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Longtime Woodstock town manager dies at age 67

  • Woodstock Town Manager Phil Swanson answers a voter's question during Town Meeting in Woodstock, Vt., on March 1, 2014. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Valley News file photograph — Geoff Hansen

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 7/19/2019 9:44:36 PM
Modified: 7/19/2019 10:25:06 PM

WOODSTOCK — Phil Swanson, the congenial but no-nonsense municipal manager in Woodstock for the past 34 years, died Wednesday evening at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. He was 67 and had been battling leukemia.

Swanson was the manager for both the town and village of Woodstock, a complex blend in a community that is also home to old farm families and old money. At the time of his death, he was the longest-serving town manager in Vermont, known for his ability to solve problems, bring grants home and avoid becoming ensnared in local politics.

“He was the dean of the profession when he was working there,” said Steve Jeffrey, who was the longtime director of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns before retiring in 2015. “He understood local politics and local government, and I think he had a great respect for the line between the managers and the policymakers, and he knew how to work with those policymakers, but he knew how to avoid the politics.”

“It’s a huge, huge loss for Woodstock,” added state Sen. Alison Clarkson, D-Woodstock, who noted that Swanson “wore a lot of hats in the community.”

A Connecticut native, Swanson threw himself into Woodstock life when he was hired in 1985, joining the fire department, building a home in West Woodstock with his wife Victoria where they raised three children and becoming an active member of Rotary.

He also developed a loyal following in Town Hall and around town, creating an upbeat atmosphere in the office while also jumping into his truck to respond when a problem cropped up.

“Someone would call, and he would say ‘Are you there now? I’ll be right over,’ ” said Mary Riley, who worked as Swanson’s administrative assistant for 25 years and now serves on the Selectboard. Riley recalled driving by a road that had a clogged culvert after a storm on a late Friday evening and seeing Swanson, who often wore a bow tie, shoveling gravel out of the culvert.

“He was there on his own because he knew it needed to be done, and it couldn’t wait,” she recalled.

Woodstock Town Planner and Administrative Officer Michael Brands, who Swanson hired out of upstate New York 30 years ago, said he always appreciated that Swanson came over to the motel where Brands was staying after a day of interviews back in 1989 and told him then that Woodstock wanted to hire him.

“That was very nice. It made me feel very good about the situation,” said Brands, who also noted that Swanson would “go jump on stuff immediately and not kick the can down the road.”

Butch Sutherland, who served as fire chief for 25 years and is now the chairman of the Woodstock Selectboard, said Swanson “dedicated his life to the Woodstock community, helping people throughout his career.”

“What made him special was the fact that he was just a great leader, and he liked people,” said Sutherland, who became close friends with Swanson and said he was especially skilled at finding and bringing grants home. “We used to call him ‘Mr. Grant,’ ” Sutherland said.

Swanson’s mastery of numbers and the levers of power were apparent after Tropical Storm Irene caused widespread damage across a number of Upper Valley towns in August 2011.

Woodstock had about $5.3 million in municipal damage, much of it from flooding along the Ottauquechee River, and about 60 projects seeking reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Seven months after Irene struck, while many towns were still figuring out how to approach the damage and the paperwork, Woodstock had already gotten $1.3 million in reimbursements approved from Washington.

And while others in Vermont expressed frustration with the process, Swanson told a Valley News reporter at the time that he wanted to give a “shout out” to FEMA. (It was not his first federal disaster declaration, but rather his fourth).

“I think the FEMA guys have bent over backwards. There’s a whole heavenly host of work to do,” Swanson said at the time.

He helped run Woodstock as the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park was created, as the Billings Farm Museum grew in stature and as the Woodstock Inn and Resort prospered and drew new money to the town, which helped the tourist economy but also could create other stresses, such as on housing.

Greg Camp, the fourth-generation director of Cabot Funeral Home in Woodstock, said Swanson was “always the go-to person” though he often worked in the background on issues.

“He always kept a real even keel and was able to foster those relationships really well, in his own quiet way,” Camp said.

Beth Fish, Swanson’s administrative assistant for the past year, said he kept working even while hospitalized at DHMC, setting up a “full office” in his hospital room with a computer and printer that also could scan documents. He would don khakis and a button-down shirt and do his work every day, she said.

“He was very dedicated to his job, and he loved doing it,” Fish said.

Along with his wife Victoria, Swanson is survived by two sons, Ben and Joe, a police sergeant in Woodstock, and a daughter Anne. A memorial service is planned for 3 p.m. on Sunday, July 28, at the North Universalist Chapel Society on Church Street, with overflow seating planned for Town Hall, just a few doors down.

Sutherland, the Selectboard chairman, said Woodstock earlier this month hired its first full-time fire chief, David Green, the former highway superintendent in town, and that he will serve as acting town manager for the time being.

Still, after Swanson’s 34-year-tenure, Woodstock officials will have some adjusting to do.

“I lost a friend and colleague who was irreplaceable,” Sutherland said.

John P. Gregg can be reached at jgregg@vnews.com.

 




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