The man who captured county on video is ready to retire
MIDDLEBURY — Dick Thodal has spent that past 28 years behind a video camera, giving area residents a chance to star in their own talk shows, comedy segments, cultural programs and political theater — all broadcast on Middlebury Community Television (MCTV) Channel 15.
Now Thodal, 69, will soon get a chance to headline his own reality show: His much-deserved retirement, and there won’t be any cameras rolling.
“I want to get out of the way of the younger people,” Thodal said on Monday, seated on the talk-show set where he has filmed scores of public-access shows.
“I love to tinker, and I‘ve got a lot of semi-started projects to do,” he added.
Thodal — the first paid employee in the 32-year history of MCTV — will officially exit stage left this coming June. He has already passed the mantle of executive director to Kurt Broderson. Thodal will work part-time until his departure, doing what he has done since the spring of 1989: Helping people produce their own cable access shows, as well as recording local cultural, political and recreational events.
No one in Middlebury has attended more local public gatherings, governmental meetings and musical events than Dick Thodal. If Thodal had $1 for every event he has immortalized over the past 28 years, he would possess a substantial nest egg.
“The question (of meetings attended) has occurred to me, but I never wanted to do the math, because I thought it might be a little too overwhelming,” Thodal said with a grin.
One would think Thodal’s exposure to so many municipal and school meetings would make him an expert on local affairs.
Not so. He’s busy during meetings shifting camera angles to make sure people at home see the person who is talking.
“It goes in one ear and out the other,” he chuckled.
One of the nicest and most gracious people you’ll ever meet, Thodal has rarely said no to a request for coverage of a community event. There have been times when he has toted his MCTV camera to five evening meetings in a single week.
“The bad part is, I missed a lot of my kids growing up,” Thodal said. “My wife (Sally) is very understanding. We kind of figured that more than three nights out (per week) is probably not good. But there were a lot of three nights out, and more.”
He started at MCTV back in the mid-1980s. The nonprofit — funded by a franchise fee through Comcast — had no paid staff in the beginning and was thus solely dependent on volunteer labor. Thodal has had a lifelong interest in photography, so he was happy to help record local events.
He was among a group of early MCTV pioneers that included Lou Megyesi (Thodal calls him “the father of MCTV”), former Middlebury College spokesman Ron Nief, former Middlebury Town Planner Fred Dunnington, and Caroline Donnan.
Back then, MCTV was based in a small office in Middlebury Union High School, behind the learning center. The organization around 1990 landed in its current studio in the top floor of the Ilsley Public Library.
Thodal believes MCTV’s association with the Ilsley has been beneficial for both utilitarian and philosophical reasons.
“Public access is often referred to as First Amendment TV,” Thodal said, noting the library inherently also promotes free speech and conversation and adding, “There is no better place for public access TV to be than in a public library.”
By 1989, the MCTV board felt it was time to hire a part-time staffer to tend to some of the increasing and myriad chores of running a small TV station. Thodal successfully applied for that job as MCTV’s technical director, which started as an 8-hour-per-week gig. His duties included helping folks produce original programming, assisting them with film editing and loaning out MCTV cameras and other equipment.
“I’ve been a jack of all trades,” Thodal said. “I’ve got a lot of experience with a lot of things.”
His résumé bears that out.
After graduating from MUHS in 1965, Thodal attended the University of Vermont, earning a degree in biological science. There weren’t many jobs available in that field in Vermont, so Thodal improvised. He worked in construction, and then as a machinist in the Brown Novelty Co. mill in East Middlebury for almost 30 years. Like many Vermonters, he became adept at juggling several part-time jobs in order to make a decent living.
That changed in 1995, when Thodal became MCTV’s first, full-time executive director, overseeing MCTV operations and programming, which have improved greatly during his tenure.
When Thodal joined MCTV, programs were filmed on 0.75-inch tape, before switching to VHS format during the early 1990s.
“With VHS, everything had to happen in ‘real time,’” he recalled.
Film editing was a particularly laborious process with tape, according to Thodal. The edits had to be rolled onto a second tape.
Thodal compares editing to the process of making maple syrup. Just as it takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup, making original programming can be tough and time consuming.
“I figured out pretty early that if we were going to have programming on the air, it pretty much had to be done in real time,” Thodal said. “That’s why all of our meetings, church services, talk shows and lectures is really 90 percent of what we have on (the air).”
Things got easier during the late 1990s, when MCTV switched to DVDs.
“Going to a digital format, you could edit, transfer, import (material) and deal with digital files in a much more efficient way,” Thodal said.
Another big advance came around a decade ago, when MCTV began offering its programs on demand through its website, middleburycommunitytv.org.
MCTV has aired some fine programs through the years, and Thodal has some favorites, including “The Fred Show,” a comedy offering from former resident Fred Kuhr that was ultimately carried on 25 cable access channels throughout the Northeast; and “Eastern Woodland Gathering,” produced by John Dedam, which featured footage of Native American gatherings in New England.
Thodal also enjoyed “Behind the Valley of the Dolls,” produced by Joe Covais, a series of comedy shows about alleged UFO abductions in Middlebury. Covais, afflicted with diabetes, was tragically going blind at the time he was producing the shows. MCTV staff would put pieces of tape on the control buttons of the editing machines so he could independently craft his show.
MCTV aired many different local talk shows during the 1990s, starring folks like former Sen. Tom Bahre, R-Addison, and former Rep. Betty Nuovo, D-Middlebury. Nuovo’s talk show, about various legislative issues, had a particularly long run. Nuovo, in her early 80s, only recently retired after having spent more than 30 years serving in the Vermont House.
“Betty would knock out four shows in one sitting,” Thodal said, marveling at Nuovo’s energy. “I have not seen anyone else do that.”
The advent of YouTube has provided a convenient, global forum for novice filmmakers and commentators to showcase their talents. As a result, MCTV has been getting a smaller variety of program submissions — but the ones the station airs remain solid. For example, “Middlebury Five-O,” a current events show produced by Middlebury police Officer Chris Mason, has developed a keen following.
Thodal believes he is leaving MCTV at the right time — and in good hands. Along with Broderson, MCTV’s staff includes program Director Kathy Wheatley and production coordinator Jim Corbett. He’ll miss his co-workers and the many folks he’s helped with programming over the years.
“I’ve met so many interesting people,” Thodal said.
Len Rowell, chairman of the MCTV board, thanked Thodal for his many years of service.
“Dick is really a remarkable leader,” Rowell said. “He has served the community in any way he possible could. He can always be counted on.”
Broderson said it will be “next to impossible” to replace Thodal’s institutional memory about the organization.
“Dick has been a great mentor to me, and has really established a great example of how public access television integrates into a community,” Broderson said.
“We consistently lead the state in the percentage of locally originated content on our channels, and have a great record of covering town government, gavel to gavel. We have very active outreach in the schools, and have started TigerTV, a middle school news team at MUMS. We’re anticipating negotiating a new contract with Comcast before the year is out, which will hopefully lead to a timeline for bringing HD channels to Middlebury. Dick charted us on a very strong, stable course over the past twenty years, and I hope to continue the same commitment to local voices, local stories, and local access as we move into the future.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]
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