VERGENNES — Vergennes American Legion Post 14 on Thursday will bestow its annual Community Service Award on a woman who was born in a Ferrisburgh farmhouse 67 years ago and now organizes a half-dozen annual events in Vergennes.
Marguerite Senecal, the daughter of French-speaking immigrants from Ontario, has worked for the past 10 years for the Addison County Chamber of Commerce, most recently with the title of information specialist.
In 2002, Senecal took over operating Vergennes Day on behalf of the city and the chamber. Since then she has also overseen the creation of French Heritage Day in 2006 and the steady growth of the city’s annual Holiday Stroll in early December and two Halloween celebrations, Pumpkins in the Park downtown and the Haunted Forest in the Otter Creek basin.
Legion Community Service Committee head Henry Broughton noted both Senecal’s efforts on the events, and their positive effects on Vergennes.
“We selected Marguerite because of the energy she has put forth over the years promoting Vergennes,” Broughton said. “It takes a lot of work organizing these events, and Marguerite has a done a wonderful job bringing in many visitors to Vergennes. And when visitors come, they spend their money. The committee is pleased to recognize her for the work she has done to promote Vergennes.”
Senecal’s efforts have regularly drawn praise from the Vergennes City Council. Mayor Michael Daniels said he was happy to hear of the Legion’s selection and pointed out Senecal also works hard for other communities, including Bristol.
“We really cherish her and her efforts,” Daniels said. “She’s a vital piece of all the different events that go on throughout Addison County.”
The mayor pointed out that the clock does not dictate Senecal’s work schedule.
“It takes a lot of her time above and beyond her eight-hour day. She puts a lot of extra time in. I get emails from her at 11 or midnight,” Daniels said, adding, “You don’t find many people like her. She’s a very dedicated person.”
Maybe Senecal’s work ethic was instilled back on her family’s (Charlebois) farm on Plank Road. As a child, Senecal fed calves, helped take care of her younger siblings, and got behind the steering wheel.
“My biggest chore, which I never considered a chore, was to drive a tractor. My dad put me on a tractor at 6 years old,” Senecal said. “I was little enough that to put on a brake I had to stand up.”
After becoming an early graduate of Vergennes Union High School, Senecal attended hairdressing school. She and husband, Larry, settled near the corner of Parkhill Road and Route 30 in Cornwall.
There, they raised sons Brian and Bruce, and for 38 years Senecal ran a hairdressing shop out of her home. As much as she enjoyed that work, one problem cropped up: The repetitive work caused back problems.
“It was the position I stood in to shampoo hair and to rinse hair. My spine is in bad shape,” she said.
About a decade ago, Senecal decided to give up the shop, and she and her husband bought her mother’s home on Short Street in Vergennes, where they live now.
One of Senecal’s clients was a neighbor, Linda Stearns, then the chamber’s executive director. The chamber needed a receptionist, and Stearns recruited her.
“She said, ‘Come on in for an interview. You’ve been dealing with the public, it will be perfect,’” Senecal said.
Senecal started as a receptionist, but her responsibilities quickly grew.
“Things have changed,” she said. “I guess I’m like an office manager.”
Even with all the chamber responsibilities, Senecal still keeps in touch with some business clients.
“I still cut some of their hair,” Senecal said in an interview last Thursday. “I cut someone’s hair this morning.”
Of her many tasks, establishing and promoting French Heritage Day is probably the closest to her heart. Her family spoke French at home, at least until she went off to first grade.
“Once we started school we would come home and speak English,” Senecal said.
She recalls adjusting was difficult for children of French-speaking immigrants.
“In first grade kids used to laugh when you mispronounced words, not being really mean, but it hurt. You’d say ‘tree’ and they’d laugh at you, it should have been ‘three,’” Senecal recalled. “Kids would come home from French families, and parents would say, ‘Learn to speak English and they won’t laugh at you.’”
The chamber was casting around for a July event in Vergennes. At one point they had a lighthearted Bastille Day celebration organized by former city restaurateur Christophe Lissarrague, and Senecal said with the area’s strong French influence, the light bulb clicked on for French Heritage Day.
Since then, she said the event has “taken off well,” and brings visitors from out of state who spend money on lodging, food and gas. And many of whom are grateful for a chance to celebrate their culture.
“They come up to me and they thank me for doing this. They email me. They send me thank you notes,” Senecal said.
And Senecal is happy to share her own cultural background.
“Frenchmen were known to be hard-working people. I’m not saying they were disrespected, but it was time that something came about and let them keep their culture alive. Everybody’s nationality is the same way. It goes by the wayside, and there’s no reason for it to. We can all be American and enjoy (our own cultures),” Senecal said. “We’re all in the same boat together, but we were raised differently, and let’s embrace that and share that.”
Senecal said she is also happy to be able to promote her hometown.
“I call it the proud little city. I think more people should be able to raise their children in that kind of environment,” she said. “The only way to get a little place like that on