MIDDLEBURY — Dr. John Abner Mead, a former Vermont governor, to mark his 50th class reunion from Middlebury College, donated $75,000 in 1914 to build the iconic Mead Memorial Chapel in the middle of campus to honor his ancestors.
James H. Douglas, a former four-term Vermont governor, boycotted his 50th Middlebury class reunion — and filed a breach of contract lawsuit on Friday against Middlebury College for its “cancel culture” conduct by removing the name of Mead Memorial Chapel off the historic structure.
Douglas filed the lawsuit in Vermont Superior Court in his court-appointed capacity as the special administrator for the estate of Dr. Mead in Rutland County. The Middlebury College president and its Board of Fellows, also better known as the college trustees, were named as defendants.
The college quietly removed Mead’s name from the marble building on the morning of Sept. 27, 2021, for what it said was his role “in promoting eugenics policies in the state that led to the involuntary sterilization of an estimated 250,” the lawsuit said.
Douglas said unfortunately that was a “grossly distorted claim of the type that has become all too common in the current ‘cancel culture’ society in which we live.”
It was “the type of claim that one would not expect from an internationally-renowned liberal arts college,” Douglas said in his 79-page lawsuit.
He noted Middlebury College officials, in trying to justify their actions, got both the history of the building and its name completely wrong.
The building was never named for Mead, a Rutland physician and industrialist, former Vermont governor and Middlebury College trustee, Douglas said. It was for his ancestors.
“Ironically, Middlebury College, while erroneously recounting the history of the Mead Memorial Chapel, claiming it was dedicated to John Abner Mead instead of by him in honor of his family ancestors, has obliterated any memory of the monumental selfless acts and altruistic contributions he made to his nation, state, county, town, church” and his college, the lawsuit noted.
“The vile accusation conflates historical events that occurred two decades apart, declaring Mead responsible for legislation enacted 19 years after his farewell address and more than a decade after his death,” Douglas said in court papers.
The lawsuit said Middlebury College has unfortunately and erroneously branded Mead “a eugenicist and proclaims that he is responsible for the tragic sterilization of Vermonters and Native peoples.”
The Mead estate seeks to have the college restore the proper name to the library. If the college refuses, the lawsuit seeks to have compensatory and punitive compensation provided to the Mead estate based on the huge financial benefit the college has received for more than 100 years from the conditional gift.
Douglas, in an interview, said he also was troubled by the lack of full public discussion about possibly removing the Mead name. In contrast, he noted, Middlebury College debated publicly for a decade on whether to stop investing in fossil fuels.
Douglas, a 1972 Middlebury graduate, is one of its most prominent alums for the liberal arts college, which had more than a $1.5 billion endowment in 2021, the lawsuit said. The Springfield, Mass., native served as a Vermont legislator, representing Middlebury for three terms fresh out of college and became House majority leader. He became an aide to Gov. Richard Snelling and served 12 years as Vermont secretary of state and eight years as Vermont state treasurer. He was elected Vermont governor from 2003 to 2011.
He maintains Middlebury through the years received significant benefit — financial or otherwise — from the construction of the historic chapel, which was fully funded by Mead. It would be unjust for Middlebury to retain ownership without providing commensurate compensation for the broken contract, he said. The lawsuit said the building, which cost $73,373, is worth more than $2.2 million in present value.
Douglas in a phone interview noted the college has indicated the Mead money also helped spark others to make donations to the college through the years.
When Douglas ended his final term as governor in January 2011, Middlebury College named Douglas as its “executive in residence” — a post he has retained. He instructs academic classes and does independent studies with Middlebury students. Asked if he expected Middlebury to retain him on the payroll, Douglas said he is scheduled to teach again in the fall.
Attempts to reach Middlebury President Laurie L. Patton, who has served since 2015, for comment on Friday were unsuccessful. A phone message left for Patton at her office did not draw a response.
Patton recommended the name change to a subcommittee of the full board during summer 2021. The Prudential Committee voted unanimously to adopt Patton’s recommendation, the college said at the time.
Patton and George C. Lee, the chair of the trustees in 2021, issued a statement to the community, explaining their actions the day the sign was taken down.
“We want to stress up front that this was a process involving deep reflection and discussion. No issue like this should be undertaken lightly or often,” it said in part while retelling its understanding of the gift and Mead.
Middlebury officials waited until about a week after students and faculty were back from summer break to deliver the news on Sept. 27, 2021.
“We are communicating this news to you now that we are back on campus so we can allow these questions the community conversation they deserve, which was not possible over the summer months. While the history of eugenics in Vermont, and Mead’s instigating role, are well-documented, they have not been widely discussed or acknowledged,” the message said.
Mead, in offering to construct the chapel, wrote in his letter to the college that his great-great-grandfather, James Mead, was Rutland’s first settler “who brought the first ... Holy Bible into this unbroken wilderness.”
He added his great-great-grandmother, Mercy Holmes Mead, “gathered the pioneers of the immediate area for the first Christian service in the Otter Creek Valley and shared fellowship with the local Native American peoples,” the letter said.
The original typed letter from Mead to then-College President John Martin Thomas, who served from 1908 to 1921, is included in the lawsuit. The lawsuit includes the acceptance letters from the individual trustees remarking how thrilled they were to accept the gift.
A formal resolution was approved June 22, 1914, thanking Dr. and Mrs. Mead and their family. It was initially a $60,000 gift, but increased to cover the constructions costs. Dr. Mead was involved in the construction over the next two years meeting with architects, approving project designs, controlling the budget, and providing credit and payment for all labor and materials, the lawsuit said.
He added a $5,000 pipe organ, $1,559 for pews and $7,000 for chimes. All 11 bells were inscribed with Mead’s name, the lawsuit said.
Douglas said the Middlebury president and trustees accepted Mead’s conditional offer for the building with the explicit understanding and intention Mead Memorial Chapel was “to honor and memorialize the Mead family ancestors, pioneers who exemplified the strength of the Vermont character and religious faith that the Mead Memorial Chapel was designed to symbolize.”
The lawsuit said the removal of the name did a disservice to the Mead family, which had three Civil War veterans fight to free African Americans and preserve the union. One died, and one was wounded twice, it said. Mead was picked as the graduation speaker for his graduation and spoke about “The Moral Effects of the War” based on the horrors he saw while fighting at Gettysburg.
The structure, made from Vermont white marble, was built on the highest point on campus and is its most dominant building. It is an iconic feature of Middlebury’s landscape and is used by the college in its marketing and branding, including trying to attract donors and students to attend. The college makes extensive use of colored pictures of the chapel from all four seasons for promotional pieces on brochures and Facebook postings. The college also has vintage postcards of the chapel.
Mead during his 1912 farewell address as Vermont governor did offer support for a proposal to restrict the issuance of marriage licenses and to appoint a commission to study the use of a new operation called a vasectomy, which was a safer and more humane process of sterilization, the lawsuit noted.
“The claim that Mead’s 1912 comments caused sterilizations to happen two or three decades later is factually baseless and legally unjust,” Douglas said. No legislation was approved after the speech until 1931, long after he died.
The bulk of the Vermont discussion occurred from 1931 to 1941, the lawsuit said. It noted Helen Keller, the founder of Planned Parenthood, George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, Henrik Ibsen, T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf and John Maynard Keynes supported the movement.
Douglas said it took time to file the lawsuit, because it was important to have just facts presented to the court. He said there was considerable history to research and review about Mead and the gift. The lawsuit has 272 pages of exhibits.
The lead attorney in the case, L. Brooke Dingledine of the law firm of Valsangiacomo, Detora & McQuesten in Barre, provides in the lawsuit a historic look at Mead, his family, the college and the current trampling by people interested in erasing history by a process now known as “cancel culture.”
Cancel culture has swept across the country and has included the destruction or removal of historic statues, buildings and names, according to Dingledine. She notes Yale Professor Anthony Kronman in his book “The Assault on American Excellence” urged against erasing history and instead try to “contextualize” it.
Douglas said in the interview that society is now seeing a rewrite of history and having names of historic figures, including Abraham Lincoln, removed from buildings.
He said Middlebury College has had a series of cancel culture incidents in recent years, including when an angry mob of protesters shouted down political scientist Charles Murray when he was invited to speak on campus in 2017. A Middlebury professor was injured by the mob, and she was taken to the hospital for her injuries, officials said.
Douglas said colleges, like Middlebury, are one place where all sides of an issue or current event are supposed to be examined and discussed — not just presenting one point of view for students to accept.
“The ‘culture cancellation’ and the colleges complete erasure of Governor Mead’s good deeds and lifelong contributions contradict the very purpose of the college. A higher education institution exists for the pursuit of truth and knowledge, not the erasure of history,” the lawsuit said.
Mead Memorial Chapel has been the site of student performances, guest lecturers, religious services, weddings, baptism, funerals and annual events, including convocation and baccalaureate, the lawsuit noted. It has hosted Academy Award winners, Nobel laureates and “pillars of art, business and science for discussions, readings and panels,” the lawsuit said.
“More importantly, Middlebury College has violated the sacred trust that Dr. Mead placed in the trustees of his beloved alma mater, breaking their promises made and depriving him and his family of the benefit of his bargain, the quid pro quo, and/or the conditions of his gift; that Mead would erect a chapel that would be known forever as the ‘Mead Memorial Chapel.’”
Mead, a Fair Haven native, was at Middlebury College when he interrupted his studies to enlist in the Union Army with the Vermont Regiment (1862-63) and participated in various battles, including Gettysburg. He returned to graduate in 1864, taught high school briefly and received a master’s degree at Middlebury in 1867. He began his medical studies at the University of Vermont and eventually earned a medical degree at Columbia University in 1868.
Mead practiced medicine in Rutland from 1870 to 1888 and also served as Vermont surgeon general. He was offered the post as chair of the medical department at the University of Vermont. He was elected to the Vermont Senate, later served as Rutland City’s first mayor and was then elected to the House.
He became lieutenant governor (1908 to 1910) and then governor (1910 to 1912). Mead returned to Rutland to become a bank president and later president of Howe Scale, and was a director of the Rutland Railroad. He served on the board of trustees of Middlebury, UVM and Norwich University and received honorary degrees from each.
Mead, a Vermont delegate to the Republican National Convention in 1912, was seriously considered for the vice presidential nomination for President William Taft, the lawsuit notes. It includes a picture of campaign memorabilia from the possible VP run.
Mead, who died at age 78 at his Rutland home in 1920, is buried nearby in a family plot in Evergreen Cemetery.