By CHELSEY PLETTS
Gerald Heffernan took charge of his siblings’ education when he was 12 years old. It was a job he took seriously. His father left the family of nine children in order to work at a poultry farm in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. — and at the time he refused to allow his children to attend school in Bristol after a dogged bus driver snubbed their stop one too many times.
That’s when Heffernan assumed a position as teacher and guidance counselor — one from which he did not retire for 33 years. Now 82 years old, Heffernan lives in Bristol, not far from his childhood home amid the poverty of “Little Ireland” in neighboring Starksboro.
South Starksboro was mostly farmland then, as it was in 1922, when Heffernan’s mother, Zita LaFayette, lived on a farm there. LaFayette, a frail woman, worked as a maid in what is now known as Mary’s Restaurant at Baldwin Creek in Bristol, then a private house owned by the Bartlett family. Here she had a baby, Joseph, out of wedlock with the brother of a fellow maid.
She met Kevin Heffernan four years later at a St. Patrick’s Day dance in Albany, N.Y., and fell in love with his deep Irish brogue. Kevin, a veteran of the Black and Tan War, had just arrived from Ireland. They married three months after meeting and had Gerald in 1927.
Then, in 1932, the family moved to a section of Starksboro called “Little Ireland.” Irishmen who immigrated after the potato famine during the mid-1840s populated the area. The English who had previously settled there found the land inhospitable and moved, but the Irish knew how to cultivate the rocky soil.
“If your family didn’t farm, you were starving,” Heffernan said.
By this time, Zita had her hands full with five children. The family lived in the Frank Hannan tenement farmhouse, just across the notch from the LaFayette Farm. The building had no running water or electricity and wooden laths peeked through torn wallpaper. More than once, the family was “on the town,” a term for welfare pooled by more affluent members of the community to help clothe and feed less fortunate families.
“We never realized how poor we really were,” Heffernan said.
Gerald helped his mother cook on the firebox, which was also used to heat dish and bath water. Most of the time, the family ate boiled potatoes with “scorch gravy,” a mix of lard, flour and water singed in a pot. Beef stew was a treat. Gerald learned to milk the cows when he was five years old and helped tumble hay into the wagon. “If you were six years old you were able to take care of yourself back in those days,” said Gerald. “They didn’t have such things as babysitters.”
Despite this hardship, Gerald was enthralled with the Little Ireland School, a one-room schoolhouse that housed 20 students at a time. He adored a third-grade teacher named Frances Gregory, who taught him moral guidance, discipline, as well as basic subject matter. Heffernan credits her for his desire to become a teacher and eventually modeled himself after her.
During school one December, Heffernan ran home in time to see his mother drag a bulky sewing machine from their flaming house. A chimney fire engulfed the family’s home and the roof collapsed into the cellar in ashes. After that, the family moved to an old farmhouse, known as “the hill,” in 1940. Heffernan’s father used to say, “We live up so high you have to take two bricks off the chimney to let the moon pass.”
Heffernan’s father was in and out of work. He had a short temper and was strict with the children. “Most of us hated him when we were growing up, he was brutal to us,” Heffernan said. “He beat the hell out of us as punishment for just minor infractions.”
Zita was just the opposite of her husband. She was soft and sweet with the children. Gerald recalled the influence they had over their mother. “We could run all over her if we wanted to,” Gerald said.
But when his father became violent with Zita, Gerald couldn’t take it. When he was old enough, Gerald took a stand against his father and he never touched Zita again.
As Heffernan grew older, he continued to love reading and locked himself into the Zane Grey series in high school. After he graduated from Bristol High School in 1945, Heffernan had only one thing on his mind: college. But his family, now strapped with nine children, did not have the money to send him. World War II was still drafting, and Heffernan decided the only way he was going to get to college was if he served his country.
In 1945, the war was still hot; the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa had just taken place. Heffernan was sent to boot camp in Sampson, N.Y,, where he went to mass every Sunday. He remembers his chaplain saying “you better be in the state of grace at all times because probably by Christmas, 80 percent of you will be dead.”
But the war ended before training was up and he was sent abroad to Japan, China, Korea and the Philippines with the Navy to repair decommissioned ships for Chinese nationalists. Unlike the other soldiers, Heffernan never complained about the food, saying it was better and more plentiful than the stuff he grew up with.
While in the Philippines, Heffernan helped a local man recreate a library on the base, cataloguing the books under the Dewey Decimal system. In exchange, the man painted him a jungle mural.
Finally, after 21 months of service, Heffernan headed off to college. In 1960, when Heffernan left Vermont for a teaching position in Darien, Conn., he was one of only 15 certified guidance counselors in the state. He graduated magna cum laude from St. Michael’s College with a bachelor’s degree in history in 1952 and went on to receive his master’s degree in guidance from the University of Vermont.
It was a career that suited Heffernan. He was a stickler for setting an example. He recalled when mogul J.C. Penney whipped out a drink and a snuffbox at an Allied Youth conference after he voiced his opposition to both — Heffernan was quick to call “the old fart” a hypocrite.
All along, he had a soft spot for children who came from abusive homes or who struggled with school. Often times, he ventured home with a child to help him resolve matters with his parents. Growing up amidst poverty in the hills of South Starksboro, Heffernan’s childhood resembled many of his students’ — an abusive father and little to fall back on.
Just last spring, Heffernan said one of his students from Connecticut dropped in on him at his home in Bristol. She sought refuge after a fight with her husband — Heffernan was there to take her in. It’s proof that Heffernan still takes his teaching out of the classroom, and is offering guidance for anyone who needs it.