Slayton: Sam Hand's Lasting Legacy

Mar 6, 2018

The publication this month of Green Mountain Scholar: Samuel B. Hand commemorates the legacy of a man who — in the process of changing his own thinking about Vermont — changed the way we understand our history, even today

Both brilliant and idiosyncratic, Sam Hand was a serious scholar with a sly and subtle sense of humor. When he moved to Burlington and joined the UVM faculty in nineteen sixty-one, he didn’t know that he would become a leading authority on the history of this small state. In fact, he didn’t know much about Vermont at all. He said once that when he arrived here, he knew that Vermont, along with Maine had been one of the only two states to vote against the election of Franklin Roosevelt. And that was about it.

But living here changed all that. And by the nineteen seventies, he’d become fascinated by Vermont history, and had begun offering the courses in that area that would define his career. His studies of Vermont politics, especially the rise and decline of the Republican Party here, opened Vermonters’ eyes to their own political story.

Hand insisted on high academic standards, but he was also known for his puckish sense of humor. He enjoyed telling about the time when he was out of state, and someone asked where he was from.

“I’m from Vermont,” he responded.

“I should have known,” said the questioner. “You sound just like Bernie Sanders!”

Hand is also remembered for the slightly mystifying way he would often start a conversation: “He would start in the middle of a topic, and you had to figure out where he was coming from,” said historian Michael Sherman. “And by the time you got there, he’d moved on!”

And, he was unfailingly supportive of other historians. Sherman recalled several projects that were vital to understanding Vermont’s past. Hand would agree that the given project was important — and then pass it off to a colleague. “He really wanted to create a community of Vermont scholars,” Sherman said — and that was how he went about it.”

Hand’s influence was pervasive. He taught a generation of Vermont historians, helped found the Center for Research on Vermont at UVM, and deepened the mission and breadth of the Vermont Historical Society.

And somehow,Sam Hand did it all with a light touch — making his many accomplishments all the more impressive.