Saint Michael’s played key role in life, career of Sen. Leahy ’61, new memoir recounts

"The Road Taken," just released from Simon & Schuster, tells of influential professor, campaigning for Kennedy, and courting his future wife, Marcelle, while student

September 8, 2022
Mark Tarnacki
Staff Writer
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This is Patrick Leahy’s senior photo with a list of his activities while a student from the 1961 College Yearbook. The large photo behind the headline shows Sen. Leahy in 1998 entering Ross Sports Center alongside then-President of the College Marc vanderHeyden and Madeline Albright, then secretary of state and speaker for a well-attended campus event.

In his recently published memoir The Road Taken, U.S. Sen Patrick Leahy ’61 relates how he found a life-changing mentor at Saint Michael’s College in the legendary history Professor Ed Pfeifer ‘43.

“I was off to St. Michael’s looking for a challenge after the ease of high school,” Leahy writes to start Chapter 2 of his new book from Simon & Schuster, after relating in Chapter 1 about his youth growing up in Montpelier. His early stories in the book describe encountering and meeting a host of worthy challenges while at Saint Michael’s — on the academic, personal and extracurricular fronts.

In the book’s opening chapter, Leahy tells about his dad of Irish heritage who was in the printing business in Vermont’s capital city, and about his Italian-American mom. He recounts growing up with a love for reading books of every kind (including early Batman comics) and being a strong student as he attended St. Michael’s Catholic Elementary and High Schools in Montpelier.

“As those carefree days at St. Michael’s High School wound down, I made a last-minute application to St. Michael’s College,” Leahy writes. “It seemed like a natural transition that after four years at one St. Michael’s, I’d spend the next four years forty miles down the road at another St. Mike’s.”

Once he settled into campus life in Colchester, Leahy shares, “I found a mentor in the history department. His name was Dr. Ed Pfeifer, and he was a Pied Piper. He too had grown up in Montpelier and had gone from St. Michael’s Elementary School to St. Michael’s High School in 1939 before he finished the hat trick, graduating from St. Michael’s with a bachelor’s degree in 1943 before World War II and a tour of duty aboard the destroyer USS Albert W. Grant.”

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History Professor Ed Pfeifer ’43

The Senator goes on to explain what about Pfeifer made him such a “Pied Piper”: “He was worldly. He’d come home from the war with a Bronze Start, ma master’s and PHD from Brown University thanks to the GI Bill, and an infectious love of learning I was among several students whom he picked as protégés,  thinking we had some promise, and to whom he assigned extra reading materials. He recruited us for seminars. He challenged us to think critically, test our ideas, and debate relentlessly. He made me push myself.”

Leahy also tells of his “beginning to catch the bug for politics” while still in college and campaigning for then Massachusetts Sen. John Kennedy during Kennedy’s 1960 presidential bid.

“…On our tiny Catholic campus, the interest level was rising,” he recalls. “When I called home on the dormitory pay phone, I could hear both the excitement and the sense of resignation from my father, one of Montpelier’s few long-suffering Democrats.”

“In October,” he writes, “I volunteered to leaflet for Kennedy and I’d head out, walking the neighborhoods, bundled up in my St. Michael’s jacket. St. Michael’s College was 100 percent male and 99 percent Catholic. Time and time again, after a pleasant conversation and a stranger gladly accepting my Kennedy leaflet, voters would confide in me that they did not like Nixon, but I had to understand that they could not vote for a Catholic. Here I was, standing there in the cold October air, with a very Irish name and wearing a St. Michael’s jacket, and they never could’ve imagined that the Kennedy volunteer knocking on their door might actually be a Catholic.”

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A Kennedy for president rally on campus is shown in this photo from the 1961 yearbook. While Leahy is not visible in the photo, the senator says he almost surely was present.

Another vignette from book about that period has Leahy hitching back to campus from a visit home and getting a ride from someone who had the first Kennedy-Nixon debate on the car radio. To Leahy, it sounded like Nixon had the clear advantage, to his deep disappointment. “I climbed the stairs of my dorm dejected and ran into friends who also supported Kennedy. Surprisingly, they were jubilant. ‘Well I just heard the entire debate, and Kennedy got his hat handed to him,’ I said puzzled. They replied without hesitation, ‘no, they are going to show excerpts of it on the eleven o’clock news – you just watch.’ I stayed up glued to the black-and-white television in the student recreation center. The difference between what I’d heard on the crackling car radio and what so many people had seen on television was astounding.”

In Chapter 3 of the memoir, Leahy tells how another Saint Michael’s connection led to his life’s most important moment: “I was nineteen, the summer just after my sophomore year, and I leapt at an opportunity to improve my standing at school. My parents were attending a party at a summer camp belonging to a French-Canadian American family, the Pomerleaus. I heard Dr. Robert Spencer, head of the political science department, would be there, so I tagged along, hoping for a few minutes alone with the professor…When I arrived and took one look at Marcelle…” He says with that look, he immediately had an answer to his initial confusion as to which Pomerleau sibling was which. “And with it, soon were answered most of the other questions in life,” Leahy writes.

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Dressed up for a college dance with Marcelle. “We were already very serious” Leahy says of this image in the book.

He tells in the book briefly about his early dates with Marcelle, who was a nursing student at nearby Fanny Allen Hospital across Route 15 from Saint Michael’s. “Through my junior and senior year, we dated. I would hitchhike into Burlington from St. Michael’s, and we would study together at the University of Vermont’s library because the student nurses were allowed to stay out late as long as they were studying. We were inseparable.” A photo in the new book shows Leahy and Marcelle dressed up for a formal college dance.

The tale of Leahy courting Marcelle while he was at Saint Michael’s continues in the book: “While I had won Marcelle’s heart and, soon, I hoped, her hand in marriage, back on campus at St. Mike’s, I wasn’t faring as well on a different field of competition. I’d joined the rifle team in high school because I needed only one good eye for that, and I was rewarded with a small scholarship by being on the rifle team in college. I earned my letter and ended up outshooting most of the ROTC teams around the country. I hoped for an ROTC commission to go on to graduate school, but the recruiters rejected me because I was blind in one eye. It was infuriating. I challenged them to bring in their dozen best shooters anywhere in the Military, and if I couldn’t outshoot ten of them, and even all twelve of them, then they could turn me down. They laughed and told me I was wasting their time. I’d have to save my best shots for the courtroom.”

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Patrick Leahy, second from right in back row, as one of the photo editors for the yearbook in this image from the 1961 edition. His passion for photography continues to this day.

David Carle, Leahy’s longtime communications director and press secretary, said that, as many people know, the senator was born largely blind in one eye, and he gravitated to both target shooting and photography, which only require one good eye.  “He’s gone on to become an accomplished photographer and has had his photos displayed in several galleries and in his new memoir,” said Carle.

Leahy has stayed connected to his alma mater, returning to campus periodically through the years for various reasons including once having an exhibit of his photographs on display in the McCarthy Gallery. He also has attended some earlier class reunions and Commencement ceremonies or campus talks when he has had special connections to the speakers (such as when the late Madeleine Albright, then secretary of state, visited campus in 1998 as in the photo behind the headline of this story), and occasionally can be seen attending Mass in the College chapel with Marcelle when they are back in Vermont.

 

Inspiring a future generation

Sen. Leahy’s words about his Saint Michael’s days from the recent memoir became an inspiration for new students when they arrived on campus this recent August. Spanish Professor Carolyn Lukens-Olson, the faculty speaker invited to address this year’s first-years during the New Student Convocation in the Chapel (a result of her winning the College’s main teaching award last year) delivered a brief but elegant speech built around three inspiring stories of notable thinkers and servants, including Leahy as a Saint Michael’s graduate. These were some of her words:

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Carolyn Lukens-Olson addresses new students in late August 2022 in the chapel.

“A schoolboy with a passion-for-reading checks out a book with Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Less Traveled” from the public library in Montpelier. He is struck most of all by its final verses about choosing the right road to take. This boy, Patrick, shows up several years later forty miles down the road as a first-year student at Saint Michael’s College. At Saint Michael’s, he takes very quickly to the rigorous liberal arts curriculum and is greatly influenced by Dr. Ed Pfeifer, professor of English and mentor in history, himself a graduate of Saint Michael’s. In one of his classes, Patrick reads a speech by Edmund Burke, the 18th century political figure, who, in addressing his responsibilities as an elected member to parliament, says that he is bound to give to those whom he represents both his hard work and his best judgement while also bound never to sacrifice his conscience. This idea of the conscientious political figure stuck in Patrick’s mind, inviting him to see a future shape to his life. That student is, of course, Senator Patrick Leahy, who, as we all know, goes on to have a long career in politics; he is retiring this January after eight terms as the senator of Vermont. In his memoir published this week, titled The Road Taken, a play on Frost’s verse mentioned above, Senator Leahy describes the trajectory of his career. He writes that the words from Burke’s speech that he studied at Saint Michael’s awakened him to the honorable idea of a political figure, which was for him an invitation to pursue the path of public service.”

Lukens-Olsen said that, alongside the other inspiring examples from her talk, Leahy’s road illustrates for the new students that their four college years are going to be a series of invitations — exciting, and worthy of their best efforts.

“The next stories are yours,” she concluded.

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