A Centenarian Reflects on His Happy Life

Raymond Russell in 2009

Looking over snowy landscapes this winter, Raymond Russell thinks back to the days when he and two other Lyndonville men had the dream of starting an outing club in town.  The dream became a reality in 1937 for Russell, Milton Kerr, and Kermit Grant, the founders of the Lyndon Outing Club in 1937.  Now it is one of only four outing clubs left in Vermont.

The three were chatting about it on Main Street next to a boarding house, and the idea took off within days as they passed it on to fellow skiers.  Their friends organized a meeting, elected Kerr president, Grant vice president and Russell secretary-treasurer, who later became president.  Russell’s wife Evelyn, an enthusiastic skier since childhood, joined her husband as a regular volunteer, opening and closing the cabin, cooking hot dogs, and cleaning.  When the question of lighting the slopes at night came, local merchants were right there with a temporary solution before raising money to construct a system.  One of those contacted was my father who joined others, driving their cars up to the slope and turning on their headlights for the evening.

 Russell moved recently to Wheelock to the sunny, welcoming home of Alton and Shirley Britch. He has a private room and any personal care needed by the friendly couple.  His wife, Evelyn, had died a few months after their 75thwedding anniversary three years ago, and living alone was not to his liking.  He celebrated his 100thbirthday last year.  It was time somebody had a chance to visit with him about his happy years in Lyndonville.  He greeted me with a warm smile, his good hearing making conversation easy. 

  Russell told me of his introduction to Lyndonville when he left his hometown of St. Johnsbury in l933 to take on a job at Moore& Tripp’s store for men and women’s clothes.  His younger brother Hazen arrived a year later to take over the ownership of the adjacent Saunders’ Drug Store.

 They had grown up in a bustling household on Hastings Hill in St. Johnsbury, where all six children were born at home.  Their father’s business was cutting and selling ice with the help of his sons Raymond, Hazen and Reginald, when they were in their teens.  Sisters Dorothy, Jeannette and Marion did the household chores.

The twoémigrés from St. Johnsbury found they much preferred the smaller size of Lyndonville. “People from different walks of life work very well together here,” Russell says.  He discovered that very soon, after he had married a local girl, Evelyn Forsythe, in 1930.“I was asked to teach Sunday school in the Congregational Church where Evelyn was on the membership committee,” he says.  Today he is a lifetime deacon.  Russell’s praise of Lyndonville warmed the heart of this native.  I was used to people from“away” contrasting the size of Lyndonville with St Johnsbury, leaving the impression that I was a“hick from the sticks.”

The Music Hall on Broad Street was a bustling center of activity when he came to live in Lyndonville.  He recalls attending 10-cent movies in the large community building. “Evelyn and I smooched in the balcony,” he says with a grin. His wife-to-be had taken a job with the John Norris Bag Balm company right after graduation from Lyndon Institute and did secretarial work there for fifty years.

After graduating from St. Johnsbury Trade School, Russell’s first job had been at Luther Jewett’s men’s clothing store in town, where he worked for seven years. It was one of five men’s clothing stores in St. Johnsbury at the time, the perfect background for taking ownership of the Moore and Tripp store in 1942, after the death of Mr. Tripp.

With World War II underway, Russell joined Lyndon volunteers to do airplane spotting. “The town had built a shack near the Catholic Church with a good view of the whole sky.  I took the night shift,” Russell says,“midnight until eight in the morning, when the next relief started.  There were volunteers on duty   for twenty-four hours.  I had no dependents so I was drafted into the army at the end of 1943.  I was assigned to the 333rdBattalion attached to the U.S. Army of Engineers.  It was perfect for me with my experience in building, especially the addition to the Outing Club cabin.  Our outfit was sent to England for a month or two, then during the Battle of the Bulge we were sent across the channel into Germany where I was assigned to bridge building.  We built a floating bridge a half mile long across the Rhine River under fire from German planes and our own.  We were right out in the open, but never lost a man.”              

After he was discharged, and the day he returned home at the end of the war, he and his wife contacted the Children’s Aid Society.  They had started the adoption process before he was drafted and now were more than ready to have a child.  They adopted five-month-old David in 1946.  Two years later, David learned to ski at the Outing Club, his feet planted on his father’s skis as they cruised up by the rope tow.“He became a very good skier,” his dad says.

 Back in Lyndonville, Russell lost no time returning to his community interests.  He and his brother learned that Paul Aubin, who owned a jewelry store near them on Depot Street, had designed a crèche, which he dreamed could become a Christmas scene in front of the Darling Inn.  That was fifty-five years ago.  The dream became reality when the two Russell brothers built the crèche with pieces of local weathered boards.  When it became too unwieldy to move, they rebuilt it into a solid piece, too heavy to transport to storage. “We knew we could count on some business in town to store it for us, and Mike Wheeler was glad to give it a home in his building supply store,” Russell says. Russell served many years on the board of directors of the Lyndonville Bank. “They gave me a gold watch when I retired,” he recalled with a smile.

One of the most ambitious fund-raising projects undertaken by the Rotary Club took place during his term as club president in 1958.  Members built and raffled off a hunting camp on Center Pond.  It was one of Russell’s favorite projects in Lyndonville, given his fondness for building dating back to his high school years.

Russell’s son David, a graduate of Lyndon Institute, spent four years in the Navy during the Vietnam War from 1965 through 1968.  Under the GI Bill, he attended Cerritos College in California and graduated with high honors.  He lives with his wife Irene in Lakewood, California.

Now retired, David Russell’s current pursuit is doing research on“Supercentarians” to learn about”the oldest of the oldest.” He sent an e-mail, reporting,“You probably already know it, but Dad is a second generation centenarian.  His dad, Perley, lived to be 103 and 3 months. That’s a rarity!” Russell agreed to fill out the papers for the Boston University School of Medicine for the study, happy to be part of his son’s research.