Bethel University Courses Have Started Up

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 3/6/2017 10:00:05 PM
Modified: 3/9/2017 12:49:30 PM

After spending most of her adulthood far from the valley of the White River, Annie Downey moved back to her native Bethel in January, aiming as she puts it, “to get my roots back.”

She just never imagined that her effort to reconnect would include teaching a three-session class on writing memoirs centered on food, until she learned about the Bethel Revitalization Initiative’s program of “pop-up” courses known as Bethel University.

The fourth annual Bethel U. is running all this month, with topics ranging from learning to dance the tango and rolling your own sushi to managing a fantasy baseball team and a seminar in which Rutland Mayor Christopher Louras is slated to discuss the economic and humanitarian issues surrounding Vermont’s Refugee Resettlement program.

“I had no idea that anything like this was happening here,” Downey, a freelance writer and editor who also cooks and bakes for the Co-op Food Stores, recalled during a telephone interview on Monday. “I couldn’t believe it. The Bethel I came back to didn’t exist when I was growing up.”

At the urging of her stepfather, Brendan Butler, also of Bethel, Downey, 47, pitched a course titled “Writing a Food Memoir” to Dave Sambor, a downtown Bethel businessman and one of the founders and organizers of the Bethel Revitalization Initiative’s experiment in continuing education, and met with enthusiastic encouragement.

“When I was growing up, food was very important in my family,” said Downey, whose late mother, Louise Downey, ran the Rathdowney herb shop in downtown Bethel from 1982 to 1993 and also operated a cafe. “I learned from her and my grandma (Irene Downey, of Woodstock) how to make food taste good, with cheaper ingredients. Food and the family table was the most important part of growing up.

“We connected over food.”

So do the characters in Downey’s 2006 novel, Hot and Bothered, about a Vermont family operating at a wide range of function and dysfunction. Take this excerpt from a Thanksgiving dinner in the story:

My mother’s sisters live in town. They know everyone in the county because they are nurses and also sell baked goods at the local farmer’s market. This tends to make them late for family gatherings, since somebody is always showing up at their doorsteps with an order for eighteen pies or to ask them to attend the birth of their first great-grandchild. …

So, Missy, your divorce finally come through or what?” Aunt Mary asks as she spears some turkey from off the platter and passes the plate to my mother, who looks at it, grimaces, and passes it onto Margo without taking any.

I already told you it did,” my mother says to Aunt Mary and grabs the untouched plate of tofu from the table.

“I had kind of a hard life, growing up and then as a single mother raising two young kids myself,” Downey recalled. “I wanted to write about it, but I also wanted to be funny. I’m a fairly funny person, redneck girl. … That’s what I loved about fiction. I could kind of change the story.”

Downey, who as a student at Burlington College in the mid-1990s taught writing to single mothers from a family center and started a magazine for teen moms as her thesis project, also has touched on food in writing for magazines ranging from Harper’s to the alternative-parenting periodical Hip Mama. She said that part of the goal of her Bethel U. course is “bringing that farm-to-table vibe across in a very real way, a very Vermont way. Not a flatlander moving up here and starting an organic farm or a restaurant. ...

“And I want to help them capture the intensity it takes to can all that food,” Downey continued. “To jar all that food. And the whole community thing: Helping on a dairy farm in return for milk, or helping with the tapping of maple trees.”

Then there’s the tapping of memories.

“It’s almost like food therapy,” she said. “Food has been the only thing I have been willing to spend money on, besides a truck.”

If interest and demand are strong enough in this year’s class, and it jogs a few more memories for Downey’s own writing, all the better, she figures.

“I’d totally do it again,” she said. “I love swapping recipes, sharing food stories. That really is what community is all about.”

Annie Downey’s class on writing food memoirs will meet the next three Thursday nights at 7:30 in room 4 at Whitcomb High School. Registration is free. For more information, visit

Education Leadership

Cornish resident and longtime Upper Valley elementary school teacher Christine Bourne will take the reins of Hartland Elementary School as principal on July 1. The Hartland School Board recently appointed Bourne, now teaching fourth-graders at Hartford’s Ottauquechee School, as the permanent replacement for Jeff Moreno, who left after the 2015-2016 school year to become assistant principal and athletic director at his alma mater, Hartford High School. Shaun Pickett, former principal of South Royalton School, is serving as Hartland’s interim principal.

In announcing the appointment of Bourne in the school newsletter, Hartland School Board Chairwoman Bettina Read wrote, “As a member of the Principal Search Committee, I was impressed with Christine’s positive attitude and commitment to making schools a great place for kids to learn. She will bring her experience as a veteran elementary classroom teacher into every aspect of her work here as principal. … Christine shares our whole child, whole school, whole community philosophy which makes her a good fit.”

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Cells

The Upper Valley Robotics Team, also known as The Grasshoppers, will hold an open house at the Hartford Area Career and Technology Center in White River Junction on Saturday morning at 11.

The team is open to high school-age students from around the region who are interested in preparing for the 2018 season of competition that starts in January. The team’s preseason will run through this May and June and then between September and December, with occasional meetings over the summer.

To learn more,

The Montshire Museum of Science in Norwich kicks off its lecture series on the interaction of music with the brain tonight at 6:30 with a presentation by Dartmouth professor Michael Casey. In addition to teaching both music and computer science, Casey researches the brain’s reaction to music through neuroimaging.

Subsequent presentations are scheduled for:

March 14: Retired professor George Christian Jernstedt on the mind’s use of music in storytelling.

March 21: A screening of the documentary Alive Inside, with an introduction by Erica Myers, who directs life enrichment and memory care at Kendal at Hanover.

March 28: Beau Sievers, a doctoral candidate in cognitive neuroscience at Dartmouth, examining emotional responses to music.

Admission is free. To learn more, visit

David Corriveau can be reached at and at 603-727-3304. School news also can be sent to


Bethel author Annie Downey's writings have appeared in a range of magazines, among them the alternative-parenting periodical Hip Mama. An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect name for the magazine.    


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