Locals seek to recognize Stan Lazarus with a park

MIDDLEBURY — Turn back the clock a half century.
Downtown Middlebury was a bustling retail hub. Just about every local family went to the Lazarus Department Store at 22-26 Main St. (pictured below) to outfit themselves and their kids with sturdy clothing and shoes.
Omnipresent store owner Stanton Lazarus brought a combination of business acumen and compassion to his running of the business that bore his family name. His philanthropy became legendary, though he tried to keep it low-key.
The late Marion Munford, who was a tireless volunteer for the non-profit Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects (then known as Addison County Community Action Group), revealed some of Stanton’s good deeds following his death in 1998. One of those she told was Robert S. Schine, the Curt C. and Else Silberman Professor of Jewish Studies at Middlebury College.
“She explained that every year, as winter approached, Stan would be in touch with her to ask what she needed that year,” Schine said. “She would give him a list of items — kids’ winter coats, boots, whatever ‘her’ families required. Stan would provide these things from his department store, quietly, without fanfare. As I listened to her, I realized that Stan was carrying out what, according to Jewish tradition, is the highest form of charity, where the donor is anonymous to the beneficiary and the beneficiary remains unknown to the donor.”
That spirit of giving continued after Stan Lazarus’ death. His family gave its former homestead at 56 North Pleasant St. to the county’s Jewish community to serve as its gathering spot, now known as the Havurah House.
Those who knew, admired and benefitted from Stan Lazarus’ generosity now want to repay him and his family for their good deeds and service. Supporters are proposing to name a soon-to-be-created park in downtown Middlebury in the family’s honor. And that park, appropriately enough, would be located on land at 20 Main St. that formerly hosted Lazarus Department Store.
The future park property is now a construction zone as workers install a drainage system in conjunction with the downtown Middlebury rail bridges project.
A local group is currently gathering signatures from supporters of a “Lazarus Memorial Park.” They will deliver those signatures and testimony to the Middlebury selectboard early this fall.
One of those spearheading the Lazarus park proposal is selectboard member Victor Nuovo. He and his wife, Betty, met Stan Lazarus soon after moving to Middlebury in 1962.
“Our kids used to mow his lawn and he would always overpay them,” Nuovo recalled. “He was the kindest man I think I’ve ever met.”
Nuovo called Stan Lazarus “one of the great personages of the town of Middlebury” during the 20th century.
And his service went far beyond the confines of his hometown, Nuovo noted. A Democrat, Lazarus was elected to the Vermont House in 1960 and 1962 — at a time when Middlebury was a Republican stronghold. Former Gov. Philip Hoff was so impressed with his legislative work that he appointed Lazarus his executive clerk.
Lazarus gladly dispensed political wisdom to another in the small group of Middlebury Democrats: Betty Nuovo, who enjoyed a 30-year run in the House.
“He advised me on what to do and how to do it,” Betty Nuovo recalled of Lazarus, who she called a mentor. “And he probably helped get the votes out.”
Michael Olinick, a longtime Middlebury College mathematics professor, became acquainted with the Lazarus family during the early 1970s. This was a period during which people of Jewish faith didn’t have a central place to congregate. The Lazarus family is believed to have been one of the first Jewish families to settle in Middlebury. Stan was one of Harry and Stella Lazarus’ four children; the others were Frieda, Eugene and Herbert (the brothers are pictured below).
Olinick said Stan Lazarus gave a helping hand to many families and youths.
“A number of people got their first jobs at his store,” Olinick said. One of them was the Olinicks’ son, Eli.
Through the years, Lazarus got a sense of his individual customers’ financial status and made sure they had access to his wares, according to Olinick. He would heavily discount items for families whose resources wouldn’t allow them to pay full price on clothing and other essentials.
“Stan would sell someone one shoe,” Olinick recalled of cases in which a customer had suffered a broken leg. “And he would sometimes take merchandise people had obtained from other stores.”
Lazarus kept a card for each young customer that included what shoes they’d purchased through the years.
“He was a very good-hearted guy.”
Stan Lazarus’ brother, Gene, served in the U.S. Army Medical Corps in Italy during World War II, then returned to Middlebury, where he owned the United 5-Cent to $1 Store and helped operate the department store. While Stan served on the Middlebury Planning Commission, Gene was a longtime member of the town’s Board of Civil Authority and served as a Justice of the Peace. He was an active volunteer on many Middlebury boards and commission, according to Olinick. Stan and Gene Lazarus both graduated from Middlebury High School.
Olinick is optimistic town officials will endorse the proposed park namesake.
“We’ve gotten a very enthusiastic response,” Olinick said.
Nuovo lobbied for park idea in a recent letter to the editor in the Independent.
“He is surely one of Middlebury’s distinguished personages and should be counted among the Stewarts, the Swifts and the Seymours,” Nuovo wrote of Stan Lazarus. “Yet there is no memorial to him. Some years ago, I recommended that Printer’s Alley might be renamed Lazarus Lane, but there was no support for this. It would be fitting if the new park to be built on the spot where his store once stood were named Lazarus Park with a historical marker. Middlebury must not forget this kind, generous, decent, modest, unostentatious, and upright man. He was not much to look at, but his soul was beautiful and noble. And he excelled in doing good.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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