Jim Kenyon: ‘Sometimes it’s healthy to disagree’

Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Geoff Hansen

A letter written by Jim Vanier posted to the CCBA's Facebook page on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2023.

A letter written by Jim Vanier posted to the CCBA's Facebook page on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2023. —

By JIM KENYON

Valley News Columnist

Published: 09-17-2023 12:11 AM

When I stopped by the Carter Community Building in downtown Lebanon unannounced Friday, Jim Vanier had just finished sweeping the linoleum floor and tidying up before 25 kids were due to arrive for the free after-school program that he’s served for 50 years.

“It’s like breathing,” Vanier said about his daily routine at the century-old youth center known by generations of Lebanon residents simply as the CCB. “It comes naturally to me.”

For the last few weeks, it’s appeared the 71-year-old Vanier’s run at the CCB could be ending. He was at loggerheads with the leadership at the Carter Community Building Association, or CCBA, over his role in the nonprofit organization and the youth center’s future.

But once the dispute became public, Vanier gained the upper hand. Lebanon’s old guard in particular reminded CCBA leaders — not always in polite fashion — that Vanier was an iconic figure in the community for his half-century of work with kids.

Vanier’s supporters wrote letters to this paper and they posted on social media. One day about 20 people took to the street that runs in front of the CCB, waving signs and encouraging drivers to “honk for Jimmy.”

With the public overwhelmingly on his side, Vanier could have kept the pressure on the CCBA, which I suspect was starting to worry that some donors might stop writing checks.

On Thursday morning, Vanier let the CCBA off the hook.

Following an impromptu visit from Lebanon High School Principal Ian Smith who had dropped by to see how things were going, Vanier sat down alone with a pen and pad of paper.

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He scribbled a note that he thought might serve as the foundation of a joint statement from himself, the CCBA’s governing board and Executive Director Kerry Artman.

Vanier described the dispute as an “unfortunate misunderstanding” that was now patched up. It was time, he wrote, for the community to “start moving forward again for the betterment of the CCBA.”

Bruce Adams, chairman of the CCBA’s governing board, happened to call Vanier later that day. Vanier read what he had written.

Adams encouraged Vanier to share the note with Artman.

Shortly before 8 p.m. Thursday, the CCBA posted Vanier’s note on its Facebook page. By early Friday morning, Vanier was getting calls on his cellphone.

He doesn’t look at Facebook (another point in his favor, I’d say), so he was unaware of the post. Friends asked if they were actually his words. Some joked they were worried he was being held hostage and forced to write it.

Vanier assured them that he wrote the note — unprompted.

“I felt good about what I had written,” Vanier told me. “I wanted to get people back together and close the wound.”

He didn’t see any reason for the infighting to continue. He’d accomplished his goal.

In the last week or so, he had received assurances that he could keep the CCB open when school is canceled due to bad weather and during vacation weeks.

The drop-in program at the CCB, which features a small gym and two game rooms, is for children in grades 3 through 6. Many of them have parents who are still at their jobs when the school day ends.

“Parents need to know there’s a safe place for their kids to go when they’re having to work,” Vanier said.

A plan that Vanier vehemently opposed to start charging families on a sliding payment scale also seems to have been shelved for the time being, at least.

On Friday, I emailed Adams and Artman to confirm the drop-in program would continue to operate as it has for decades. (By that, I mean free and open when school isn’t.)

“With regard to our programs and plans, there has never been a question that we will continue to provide the valuable services on which the Upper Valley relies,” Artman responded. “As for the after-school program, we currently have three dedicated staff members, including Jim, who are actively working to shape its future.”

It wasn’t the unequivocal answer I was hoping for, but it would have to do.

Meanwhile, here are a few of my takeaways from what has happened in recent weeks.

I think Vanier was being gracious when he wrote the dispute was merely an “unfortunate misunderstanding.”

As I wrote in an Aug. 29 column, the CCBA brought in Lebanon attorney Beth Rattigan, who specializes in employment law, to let Vanier know that it meant business. Rattigan drew up a list of more than a dozen items that CCBA leaders wanted Vanier to abide by.

It’s fair to say the CCBA wasn’t thrilled when a source provided me with a copy of Rattigan’s email, which came across as heavy-handed and insulting.

For instance, Vanier wasn’t allowed to use the phone at the CCB for “personal calls, except as needed in an emergency.” He also had to agree “not to make false or defamatory statements about CCBA.”

I was surprised they didn’t ask him to take a loyalty pledge.

When it became clear the bullying tactics weren’t working, the CCBA stepped up its attack.

In a lengthy social media post to its members and donors, the CCBA argued it was forced to hire Rattigan because Vanier had lawyered up. (A friend of Vanier’s recommended attorney Joseph Mattson, of Manchester, and is paying his legal bills.)

In the same post, the CCBA wrote it would “continue to uphold our ethical obligation to protect Jim’s privacy.”

But it didn’t stop the CCBA from going public with its claim that Vanier’s lawyer had canceled three negotiating sessions. Or that the organization had tried to work in “good faith with Jim” and was “dismayed to see this process drag out even longer.”

In other words, don’t blame us.

Artman and the CCBA board grossly underestimated Vanier’s support in the city.

Perhaps it is only a coincidence that after Lebanon Mayor Tim McNamara’s letter to the editor appeared in the Valley News on Sept. 7, the CCBA seemed recognize the need to change course.

“Lebanon has undergone significant change in the past half-century, but one consistent has been the role of the CCBA and Jim Vanier in fostering our youth,” McNamara wrote.

“I would encourage CCBA leadership to give this much consideration as they consider the unique importance of the organization to Lebanon as we move into the future.”

Before McNamara weighed in, the CCBA could dismiss Vanier’s supporters as cranks who didn’t represent Lebanon’s gentrifying population.

McNamara, who grew up in West Lebanon and graduated from Lebanon High in 1974, is known for his measured stances. He doesn’t shoot from the hip. His support for Vanier lent credibility to the cause.

I emailed McNamara on Friday afternoon. He hadn’t seen the CCBA’s Facebook post. After he’d looked at it, we talked on the phone.

Although he didn’t view his letter as a difference-maker, the public outcry overall “might have been a wake-up call” for CCBA leadership, McNamara said. “There are still Lebbies out there, and they don’t hesitate to be vocal.”

Seeing Vanier still at the job he loves is a victory for older workers who don’t blindly follow the orders of their younger bosses.

“Sometimes it’s healthy to disagree,” Vanier said.

In recent weeks, people have whispered to me that Vanier doesn’t pull his weight in an organization faced with financial challenges in a competitive business. They try to make the case that running the drop-in center isn’t truly a full-time vocation.

In early August, after Vanier returned to work from hip replacement surgery, Artman handed him a letter to sign that redefined his role. Among other things, she wanted him to be available to work morning shifts — answering phones and checking in members — at the nearby Witherell Recreation Center, the CCBA’s crown jewel that caters largely to adults.

Vanier balked — setting off a chain reaction that led to the late summer of discontent. (In a job description that Rattigan later presented to Vanier’s attorney, the CCB youth center coordinator — a position Vanier has held since 1987 — was also expected to work the Witherell’s front desk.)

About a week before crafting last Thursday’s message, as the CCBA is calling it, Vanier met with Artman. He came to understand that his job wouldn’t change. No splitting his time between the CCBA’s two buildings.

Hopefully, CCBA leaders now recognize that his value to the organization — and the community at large — can’t be measured by a punch clock.

Vanier doesn’t communicate via emails or text messages. He doesn’t own a computer and only bought his first cellphone a month ago.

He engages one-on-one with whoever walks through the CCB’s front door. Last week, a stranger who appeared down on his luck wandered in. The man asked if there was a place in Lebanon that might give him a few groceries.

Vanier got on the phone to Listen, the social services nonprofit that runs a Lebanon food shelf.

“Jim is the go-to guy in Lebanon for a lot of things,” McNamara said. “I wish we had a hundred Jim Vaniers.”

A nice thought. Lebanon is fortunate to still have one. CCBA leaders might want to keep it in mind.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.