat there listening, though, I thought there must be something wrong. I was there in many of those VLIAC board meetings when the Legislative Supper was being planned, and I know that Edna would never schedule a Legislative Supper without consulting her omnipresent, and in her eyes infallible, Old Farmer's Almanac. I don't what could have happened on this particular year, but clearly on this one occasion something went wrong.
Finally, some of us recall a time several years ago when Edna had a little difficulty with the town. Her house and yard were so full of auto parts, used furniture, tires, dishes, pots and pans, and other discarded items that she had collected to distribute to people in need that the town had decided to force her to clean it up. She got legal help from one of the attorney members of the Legal Aid board that held the town off, but eventually there was a massive cleanup operation organized for one Saturday in the spring. Friends and volunteers from Legal Aid showed up with our boots and work gloves to help get the situation into some kind of order.
It was hard work because there was so much stuff there, but what made it harder was that whatever you picked up, whether it was a broken car part or a spare cooking pot, if Edna saw you with it she wouldn't let you dispose of it. She always knew “a young guy who's learning to be a mechanic who can use that”, or a “young single mother who needs that”. Eventually, one person was assigned to keep Edna distracted so that the rest of us could get on with the work of cleaning the place out.
The thing was, that the way Edna went through life, whenever any object, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, came into her view or into her hand, Edna couldn't help thinking of how it could be put to use helping someone else.
On this occasion of Edna's death, we would all do well to consider this example. If this was how Edna saw the world, how can any of the rest of us justify doing any less?