A community reaches out to its families in many ways - by raising money for medical treatments, sending a terminally ill child on a dream trip, cooking meals for those who are sick, and helping families through the grieving process when someone dies. Many of us are thankful when we don’t have to go through these times alone. The love of a community for its families binds us together.
One woman’s story dates back to the early 1970s when the warmth of an entire community helped her and her children through a tragic time.
Margaret Minehan was born and raised in West Groton, Mass. While attending Groton High School, she was very active in theater and had the lead role in every play. Her teachers suggested that she major in drama.
“I thought I was a really great, great star,” she says with a laugh. “So I went off to Emerson College in Boston on a scholarship and every star from every little high school was there, too.”
Her first reading for the theater teacher did not go well.
“He was a short man with a beret and scarf and he asked me to read something from Shakespeare,” she says. She read only a little bit when he shouted, “Stop!” He flung his scarf over his shoulder and said, “You have the voice of a toad out of the river.”
His belief was that if you insulted people, then they would work harder. Undaunted, Margaret did work hard and acted in many plays.
Margaret graduated with a double major in English and Theater Arts. Directly out of college, she was hired as an English teacher at St. Johnsbury Academy. In 1954, Margaret started teaching English to the sophomore class and became the school’s drama director. She lived at Brantview, a girls’ dormitory, as a dorm proctor.
At the same time, there was another teacher at the Academy, who taught business subjects and was the assistant football coach. Frank Ryan was born in Salem, Mass., graduated from Boston University with a bachelor’s degree in business administration in 1950 and received his master’s in education from Salem State University in 1962. He served in the U.S. Navy from 1943-1946 and was awarded many medals for his service in World War II.
Margaret said whenever her boyfriend from Harvard was visiting, Frank seemed to be always following them around. That changed when the girls at Brantview held a dance around Christmas, and Margaret was one of the chaperones. Her boyfriend was supposed to be her date, but there was a snowstorm and he couldn’t make it.
Margaret said she had to chaperone and she didn’t want to do it alone. When she asked Frank to do it, he beamed. He instructed the kids to hang mistletoe in the chandelier.
When the last dance was announced, he said, ‘Miss Minehan, why don’t we show the kids how to dance?’ He was a beautiful dancer. He danced me under the mistletoe and kissed me in front of all the kids while they applauded.”
The next day he was called in by Elwin Twombly, the headmaster, and was told that faculty members did not display public affection to a member of the opposite sex in the company of students. But, according to Margaret, Mr. Twombly had a twinkle in his eye as he said it because he told them later that he was hoping this was going to happen.
“Frank had a wonderful sense of humor,” Margaret says. “
He was very bright and could quote just about any writer. He liked to pretend that he was a good-old-boy type. His toes pointed out and he had shoes that were always run down at the heels and his jacket looked like it had come out of a rummage sale.
They were married on Dec. 18, 1955 and lived in an apartment at Brantview. They stayed there for seven years as dorm parents, and their first two children, Damian and Christopher, were born.
In 1962, the Ryans bought the original Albro Nichols House in St. Johnsbury that was built in 1846. Two more sons were born, Anthony (now deceased), and Jonathan.
By 1971, Frank was Dean of Men at the Academy.
In April 1971, they traveled to Salem, Mass. to visit family. While there, Frank had a heart attack and died. He was 45 and Margaret was 38 years old and six months pregnant with another son, Jamie. At the time, Margaret didn’t even have a drivers license so she couldn’t get herself home.
“I was just absolutely helpless and hopeless and from that moment on, I think I grew up,” she remembers. “I had to. I wasn’t the pampered wife anymore.”
Frank’s sudden death was a shock for everyone as he had shown no signs of sickness.
“It was terribly, terribly hard,” she said. “Somehow I kept going until Jamie was born. Then I started crying and couldn’t stop.”
She was told by her doctor that she had Frank back in this child and she had to think of it that way.
“Physically, Jamie resembles my side of the family, but he squints his eye the same way Frank did before he was about to tell a joke,” she says. “He has the exact same personality, and is wonderful with kids. It is almost like he had seen Frank from afar. It made me realize how strong genetics are.”
When Frank died, the boys were 13, 11, and 4. Margaret thought about moving away but decided to stay in St. Johnsbury.
“I had so many close friends here and people were so wonderful to me. I realized what a wonderful, wonderful town it was. There was a steady stream of people helping me out, people that I scarcely knew or didn’t even know, and I think it kept me from going crazy.”
Reality set in and Margaret had to get her drivers license. One of her best friends, Sheila Snowball, and her family lived one street over. They were from England.
“Allan looked like one of the Beatles and was one of the funniest men you could ever imagine with a Cockney accent,” Margaret says. “His wife was very refined and completely different. Allan ended most of his sentences with ‘luv,’ so it was always interesting to hear him talk.”
Realizing that Margaret didn’t have a drivers license, Allan came to visit her.
Allan said, “You can’t be a helpless female the rest of your life. You have to take driving lessons and I’ll be your teacher, luv.” He took her out to practice driving.
Allan sat in the car. He said, “I’ll turn on the petro, luv. Now you turn on the petro, luv.”
Then he said, “Now the Peugeot has four different shifts. We are going to decompress the clutch and go into first. Very good, luv. Now decompress again. We’ll go into second. Then third. Then fourth.”
“When we got to the fourth, I didn’t decompress,” Margaret says. “I stepped on the petro and we went down a steep bank and were hanging on by the two front wheels of the car. Allan didn’t blink an eyelash. He looked straight ahead and commented, ‘I said to shift into first, luv, not reverse.’”
Margaret was in tears and said, “Allan, it’s my first lesson.” to which he added, “and it may be your last, luv.” He went across the street and found some men to push the car up the bank.
Margaret got into the passenger seat, crying, and said, “Allan, promise you won’t tell my boys.”
Allan said, “My British lips are sealed.”
They arrived back at Margaret’s house, and Allan sped into the dooryard, slammed on the brakes, left the motor running, leapt out of the car, ran and opened the house door. Margaret says he immediately yelled, “Boys, guess what your mother just did!” It has been a family story ever since.
Margaret taught theater at the Academy from 1973 until 1980. Then she attended Brandeis University and earned her Master’s Degree in Theater and taught in Virginia and Maryland for the rest of the 1980s. She returned to St. Johnsbury and then took a job as the theater director at the Williamstown High School.
When she retired in 1998, they gave her the backdrop from the play as a gift. The backdrop was cut to fit one wall of her second floor sitting room and depicts a magnificent tree and a colorful field of tulips and sunflowers. It goes well in the room that is filled with many books and is a contemplative retreat from the outside world.
Margaret is a cancer survivor after being diagnosed with stage three colon cancer.
“The doctors called my sons to come home,” she says. “They didn’t think I was going to live. I was in tremendous pain and it scared me. After surgery, I asked the doctor, ‘Am I going to die?’ He said to me, ‘That’s up to you. You make up your mind what you want to do. Have a positive attitude and we’ll see what happens.’”
She has been cancer free for five years.
Margaret also gives back to the community she loves. She raises funds for the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum, volunteers for the cancer drive, and attends the Caledonia County Relay for Life each June and walks the survivors’ lap. She has been an English teacher, drama teacher, writer, and for 10 years was the owner of a bed and breakfast in St. Johnsbury. With many friends in the community, she has faced head on what life has given her and the community she lives in has been very good to her.
One of Margaret’s greatest pleasures is participating in the selection of the recipient of the Francis X. Ryan Scholarship Fund at the Academy. The fund was established in 1971 by Governor Philip Hoff, John Downs, Bill Rough, and Bernier Mayo. Many people in the community contributed to the fund. The first scholarship was given in 1972. A committee of five people review the list of proposed recipients each year but Margaret has the final choice.
Her children are doing well. Damian lives in Boston and works in human resources. He remembers his mother making homemade goodies for every family on their street at Christmas and then he and his brother Christopher delivering them.
Christopher lives in Alexandria, Va. and is a full-time Catholic deacon. Christopher calls St. Johnsbury, “Hometown, U.S.A.” He says, “It was a caring hometown and a great nurturing experience to grow up there.” He and his wife would someday like to retire here for their summers.
Jonathan lives in Mexico City and works for the United Nations as a linguist and does a great deal of traveling.
Jamie lives in St. Johnsbury and is the Dean of Resident Students at St. Johnsbury Academy and teaches social studies, psychology, and sociology. He also remembers his mother’s passion for theater. “I think she was a very militant recruiter to get people into plays,” he says. Jamie always looked up to his older brothers and remembers growing up in St. Johnsbury as a positive experience. He adds, “I always felt that since both of my parents taught at the Academy, that it was part of our family.” That is why he chose to come back to St. Johnsbury after college.
“My kids have always been very supportive,” says Margaret. “They inherited their father’s genes, their father’s brains, looks, and charm.”
She remembers the tremendous support she received from the community.
“...fortunately I had very supportive friends in the neighborhood and they were wonderful. Many times when they were taking their children to things, they would take one or two of mine so the kids had an idea of what family life was supposed to be. That was very helpful.”
Margaret is a grandmother to nine grandchildren who make her “feel like a million dollars.”
Margaret ended the conversation by saying, “I think that Frank will be standing there at the pearly gates with his feet turned out and wearing a wrinkled jacket. A lot of people have told me it was obvious that I had the love of my life and many people never, never experience that. I was really very lucky, so I have these happy memories with the thought that there is a great reunion in paradise.”