Richard LaFontaine, 106, of Middlebury
MIDDLEBURY — Richard Louis LaFontaine, of Middlebury, Vermont, formerly of Bristol and Hartland, Vermont, left us on December 15, 2020. He passed out of this life peacefully due to natural causes at Helen Porter Rehabilitation and Nursing in Middlebury, with his daughter, Jo LaFontaine Van Buskirk, and grandson, Patrick Warn, at his side.
The second-eldest of four brothers, Richard was born by candlelight in Wilder, Vermont, on August 2, 1914, to parents Flora and Ephraim LaFountain. Over the course of a generous and much appreciated life, he witnessed bookending global pandemics, the Great Depression, the Great Recession, the space age, 18 presidents, two world wars, and the birth of radio, television, and the internet.
As he wrote in his informal 2019 memoir, “Thinking of the span of my time, I have seen probably the greatest change in human existence that has ever occurred in history. I started out in the time when horses carried us. When the family used a sleigh to go to town on a cold day we would get out the buffalo robe to keep warm. It was a real bison hide. There was running water only if there was a spring at a higher elevation than the use point. I saw Earnest English erect the poles and string the wiring for our first telephone. I saw electricity come up U.S. Route 5 in the mid-1920s. So then we got electric lighting, running water, a flush toilet, our first radio.”
Richard spent his first years in Wilder before moving to South Woodstock. Like so many in that long-ago era, his was a working childhood.
“In that time,” he wrote, “French-Canadians learned by doing, and the kids went to work early. I think it was in that tradition that when Pa took over a farm, (my older brother) Maurice and I were put to work on the farm doing as much of the farm work as we could handle. Maurice was ten, I was eight. We handled hundred-pound grain bags. I soon learned to do everything with the horses that horses do on a farm except harness them (I was too small to reach over them), and I wasn’t strong enough to plow. Pa would send me out to mow a field with the horses using a mowing machine with a five-foot cutter bar.
“I worked for the town of Windsor in the summer on the road gang, pick and shovel work in a gravel pit, doing the job that tractor bucket loaders do now. I was 13 and 14. My classmates at that age on the whole were being kids. I became a leader. I was our first class president and a class officer the whole time. I credit this to being more mature than my fellows, I believe this carried over into my working life. Whenever I saw an opportunity to grab the wheel and steer, I did.”
When the Great Depression struck, the search for work forced Richard’s family to move to North Hartland. For a time, he hitchhiked to high school in Windsor, where he was first string left tackle. Not wanting to lose a star player on the drive for the state championship, his coach arranged for a job and lodging in town, which allowed him to remain enrolled there. (The following year, he did indeed help Windsor beat Middlebury for the state title.)
In 1935, Richard married Genevieve Andrew and took work as a florist. This work carried him to Utica, N.Y., where he enrolled in night school and learned to be a machinist before accepting a job at the Remington Arms Company. During WWII, the DuPont Company combed Remington’s ranks for toolmakers to work on the Manhattan Project. Richard was “drafted” and moved to Wilmington, Delaware. After a time, he became Supervisor of Mechanical Crafts for the Plastics Department at the company’s “Experimental Station,” where he helped pioneer many of the materials we now take for granted in the modern world, including Teflon and Plexiglas.
In the late 1960s, Richard started his own machine shop in his Delaware basement and became a subcontractor for NASA. Despite agency demands for nearly unfathomable precision, he successfully manufactured working parts used for the Lunar Rover. To this day, his workmanship remains on the surface of the Moon, where it will outlast us all.
Following the death of his wife, Genevieve, in 1970, Richard retired and returned to Hartland, Vermont, where he married Dorothy Crandall on New Year’s Day in 1982. In 2002, the couple moved to Bristol, Vermont. There, Richard could often be seen riding his electric cart around town and down Plank Road to visit family in New Haven. Several years after Dorothy’s death in 2005, Richard moved to the Residence in Middlebury, where he spent his final years.
These words trace the journey of Richard’s long and wholly remarkable life, yet they tell us little of the extraordinary man who led it.
Richard was not just a father to his own brood, but to many in his extended family for whom paternal vacuums existed, and he filled this role with distinction and affection. He was always there with a helping hand no matter what was needed. Many in our family thank him for these profound gifts, for without them, we would not have the lives we have today.
Richard was a man with no use for frippery or ostentation. If an object lacked essential purpose, it had no place in his spartan home. What was broken was not replaced if it could be repaired, and that which was repaired remained in service until all hope of further resurrection was lost. He was a great believer in doing things safely and properly, and in doing them oneself if at all possible. He built homes and campers. He grew his own food and roasted his own coffee, and to the very end baked his own bread.
Though from a bygone era, Richard was nevertheless a thoroughly modern man, and while advancing years took a physical toll, his mind never faltered. He read widely and constantly — his final book was Barack Obama’s recent memoir — and could discuss everything from the day’s politics to cutting edge science. He was as well a great lover of technology and always equipped himself with the very latest, whether it was the first handheld calculator or the newest iThing.
Richard loved ice cream, football, cold beer, fresh apples, jokes about the passing of gas, and dogs of all kinds (but especially Great Danes) with equal zeal. He could and would tell you incredible tales but was equally content to sit back and listen to yours. He always smiled when he saw you and was always sorry when you left.
Indeed, those who knew him were forever blessed with the calm and quiet company of an exceptionally kind and generous man, one whose knowledge ran wide and whose wisdom ran deep, but whose love for friends and family surpassed all else. He lived his long and productive life with the patience, humility, and dignity that define grace and indeed greatness itself. In this, the world has lost a true and irreplaceable treasure. He leaves behind several lifetimes worth of memories to sustain us.
Richard was predeceased by his first wife, Genevieve; later wife, Dorothy; partner Alice Wright; daughter Sidnee, grandson Nathaniel; brothers Maurice and Mant; and sister, Sylvia. He is survived by his brother Wallace of Winslow, Maine; his daughter, Jo LaFontaine Van Buskirk and her husband, Emmett, of Bristol, Vermont; his son, Jerome, and his wife, Christina, of Warwick, New York; his nephew, John LaFountain, of Rutland, Vermont; grandson Patrick Warn and his wife, Jeannette, of Georgia, Vermont; granddaughter Sandra Warn of Coctati, California; grandson Geoff Davis, his wife, LuAnn, and great-granddaughter, Genevieve, of New Haven, Vermont, and grandson Chris LaFontaine, his wife, Dawn, and great-grandchildren Ethan and Sarah of Ashland, Massachusetts.
A celebration of remembrance will be held this summer. ◊