Local man very sharp after 106 birthdays
I looked at the long gutter full of wet cow manure that I had to move to the manure pile and I said to myself, ‘I am not going to do this all my life.’ A moment I never forgot, and I never changed my mind.
— Richard LaFontaine
MIDDLEBURY — Centenarians deservedly receive a lot of fanfare. Hitting triple digits is a rare feat, and it’s rarer still when those endowed with such longevity are still vital, inquisitive and delightfully conversant.
Richard LaFontaine is indeed a prime example of such a person. And heck, he left the number-100 road marker in the rearview mirror six years ago.
The only person in these parts that can call him “Junior” is Bristol’s Bob James, who turned 109 earlier this summer.
And let’s quickly dispense with the question everyone wants to ask Mr. LaFontaine, who recently sat down with the Independent at his current stomping grounds, The Residence at Otter Creek in Middlebury.
“How have you lived this long, Richard?”
He pauses for dramatic effect, looks you square in the eye, and says in perfect deadpan, “Choose your parents very carefully.”
So LaFontaine, a native Vermonter, believes genetics have played a big role in his ongoing journey. But so have his lifelong habits of industriousness and healthy living. He’s always been a hard worker, and intent on keeping up with the latest technology. He wields a smartphone like a Millennial, regularly uses email and is quite comfortable around a computer.
He’s aware of the rarified air in which he’s surviving — and thriving.
“Thinking of the span of my time, I have seen probably the greatest change in human existence that has ever occurred in history,” he wrote in a personal family history that he provided the Independent to supplement his interview. “I started out in the time when horses carried us. There was running water only if there was a spring at a higher elevation than the use point. I saw Earnest English erect the poles and string the wiring for our first telephone. I saw electricity come up U.S. Route 5 (I-91 now parallels it]) in the mid-1920. So then we got electric lighting, running water, a flush toilet and our first radio. Camping today gives some of the feeling of life before electricity.”
LaFontaine was born on Aug. 2, 1914 — just before World War I began in Europe — in Hartford, Vt. The day LaFontaine was born, Woodrow Wilson was U.S. president.
He describes his “Ma” as a New England Yankee and educator, and his “Pa” as a French Canadian and hardworking farmer who moved to the U.S. with his family at age 5, in 1891.
His maternal great-grandfather was killed in the Civil War at the Battle of Cold Harbor, Va., in 1864.
LaFontaine spent most of his formative years in the Connecticut River Valley, in the Windsor/White River Junction area. The LaFontaines moved around quite a bit, as the patriarch of the family shifted from farm to farm getting labor wherever he could during challenging economic times. Pomfret, Woodstock and Wilder were among the family’s many stops.
Richard was introduced to arduous work beginning at age 8, along with his older brother, Maurice.
“I think it was in that tradition that when Pa took over a farm, Maurice and I were put to work doing as much of the work as we could handle,” LaFontaine said. “We handled 100-pound grain bags. I soon learned to do everything with the horses that horses do on a farm, except harness them — I was too small to reach over them — and I wasn’t strong enough to plow. Pa would send me out to mow a field with the horses, using a mowing machine with a five-foot cutter bar. It must have been OK, I never killed anything but poor rabbits who got in the way of the cutter bar.”
He grew weary, literally and figuratively, with farm chores after a few years.
“Maurice and I were worked too hard. I remember falling asleep standing while I was filling glass milk bottles from a two-gallon bucket,” LaFontaine recalled.
He had an epiphany at the tender age 10.
“I was standing in the gutter behind the cows in a space I had shoveled out,” LaFontaine said. “I was shoveling the manure into a wheelbarrow beside the gutter. I looked at the long gutter full of wet cow manure that I had to move to the manure pile and I said to myself, ‘I am not going to do this all my life.’ A moment I never forgot, and I never changed my mind.”
Sure enough, LaFontaine escaped the cow stalls at age 13, when he and Maurice got jobs with the Windsor road department. He was still working with a shovel, but didn’t have to use it to move cow waste. Gravel was the payload.
“(We were) doing the job that tractor bucket loaders do now,” he said.
The pay was a then-princely sum of $21.50 per week.
“These jobs were great for us; we felt rich,” he recalled.
More than the financial compensation, the work — shoulder to shoulder with men — helped the two brothers mature and learn a work ethic at a time when their peers were still playing games.
“I became a leader,” he said. “Whenever I saw an opportunity to grab the wheel and steer, I did.”
LaFontaine dutifully finished high school in Hartford, where he starred as left tackle on a football team that beat Middlebury High School for the state title while he was there.
While he might not have been book-smart, he had the work ethic, instincts and wisdom to make a success of himself. He worked in retail at a clothing shop; as a mapper of gypsy moth habitat on Mt. Mansfield; as a retail and wholesale vendor, then a manager, at a florist’s; and as a machinist for Remington in Windsor, eventually placed in charge of a milling division with 35 people. Remington was expanding rapidly to meet the demand for sniper rifles, mainly for the British.
He would eventually make his way to Wilmington, Del., to work for DuPont Plastics, where he would become a supervisor. He called the 15 years with DuPont “the best job of my life.”
TOUCHING THE MOON
Late in his career, LaFontaine created his own machine shop in his basement in anticipation of his retirement (in 1977), but also to be closer to his dear wife Genevieve who ultimately succumbed to a serious illness in 1970. The couple, who married in 1935, had three children together — Jo, Sid and Jerry.
“I had the necessary machine tools and had made a good start subcontracting work from the Space Administration through the DuPont company,” he said. “I’d like to think that in those years NASA was making equipment for the moon landing, some of my work in our basement is very probably sitting on the moon forever.”
LaFontaine has a great memory and thus can recall watershed events in national and regional history. Among them:
• The end of World War I.
“I remember playing with the little girl next door in her hay mow when the Armistice came about,” he said. “Everybody with a gun was shooting it, everyone with a horn was blowing it. They were making the biggest racket they could make, they were so happy.”
• The last log drive on the Connecticut River in 1924.
“Loggers would cut trees and pile up logs at the headwaters of the Connecticut and be ready for the spring floods,” he said. “They released them into the water and followed them down to Massachusetts and Connecticut. The logs would get caught on rapids all along the river. Log driving was a dangerous job. Men were occasionally lost or crippled.”
• As a young child, taking winter sleigh rides into town. They covered themselves with what he called a “buffalo robe” to keep warm.
“It was a real bison hide,” he said. “It had to have come from the time that the hunters were killing off the buffalo not so very many years before.”
• The Great Depression.
“Both (Genevieve) and I had seen rough times when there wasn’t enough to eat,” he recalled. “I had worked on road gangs before the stock market crash in 1929 and had spent all my earnings on clothes. That was a good thing, because those clothes had to last for five years.”
LaFontaine is happy and comfortable at the local retirement community in which he lives. He looks back on life with no regrets.
“I have always looked at my situation as being a sort of top sergeant in industry,” he said. “I was limited — no (college) degree — but I found fascinating work anyway. When I think about it, life offered me strange combinations of opportunities.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]
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