Sharing Memories With Chet Ketcham

By Larry Johnson

photo provided

    Some of Chet Ketcham’s puckish sense of humor and well-defined sense of justice may be a direct result of his ancestry. On one side of his family he is related to the great P.T. Barnum and on the other side to Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” and “the little woman” that Lincoln half-jokingly referred to as being responsible for the Civil War.

Chet was born in Salisbury, Vermont, on December 6, 1927, to Olin and Ruth Ketcham. It is interesting to note, he believes, that he was born the same year as and within a single month of the great flood that inundated Vermont.  His parents had purchased the village store in the early 20s and this fact gave Chet, and his older brothers Russ and Art, an early opportunity at employment close to home. The store was  stocked with boots, shoes, work clothes and just about every other thing that might be needed in a small town. When he wasn’t  delivering orders around Lake Dunmore, Chet spent his summers stocking shelves  in the store for 35cents an hour.

It wasn’t all work and no play, however. Chet remembers that one summer he and some friends built a “submarine out of old drums, tubes and tape and spent the summer exploring the bottom of the lake.”   

After attending the two-room grammar school in Salisbury for eight years, Chet transferred to Brandon High School. After  graduating from high school in 1945, he got a job as a bell hop at the Lake Dunmore Hotel for the summer. Later that year  he  joined the Navy and, after basic training, was made a company clerk. However, he contracted an infection, somehow, and was sent to the infirmary. He credits penicillin with saving his life. Eventually he went to radar school and, after graduation,  was sent to Midway Island in the Pacific where he became a radio and radar operator.

After mustering out of the Navy in 1947, Chet was admitted to UVM where he majored in Political Science. In 1951, he entered Yale Law School and spent the next three years studying law and waiting on tables in the dining room, in order to help pay for tuition.

In 1954 he graduated from Yale and got his first legal job as a law clerk for Federal District Court Judge Ernest  W. Gibson, Jr.  In 1955, Chet left clerking for Judge Gibson and went to work as an attorney for Ralph Meaker in Waterbury for a short while before joining the firm of Wick, Dinse and Allen in Burlington. He worked for this distinguished firm for the next seven years.

"In 1962 Philip Hoff became the first Democrat Governor of Vermont since Governor Robinson in 1856, just four years before the commencement of the Civl War." With the Governor's approval Attorney General Charles Gibson (no relation to Judge Gibson) offered Chet a job as Deputy Attoney General with a salary of $10,000 a year. "I made more than the Attorney General did," Chet told me, because the Attorney General's salary was set by statute at $8,800."

Chet soon found himself immersed in the state’s reapportionment crisis. The U.S. Supreme Court had held that legislators within any state must be “apportioned on a population basis.” The State of Vermont had a bicameral legislature made up of representatives from each town, giving the smallest town in the state equal representation with the largest. The Supreme Court had disallowed this inequity and insisted that the state of Vermont, among others, redesign its representation in the legislature more fairly.

After much battling, primarily from the smaller towns who wanted to retain their power in the legislature, it became obvious to almost everyone that the court would prevail and that Vermont would have to come up with a reapportionment scheme.

Chet was instrumental in promoting a “stipulation” with the court that would allow the sitting legislature to reapportion itself. It was a victory that prevented a major legislative disruption, and Governor Hoff was eternally grateful.

“After reapportionment litigation had come to an end in 1966, I decided it was time to move on, and I went to Middlebury and became associated with the law firm of Underwood and Lynch.”

Practicing small town law had its lighter side and one case that Chet took on involved representing a kid who had shot a skunk out of season. Jack C. Conley represented the other defendant. Chet and Jack decided that they would file a motion to bring the evidence into court. The judge had no interest in bringing a skunk into the building and so he dismissed the case.

In 1974 Chet won a seat in the Vermont Legislature, and two years later he was appointed to Chair the Judicial Committee. “It was at about this time that the anti-dirty books groups were getting some traction and were at our doorstep demanding action,” Chet told me. “The committee I was serving on decided that we needed to visit one of the book stores in question in order to examine the situation for ourselves. I and another member of the committee decided to examine the peep show in a back room, in order to see for ourselves whether or not it was pornographic. Just as it was getting interesting, the screen went black and the machine demanded another quarter from us. I announced to my companion that ‘This is nothing short of consumer fraud.’ We both had a good laugh,  but the following morning  The Burlington Free Press and The Rutland Herald both had headlines reflecting on the fact that the  Chairman of the Judiciary Committee had been overheard laughing at a peep show.”

Chet spent eight years as Addison County Probate Judge, from 1990 until 1998, and out of this experience came a number of interesting cases. One in particular, involving two lesbians trying to adopt a child, resulted in forging a new precedent in the annals of Vermont history. “I allowed the adoption,” Chet told me, “and it worked out very well, indeed, for everyone. I checked on the family later on, and the child was in a secure and loving family situation.”

Today Chet is retired and lives in Brandon most of the time, with his wife Catherine, where he plays golf at the Neshobe Golf Course. He also visits his daughter Tamara Lynn Baldauf who lives in Brattleboro with her husband and two children, a boy 15 and a girl 8.

After retirement, Chet wrote a book titled “Nonsense, No Nonsense and Other Things.” It is a book well worth reading for its humor as well as its history, and can undoubtedly be retrieved from Ilsley Library in Middlebury.


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