A Life: Herb Hodge advised others to ‘take it one day at a time and keep smiling’

Hebert Hodge and his daughter, Cindy Frazee, prepare for the morning milking at their 95-acre dairy farm in Fairlee, Vt., on July 11, 1995. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Hebert Hodge and his daughter, Cindy Frazee, prepare for the morning milking at their 95-acre dairy farm in Fairlee, Vt., on July 11, 1995. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley news file photograph — Geoff Hansen

Herbert Hodge's Navy portrait in 1946. (Family photograph)

Herbert Hodge's Navy portrait in 1946. (Family photograph)

Hebert Hodge at his grandson Mark Frazee's wedding reception on April 24th, 2021. (Family photograph)

Hebert Hodge at his grandson Mark Frazee's wedding reception on April 24th, 2021. (Family photograph)

Hebert Hodge on his family farm in Fairlee, Vt., in a circa 2005 photograph. (Family photograph)

Hebert Hodge on his family farm in Fairlee, Vt., in a circa 2005 photograph. (Family photograph) family photograph

By PATRICK O’GRADY

Valley News Correspondent

Published: 10-29-2023 10:55 PM

FAIRLEE — Herbert Hodge’s outlook on life could best be summed up in the William Butler Yeats quote, “There are no strangers here, only friends you haven’t met yet.”

From his hometown of Fairlee to wherever he might travel, Hodge considered all those he met an instant friend.

“No matter who you were, whether a state senator or working in the grocery store, he was always able to break through and form an instant connection with people,” said his grandson Mark Frazee, sitting in the living room of the Hodge farmhouse, along Route 5 north of the town center.

Hodge, known to everyone as Herbie and the unofficial “Mayor of Fairlee,” welcomed every opportunity to forge a new friendship.

“Somebody would pull in the driveway looking for directions,m and you look out the window a half-hour later and he’d still be talking,” said his daughter, Cindy Frazee, who today runs the family farm with her husband, Russell.

Hodge would break the ice with, “ ‘So what do you do for a living?’ or, ‘Where are you from?’ ” Cindy said. “He was very interested in people and finding out about people. Anyone who came into the house was welcome.”

The stories of Hodge turning strangers into friends were endless.

“He couldn’t believe how my dad had the ability to talk to anyone, in Boston or wherever,” Cindy said her stepson, Nate, told her. “He could carry on a conversation with anyone, and with a smile on his face.”

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Hodge, who died Dec. 22, 2022, at age 94 after a period of failing health, was born and raised on the farm that has been in the Hodge family since the mid-1800s. Steeped in faith, Hodge’s life was rooted in family, the farm, friends and of course having fun.

“He always loved a good party and looked for opportunities to laugh,” Mark said.

A rambunctious youth who was known to get into some mischief, Cindy said, Hodge left school at 16 and joined the Navy in 1946. He served for two years on a goodwill tour around the world, helping countries — including Italy and England — rebuild from the devastation of World War II.

After the military, Hodge worked on the family farm and enjoyed the area’s social scene and weekly dances, where he met Beverly McFadden from Piermont. They married in 1951 and shared 70 years together until Beverly’s death in 2021.

“They created and cultivated something magical in their own little slice of heaven along the Connecticut River,” said Mark, a writer and musician living in Nashville, Tenn. “They shared life’s joys and sorrows together, and their fires burned brightest when it came to the farm and their family.”

The farm grew to 100 acres with about 130 cows and a large vegetable garden with produce sold at a farm stand, sweet corn and corn for livestock feed.

“Family and the land” were her father’s priorities, Cindy said.

After college, Cindy returned to the farm and worked with her parents there for 42 years. They still grow sweet corn, raise vegetables and have about 45 milking cows, 30 beef cattle and 30 head of young stock.

“I learned from his work ethic,” she said.

Cindy said her dad also taught her about bouncing back when things got tough, as they often could on a New England dairy farm.

“When there were sorrows, he would tell me you get through them with family,” Cindy said. “You just keep going. You don’t quit. Take it one day at a time and keep smiling,” he would tell her.

Hodge was a member of numerous organizations related to dairy farming including the Holstein Association for 40 years. The Hodge farm received a number of Herd and Milk Quality/Production Awards over the years and the Dairy of Distinction Award for many years.

Mark said his grandfather often remarked that the farm was his favorite part of Vermont: “The land was so meaningful to him. He never took the beauty around him for granted.”

One of Mark’s fondest memories was the “corn runs” with his grandfather. Long drives, a love of Hodge’s along with music, pizza and a cold beer, were not always reasons to get somewhere but an opportunity to explore and meet people.

“Delivering sweet corn up and down the Connecticut River Valley, these road trips were the highlight of my adolescence,” Mark said. “Corn runs could turn into wild goose chases looking for his friends’ houses. His arm would be out the window catching air as he made up words to songs he didn’t quite know.”

Hodge’s malapropisms were legendary and the source of laughter.

“We would drive by a pond full of algae and Herbie would say, “Look at all that allergies,’ ” Larry Martin, a fellow farmer and close friend, said.

Richard Hodge, a second cousin to Herbie and pastor of the Fairlee Community Church of Christ, remembered Hodge for his faithful attendance at church and his concern for others, especially those with health or other troubles.

“He would reach out to people if he had not seen them in a while or if he knew they were sick. Even into his 90s, he was working the phones,” the pastor said.

In the weeks before his passing, Hodge was helping pack shoeboxes with small toys and hygiene items the church sent overseas to a developing country.

“He was a great example of how we all could be better,” Richard Hodge said of his cousin.

Hodge fully supported his daughters’ interests, which for Cindy was horses and Jody culinary arts. He bought Cindy horses, took her to shows and 4-H meetings, and she was even able to have her horse at the University of New Hampshire while getting her certificate to teach riding.

Hodge was not musically talented, but that didn’t stop him from engaging in something he loved, whether singing off-key or trying an instrument.

“I bought him a ukulele, and he tried strumming along,” said Jody, a pastry chef on Cape Cod. “He couldn’t really play, but he thought it was fun listening to bluegrass.”

In the ’90s, Jody worked in Florida in winter and returned to Vermont for her summer job. Her father flew down to join her on the ride home, but like most car rides, it was the journey and not the destination that mattered most to Hodge. Once they were settled in, Hodge would pull out a piece of paper with a list of places he wanted to see and family and friends he wanted to visit.

“He made the trip so much fun,” Jody said. “He was such a hard worker, so it was a treat for him to do that.”

Joe Lemanski, born and raised in the South, spent only two years in Vermont in the mid-1990s but formed a lifelong bond with the Hodges. Lemanski rented a home across the cornfield from the Hodge farm while doing environmental work at a paper mill in East Ryegate, Vt.

A North Carolina State graduate, Lemanski knew nothing about farming when he moved to Fairlee but was interested in learning, and Hodge more than obliged him, educating him on milking cows and growing sweet corn.

“I would help out on the farm and Herbie and his wife; they just took me in like family,” said Lemanski, who was in awe of Hodge’s optimism working a dairy farm in Vermont winters. “The biggest thing about Herbie that kind of changed my life was that the man was so positive about everything. He had such a zest for life. He was loud and funny, just someone you wanted to be around.”

After he returned to the South, Lemanski regularly visited the Hodges with his family and attended Herbie’s funeral, never forgetting the family’s generosity.

“They were working-class farmers with next to nothing, and they probably fed me five nights a week,” Lemanski said.

Dan and Georgette Ludwig knew the Hodges for about 50 years. Georgette met Hodge when she became assistant town clerk in Fairlee.

“All the years I knew him, he was always happy to see you no matter if things were bad for him,” Georgette said. “He had health issues the last 10 years, but he never let that stop him.”

When Mark and his wife, Kayla, were married in New Jersey, Hodge was the life of the party among people generations younger.

“He gave an incredible blessing and, when the party started, he was at the top of the stairs next to the dance floor and with his arms swinging, didn’t leave that spot until the last song,” Mark said. “He brought joy to everyone that night.”

When the reception finally wound down, they all said their goodnights and Mark and Kayla headed off to an after party.

“We pull in, and he was waiting at the door for us. He was 92, and it was 11:30 at night,” Mark said, still marveling at the memory.

When they returned to Fairlee, Hodge got on the phone calling many of those he met, reliving the fun.

“It was such a blessing to have him there,” Mark said. “It was a testament to how bright he was and so full of love and ready to party.”

Patrick O’Grady can be reached at pogclmt@gmail.com.