BRATTLEBORO -- Larry Smith said the reason he never fixed the hole in his office wall was to serve as a reminder of the toll the stress of his job took on him in 2007.
The door knob-shaped hole, left when Smith suffered a stroke and grabbed for something to brace him as he fell, pales in comparison to the impact he left on Windham County.
And now, after working 45 years in Brattleboro, Smith is retiring.
Today, Smith will spend his last day as the director of communications of Vermont Yankee and although he's served as the mouth piece for the controversial nuclear power plant for the last 15 years, his legacy will be the countless hours he spent volunteering, raising money and advocating for those less fortunate.
Last week Smith was honored by the chamber for his nearly half-century of work in the community and was selected as the Person of the Year.
A lasting legacy
In the late 1970s, Smith was married with two young children while hosting a daily talkshow on WTSA. One day he was interviewing an official about the state welfare department and a new program designed to provide nutrition for women and children who couldn't afford it.
Smith knew their struggle.
"I couldn't pay my oil bill; they shut off my electricity," Smith said, his voice heavy. "It wasn't a pleasant time in my life ... I felt totally embarrassed to have to take food from the program. I had to swallow my pride often because
For 18 months, Smith said he would walk very quietly from the radio station to Maple Farms Dairy every Tuesday and Thursday to get cereal, milk, eggs and produce.
It wasn't until the owner of the station had gone to the dairy to see if they wanted to buy a radio spot that he realized Smith's situation was as bad as it was, he said.
Eventually Smith was given a raise and was able to afford to buy groceries for his family on his own, but he never forgot the kindness that was shown to him.
"I vowed that if I ever had the opportunity to pay back the help I got, I would," Smith said.
In 1994, one of Smith's friends -- Melinda Bussino, the director of the Drop-In Center -- asked him to do a live broadcast from the Harmony Parking Lot to promote the Vermont Food Bank, which was handing out goods at the location.
"I'm ashamed of myself now, because at the time I couldn't grasp the concept of the food bank, the Drop-In Center, of who was using it," Smith said.
The line for those waiting to get their share from the food bank was backed up to High Street that day, at least four people deep, he said.
"These were people I knew, people who were in the same position I was in," Smith said. "I knew we had to do something about it."
Seeing so many people in need re-ignited the fire in him.
Soon thereafter, Smith met with another friend -- George Haynes, who was the president of Brattleboro Savings and Loan. The two began talking about potential projects they could team-up together on.
"We wanted to take on an initiative that would benefit the community on an annual basis," Haynes said. "We wanted to do something meaningful for the community, similar to the Reformer Christmas Stocking."
They decided to do a food drive to help hungry people in Brattleboro. That first year they set a goal to fill a tractor-trailer of groceries -- within weeks the community filled it.
"We had no idea
Today, Project Feed the Thousands helps feed numerous families in and around Windham County throughout the year. Both Haynes and Smith stepped down as co-chairs of the project last year, but the memories will stick with them forever, Haynes said.
"About two or three years ago, Larry and I were doing a presentation about Project Feed the Thousands at a local middle school," he said. "One girl said something that both broke our hearts and lifted them at the same time. She said, ‘That's where me and my mom get our food from.'"
"It's an incredible feeling to help someone else," Smith said. "To provide them with a meal and shelter. It's the most rewarding work you can do."
Haynes said he had mixed emotions about his friend leaving the area for Maine and Florida.
"On one hand it's long overdue and I'm happy for him," he said. "But I'm gonna miss him and I know this area will also. If Larry wasn't Larry, this community wouldn't be what it is today."
An on-air personality
Smith said he was bit by the radio bug at 10, after his parent's bought him a Remco toy radio station.
"I was fascinated by disc jockeys and the ability they had to shape music," Smith said.
An engineer at a Keene radio station heard about Smith's love of the airwaves and built him a 100-watt station transmitter. After years of practicing his on-air voice, Smith was broadcasting from WKNX, a "no-so-legal" radio station, to all that would listen within the half-mile of his parent's attic.
In 1967, WTSA in Brattleboro was looking for someone to help out part-time and Smith jumped at the opportunity.
"I worked all the weekends, holidays, all the shifts no one else wanted," he said.
A short time later he was offered a full-time position.
"There was prestige in being a disc jockey in a small town," Smith said. "I was a teenager at the best time."
"Between the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Led Zeppelin, the entire British Invasion, it was a great time to be involved in music," he said. "People would call and make requests to hear their favorite bands, dedicate songs to each other."
After graduating from Keene High School in 1969, Smith left WTSA to attend Elkins Institute in Houston to get his degree in broadcast management and engineering.
"Back then if you wanted to do it all you had to have a first-class operators license from the Federal Communications Commission," Smith said. "When I returned to Brattleboro in 1973, the owners of WTSA, Jack and Betty Healy, offered me the job of news director because the current director was leaving to become a store manage at K-Mart in Northampton, Mass. That's how bad pay for disc jockeys was back then."
Taking over as the news director, Smith said he immersed himself in the community, making connections with the police and fire departments and politicians. The most influential person ended up being his mentor, Wayne Corbiel, a former president of the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce who help Smith get involved with the chamber's junior members.
Joining the chamber gave him access to state-wide politicians, community leaders and business owners he might not otherwise have had the opportunity to get to know, Smith said.
Thirty years on the job -- getting up at 3 a.m. to type a summary of the previous night's Selectboard meeting, chasing fire trucks and ambulances in the middle of the night -- eventually took its toll and Smith was contemplating retirement.
"The problem was I didn't have any kind of retirement plan," he said. "At 47-years-old, I had to start thinking about a job with serious benefits."
At lunch with a friend, James Sinclair, then director of public affairs for Vermont Yankee, Smith expressed his desire for change and Sinclair said why not work for him. Smith said he joked about making him an offer and a week later was hired to provide a stronger community image for the plant.
There was also one other task for his job, which was paramount over everything to Smith -- he was in charge of the company's donations program.
During his tenure, Smith, on behalf of Vermont Yankee, has given away more than $5 million to non-profit organizations in the tri-state area.
"Through the radio station I knew of their needs, so when I got to VY and could donate money, it was wonderful," he said. "We could really make a difference."
Under new management
In the last seven years or so, Smith said he's been spat on, had manure thrown at him, been threatened and called nearly every nasty name in the book by groups opposed to nuclear power and the continued operation of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant -- all because of his role as communications manager.
On April 25, 2007, at about 5 p.m., as he was about to leave for the day, Smith suffered a massive stroke that doctors said was stress induced.
"I felt like my head was imploding," he said. "I fell and hit the door so hard the doorknob punched a hole through the wall and the next thing I knew I woke up in the hospital. I was obviously taking work too seriously."
As he was recovering in the hospital, Smith and Val, his second wife of 18 years, began talking about their future.
The couple met with a financial planner who put them on a fast track investment plan so that he could retire within five years.
"At 2012 I could retire, the plant could get its new license and VY could go into the next 20 years with a new director of communications," Smith said. "It seemed like the right time."
He said his last year on the job was by far the most difficult.
"We had another tritium leak; March 10 VY got its license extension from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the very next day the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan happened."
The Japanese reactor was destroyed by a massive earthquake and tsunami that caused three reactors to go into full meltdown.
Smith spent the next two months doing 183 media interviews about the similarities between Vermont Yankee and Fukushima, which were both about the same age and both designed by General Electric.
Then there was a two-day preliminary injunction hearing in which Entergy asked a federal judge to allow the plant to continue to operate while its law suit against Vermont went through the court system.
A few weeks after the hearing someone lit a fire at Vermont Yankee's communications building in Brattleboro where Smith's office is located.
"It scared me," he said. "Why does it have to be personal?"
Smith said if he had to attend a particularly ugly meeting with people calling him names like "Larry the lair of Louisiana," he'd focus on what he was doing for the community.
"It's what grounded me," he said. "It was impossible not to take it personally, but whether it was serving a meal at the Baptist Church with Val, doing something for Project Feed the Thousands or helping out at the Drop-In Center, it put things into perspective."
Despite everything he's experienced while at Vermont Yankee, Smith said he had a wonderful 15 years.
"I'll miss the people here and in the community, but I'll miss Brattleboro especially," he said. "I know I'll find some way to help out the communities in Maine and Florida though, it's just in my DNA."
Josh Stilts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 802-254-2311 ext. 273.