In large photo above the headline, Don Sutton in the center with vest poses with charter members from the original Saint Michael's Fire and Rescue Squad from the Class of 1973 who came to help him celebrate his 90th birthday at the Dion Center. Directly above, Don arrives by fire truck to the party; below, some shots from the event, and some old file photos of "Pappy" on duty or with students back in the day. The bottom large photo shows all the SMFR alumni and well-wishers at the party.
Even at age 90, Don Sutton knows how to make an entrance.
The respected founder of Saint Michael’s Fire and Rescue and former Dean of Students, fondly known to his charges as “Pappy,” rode SMFR Fire Engine No. 9 to his 90th birthday party in the Dion Center on Saturday, Dec 2, after it picked him up (with his daughter Joy) from his home by the airport not far from campus, to chauffeur them to the event in style.
After his arrival on the truck with lights flashing, nearly 150 people, a majority of them SMFR alumni from the 1970s on through the present, offered the warmest of wishes and remembrances. Sutton was visibly moved and delighted.
As part of the festivities, the organizers presented Sutton with a framed copy of a letter sent from Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a 1977 Saint Michael’s graduate, who remembered Sutton as Dean of Students. Dunford wrote in his own hand at the bottom of the letter/citation, “Dean Sutton – Many thanks for your leadership and personal example!” Sutton later said he wants it to hang on the wall of the fire/rescue station.
Leslie Lindquist ‘05, chief of Saint Michael’s Rescue Squad, said some SMFR alumni in attendance had not seen one another in 40 years. Others who made appearances at least at some point between the party’s start at noon until the last lingerers left about 3:30 p.m., included President Jack Neuhauser, Government/Community Relations VP Patrick Gallivan from the President’s Office, family and friends of Sutton from the community, some current students, along with people Sutton has worked with through the years, whether at Camp Ta Kum Ta for children with cancer, or with the Knights of Columbus.
Sutton’s daughter Joy, who helped Lindquist and others with the party planning, shared that she never rode on a fire truck with her dad, despite all his years as a firefighting leader, so it was a special thrill.
Lindquist said some alumni, such as Roy Carcia ’78, never had seen the new station on Route 15, and so came beforehand so the present SMFR students could give a tour. Several others did the same. “I think it’s remarkable that, because of one person, we are all acquaintances now, and none of us would have been in that room together if it wasn’t for Don,” she said.
Also present to capture Sutton’s arrival and some of the party moments was a crew from local WCAX Channel 3 news, who were featuring Sutton on their “Super Senior” segment later in the week.
Daughter Joy also brought a basket for guests to put cards in, including many sent from those who could not attend -- close to 50 cards, “and he had to open them all right when he got home,” said his daughter.
Campus Sodexo provided food to get things started. The informal program after food included Lindquist offering impromptu remarks to thank all present while sharing about the Don Sutton Scholarship at the College, funded by the Ritz family, which since 2001 has helped 116 students and awarded more than $247,000.
Lindquist then turned things over to Tom Powers ’70, chairman of board for SMFR and a charter member as one of the students who helped Sutton get SMFR started in 1969-70. Some prior chiefs or assistant chiefs – Pete Soons ’82, Jim Laskarzewski’86 -- were present. Brian Marcelonis, a student when Sutton was Dean of Students, though he could not attend, stays in regular close contact with Sutton, and also lived across from Gen. Dunford during college and they remain friendly, so he forwarded an email about the party to the general, who arranged to have the personalized birthday letter sent.
That letter notes how Sutton served in the Navy along with his long Saint Michael’s service in different capacities. “That gesture by the general really caught him off guard it seemed,” said Lindquist, “and we think we saw some tears when he went to retrieve that framed gift.”
Sutton also made remarks to the gathering, followed by a video presentation artfully compiled by a current SMFR student, with messages from alumni or former colleagues such as Mike Samara, who couldn’t attend, mixed with older photos from squads gone by -- complete with music soundtrack. While the present Fire Chief Erik Haversang '11 was out of town and could not attend, he and his wife (and new baby) submitted a video greeting, “and she [the baby] stole the show,” said Lindquist.
Also present to celebrate Sutton -- a widower whose wife of 45 years, Rose, died in 2011 -- was his close local social companion and friend Virginia and her family.
Lindquist said the party felt much like the annual SMFR April banquets, which Sutton usually attends, too. “Our 50th anniversary is in two years and I know Don really wants to get there," she said, noting how last year was the 47th and drew more than 250 people, “so for the 50th we’re going to need a really big space.”
Sutton’s actual birthday is December 26, but the timing of the earlier celebration worked well to allow many more to attend, Lindquist said. Surprisingly, no fire or rescue calls came in during the gathering although some ambulance crew who had come and gone later made a run.
“Some alums were hoping to see a truck go out the door!” Lindquist said.
A large group came from the Class of 1973, who would have been charter members and the first graduating class to serve SMFR all four years since the ambulance started in 1969 and the fire service in 1970. Lindquist said SMFR has 22 charter members including the present Superior General of the Society of St. Edmund, Very Rev. Steve Hornat ’72, who stopped by the party as did Fr. Ray Doherty ’51, S.S.E.
An interesting life
Sutton was born in Pennsylvania and served in the Navy as a cook. After serving he moved to New Jersey, where he married Rose and they had their daughter, Joy. He also served as a member of the Allenhurst, NJ, Fire Department. In 1967, he relocated his family to Vermont and started working at Saint Michael’s as the head of food services. In 1969 he was appointed as the Dean of Students and held that post when General Dunford was a student. That same year, Sutton, along with a small group of students, led the charge to establish Saint Michael's College Fire and Rescue, after a student died on campus. He served as Chief of the Department until his retirement in 1993. In 1978-79, he was appointed as director of Saint Michael's Security and held that post until his retirement.
Lindquist said Sutton “never really retired though as he continued to work until he was 85 at a local business. He remains active with the Knights of Columbus and the senior center in Winooski.”
“In regards to Fire and Rescue, is because of Don’s vision, to improve the availability of emergency services to the Saint Michael's College Campus and surrounding community that we are in our 48th year of service,” she said. “Over 600 Saint Michael's students have come through the Fire and Rescue program, which responds to more than 3,000 calls a year. We are one of the busiest volunteer fire and rescue services in the state.”
“As Dean of Students, Chief of Fire and Rescue, and even now as he is retired, Don impacted a lot of lives in the 50 years he has been part of the Saint Michael’s community,” Lindquist said. “I have no doubt his impact will continue, with his weekly visits to the fire and rescue station to chat with students.”