Lebanon community center to honor longtime director Jim Vanier

By TRIS WYKES

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 06-01-2019 11:24 PM

The gentleman was standing on the sidewalk outside the Carter Community Building, less than a block off the Lebanon green, when Jim Vanier poked his head outside and greeted him a few years back.

The visitor turned out to be Dr. William Couser, a 1957 Lebanon High graduate who later attended Dartmouth College and who was back in the Upper Valley for a class reunion. Couser, now a Woodinville, Wash., nephrologist, was exploring his old hometown, where he was one of thousands of children to benefit from CCB programs.

Vanier invited Couser into the building, constructed in 1917 and dedicated as a community center two years later upon the formation of the Carter Community Building Association. The septuagenarian walked through a pair of glass-paned, wooden double doors and moved spellbound through the well-lit front rooms, the small, brick-walled gymnasium and the spacious upstairs room with a stage. All of it, as usual, was spotlessly clean.

“Everything’s just the same as it was!” Couser exclaimed.

Soon the facility’s gym, 35 feet wide and 45 feet long, will bear Vanier’s mark in another way, when it’s dedicated in his name at 4 p.m. on Friday with a reception to follow.

The CCB was built of brick and granite with funding from local businessman and philanthropist William S. Carter. It originally charged children a monthly membership of 25 cents and offered activities including bowling, boxing, pingpong and weightlifting. One of its earliest members, Helen Smith, told the Valley News for a 1992 article that she and her friends loved to go there after school to dance to records played on a big Victrola.

Frank Canillas, a member during the 1940s, recalled how the building was full of kids, as many as a dozen of whom would crowd around the one Monopoly board for hours. Losing one of the game pieces “was almost a sin,” Carnillas told the Valley News for the same story featuring Smith.

A 1999 renovation brought the CCB up to code and implemented a few improvements, but mostly left the two-story structure as it’s been for decades.

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That includes the presence of Vanier, a burly former sports star who found his calling there in 1968 as a Lebanon High sophomore. After a brief stint at Plymouth State University and stops working for a carpenter, a surveyor and at a brickyard, he became the CCB’s assistant director in 1973 and assumed the head job in 1987.

Vanier, 66, is officially the Carter Community Building Association’s “youth center coordinator,” a title that hardly encapsulates his impact during the past five decades.

The gym dedication may move closer to doing Vanier’s legacy justice, but it’s an event that could also cause the humble honoree to break out in hives.

“I’ve been struggling with it since they told me,” said Vanier, whose event kicks off the CCBA’s 100th-anniversary celebration. “They’re really honoring my mother and father for how they brought up nine kids to be kind and respectful and to give back. There were people in my role before me and there will be people after me. ... Everyone’s replaceable in some way.”

Almost certainly not in this case.

Gilson and Helen Vanier were U.S. Army officers who met in Casablanca, Morocco, and settled in Lebanon to raise their nine children. Jim is the youngest of their five boys and was born in the summer of 1952 before growing up on School Street. His mother was a physical therapist and his father the manager of Campion’s men’s store on Hanover’s Main Street. Gil also had various part-time gigs, including one working at a country store and another helping to run Dartmouth’s hand-operated football scoreboard.

Peter, the oldest Vanier child, marched in Washington, D.C., with the Lebanon High band during President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, around the time his family bought its first car. Two years later, Jim badly broke his femur while skiing behind his family’s home and was in traction for three months at Hanover’s Mary Hitchcock Hospital. A doctor told the youngster he wasn’t likely to play sports again — he would go on to become Lebanon High basketball’s first 1,000-point scorer.

A baseball player, swimmer and soccer goaltender nicknamed “Spider” for being all arms and legs, Vanier is 6-foot-1 but “played like he was 6-5, just throwing guys around,” said Lebanon native Rich Parker, who followed him as a high school basketball standout and is Dartmouth College’s men’s golf coach.

Vanier, who used to awe youngsters by regularly banking basketballs off the CCB gym walls and through the hoop, practically lived in the building growing up. The legendary Pat Walsh become director in 1960 after seven years in the assistant’s role, simultaneously serving as the city’s clerk of court and its juvenile truant officer. Walsh, who died in 1984, cemented the CCB in the lives of Lebanon’s children.

In the days before a formalized city recreation department, the CCB ran youth sports teams and the local pool, and its building was used morning, noon and night for games, meetings, weddings and receptions, and as an all-around hangout. Its proximity to Eldridge Park was crucial, and Walsh and Vanier were among hundreds of men and women who organized and coached youth sports teams for flag football, soccer, basketball, baseball and softball.

The 1987 opening of the CCBA’s nearby Witherell Recreation Center lessened the CCB’s use among teenagers and adults. There were questions as to whether the older building was still needed, but others advocated for what it meant to the populace.

“I don’t know of a parent who ever worried about dropping their kid off at the CCB, because it’s the safest place in Lebanon,” said former Valley News sports editor Don Mahler, now a Florida retiree. “There’s no part of town Jim hasn’t touched. He’s like the mayor, because everyone knows him and no one wouldn’t do anything for him.

“I’ve never heard him raise his voice in anger. Those kids, he teaches them how to take care of each other without teaching them anything.”

Vanier cleans the CCB for a few hours daily and administers its use by various exercise and community groups. It’s in the afternoon, however, that he becomes invaluable. That’s when a daily average of about 30 kids from third to sixth grade arrive at the building, usually starting around 3 p.m. and staying varying amounts of time until Vanier’s 5:30 departure.

If that job description sounds easy or somehow unimportant, you haven’t been a parent or grandparent fretting how to safely occupy your child during the hours between school dismissal and dinner. Two buses from the Lebanon Middle School drop their passengers nearby, followed by one load each from the city’s two elementary schools.

The kids disembark at the AVA Gallery on nearby Bank Street and walk, run or skip around the corner to Vanier’s domain. He’s been known to reward the first one there with a doughnut to be wolfed down while hidden behind a partition in his office.

There are often cookies, chips or other snacks available for all, courtesy of various Vanier connections about town. A lone vending machine dispenses bottled water and sports drinks. There’s no fee for attendance. A preschool occupies the building’s basement, where a rifle range once existed.

Youngsters who arrived on Tuesday’s rainy afternoon burst through the doors with shouts, shaking water from their hair like dogs climbing out of a pond. They were given a beach towel to share by Vanier, who heard another child’s voice in the foyer and greeted him by name before ever seeing his face.

Caleb Spinelli, a Lebanon High honor-roll student, is the latest in a long line of teenagers who have earned an hourly wage while working for Vanier. Spinelli sweeps floors, checks kids in and out of the building, plays games with the clientele and helps with homework. He attended the CCB during his younger days and understands the pent-up energy with which his charges arrive.

“What’s the point of going home and doing nothing when you can come here and play so many things?” Spinelli said.

One of the CCB’s front rooms features tables for pool, bumper pool, bubble hockey and foosball. The other features comfy couches and a large wooden table used for Lego projects, drawing and various crafts. The television is always on, tuned to either the Nature or History channels, and portraits of former CCB trustees and benefactors hang on the oak-paneled walls.

The gym is open for basketball or other games for the first half-hour after the kids’ arrival. Vanier then calls for the start of dodgeball, that oft-banned game once a staple of schools’ physical education classes. Tuesday’s announcement prompted a collective cheer and a 5-on-5 contest materialized, combat undertaken with low-density, 6.3-inch foam balls. Shouts, cheating accusations and the “whump” of balls hitting the end walls’ padding comprised the soundtrack.

Sitting on the side, beaming as if it were the first dodgeball game he’d ever seen, Vanier chortled, cheered good plays and arbitrated disputes. One boy kicked a ball in frustration and threw himself onto the floor after being eliminated, and Vanier called his name in a warning tone.

“He’s come so far,” Vanier murmured to a visitor. “He’s had so many people working with him on his anger and it’s paying off.”

Parker, the Dartmouth golf coach, admits he was not the easiest kid to handle when he roamed Lebanon before his 1977 high school graduation. Describing himself as “marching to the beat of my own drummer,” the basketball and golf star was headstrong and often hellbent on doing things his way. Among the handful of people to whom he would listen, however, was Jim Vanier.

“If he heard something about me that he didn’t like, he’d bring me in and sit me down,” Parker said. “He was a winner and someone I respected. A lot of us got molded in that building, even if we didn’t know it at the time.”

Until the 1970s, disagreements among CCB boys were sometimes settled in the basement with 16-ounce boxing gloves. That’s long past, as are the days of spontaneous water fights, but so much is still done in the old-school vein. Vanier prompts his kids to say “please” and “thank you,” to shake hands after competing against each other and to pick up after themselves.

Cursing is reprimanded, bullying is nipped in the bud, and electronic devices aren’t to be used on the premises. Leave your shoes in the foyer. These rules aren’t promoted, but instead handed down from child to child by word of mouth.

“Kids want structure. and Jim does a great job of giving them boundaries while empowering them,” said former CCB rug rat Nate Camp, a Lebanon native who coaches and teaches at Kearsarge High and Middle School in North Sutton, N.H. “Their parents may be checked out and they’re not getting basic life skills at home, but they learn them because they don’t want to let the CCB down.”

Camp, who guided Kearsarge High to a 2017 boys basketball state title and to runner-up finishes in 2016 and 2019, counts himself as one of Vanier’s “disciples.” He finds himself using the same techniques and language Vanier once employed with himself and his friends.

“I’ll tell someone that we don’t do that here, that it’s not the way we behave, just like Jim does,” Camp said. “We’re all indebted for the lessons he passed on, and they’re still being passed on today.”

Vanier doesn’t own a cellphone or use a computer. His office is fabulously cluttered with papers, newspaper clippings, photos and mementos such as the tiny rocks once proudly presented to him by a child. Vanier keeps track of dated information on a large wall calendar and about 25 scraps of paper taped to a nearby trophy case feature family names and phone numbers for his kids.

“I know their parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, whatever,” said Vanier, who estimates he’s overseen roughly 15,000 boys and girls during his career. Many have soared and some have plummeted. All, however, are viewed through the perspective that there are no bad kids, just some burdened by bad home lives.

“You want the best for every single kid who comes in here, but as long as you know you tried, you can’t beat yourself up,” said Vanier, who can name former charges who have committed murder and one, Anthony Boisvert, who pleaded guilty last year to burning down Lebanon’s First Baptist Church in 2016.

“He was a nice kid,” Vanier said sadly after digging up Boisvert’s third-grade CCB membership card, squiggly signature included. “He never gave us any trouble and he liked how he was treated here.”

So many others, though, have used his support as a stepping stone to become better students, leaders, employees, parents and spouses. They volunteer in schools, with Scouting organizations and withh youth sports teams, spreading his special brand of glue throughout the Upper Valley and beyond.

“Every town needs a guy like Jim, but they don’t all have one,” Mahler said.

How much longer will Vanier be at it? How many more Lego creations and uneven origami foldings will the lifelong bachelor praise? The man who didn’t take any out-of-town vacations for the first 20 years of his employment claims he’ll do the job until he’s 100 if he’s still useful, but he also frets about the CCB’s future.

“This building is such an integral part of the community, and it’s in my DNA,” Vanier said one morning last week, sprawled on a couch in the CCB television room after an hour’s cleaning that often begins around 6:30 a.m. “This is a simple, old building and I don’t have my hands tied by bureaucracy, but will it be sold if I leave?

“You don’t need someone with a Ph.D. in child psychology; you need a local person with local connections who’s known and respected and who can run it the way it’s needed.”

That means that when a Little League coach mentions that a player lacks a glove, the problem is solved before the next practice. That when a high school guidance counselor discovers a senior doesn’t own a jacket and tie, those items are procured. And that a hungry family’s dilemma is solved with a phone call to the American Legion or the Lions Club, which rustles up a grocery store gift card.

With Vanier in charge, a fourth-grader who’s had a rough go at school is giggling by the time her parents arrive at the CCB, themselves perhaps wearing battered work boots or a harried expression that speaks to their own tough day. It’s 5:30 p.m. and the building is emptying, but if mom or dad is running late because the car overheated or a snowstorm is sweeping in, they know their kid will be safe and probably munching on a slice of pizza.

“Jim called me the day after we won the state championship, just to say he was proud of me, and I started crying,” Camp said. “I used to have my mom pick me up from elementary school instead of riding the bus, just so I could be the first one at the CCB, just so I could spend time alone with Jim.

“It was such a treat, and I just looked forward to going there so much.”

Tris Wykes can be reached at twykes@vnews.com.

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