By JOHN FLOWERS
WEYBRIDGE — For more than a half-century, a man with the last name “James” has held the gavel at Weybridge town meetings.
That long run has now come to an end, as Stanley “Kelly” James Jr. presided over his last town meeting on March 3. James had been Weybridge town moderator since 1975, after taking over for his dad, who had run the annual meeting for the previous 26 years.
“I’m not getting any younger,” James, a very youthful looking 79, said with a smile last Wednesday while he took a break from splitting wood.
“I guess it’s time to let some newer blood in.”
Kelly James was the new blood 33 years ago when he took up his post in front of Weybridge town meetings. His dad, Stanley James Sr., was ready to step down, and Kelly decided to give it a shot.
“I guess it was bred into me to be active in town,” he said. “My dad was doing a good job (as moderator), but it was getting harder and harder for him, and I just fell into it.”
Indeed, Kelly James has been a devoted public servant to Weybridge over the years. He has served on the local planning commission, zoning board, UD-3 school board and on committees to build the Weybridge and Cornwall schools. He continues to serve on the Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center board.
“I guess the only thing I haven’t been is a selectman,” James said with a chuckle.
Used to be that town moderators in Vermont were quite often the communities’ legislators in Montpelier. When James Sr. became moderator each Vermont community had its own representative at the Statehouse. Kelly James said the legislator-moderator link made sense in most towns because lawmakers were well schooled in parliamentary procedures.
That didn’t intimidate James, who learned a lot about governance during school and as a member of the Future Farmers of America (FFA) organization.
“It’s not that hard as long as you can read Robert’s Rules,” James said, of the official guidelines for running a municipal meeting.
By all accounts, James interpreted the rules well over the years and ran a very smooth, friendly meeting. He even looked and sounded the part, with his Abe Lincoln-style whiskers and authoritarian voice.
“It’s a challenge to run a good meeting,” he said, noting the propensity for some folks to chime in with long, meandering speeches that sometimes stray from the business at hand.
Still, James always found a way to gently bring the issues back into focus without a lot of theater.
“We don’t get into too many knock-down, drag-outs,” James said. “The town is not that controversial. People are calm and collected, most of the time.”
No one ever challenged James in his re-election bids, providing further evidence of people’s satisfaction with the way he performed his job.
“You can run a tight meeting, but you won’t make a lot of friends that way,” James added, “and I’d like to think most of the people in town are my friends.”
James has seen a lot of changing faces at the annual meetings during his time as moderator. When he first started, attendees were primarily farm families.
“Now there are few farmers,” he said, noting the demise of small family farms and changing demographics. James has been a farmer pretty much his entire life.
He’s had a nice run as town moderator, but now — just like his dad before him — he realizes he needs to slow down a little and ease up on his workload. James will be giving way to fellow resident Spence Putnam, who knows he will be succeeding a local icon.
Putnam decided to give it a shot when he learned James wasn’t running for re-election and after some friends encouraged him to throw his hat into the ring.
“It will be a challenge to follow someone who had such a long run and set such a good example,” Putnam said.
So, come next March, James will pass the gavel to Putnam — only it won’t be James’ gavel. It’s become a precious keepsake that James’ uncle, Edwin James Sr., fashioned many years ago out of a piece of maple harvested from the family farm.
“I’ve told (Weybridge Town Clerk) Karen (Brisson) the town needs to get a new gavel and a new copy of Robert’s Rules for the new moderator,” James said.