The passing of Senator Robert Gannett last August, at the age of 94, was widely acknowledged as a loss not just in Brattleboro, but the entirety of Vermont. That’s because even in the early days of establishing his law practice in town with James L. Oakes, Gannett immersed himself in politics on the state level while simultaneously giving his time to several organizations that remain cornerstones of our community.
Gannett and his wife, Sarah Alden “Aldie” Derby Gannett, moved to the area in 1946. Stephen Baker remembers Gannett would commute by train from his home in Putney to the law firm of Fitts & Olson, which is where the two first met. “When we incorporated our business in 1947, Bob was clerk of the corporation. Our families, along with the Richards family, soon became very close,” recalls Baker.
He began commuting northwards as well upon being elected to the Vermont House of Representatives in 1953. Gannett stepped away from state politics after six years in order to dedicate more time to his legal career, but not before his culminating accomplishment in 1959: the establishment of the representative town meeting form of governance in Brattleboro.
For the next decade and a half, Gannett kept his political involvement strictly on the local level as a Town Meeting Representative. It was a post he maintained for nearly the rest of his life. When he returned to the Statehouse in Montpelier in 1973 it was as a Senator, where over 20 years he became well respected as someone who put the needs of Vermonters above partisan politics. His colleague, Senator William Doyle (R-Washington), told Brattleboro Commons editor Randy Holhut that Gannett was “the conscience of the Senate” and that “he preferred to give others credit when something was accomplished.”
Gannett’s public service spread well beyond elected office. He helped found Brattleboro’s Rotary Club in 1950 and, at various times, provided leadership to the Vermont Community Foundation, Brattleboro Retreat, United Way of Windham County and Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, for which was a corporator. In February of 1995, the hospital honored Gannett for his efforts as Honorary Chairman of a Capital Campaign that raised $2.6 million. He developed the plan, recruited volunteers and made personal solicitations to local businesses, organizations and individuals on behalf of BMH. The building at the west end of the hospital campus has been known as the Gannett Building since that time.
Baker remembers hospital fund drives as an opportunity to collaborate with his friend. “I think that Bob and all the Gannett’s have been major contributors to BMH, both financially and through their community activities,” says Baker. “The hospital has really been their primary focus in the community and I think they’ve done an outstanding job.”
When Gannett passed away on August 26, 2012, the family requested that donations be made to BMH in lieu of flowers. In addition, a large gift to the hospital was part of his estate. This final gesture is befitting of the Gannett’s commitment to having a strong community hospital in town, says his longtime friend, Chuck Cummings. “Bob felt the hospital was an intricate part of Brattleboro, and without it the town could not thrive,” says Cummings. “He was always generous and he will be greatly missed by the hospital both now with the current drive and in the days ahead of us.”
A photo album of Senator Gannett participating in several hospital events can be found on the BMH Facebook page, which is located at www.facebook.com/BMHVT. Please visit and feel free to share your own memories of this beloved community icon.