Jim Kenyon: Why is the CCBA pushing a longtime fixture aside?
|Published: 08-30-2023 7:02 PM
When the nonprofit Carter Community Building Association, or CCBA as it’s known, launched a fundraising drive last October, the good name of Jim Vanier and his half-century of service to Lebanon kids was used as a major selling point.
“Following in the footsteps of the legendary Pat Walsh, Jim Vanier has run the Carter Community Building (CCB) Youth Drop-in Center for 50 years, providing a safe, welcoming and free space for kids each weekday,” CCBA Executive Director Kerry Artman and governing board Chairman Bruce Adams wrote in the widely circulated appeal. “Your generous donation today will support current and future generations of local children.”
Ten months later, CCBA leadership no longer has as much use for the 71-year-old Vanier as it did while trying to enrich its bottom line.
Earlier this month, shortly after Vanier returned to work from hip replacement surgery, Artman handed him a letter that spelled out a diminished role for him at the youth center. From what people who have seen the letter have told me, the gist was that Artman wants Vanier to spend less time at the youth center and more time at the CCBA’s mothership — the nearby Witherell Recreation Center, where he’d be available to work behind the front desk, answering phones and checking in members.
The CCBA followed up last week with an email from its attorney, Beth Rattigan, of Lebanon. It contained a list of more than a dozen items — ultimatums, really — that Vanier took to mean he must abide by, if he wants to keep his job.
For starters, he can’t use the phone at the drop-in center for “personal calls, except as needed in an emergency.” Any personal business “should be confined to lunch or other break times and should not be conducted using business equipment/property.”
And here’s the kicker: Vanier must agree “not to make false or defamatory statements about CCBA.”
Rattigan didn’t mention who decides what’s false or defamatory. But I’m fairly sure that it’s a warning to Vanier not to say anything bad about his boss.
Clearly, Artman wants Vanier gone. I also assume that she didn’t drop the letter on him or bring in Rattigan, who specializes in employment law, without checking with board members, or at least Adams, the board chairman.
On Monday, after returning from a two-week vacation, I emailed Artman and Adams to ask what’s going on. Artman replied that “like any good employer, we do not discuss confidential employee matters publicly.” I didn’t hear back from Adams.
I’m not surprised CCBA leaders want to keep the matter hush-hush. Their graceless attempt to put Vanier, considered by many a Lebanon icon, out to pasture isn’t a good look.
I imagine the CCBA is hoping that Lebanon’s demographics have changed in recent years to the extent that many residents are unaware of or indifferent to Vanier’s contributions to the community.
Rattigan sent her email to Vanier’s attorney, Joseph Mattson, of Manchester, last Friday. (An anonymous friend is paying Vanier’s legal bills.) I was able to obtain a copy through a source, which apparently didn’t please Rattigan or the CCBA. (see response at bottom of column)
So why is Vanier on the outs?
Vanier is the epitome of old school. He doesn’t use email or own a computer. He only acquired a cellphone this month, after friends suggested it might be a good idea in light of what was happening at work.
But more importantly, he’s about all that’s standing in the CCBA’s way of changing how the youth drop-in center does business. Business being the operative word.
The Carter Community Building, named after its benefactors — William S. Carter, a local businessman, and his wife, Theodora — was completed in 1917. Two years later, the Carter Community Building Association was formed “for the purpose of furnishing the young people of Lebanon (New Hampshire) a healthful and uplifting club life,” its mission stated.
In 1960, Pat Walsh, the city’s court clerk and juvenile truant officer, became the CCB’s director. Vanier was among the CCB gym rats who honed his basketball skills at early age with Walsh’s help. One of Gilson and Helen Vanier’s nine children, Jim became the first 1,000-point scorer in Lebanon High School basketball history.
Roger Carroll was in elementary school when Vanier was starring for Lebanon High in the late 1960s. “We used to admire Jimmy the basketball player so much that we would occasionally argue about who was going to be Jimmy Vanier in our playground pickup games in fourth or fifth grade,” Carroll told me.
In 1973, following a brief stint at what is now Plymouth State University and working a few manual labor jobs, Vanier became the CCB’s assistant director under Walsh. Vanier was named youth center coordinator in 1987.
That same year, the CCBA opened the nearby Witherell Recreation Center, thanks to a gift of more than $4 million from the estate of Carl Witherell, who made his fortune in cable TV. The center features an indoor swimming pool, multiple fitness studios and indoor and outdoor basketball courts.
With the opening of the new building, which caters largely to adults who pay membership fees, the youth center took a back seat.
But Vanier kept doing what he’d always done — looking after Lebanon kids, particularly those from families on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder.
“We get a lot of the have-nots, and always have,” Vanier told me. “I was one of them.”
On weekdays, dozens of kids in grades 3 through 6 flock to the two-story brick building on Campbell Street after their school day ends and many of their parents are still at work. They play basketball, dodgeball and board games. They build structures out of Lego sets. There’s a TV, but it gets only three channels. “No cartoons,” Vanier said.
The after-school program is an opportunity for kids to learn “how to socialize and be respectful of one another,” he said. If Vanier hears about two kids tangling on the bus or school playground, he intentionally puts them on the same team so “they learn how to work together.”
What makes Vanier the proudest? The after-school program is free.
“It’s a lifeline for working families,” he said.
Vanier is outspoken — undoubtedly more than CCBA leaders would like — about the need to keep the CCB just the way it is.
“This isn’t about me,” he said. “It’s about the kids who deserve a safe place they can go after school, and parents don’t have to worry about paying for it when they might be having trouble just putting food on the table.”
Other than hiring a high school student, who works part-time, Vanier is largely a one-man operation. He spends hours each morning with a mop and broom in hand.
“Jim is constantly cleaning the place,” Chuck Currier, a 1970 Lebanon High graduate, said. “And he’s got rules. You’ve got to take off your boots and hang up your coat.”
Vanier stays open during school vacation weeks and days when school is canceled due to bad weather. “He knows parents need a safe place to put their kids on snow days,” Currier said.
Vanier worries, for good reason, that he’s fighting a losing battle to keep the youth center from changing. According to Rattigan’s laundry list of ultimatums, Vanier must support the CCBA’s “strategic plan.” That includes a “potential sliding scale payment program for (youth center) participants.”
On Monday, I called longtime Lebanon attorney Peter Decato. He chaired the CCBA board in the 1980s when the decision was made to build the Witherell Center to enhance, among other things, affordable fitness opportunities for adults.
But he couldn’t imagine a time when the youth center would be at risk of straying from its mission. The current CCBA leadership “wants to run it as a business,” Decato said. “That’s their motivation.”
To Decato’s point, Vanier will also need to “oversee rentals of the CCB, including nights and weekends,” according to Rattigan’s email.
In 2019 — a year before Artman was hired — the CCBA kicked off its 100th anniversary celebration by naming the youth center’s small gym, where he grew up playing basketball, in his honor.
But Vanier’s reputation in the community had already been cemented years earlier. In 1997, the Lebanon Chamber of Commerce named him “Good Citizen of the Year” for his work with the city’s youth.
This month, it didn’t take long for word to leak out that CCBA leaders were giving Vanier the our-way-or-the-highway treatment. Lebanon’s old guard quickly rallied to his defense.
“I don’t care if Jim recently got his first cellphone. I don’t care that he has trouble working with computers,” Decato posted on Facebook. “All I care about is that Jim continue to shepherd our children and that the citizens of Lebanon never lose sight of the selfless work Jim has done for years.”
On Monday, I found Vanier in the CCB parking lot, where he’d just finished talking with Marian Stearns, a Lebanon resident who had come to offer her support.
“There are a lot of people backing him,” she told me. “I sure hope things turn out well for Jim.”
During my conversation with Decato, I think he was only half joking when he said that he and others would start picketing outside the youth center, if CCBA leaders don’t treat Vanier with more respect.
“They don’t seem to appreciate what good this man has done,” Decato said.
I think it’s safe to say that a lot of people, myself included, share Decato’s sentiment that the CCBA remains a valuable Upper Valley resource.
“I want them to succeed,” he said. “I also want them to smarten up.”
Jim Kenyon can be reached at email@example.com.
In response to a Valley News request for comment, CCBA attorney Beth Rattigan issued a statement on Tuesday that included the following:
“The list of items in the confidential email sent to Jim Vanier’s lawyer was requested by his lawyer in connection with a discussion to resolve issues that resulted from miscommunication regarding Jim’s role and expectations for the position. Jim is a valued employee who is highly regarded in the community.
Both parties have made progress in resolving the misunderstanding. Publication of these documents would be harmful to Jim Vanier and CCBA. We request that you refrain from publishing information about this issue.”