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Jim Kenyon: Good Will Hunter

Will Hunter was driving a former prison inmate to a job interview at a door manufacturing plant in Ludlow, Vt., recently when the man, in his 50s, started to question whether the trip was a waste of time.

Hunter recognized it was more than just pre-interview jitters. “It had been years since he felt that he had succeeded at anything,” Hunter said, indicating the man had been in and out of prison for alcohol-fueled crimes for much of his time as an adult.

So Hunter told his passenger a story. His story. “I haven’t done time in prison, but I’ve had my share of embarrassment and failure in life,” Hunter began. “The reality is we have all been there in one way or another, but we can get past it.”

Three decades ago, William Armstrong Hunter IV was one of Vermont’s rising political stars. The middle son of Edith and William — ministers, publishers of a weekly newspaper in Weathersfield, and prominent Vermonters in their own right — Hunter’s early resume was a thing to behold.

Phillips Exeter Academy. Yale. Harvard Law. Rhodes Scholar. At 21, Hunter was elected to the Vermont House and became a state senator, representing Windsor County, shortly after turning 30.

Then, as I wrote a few years ago, Hunter didn’t just fall from grace, he dove headfirst.

On June 9, 1995, seven agents from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration arrived at Hunter’s Cavendish, Vt., home at 3 in the morning with a search warrant. The feds claimed Hunter had helped a client launder drug money through a real estate company that he had established. Three hours after their middle-of-the-night raid, the agents left with four computers and two boxes of files.

Hunter’s case became news beyond Vermont. “Town Rises to Defend a Lawyer,” read a headline in The New York Times . “Will’s an eccentric. He’s disorganized, charming, brilliant — and he’s not a crook,” Peter Welch, a longtime friend of Hunter’s, and now Vermont’s congressman, told the Times .

Joe Allen, owner of the Cavendish General Store, said people in the town stood behind Hunter, who ran his law practice out of his basement. “He’s the crusader for the little guy,” Allen said.

Nearly 20 years later, that hasn’t changed.

Hunter, 59, regularly cooks dinner for former inmates who live at a house that he bought in Springfield, Vt. The sober house, as he calls it, is for men who are trying to turn their lives around and need a break. Hunter helps by providing affordable housing.

He also serves on the governing board of Dismas House in Rutland. (The nonprofit group, which specializes in transitional housing for recently released inmates, is opening a place in Hartford this fall.)

He’s taken classes to become an addiction recovery coach. And he provides rides. (The former inmate whom Hunter drove to an interview ended up getting a $12-an-hour job at the Ludlow plant).

“I feel like this calls on all the things I know how to do,” Hunter said.

He just can’t be their lawyer.

In 2001, after his license had been suspended for neglecting clients by missing court appearances and showing up late for meetings, the Vermont Supreme Court ordered Hunter be barred from practicing law. Three years earlier, the federal case that involved the 1995 raid of his home ended with Hunter pleading guilty to one count of mail fraud. He received no jail time, but did serve four months of home detention.

Since being disbarred, Hunter has found a new calling. He’s a preacher. As a lay minister at the United Church of Christ, he oversees services twice a month at First Congregational Church of Weathersfield. (On Friday, he performed a wedding on a green at Crown Point Country Club in Springfield.)

Today, he will lead afternoon services at Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield. During his monthly visits to the prison, he’s met inmates who are the children of his former law clients. “We’re producing the prisoners of the future very quickly,” he said.

Hunter is convinced the only way that will change is if Vermont, and the rest of the country, changes the focus from punishment to rehabilitation, particularly with offenders who are battling substance abuse. “Punishment doesn’t work. People not only have to overcome their physical addictions. They need housing, jobs and people in their lives who care about them.”

He wants to open a treatment center in Mount Holly, Vt., that could be an alternative to prison for women in trouble with the law. Using his own money, along with donations from relatives and church groups, Hunter is renovating the shuttered Blue Spruce Inn . ( See story, page A1. ) He travels the state to talk with legislators, judges, prosecutors and Department of Corrections officials about the renamed Blue Spruce House .

When he returned from meetings, his mother, who died a year ago today at age 92, often asked him how it went.

“She called me Mr. Micawber ,” he said, referring to the character in David Copperfield . Mr. Micawber was something of an eternal optimist, “always optimistic that fortunes would turn,” he said.

Edith Hunter, a Vermont Public Radio commentator, knew her son well. “If we give people who we think have nothing to offer the right environment, they can be a huge asset to society,” he told me. “That’s what keeps me going.”

Jim Kenyon can be reached at Jim.Kenyon@valley.net.

CLARIFICATION

This article has been amended for clarification. Former Vermont state Sen. Will Hunter of Cavendish, Vt., is a lay minister at the First Congregational Church of Weathersfield. An earlier version of this column was unclear on Hunter's role.

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