In Focus: Vermont's Peter Gilbert

Article excerpt

ASK PETER GILBERT ABOUT THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE in offering humanities programs in Vermont and he immediately brings up the state's famously wintry weather.

"The weather is a challenge," he says, laughing. "We sometimes have to cancel programs because of a big snowstorm."

In Vermont, it isn't just the snow. It's the rural nature of the state itself, says Gilbert, who, as a former sled-dog musher and director of the Vermont Humanities Council in Montpelier since 2002, doesn't mind the winter a bit. "Programs have to be decentralized. You can't do them in one place and expect to draw a large number of people."

But the small state, with its population spread thinly across its 25 1 towns, villages, and small cities - the largest, Burlington, has a population of around 38,000 - has advantages too. Our small communities are so vital and our people so civically engaged," Gilbert says. "Individuals really feel that they can make a difference here."

Those advantages include being able to draw from an enviable pool of talent for council programs. Joseph Ellis, James M. McPherson, Ken Burns, David Macaulay, and Anthony Zinni are just a few of the luminaries who have participated. "Vermont is a special place that people want to visit," Gilbert says. "Lots of people have connections here. They live here; they have second homes or friends here; they vacation here. We benefit from that."

Vermonters are now benefiting from the council's First Wednesdays program, which was created by Gilbert, with the program's director. Aline White. White worked for the Montpelier library, and one day when she was returning some books to Gilbert at the council's offices, he told her he dreamt of creating a regular lecture program "so that all Vermonters would have access to free, regular programming near to them." White, who is a consultant to the council, and Gilbert work to shape an "eclectic, compelling series," Gilbert says. "There should be something for everyone."

Over the next year, the First Wednesdays lecture series will offer seventy-two opportunities for Vermonters to attend a lecture on the first Wednesday of each month at libraries all around the state. Programs include: "Hamlet Contemplates the Bust of Aristotle," "The Intimate Privilege of Being with the Dying," "Why Stephen King Still Matters," "Iran and the Obama Administration," and "In Search of Nirvana: Rock-'n'-Roll Religion. …