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Jim Kenyon: Could South Royalton Be Cursed?

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.


Sunday, April 29, 2018

There’s no getting around the fact that the town of Royalton is having a rough go of it. In the first four months of 2018, it’s had a homicide, a fatal fire and a teenager go missing under suspicious circumstances.

And that’s not all.

Last month, Royalton’s (now former) school principal was charged with voyeurism for allegedly secretly filming five teenage girls who were guests in his home.

Then there’s the case of the (also now former) police officer who was charged with distributing drugs that he allegedly swiped from the police department’s evidence locker and gave to a woman with whom he had a sexual relationship. In January, he agreed to plead guilty and is expected to be sentenced this summer.

Royalton’s assortment of tragedies and alleged misdeeds seem to have no common thread. Still I wonder if there is a way to explain the dark cloud hanging over this community along the White River of 2,800 residents.

Could it be the curse of Anthony Doria?

Granted, Doria has been dead for five years. And certainly not everyone believes in the power of curses. (Just don’t tell that to Red Sox fans who suffered through the Curse of the Bambino for 86 years.)

In case anyone has forgotten — and probably many people in Royalton wish they could — Doria was the founder of Vermont Law School and once owned a sizable amount of real estate in town.

He claimed to be the descendant of European nobility who emigrated from his native Italy in his 20s. (People didn’t call him Count Doria for nothing.) By the mid-1960s, he was teaching at a community college on Long Island.

On a sightseeing trip to Vermont around 1970, his convertible — as Doria told it — ran out of gas on Route 14. He walked across the bridge into South Royalton, where a for-sale sign hung from the town’s shuttered schoolhouse.

He bought the schoolhouse and surrounding buildings for $20,000. Next he placed an ad in a Sunday edition of The New York Times, announcing that a new law school in Vermont was taking applications. “I had 127 applicants, and I accepted them all,” he said during one of the many pasta lunches I shared with him at his South Royalton home in his later years.

Within a year of opening, VLS was $200,000 in debt. Reports also had surfaced out of Philadelphia that Doria had failed to repay a $5,000 personal loan years earlier. He was forced to step down as dean.

Over lunch, Doria often groused that he spent much of his life trying to persuade people that he wasn’t a con man. After he was sentenced to a month in federal prison for tax evasion in 2005, the task became even more difficult.

Doria went to his grave at the age of 85 still harboring ill feelings toward Royalton and VLS for disowning him. He was particularly irked that, as the law school’s founder, he never had a building named after him.

He had a point about not receiving his due. Who else would have the vision and bravado to start a law school in a fading railroad town?

Even Doria’s detractors — and he had plenty — acknowledge that Royalton would be much worse off now without VLS.

When I stopped by the town offices on Wednesday, listers Walter Hastings and Jeff Barcelow were eating lunch. I mentioned the possibility of a Doria curse.

Barcelow chewed on his burger for a moment. He agreed with me — to a point. “All of these things have happened after Anthony died,” he said.

Something else that’s happened since Doria died in 2013: the arrival of David Hall, the Mormon millionaire from Utah who’s gone on a property buying spree for his pie-in-the-sky NewVistas project.

Hastings reminded me that townspeople’s reaction to Hall isn’t all that different from what Doria encountered 50 years ago. After Doria purchased more than a dozen pieces of property during his first year in Royalton, residents feared he was plotting a takeover.

Before long, they grumbled, they’d be living in Doriaville.

A group of residents banded together to buy properties to block Doria from expanding his reach.

Sound familiar?

David Hall could just be Anthony Doria reincarnated. Albeit a much taller and wealthier version.

I don’t want to give the impression that all the news coming out of Royalton these days is bad. The South Royalton Food Shelf, which closed last year after losing its digs, has a new home. Last week, volunteers handed out canned goods, fresh vegetables and meats to more than 70 households in need of a helping hand.

At last month’s Town Meeting, people were getting ready to vote on the food shelf’s request for $6,000 in taxpayers’ money to help buy supplies when resident Jim Hudson stood up. He proposed increasing the amount to $10,000.

Voters whole heartedly agreed.

“We were floored by it,” said the Rev. Josh Moore, of the United Church of South Royalton, which led the effort to re-open the food shelf. “There’s something good going on here. Hopefully, it’s a symbol of people coming together.”

I’m probably off the mark with this stuff about a Doria curse. But just to be safe, VLS and the town might want to consider putting his name on a building.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.