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Newport Resident Sheds Light on Town’s Sunniest Man



Valley News Correspondent
Thursday, September 22, 2016

Newport — By the late 1920s, Newport’s Billy B. Van, a successful Broadway actor and businessman, was in demand as a motivational speaker, traveling the country addressing chambers of commerce, business conventions and others.

A perpetual optimist, even during the Great Depression, Van had a gimmick when his audience began to complain about hard times. He was fond of tacking up a large white piece of paper and then marking the center with a small black dot asking them what they saw. They all said the same thing: a little black dot. With the setup complete, Van would respond.

“You all see the little black dot but none of you see the big sheet of white paper,” Van would tell them. “Well, that little black dot, in my estimation, is the Depression. The big white sheet of paper is the prospects in our line of business.”

It was vintage Van, looking to make lemonade when life handed him lemons — a favorite saying of his — and one of numerous anecdotes and amusing stories about Van in a new book by Newport writer Jayna Huot Hooper, Billy B. Van, Newport’s Sunshine Peddler.

Hooper takes the reader on an entertaining and fascinating journey through Van’s remarkable life, with emphasis on his love for Newport, his adopted hometown where he lived and worked later in life.

In his 80 years, Van performed in vaudeville and on Broadway, and later became an author, dairy farmer, soap maker, radio personality, motivational speaker and much more, all richly layered with a cheery disposition and generous spirit that seemed unquenchable. The man credited with giving Newport its enduring nickname, The Sunshine Town, he seemed to embody it.

“I come from a little town called Newport, N.H., where the sun shines on both sides of the highway at the same time,” Van was fond of saying.

Van’s death in November 1950 stunned Newport, where he was known to be always ready to help those in need.

Hooper writes that post-war Newport was seeing a lot of change, including the closing of a woolen mill and the pending shutdown of train service from Concord.

“If Billy had been a bit younger when all our present impasses had come up, he probably would have had an answer for us all,” wrote the Newport Guardian in an editorial a week after Van died. “God bless him, he had a heart about ten times as big as he was.”

Though he made a fortune during his lifetime, Van died poor. His gravestone, until recently, was a weathered flat marker in Pine Grove Cemetery in Newport.

For all his successes, Newport’s only honorary mayor seems to have been largely forgotten, with nothing in town named for him that would give residents reason to pause and wonder who Billy B. Van was. Though most recognize the name and its association with the Sunshine Town moniker, the rest of Van’s life seems a mystery.

Hooper’s book rectifies that injustice with a thorough look at the man who was recognized for his salesmanship by organizations from Boston to Los Angeles and whose oratorical style would bring cheers and laughter at Town Meeting.

Van’s life started to come back into the light several years ago when Sunapee resident Paul Rheingold, to whom Hooper dedicated her book, read about Van while researching and writing a brief history of Lake Sunapee.

“I got interested in the history of the area and began reading about this character Van,” Rheingold, a New York City attorney with a home on Lake Sunapee, said in a phone interview from his office in Manhattan.

His book about the lake included a sketch of Van, who lived in Georges Mills for about 10 years, and that led to a search for his gravestone.

“No one seemed to know where he was buried,” Rheingold said. “I finally found his grave in Pine Grove Cemetery and it just had a little footstone with only his name.”

Rheingold received permission to erect a headstone with some biographical information on Van and his son’s name, and had it installed last year.

Hooper, who wrote Celebrating Community: Newport, N.H., 1761-2011, for the town’s 250th anniversary, became acquainted with Rheingold through the Newport Historical Society. Her research was aided by boxes of memorabilia that were sent to the historical society by Peter Van Harding, Van’s 69 year old grandson, who lives in Riverside, Calif.

Hooper dove into the project in June and within weeks completed a well-researched work that leans heavily on newspaper clippings, editorials, and Van’s own words to paint a portrait of someone who always seem to see things in a positive light.

“I want people to know that he was more than a showman and not just a self-promoter,” Hooper said in an interview. “He was philanthropic and his overall philosophy in life was ‘never give up.’ He knew how to adapt and innovate. That is a message that is still important today.”

Hooper also took note of Van’s generosity.

“He seemed very compassionate and really did give everything he possibly could,” Hooper said.

In one example, when Van would learn of a poor family when he lived in Georges Mills, he would have the local store send over barrels of flour, potatoes, cornmeal and more on the condition the family was not told where they came from.

He also raised money for a monument to Newport born writer Sarah Josepha Hale, an influential magazine editor and the author of Mary Had a Little Lamb. The issue got bogged down in local politics and the funds ended up becoming seed money for the Hale award, started in 1956, which recognizes a writer with a New England connection. A monument to Hale was eventually erected and dedicated a few years ago.

While much of Hooper’s account is devoted to Van’s time in the Lake Sunapee region, she fills in the details of his early life on the stage.

Born William Webster Vandegrift in Pottstown, Pa., in 1870, it wasn’t long before his name was shortened for the consumption of the theater-going public.

Van’s formal education ended in grade school when his father sent him to work for a lawyer in Philadelphia. One of the lawyer’s clients was a theater owner and Van made his first stage appearance at age 9 in a production of H.M.S. Pinafore, which was the same time his name was shortened.

“When the producer, J.C. Stewart asked young Billy his name, the boy answered proudly, ‘William Webster Vandegrift,’ Hooper writes. “ ‘Not on my program’ replied a smiling Stewart. Apparently the name was too long for his liking. ‘You’ll be Willie Van in this show.’ ”

Van had found his calling but his career was nearly derailed in the late 1890s when he was stricken with tuberculosis while performing in Boston. He found lodging at a hotel and was befriended by the proprietor and his wife, an elderly couple who owned property in New Hampshire, Van wrote in his 1933 book Snap Out of It!.

Van was soon convalescing in Georges Mills and would eventually buy a 65-acre parcel from the Boston hotel owners in the early 1900s.

“I liked the place more than any spot I had ever set eyes upon,” Van wrote.

New Hampshire took a hold of Van and in Georges Mills he became a larger than life presence, inviting many of his theater friends to join him. Though he owned a hotel and casino and started a movie production studio, Van appears to have worn out his welcome with the small town people who were heard to complain about “actors and actresses strolling through town in their costumes and make-up,” Hooper writes.

That he tried to change the name of the village on the northern edge of Lake Sunapee to Van Harbor probably didn’t endear him to the locals either. He would eventually lose his Van Harbor property to auction, about the same time that his first marriage failed.

The move to Newport in 1920 offered Van a chance for a new beginning.

“I have a weakness for Newport,” he told American Magazine in 1927. “Newport’s the place I went to when I thought I was done for. Aside from its being a delightful spot, I like it because it represents bad luck that became good luck.”

Starting in 1925, Van became a regular contributor to radio. His short “Sunshine Talks” regularly referred to Newport as the “Sunshine Town,” a nickname taken up by the Argus-Champion in 1926.

Van ran his dairy farm in Newport while keeping a foothold in the acting world. Hooper relates that he appeared on Broadway in several plays from 1903 through most of the 1920s with some of the best-known names of the era.

Though he was a success in the acting world, Van knew that it would not last and that the lights would go dim.

“The most tragic figure in the world is an old player who has had pots of applesauce in his day and nothing to eat when it is over,” Van wrote in Snap Out of It!.

So he used his skills as a salesman and showman to make money in the business world.

The scent of the pines in New Hampshire prompted Van, who always seemed to have a multitude of ideas, to develop a bar soap with a pine scent that he made in Newport and sold throughout the country, including to some of the finest hotels. After that business went bankrupt, he started Billy B. Van Sales Co., in 1939, distributing pine soaps made in the Midwest and candy, including Billy B. Van’s Peanut Crunch.

Hooper’s portrayal of Van suggests he was never complacent about his circumstances and was always on the lookout for a new opportunity. Every setback — his soap business went bankrupt during the Depression — was simply an opportunity for Van. He could fight his way back after health, business and financial hardship and turn reverses into new heights of success through personality, confidence and imagination, the Argus-Champion editorialized after his death.

His 10 commandments of acting and business were less about how to be a success than about how to be modest, fair and honest, taking setbacks calmly and learning from the experience.

“Every man must expect a lot of strikeouts in his career, but no one or two or three mistakes, however serious, can keep him down,” Van wrote. “Stop asking, ‘How’s business’ and get busy answering it,”

In the 1940s, with the country at war, Van’s engaging and convincing speaking style got him a job at Fellows Gear Shaper Co., in Springfield, Vt., in the relatively new field of human resources. His idea to pipe music and news through speakers on the factory floor proved ingenious and was his way of giving fair treatment to workers putting in 12 hour shifts.

The effort, Hooper writes, was wildly successful with the company productivity at as much as 25 percent above “the normal” during the war years.

Van’s grandson, Harding, who spent his early years in Newport but was too young to remember his grandfather, recalls stories his mother would tell.

“I wish I had known the man,” Harding said in a telephone interview from California, who is thrilled his grandfather’s story has been told. “I understand he was one of the nicest and funniest people you could ever meet.”

Rheingold also is pleased that Hooper took on the project.

“I am really happy the guy is finally getting the attention he deserves,” Rheingold said.

Billy B. Van: Newport’s Sunshine Peddleris available by contacting the Newport Historical Society at newporths1761@gmail.com.

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