Gold Dome Grads
- By Thomas Weaver
By Sally Pollak
Photograph by Clinton Blackburn
University of Vermont alumni in the state’s top job have been relatively rare. Just seven across more than two centuries of Vermont’s history. But the opening of the 2017 legislative session saw not only a UVM alumnus in the governor’s post with the inauguration of Phil Scott, but a circle of UVM grads taking key leadership roles in Montpelier.
Phil Scott, Governor
Vo-Tech Education Major ’80
At Spaulding High School in Barre, Vermont, Phil Scott took academic courses in the morning and spent his afternoons in the vocational-technical program, working mostly in the machine shop.
“I loved to build and create and craft things,” Scott recalls. “I loved building anything. I was very involved in industrial arts, woodworking, drafting, I loved it all.”
Looking back on his teenage years, Scott says he was inspired in particular by Richard Flies, his industrial arts teacher. Flies was a role model, and instrumental in Scott’s decision to study vo-tech education in college.
Scott left Vermont to attend the University of Southern Maine, which offered an industrial arts program. After three semesters, he transferred to UVM.
Scott’s father died of war-related injuries when Scott was a child, leaving his mother to raise three sons. Scott was responsible for a share of his college tuition, and he worked his way through school. UVM made financial sense, and work opportunities were more plentiful in his home state, Scott says.
His jobs included work in the construction industry, a job in a motorcycle shop, and service manager at a garage in Montpelier.
At UVM’s College of Agriculture, he majored in vo-tech education and earned a teaching certificate. He took classes in industrial engineering, agricultural engineering, as well as education and psychology. He was a student teacher at U-32 High School in East Montpelier.
Scott believes his education and hands-on experience in design, drafting, engineering, and building has had significant bearing on his various pursuits: from racing cars to running a business to government service.
He has fond memories of his work in the UVM shops, where for one project he constructed wooden blades for a wind generator.
“One of my regrets is that because I had to work my way through school, and I had so many interests—including racing and working on race cars—I didn’t get involved in the campus life,” Scott says. “I didn’t take advantage of everything UVM had to offer at that time. But there were just so many hours in the day.”
Last fall on the campaign trail, Scott stopped at a store in Charlotte, where a group had gathered for coffee. One of the people was Charles Ferreira—a favorite professor of Scott’s. Their chance meeting occurred thirty-six years after his graduation
“He was a great resource, a great mentor,” Scott says. “He encouraged creativity, and, I thought, helped me along.”
MITZI JOHNSON, speaker of the house
Environmental studies major ’93
The college admission letters arrived at Mitzi Johnson’s home in Clifton Park, New York, her senior year of high school. She was placed on the waiting list at Bowdoin, Cornell, and Dartmouth. The University of Vermont said yes.
Johnson enrolled, and on her first weekend in Burlington joined a group of students on an outing to North Beach. She recognized the park, the lake, the beach. This was one of the places Johnson had camped as a young teenager on a bicycle tour of Vermont and Quebec. The memories came unbidden.
“It was one of those little flashbacks,” Johnson says.
Johnson majored in environmental studies with a focus on international development. A pianist, she took up percussion instruments to play in the UVM pep band. Johnson’s first year went well, and she returned as a sophomore prepared to be a resident advisor. But back on campus, she felt pressure to pick a major and at a loss for what that might be.
“I had the feeling of not really knowing what my options were,” she says. Talking with her parents, Johnson decided to stay at UVM and make plans for a junior year abroad.
She chose a program in Tanzania, and studied in that country the fall semester of her junior year. At the end of the term, Johnson decided to stay in East Africa another five or six months. She remembers calling her parents to break the news. “I just had a great program,” she told them. “By the way, I’m not coming home next week. Gotta go. Bye.”
Johnson traveled, volunteered, and enjoyed an unfettered expanse of time. “I did the walkabout, so to speak,” she says. “The time off is really what gave me some focus. That’s when I really decided to focus on issues around the environment, international development, and poverty.”
With the exception of a year in Hartford, Connecticut, during which Johnson worked on a community gardening project through AmeriCorps, she has lived in Vermont since arriving here as a student. She has worked as a farmer, a piano teacher, an emergency responder, a hunger relief advocate, and served in the Vermont House since 2003. “UVM helped me fall in love with Vermont,” Johnson says.
david zuckerman, lieutenant governor
environmental studies major ’95
David Zuckerman arrived at the University of Vermont from Brookline, Massachusetts, intending to major in chemistry and become a doctor. That plan changed after Zuckerman took a year off to work in a pallet factory in the Shenandoah Valley and hike the Appalachian Trail.
Zuckerman started walking north from Springer Mountain in Georgia in the spring of 1991. He turned twenty on the trail, and finished his hike atop Mount Katahdin on September 27, 1991.
“That is the anniversary of my dad’s death,” says Zuckerman, who was thirteen when his father died. “As I got closer to the end, I realized that I could finish on that anniversary. I aimed to do that.”
When Zuckerman returned to UVM, he changed his major from chemistry to environmental studies and focused his student activism on social justice issues—causes that concern people of color, the LBTQ community, the environment, and more.
“In environmental studies, you inherently learn the interconnectedness of our environment and the various struggles people face,” says Zuckerman, an organic farmer.
In 1994, while a student at UVM, Zuckerman ran for the Vermont House—losing the election by fifty-nine votes. Two years later, he ran a winning campaign and went on to serve in the Legislature as a representative and then senator from 1997 to 2016 (with time off from 2011-2012). Zuckerman’s election to lieutenant governor elevated him to the highest statewide office to be held by a Progressive.
“I think it’s as much that I’m a Progressive as it is the time period in terms of the national dynamic politically,” Zuckerman says. “Bernie struck a deep chord across America. So I think I happened to be a beneficiary of good timing as well as hard work.”
At UVM, Zuckerman was a senator in the Student Government Association and commenced a bid for SGA president before pulling out. “I actually wanted to focus on academics and not as much activism my senior year,” he says.
A professor who Zuckerman called “a real inspiration”
—a teacher who “stood out for a super-long time”—is Stephanie Kaza, a biologist/ecologist and Buddhist minister.
“I took three courses from her because she was so grounded and I am often zooming,” Zuckerman says. “And while I was never quite able to embody her calmer spirit, it was important for me to be able to absorb while I could.”
tim ashe, senate President pro tempore
English/history major ’99
Tim Ashe was hanging out on a couch at his apartment on Lafayette Place in Burlington, wearing shorts and a T-shirt and eating a bowl of cereal, when he got a call from Bernie Sanders’s office.
It was the spring of 1999, a week or so before Ashe’s UVM graduation. Sanders’s right-hand man, Phil Fiermonte ’77, wondered if Ashe could hustle downtown for a job interview with Vermont’s U.S. Congressman, an independent member of the House of Representatives. Time was short: Sanders was about to catch a plane to the nation’s capital.
Ashe kept his T-shirt on and raced to Church Street to talk with Sanders.
“My interview was both mind-blowing and fun and sort of scary at the same time,” Ashe recalls. “I got a call that day or the next, and a week after graduation was my first day working in the office.”
Thus began the political life of Tim Ashe, who started as a “jack-of-all-trades” for Sanders. He went on to serve on the Burlington City Council for four years before his election to the Vermont Senate in 2008.
Ashe grew up in Holliston, Massachusetts, and said he was drawn to UVM for its liberal arts curriculum and the caliber of the humanities faculty. He majored in English and history, yet wrote his honors thesis—about Czech President Vaclav Havel and the role of intellectuals in elected office—under the guidance of Robert Taylor, a political scientist.
“I really received kind of a classic humanities education,” Ashe says, recalling a group of “fantastic teaching professors.” They include: Tom Simone (English); Richard Sugarman (religion); Taylor (political science); and Denise Youngblood (history).
In their classes, Ashe considered a series of fundamental questions: What type of person am I? What type of life do I want to lead?
He affirmed for himself that he wanted to pursue a life of public service. This type of work was most valuable and meaningful to him, Ashe says.
“Trying to improve the lives of others originated and matured while I was at UVM,” he says.
Ashe left Vermont for two years to get a master’s degree at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
“While I was there I realized that I was going to be coming back to Burlington,” Ashe says. “It’s where I want to be. The moment I graduated I was in my car driving back.”
jim condos, secretary of state
resource economics major ’74
Forty-plus years after graduating college, Jim Condos recalls details of college with admirable detail. For instance, the win-loss record of the UVM soccer team on a 1970 road trip to Europe: 1-8-1. Not quite glory days. “We got our asses handed to us,” Condos says.
Condos was a goalie on the JV team for that tour. After freshman year, he turned his attention to intramural football and hockey instead. But as a fan, he would become a Catamount varsity sports legend: leading the cheers at hockey games from 1969 to 1997. Dressed in a green down vest and yellow rubberized fisherman’s cap, Condos employed his deep booming voice to rev up the crowd.
“Go, Cats, Go!” he implored, and the fans joined in.
“Gimme a V; Gimme an E; Gimme an R,” Condos chanted, leading the crowd to spell V-E-R-M-O-N-T.
Gutterson had long felt like home to Condos, a townie who went to UVM hockey games as a high school kid. “Back in those days, there was no glass around the rink,” Condos recalls. “There was fencing, we called it ‘chicken wire.’ You didn’t want to get your face crushed on the fence, I can tell you.”
Attending college three miles from home, Condos lived in a residence hall for two years and a fraternity house, Sigma Nu, his junior and senior years. His mother, Irene Condos, was administrative assistant to the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. Condos would walk through Waterman on his way to classes to say to hi to her.
“UVM years were great years,” Condos says. “You make a lot of friends. You grow up a lot there.”
He majored in resource economics, a course of study related to municipal and regional planning. That educational background served him well when he entered the political arena, as his initial involvement concerned a zoning issue in his South Burlington neighborhood of Mayfair.
The effort propelled him to an appointment on the Zoning Board, and onto a winning bid for the South Burlington City Council. Condos was on the council from 1989 to 2007, a tenure that coincided with his election to the Vermont Senate (2001-2008). After a two-year break from government service, he was elected Secretary of State in 2010.
Condos credits his predecessor in the Secretary of State’s Office, fellow UVM alum Deb Markowitz ’83, with suggesting he run for his latest role in public service.