Veteran TAM trailmaster steps back after 25 years

MIDDLEBURY — Former Middlebury Area Land Trust Director Amy Sheldon during the early 1990s imagined the Trail Around Middlebury as an emerald necklace. A 19-mile path weaving its way through lush green hills, waterways, rolling pastures and other natural gems that could be experienced for free.
Every priceless necklace needs a good jeweler to wash it and make sure each stone in firmly places in its setting. And for more than a quarter century, John Derick has voluntarily tended to Middlebury’s emerald necklace, the TAM, making sure it’s been well manicured for the legions of hikers, bikers and joggers who’ve taken in its splendor.
“I thought it was one of the greatest things in the world,” Derick, 71, said last week during an interview at the Wright Park entrance to the TAM.
Derick was accompanied by Jenn Smith, the person to whom he’s passing the TAM maintenance baton. Smith will serve MALT next year as a full-time AmeriCorps member, working as trail coordinator and steward of the organization’s impressive portfolio of conserved properties that total more than 2,600 acres in Middlebury and adjacent communities. Future plans call for a staff position to coordinate all of MALT’s trails, according the organization’s executive director, Jamie Montague.
“It’s my dream job,” Smith said with a smile.
In a related development, MALT recently landed a $20,500 state grant for TAM trail improvements and 15 new informational kiosks during the next two years.
Derick stressed he’ll still do some trail grooming, but is winding down his almost-daily chores on the emerald necklace.
“I won’t go out every day, but I’ll continue mowing,” he said.
It was around 1991 that Derick first became involved with the TAM. Sheldon was looking for help in expanding and maintaining the trail, which at the time was confined to public lands in the Chipman Hill, Battell Woods and Means Woods areas.
“The dream was to get it all around Middlebury,” he recalled. “I started working on getting easements and we slowly pushed it out to Weybridge.”
The TAM dream became complete in July of 2000, when the last gap was filled and the trail finally lived up to its name. It’s now a glorious footpath almost 19 miles long that encircles Middlebury village and links several hundred acres of town land, conserved properties, schools and other local landmarks. The TAM loop also includes two bridges spanning the Otter Creek.
While the meandering TAM continues to evolve, Derick has been its constant friend and faithful caretaker. He would volunteer time whenever possible during his tenure as plant manager for the Shoreham Telephone Co., where he worked for around 40 years until the age of 65.
“I had a lot of good help, and that’s what allowed me to spend a lot of time (on the TAM),” said Derick, a Cornwall resident.
In “retirement,” Derick has made TAM maintenance his primary pastime. He’s usually out on the trail from 8 a.m. to noon each weekday, and puts in another three or four hours on weekends.
He’ll be the first to admit he’s not the only one keeping the TAM on track. He helped form a group of volunteers to give their time whenever possible — particularly for construction on the Belden and Boathouse bridges across Otter Creek that have been key in assuring the trail’s continuity.
But of all the volunteers on the TAM, folks hiking, jogging or biking along the rustic trail are most likely to see Derick — mowing, pruning, repairing kiosks or doing other things that keep outdoor enthusiasts coming back.
Among those fans has been Smith, so enamored of the TAM she’d been traveling all the way from her Orwell home to use it. Her knowledge and use of the trail will grow exponentially now that she’s a MALT employee.
“There’s endless possibilities,” Smith said of the TAM’s potential to get even better.
And thanks to MALT officials’ outreach efforts, the trail appears to be in good hands for generations to come. Derick noted students from Middlebury College, Middlebury Union High School and the Champlain Valley Academy have become involved in the TAM’s maintenance.
Derick said Middlebury is “incredibly lucky” to have an abundance of town-owned lands — as well as some very cooperative residential and institutional property owners — that together have made the TAM possible. MALT officials have thus avoided the sometimes difficult easement negotiations that can delay or sink public trail planning in other communities.
“We’ve had incredible support,” Derick said.
Land trust officials heaped praise upon Derick for his past, present and future contributions to the TAM.
“John is the heart of the TAM,” Montague said. “Without him, the estimated 10,000 annual users would not have access to this recreation gem. As John transitions from his role as trail coordinator, MALT hopes that the TAM community will step up to support the trail more than ever. Making a smooth transition will need time, care and dedication of volunteer hours and community donations. It’s impossible to put a value on someone who as volunteered more than 40 hours a week, six months a year for 29 years.”
MALT board President Eben Punderson said Derick’s contributions can’t be overstated.
“John D has contributed so much to MALT over the years, it is difficult to sum up in just a few words,” he said. “John has been an invaluable asset for MALT, not just for his thousands of hours of hands-on, volunteer work on the TAM, generous use of his vehicles and equipment, but also for his web of relationships with landowners and TAM partners, mentoring and training of trail crew volunteers, his general enthusiasm, and much, much more. He will leave MALT with a lasting legacy.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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