Remembering Fred Tuttle

fred Tuttle

Fred Tuttle holding a photo of his father holding a photo of his father and grandfather. The photo and story is in Miller’s latest book, A Lifetime of Vermont People

 

It gives me succor to remember Fred Tuttle and the era in which he was the farmer-elect in the movie by John O’brien: The Man with the Plan. Fred died 13 years ago, give or take a few months. He made us laugh and we loved him for what he was, a simple farmer who loved to kiss babies, girls, woman and grandmothers. I was at his funeral in Tunbridge and I reported on it. Very few papers ran it, but VT Digger recently brought back Fred with that article. You know, I have met Vermonters who never heard of Fred! We have to keep his spirit, and that of Vermont as it has been, alive.  Read on:

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Fred Tuttle, dairy farmer, actor, politician and Vermont’s most beloved citizen, died of a heart attack on October 4 in Tunbridge, Vermont. He was 84.

Fred starred in the 1996 film Man with a Plan, written and directed by his neighbor, John O’Brien. It was a spoof on politics, how a Vermont dairy farmer, played by Fred, ran for Congress with the slogan of “I’ve spent my whole life in the barn, now I just want to spend a little time in the House.” With a budget of $16, the film’s hero went on to defeat the incumbent Congressman by one vote.

 Two years later Fred ran for real against Jack McMullen in the Senate Republican Primary and, after a series of hilarious debates, defeated McMullen. Fred then endorsed the Democratic candidate, Senator Patrick Leahy and retired to his hillside home.

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 It was one of those soft Indian Summer days. The early morning fog lifted to bare blue-hazed mountains under a sky unblemished with clouds. The temperature climbed slowly into the high seventies but the shade was fresh as spring water. It was a day to live easy, but this Thursday, the ninth day of October, Vermont’s most benevolent and beautiful month, was Fred Tuttle’s funeral.

I had put on my only suit, which I hadn’t worn for a decade, my black shoes, a pale pink shirt and a muted paisley tie left over from a time past. Tunbridge, Fred’s home town, is about 40 miles from Waterbury, where I live. I drove to Randolph and took the short cut, over the mountain, past some rolling fields of corn stalks being chopped into silage, then into the woods and down past a landscape of farms into Tunbridge.

The Tunbridge Congregational Church is typical of most small villages that were never wealthy. A simple steeple punctuated the center of town. The interior was plain with graceful discipline. Judy Lewis—it’s always a woman at these funerals— was playing the organ that had a deep voice that was constant, solemn but respectful as attendants ushered in the mourners. On the left aisle were seated friends of Fred. Among them was Senator Patrick Leahy, who defeated Fred in the 1987 Senatorial campaign (well, Fred, after he won the primary, deferred to the Senator, on the advice of his wife Dottie—“THERE IS NO WAY YOU ARE GOING TO WASHINGTON!”, she once screamed at him when he was toying with the idea as we sat at the dining room table. He gave me a sly smile and I could see he liked, in his own way, to have Dottie lecture him. Also seated in the church, in the pew in front of Senator Leahy, was John O’Brien, who had the brilliance to recognize that his neighbor down the road was just the right person to star in his film The Man With the Plan. Next to him was Jack Rowell, associate producer to The Man With the Plan, woodchuck photographer and fly fisherman, whose photographs sparkle with warmth and humor, and who traveled and documented Fred’s years as a performance artist.

Filling the right side of the aisle were members of the family. There were more elderly women then men; their husbands had already died. A few men had the bronzed healthy look of farmers who spent the last month on their tractors, haying and chopping. Others were white faced, their bodies crumpled, waiting out their time, and they walked with difficulty. A few wore open collar shirts with suspenders, as Fred dressed. One elderly man had on high patent leather shoes, the creases in the toe of the shoe coated c with dust collected from years in a closet. Two wore mismatched coats and trousers. In the front row was seated Fred’s wife Dottie and Fred’s children, some of them adopted, some direct descendents, but all part of the fabric of the Tuttle family which is thick in these parts. In 1798 the first Tuttles settled in Tunbridge. In 1872 Fred Herman Tuttle, Fred’s grandfather, bought the Tuttle hillside farm, which still remains in the family. 205 years is sure enough time to spread the Tuttle roots.

Fred had two great moments in his 84 year life. The first was as a soldier in World War II. Attached to a combat engineering company, he landed in Normandy on D Day plus 7 and was sent to LeMans when the Germans were just vacating it; Fred could still smell cabbage soup. His unit constructed a bridge in 36 hours (“How long does it take them in Vermont to put up a bridge? A year?) but he found time and the directions to visit a house of pleasure. Downstairs he left his helmet and cartridge belt and rifle (“I shouldn’t had done that.”) walked upstairs and made love for the first time.

“Guess what, Peter?” and he leaned forward, the glint gleamed in his eyes, the famous Tuttle smile began to crease his face , as he held up his hand with the thumb and forefinger about three inches apart. “For one cigarette!. That’s all! One cigarette!” and he sat back and his face expanded into a huge Cheshire Cat smile.

Fred first visited Paris the day after its liberation and was overwhelmed with his reception, so much so that he volunteered to patrol a section of pipe line that lay north of the city and through which flowed fuel for the tanks and trucks on the front line. He was there until the war ended, and his trips to the City of Light were numerous.

“Peter, The Paris women. They were … beautiful. Beautiful! There was red carpet on the floor, long bars, they served us drinks, we sat in sofas…”   He was referring to his hangouts on Boulevard Clichy, which he knew as Pigalle.

Fred returned from France not being shot at, and not shooting at others, but seeing too many dead bodies and almost drowning while returning to the States on a troop ship that was caught in a storm. The hold was full of water and Fred kept his head and that of a stow-away dog above water. He always liked animals.

When he was discharged Fred rode the train to Randolph, the nearest train station to Tunbridge. “There were two pretty women in the station, when I got off” remembered Fred, “and they didn’t even look at me.” That night Fred milked the cows, as he did daily for the next 40 years.

David Wolfe, the church’s minister, climbed the pulpit and gave a humorous but compassionate portrait of Fred as “…Perhaps my most reluctant parishioner…”. Fred’s son recalled his younger years and how he liked to hunt without killing anything and the importance of Fred as a father to his natural and adopted children. John O’Brien described Fred’s natural talent as an actor and mentioned some of the funnier moments he spent with Fred. After years of anonymity and nights and mornings looking at the hind end of cows, days of reaping and sowing and the never ending job of cutting and splitting fire wood, Fred savored stardom as he did ice cream.

45,000 videos of The Man With the Plan, about a farmer who decided to run for Congress on the slogan, “I’ve spent my whole life in the barn, now I just want to spend a little time in the House.” were sold. In the movie, Fred’s character won by one vote and stole the hearts of all who saw the movie. The movie was whimsical, gently satirical and so very, very Vermont. Fred became the icon of a Vermont farmer—he had an accent that almost needed translation, an honest mind, an ability to express himself with as few words as possible, sweetness in his affability. There was no pretense in Fred and he said what he thought. He was just….Fred.

At the service Maria Lamson sang Simple Gifts, in a sweet voice and Priscilla Farnham gave an stirring rendition of Amazing Grace. Fred lay in an open casket at the front of the church. His glasses were in place and he looked peaceful, his eyes closed, as if he was remembering something from the past, and would suddenly open them and start telling a story. His hands were clasped together and on his belly lay his cap with FRED spelled on it (As he said in the movie, it is an acronym : F for friendly, R for renewable, E for extraterrestrial, D for dinky).

At the end of the service I walked up the aisle to say good by to Fred and I thought of the last time I saw him, a few weeks before. I was camped on his property as I attended the Tunbridge Fair. I brought him a copy of a revised edition of Vermont People with photos and stories on him and Joe, his father. When I left Fred he was standing in the doorway in his striped pajamas, hand on the half opened door, peering out at me, through his thick glasses, like an owl. He flipped his hand up and waggled it in a short wave. It was one of those photographs I never took, but an image that will stay with me all my life.

In 1989 I first met Fred when I came over to photograph his father Joe, who was then 93. At the same time I photographed Fred as he leaned on his cane and gave me a penetrating glance through his big glasses. We didn’t talk much but he reminded me of a Mr. Magoo. His father’s photograph and story appeared next year in the book. Every so often I would visit Tunbridge and drop in to see Fred and Joe and, after Joe died, I visited with Fred and Dottie.

When I was updating Vermont People, in 1998, I photographed Fred in the same pose as I photographed his father, holding his father’s photograph who was holding his father’s photograph. The photograph was taken in front of the Tuttle barn that was about to fall down in the movie Man with the Plan. It really did fall down and needed to be reconstructed.

John O’Brien asked Fred to run in the Senate GOP primary against a Massachusetts millionaire and Fred, never bashful, agreed. His opponent was Jack McMullen who had moved to Vermont from Massachusetts because, we assumed, he had political ambitions. Everyone called him a carpetbagger and the election and the debate drew howls of laughter and nationwide political coverage. Fred appeared on the Today Show and shared laughs with Jack Leno. He met beautiful women in Hollywood and New York and kissed them all with the same gusto that he kissed babies while campaigning.

The most famous debate between Tuttle and McMullen, hinged on one question Fred asked Jack McMullen and it had nothing to do with politics.

“How many teats does a cow have?”

“Six,” answered McMullen.

He lost the election to a farmer who milked by hand and who campaigned with a few dollars and won 54% of the vote. He supported his opponent Senator Leahy in the senatorial campaign and capped his campaign fund at $251, representing a dollar from each Vermont town. He went over the fund when Vermonters, mostly children, donated $600. His biggest expense was for renting two portable johns at a fund raising dinner at his farm. At the end of the campaign he donated his “PAC” money to the Lincoln Library, which was damaged by flood, and the Tunbridge Library. Even after endorsing Senator Leahy, he still won 24% of the vote.

Fred and Dottie lived in a small white house a few hundred yards from the farm, where his daughter Debra and Sean now live. The front door opened into a shed, that usually had in the corner a basket of vegetables Fred had pulled from the garden . Another door opened into the kitchen. Dottie kept her house neat and prim, with flowers in the windowsill. The cats had taken over the sofa. The dining room table was in front of the stove and sink. On the table were bottles of pills Fred was taking for his heart, his eyes, his diabetes, rheumatism. We sat and talked. Fred would fire up his accent, thicker than grade B commercial grade maple syrup.

“How come people don’t visit anymore? I don’t know anyone in town. Why does everyone go so fast? Isn’t it just a mess in Washington? Look at our taxes, why we used to pay taxes with our maple syrup sales. What’s happening to our state Peter? Everything is going to hell ain’t it?”

We digressed onto the origin of the stone huts on his property, which may be Celtic, and moved on to farming.

“I sold the cows in 1984,” Fred remembered, looking up at the ceiling. “On Friday they picked up the cows and on Monday I had prostrate surgery. Worst thing can happen to anybody is when they have to sell their cows, you know.”

But most of all Fred remembered the political campaign, the interviews and appearances and people he met, and the debates and campaigning he did in the 1998 primary. He peered at me over his glasses and those blue eyes gleamed and that wide, wide smile lit up and he confided, almost in a whisper.

“Peter, you know… these have been the happiest years of my life. The happiest!”

At 77 years Fred changed lanes from a retired dairy farmer to a performance artist who crossed the reality barrier to become a politician and Vermont’s leading citizen.

This past summer I had a booth at six Vermont county fairs, promoting my books Vermont People and Vermont Farm Women. I had made a poster of the photograph I used in the book—Fred holding the family photos—and displayed on an easel. Almost everyone who walked by, it didn’t matter which fair, looked at the photos, smiled, and said “Fred! There’s Fred! Then they would ask me how he was. Fred Tuttle is Vermont’s most recognizable citizen, outside of presidential candidate Howard Dean, but much more popular than the ex-governor.

After the funeral we walked a few yards to the town hall for a reception. On one table were newspaper clippings, posters, old and new family shots and other mementos of Fred Tuttle as a young man, a farmer, father, actor and politician. We sat on long tables. Baloney and cheese and egg salad sandwiches filled a large platter beside bowls and plates of pickles and some dips, squares of Cabot cheese, five flavors of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and fresh, home made cookies. A big punch bowl had a label stuck on it that read “Fred’s Punch” I suspect it was vanilla ice cream, milk and ginger ale swirled together. We renewed acquaintances and told stories about Fred.

It was a good funeral—Fred had a fast passing after a long life of hard work with all the desserts at the end. He won our hearts and always, when I think of him I smile and say to myself… Frrredddd… the word drawn out and flowing as sweet as honey. I enjoyed so much visiting with him, sitting at the table, having a coffee and a chat, listening to Dottie’s rants to keep him in control, or going to a nickel-a-plate fund raiser at the Tuttle farm with all his neighbors. Fred was fun. He was witty without knowing it. He had a plastic face and such a glint in his eye. He had no guile. He was, and I say this as a great compliment, a simple Vermonter with a wonderful smile and compelling charisma.

I left the funeral reception early and drove my car through the covered bridge that was rebuilt after the flood a few years back washed it downstream, and headed up the mountain . On the left, not a mile from the bridge and overlooking the valley is the cemetery where Fred is buried. An iron fence surrounds it. Fred was buried in a private, family burial while we were enjoying the warm afternoon sun and munching baloney sandwiches.

A backhoe sat idle in the cemetery as two men shoveled dirt into Fred’s grave. Dottie was then at the reception, seated at a long table with friends and relatives. Daughter Debra was just beginning to retain her tears. I wondered, as I drove slowly past the cemetery and up the mountain, on this clear, beautiful Indian Summer day, if we were not only burying Fred but also the character that made Vermont what it was, what we have cherished and loved.

 

1 Comment

  1. Susanne on December 5, 2016 at 2:19 am

    Thank you for this tender reminder of how wonderful Vermont and its people are. “He had no guile.” I would have loved to be in Fred’s company. Your writing is the next best thing.

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