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Former ‘Happy Hop Guy’ Writes Novel Set in the Upper Valley

  • Nick Zwirblia, back when he was known as “The Happy Hop Guy.” More than two decades after he left the Hop and the Upper Valley to return to his native Worcester, Mass., Zwirblia has written a book set on the Vermont side of the Connecticut River. (Courtesy of Rauner Special Collections Library, Dartmouth College)

  • Nick Zwirblia has moved back to Wocester, Mass., but holds dear his decade in the Upper Valley. (Courtesy Don Unger)



Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, May 17, 2018

Nick Zwirblia lived in the Upper Valley for a decade, but in his years here he cut an outsize figure, if on a small canvas.

He worked in the Courtyard Cafe in the Hopkins Center at Dartmouth College, where his friendly and outgoing demeanor grew into a persona.

“I was the Happy Hop Guy.”

He was memorialized in cartoons in the then-Daily Dartmouth, and the college’s president, Jim Freedman, paid a visit to the Courtyard Cafe to meet this character the campus was talking about.

“I loved it there. … Those kids were my life for 10 years,” Zwirblia said in a recent telephone interview. Students brought their visiting parents to introduce them to the Happy Hop Guy.

But that decade in the Upper Valley, from 1986 to 1995, yielded something else for Zwirblia: the background for a book, his first. The Bramford Chronicles, Book I.

Zwirblia lived in Fairlee when he was working at the college, and his book is set in a fictional Vermont town north of White River Junction. Set in 1933, the first book of The Bramford Chronicles tells the story of a 9-year-old boy, Johnny, who saves a baby elephant from the wreck of a circus train.

“I don’t think I could’ve written this book if it wasn’t for my 10 years in Vermont,” he said. He based his imaginings in part on the life of Claude Thurston Sr., of Post Mills, who grew up in the Depression Era and provided a template for Johnny.

Zwirblia was born and grew up in Worcester, Mass., where his family has a long history. (A grandfather of his served on the city council in the 1930s.) He grew up poor, in Worcester’s Great Brook Valley, a large housing project, and Main South, another impoverished neighborhood in New England’s second-largest city. He sports a wicked Worcester accent, which makes the city’s name sound like “WIS-ta.”

Zwirblia trained as a cook and got a job in the kitchen at the College of the Holy Cross, in Worcester. From there, he applied for a job at Dartmouth, partly as a way to get out of the city and see someplace new. He was in his 20s when he moved north; his mother moved as well.

In addition to working at the Hop, he ran an antique toy business, The Enchanted Toy Box, that specialized in Steiff bears, of which he’d built up a sizable collection, and a home cleaning business.

“I was determined to become successful, from coming from nothing,” he said.

He moved back to Worcester in 1995 because his mother was in poor health and wanted to be back in her home city.

Although he’s dyslexic, Zwirblia, 55, had long wanted to write. “I always dreamt of being a literary person,” he said.

Writing The Bramford Chronicles was a slog. He spent 10 years working on it, writing the story out by hand “about 50 times,” he said. Don Unger, a Worcester-based writer and editor, helped hammer the story into shape, and Zwirblia thanked him profusely in the book’s acknowledgments.

“I’ve learned the hard way to write a book,” Zwirblia said. “I was just determined.”

Reception of the book, which is available through Amazon both as a paperback and for the Kindle reader, has been positive, he said.

“We’re hoping that it will be a four-book series,” Zwirblia said. The projected series would follow the same characters from 1933 through World War II.

Zwirblia plans to come back to the Upper Valley for Dartmouth’s alumni weekend, next month, where he hopes to reconnect with some of the students he met.

And someday, perhaps, he’ll move back up this way.

“It’s my dream to come back there, too.”

For more information about The Bramford Chronicles and to read an excerpt, go to www.nickzwirblia.wordpress.com.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.