Originally printed in the Fall 1996 issue of Vermont Quarterly
The Bull Will Kill You
other truths from the life of Professor Frank Bryan
by Lee Griffin
Frank Bryan faces the classroom squarely, feet planted; his black tee
strains over muscles pumped by hard labor not health-club iron. Bryans
voice punches the air several decibels louder than necessary. His eyes
lock on a student in the front row, and the effect is intimidating,
even pugilistic. She shrinks in her seat, no doubt abandoning a weak
hope that the blow will land on the guy behind her.
He hurls the initial question and stays with the student, drawing out
information, subtly encouraging until she finds the courage to offer
an opinion. Good, he says, his eyes conveying a nanoseconds
pleasure, his voice softening, Where did you learn that? Im
impressed. Surprise, gratitude, palpable relaxation defuse the
early-days classroom tension: The brawler has a heart.
Bryan, an associate professor of political science and, by many reckonings,
a star in UVMs and Vermonts firmament, has been clutching
chalk, motivating students, lecturing and writing, and, above all, caring-out-loud,
for a long time. Genes may generate some of his trademark energy, but
Bryan the action figure also draws power from Bryan the believer. His
life and work are based on four tenets: people are fundamentally benign
and humane; they behave better in small rather than large groups; the
good ones finish first; and town meeting is democracys most
glorious expression of human interaction. Bryans private
response to the occasional dismissal of his ideas as naïve is a
fervent hope that his faith proves a worthy master. He has served it
well researching town meetings since 1968, debating his ideas
publicly, and writing about them fearlessly
A Vermonter who cannot claim citizenship (conceived in Newbury,
but birthed at a New Hampshire hospital fifty miles away), Bryan has
become for many the touchstone of what a real Vermonter is. Asked to
name Bryans outstanding quality, co-author John McClaughry, president
of the Ethan Allen Institute, replies without hesitation, Authenticity.
Hes a real Vermonter and a real American. He understands how real
people live, think and work. He has kept his roots.
One of three children whose parents divorced when he was young, Bryan
was brought up in Newbury by his mom, who had converted herself and
the children to Catholicism and who was one of the only two Democrats
in town the other being young Frank, soulful inheritor of his
mothers Depression-era love of Roosevelt and Truman.
Bryans second conversion came on the eve of the Kennedy-Nixon
election, appropriately, at the hands of his soon-to-be-a-priest brother,
David, who had early intimations of the evils of big government. He
convinced Frank that the Democrats harbored a grand centralist
design, which they would deploy in the name of secular humanism.
Bryan, who loves to argue, couldnt refute his brothers
logic; hes been a Republican ever since but describes himself
as kind of a lefty.
Along with hunting, fishing, arguing, and trouble-making, the youthful
Bryans interests ran to writing; he entertained briefly that most
romantic of career fantasies of being a journalist who writes
novels. Teaching wasnt part of the initial equation until his
first real job after earning a bachelors and masters
degrees at St. Michaels College and UVM respectively. He calls
his posting to a high school in Vermonts Northeast Kingdom in
the mid-sixties a defining moment and one of his best teaching
experiences. The $4,500 salary didnt seem too bad at the time,
even to a husband with an expanding family (Bryan who has seven children,
calls kids the cheapest entertainment.) But that career
path detoured when Bryan realized the educational bureaucracy left no
room for individual ability to leverage success. One Ph.D. later (from
UConn), Bryan was an associate professor and chair of political science
at St. Michaels College, where the former middleweight Golden
Glover also coached the boxing club. That was followed by two years
at Montana State University.
Bryan began teaching at UVM in 1976, he opened his classroom to the
study of Vermont. Paul Eschholz, a professor of English and publisher
of several Bryan books, says Bryan has made studying the state respectable.
Back when Frank first started teaching at UVM, you could count
the Vermont-related courses on one hand, and two of the fingers were
Franks courses. Today, the number approaches forty.
Bryans favorite course is American Political Systems and
Intergovernmental Relations, in which students conduct a mock
trial surrounding controversial, real issues, such as the state Environmental
Boards denial of Wal-Marts request for an Act 250 permit.
(They sided with Wal-Mart.) Bryans preparation for this class
is almost double the usual investment. Although students make a similar
claim, many evaluate it as the best class they ever had.
Conflict stimulates excellence, says Bryan, who has high
praise for the students commitment and hard work, despite the
student-jurys tendency to be pragmatic and rule in favor
of efficiency and technology.
Bryan has turned an equally innovative eye toward the state itself and
its unique strain of democracy known as Town Meeting Day. It has
been his laboratory, says department colleague Bob Taylor, acknowledging
that Bryan knows more about how democracy works than anyone Ive
Bryans brave-new-world prescriptions pivot on local control or
closer government, with Vermont modeling the way. In The
Vermont Papers, he and co-author McClaughry propose a system of
shires, communities larger than towns, smaller than counties, with a
town-meeting-style governance known as a moot, in which reeves represent
the shires residents. In the Bryan-McClaughry vision, state and
national governments would focus on doing much less, much better,
primarily in overarching areas such as environmental protections, civil
rights and liberties, and foreign trade.
Bryan lives the vision he espouses. His Starksboro homestead is a personal
statement, a retreat protected from invasive flatlanders and others
by fifty hilly acres, where Bryan, his wife, Lee, son, Frank, Jr., and
daughter, Rachel, pay homage to husbandry through sweat equity and conservative
consumption. With a miles-to-go-wood-pile ever in mind, you dont
stay under that hot shower too long, he says. Their house is rustic
and, like Bryans magnum opus on town meeting, a work-in-progress.
The back deck needs just the final handrail, the kids bedroom
still needs a little work, and of course, theres a small animal
kingdom to care for a new beagle pup; a Chesapeake-black Lab
who lives to retrieve from the sizable pond fronting the property; a
shepherd-mix; and several cats. The showpiece critters, however, are
Seth and Saul, oxen whose beautiful faces reflect their one-quarter
yokes the pair to skid logs from his toppled trees; what isnt
needed to heat water and the house is sold to a neighbor who hauls it
to the millyard. Real Vermonters would probably laugh at me for
not using a tractor, he says. It might even be cheaper to
buy the wood.
Although the work is dangerous and increasingly harder for Bryan, who
recently turned 55, there seems little doubt that he will continue to
push physical and mental boundaries. One sometimes feeds the other,
Bryan explains, describing his experience riding Brahmas in Montana
rodeos. You have very little fear the first time you ride,
he says, but the second takes real courage. Ive never known
fear like that second. He holds up his hand and announces: Important
insight, the bull will kill you, but he has nothing against you
thats whats scary. As a boxer, you can fall on your knees
and beg, and your opponent will stop. But, (dramatic pause, slight
smile) . . . the bull will kill you.