Friday, August 21, 2009

Day 35: The Living Don Tour

For those lucky enough to spend several days in Rutland, Vermont, there are certain must-do things. Most have heard of the exquisite luxury shopping at such emporiums as the Dollar Store in the Diamond Run Mall. And the fine dining at such top restaurants as Applebee's and Friendly's have spawned dozens of imitators throughout the country. But the one thing most savvy visitors feel is an absolute must-do in Rutland is the Living Don Tour.

Following in the early footsteps of Don Kennedy, one of Rutland's most notorious sons, visitors get to see the places where his personality and artistic temperament were first developed. Don has nominated himself as "A Living Treasure of Rutland" and if the city fathers ever agree, you can expect large crowds so it is to everyone's advantage to take the Living Don Tour as soon as possible.

STOP 1: The Nativity

Despite his earlier claims, Don was born in neither a manger nor a log cabin, and the tour begins, appropriately enough, where Don was actually born at the building that used to be Rutland Hospital.

Don was born 61 years ago on Father's Day, which also means that he was less than 6-hours old the first time he failed to send his father a card.

Don was born just before dinner time, which has more or less defined his timing ever since.

He also was born with a very pointy head, which may explain why his hair fell out and he now wears a cap most of the time.

Stop 2: Religious Teaching

Just a short walk from the old Rutland Hospital is Immaculate Heart of Mary, a beautiful marble church with an equally beautiful cinder-block and cement school.

It was at this school that Don first received instruction from religious elders. Despite his earlier claims that as a child he astonished the elders with his wisdom, the actual report cards from the school indicate that he was a good student but there were always one or two brown-nosing girls who got slightly better marks that they really didn't deserve.

It was also at Immaculate Heart that Don received his early religious training, with the sisters and priests encouraging him to devote his life to the church. This ultimately led him down the path to enter the seminary to train as a Catholic priest. It was at two of these seminaries that other priests told him the others were wrong and demanded that he not devote his life to the church.

Stop 3: The Paramount

Just a short walk down the hill from Immaculate Heart is the beautifully restored Paramount Theater.

This is the site of Don's first date. At the age of 7, he invited his sweetheart, Judy Courcelle, to a movie. The movie was "The Deadly Mantis".

This is a significant date in Don's history. Most donologists believe this is the only girl whom he ever dated whom he did not ask to marry him.

Stop 4: The First Home

The next stops on the Living Don Tour are a short drive south on Route 7. Turn right at the intersection with Park Street (easily identifiable by the presence of the Rutland Fairgrounds) and park anywhere for an easy stroll to the most significant sites in Don's early life. (Caution: Parking is extremely difficult during Fair Week.)

Don's first home when returning from the hospital was at 17 1/2 Park Street. This modest house is located at the end of a driveway next to 17 Park Street and is hidden by large trees.

If you walk down the driveway to see the house, though, you will likely be yelled at by residents who are wondering why you are wandering on their property and taking pictures, as happened during our recent visit. As a result, binoculars are recommended.

Stop 5: The Second Home

Always adventurous, the Kennedy family moved from 17 1/2 Park Street when Don was still a toddler. They relocated to 17 Park Street, the house in front.

This is the house where Don lived until 9 years old when the family moved to Syracuse, New York. This is the period of his life about which very little is known.

He has been known to tell associates of a few key memories: he recalled several dogs, none of which seemed to survive very long, numerous playmates in the neighborhood, and the purchase of the family's first television - after which most of his memories were of TV programs.

He claimed to distinctly remember playing toss-and-catch with his father while living there - although he described it as more toss-and-chase-the-missed-ball. And he recalled riding a bike for the first time without training wheels. He said he mostly recalled it because it was one of the few times in his life he was able to do so.

Stop 6: The Rutland Fairgrounds

Directly across the street from Don's second house (and in fact directly across the street from every house on Park Street) was the Rutland Fairgrounds.

In the era before the Comfort Inn and luxury RVs, when the fair came to Rutland in the 1950's, many locals rented rooms to the carnival workers. In what is probably the most surprising thing historians have learned about his parents, evidently they rented rooms as well.

In his memoirs Don could not recall much about the carny couple who stayed, but he definitely remembered the huge pack of tickets they gave him so he could ride the rides on the midway. He also recalled trying to get cars to pay to park on the front lawn during fair week, a practice he hopes to resume if the Living Don Tour catches on.

Stop 7: Lord's Corner Store

This landmark building does not exist anymore, but it is a short walk from Don's second house to the site where it stood.

Lord's, run by Russell and Edie Lord, was a classic 1950's corner store. In Don's unpublished memoirs, he fondly recalled their penny candy case.

Most donologists now agree that Lord's with its penny candy case was the single strongest influence on Don's physique. There is a particularly interesting design on the concrete in front of the current edifice. What appears to be melted milk balls and licorice whips have formed letters reading "DK was here".

Stop 8: The Coca Cola Bottling Plant

Across Route 7 from the former site of Lord's is the former site of the Coca Cola Bottling Plant, where Don's father Red worked when Don was born. Today it has been converted into restaurants and something called The Trolley Barn which is neither a barn nor does it have any trolleys.

While important to the family, this really has little to do with Don and is only included to make the Living Don Tour a bit longer. Don does remember, however, how cool the plant was with the bottles moving along the conveyor belt.


For the more adventurous, there are numerous other sites worth investigating. For those seriously interested in the early years of Don, tops on that list would be the former Kellogg Farm several miles north on Route 7.

This is where Don's mother Norma grew up and he and his family spent much time there with his grandparents and great-grandmother.

This is the place where the young Don learned that when you drop an egg in the henhouse, the chickens will eat it and turn into cannibals consuming all the other eggs. Close to that henhouse is the place where Don jumped onto a pitchfork and pierced his foot, a fairly strong omen of what was to come.

Other points of interest would be Coolidge State Park, where a young Don fell and hit his head, and Wallingford, the home of the Kennedy family and also the place where young Norma met John on St Patrick's Day.

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