By Don Keelan
On Jan. 9, 2018, the board of trustees of the Vermont State Library Board voted 7-0 to have Dr. Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s name removed from the annual children’s book award. It will now be up to Scott Murphy, state librarian, to act on the advisory board’s recommendation.
Fisher (1879 – 1958) was a longtime resident of Arlington, Vermont. The town’s library, elementary school, community house, state forest, as well as other sites, are named after Fisher and her family.
Very few Vermonters can match the contributions Fisher has given to our country, state and town. In World War I, she served as an ambulance driver in France. After the war, she brought the Montessori method of teaching to America. She was a prolific writer and authored dozens of books of fiction and nonfiction. Her reputation was national and she was one of the early editors of the Book of the Month Club.
Fisher’s gifts extended to struggling illustrators, writers and artists whom she brought to Arlington — Robert Frost, Rockwell Kent and others — where along with Norman Rockwell, Mead Schaefer and Gene Pelham, they were able to flourish.
However, her greatest gift was not in the arts, social causes or education. It was much more personal. In February of 1945, she was notified by the War Department that her son, Capt. James Fisher, M.D., (1913 – 1945) was killed in action.
Capt. Fisher was educated in Arlington, at Swarthmore College (1936), and at Harvard Medical School (1940). In January 1945, he volunteered to go on a dangerous mission 30 miles behind enemy lines. The mission was to free over 500 American and Allied prisoners held for over three years by the Imperial Japanese Army at Camp Cabanatuan, in the Philippines. Capt. Fisher believed that the prisoners would be in desperate need of medical attention.
Capt. Fisher was mortally wounded at the prison gate and died three days later while being carried on a makeshift stretcher, a door, by Philippine scouts. The raid was the most successful in military history, and in 2008, was the basis for a major motion picture, “The Great Raid.”
None of the above meant anything to those who sit on the Library Board. What was important to them was a short period in Dorothy Fisher’s life in the early 1930s. It was then that she became interested in what was known as the Eugenics Survey. That movement, led by University of Vermont zoology professor Henry Perkins (1877 – 1956), had a very low opinion of the feeble-minded, French-Canadians and Native Americans, and recommended that some form of sterilization would limit their numbers. In March of 1931, the State of Vermont adopted a sterilization law.
In the spring of 2017, author and educator Judy Dow of Essex, Vermont, called to the Library Board’s attention Fisher’s connection with the Survey. Dow was adamant in having the board terminate any connection between Fisher and the annual children’s book award.
In August of 2017, I made a suggestion to the board to disregard Dow’s revisionism and focus on improving literacy among those thousands of adults in Vermont who have less than an eighth grade reading comprehension level. It was an issue Fisher also had worked tirelessly on.
The board ignored my suggestion by their Jan. 9 action. It seems board members were more interested in political correctness. The record notes that Fisher’s involvement in the eugenics movement was inconsequential.
I cannot speak for my fellow Arlingtonians, but I am confident that there will not be a vote in Arlington to rename any public buildings that honor the legacy of Fisher and her family.
It is time to end the nonsense of picking out a weakness of our established heroes and heroines and condemning them generations later. Since when do we allow our state to trash a Gold Star mother?
Don Keelan writes a bi-weekly column and lives in Arlington, Vermont.