Marlboro's first graduate: From Potash Hill to around the world

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BRATTLEBORO — In the late 1940s the building now known as Solar Hill acted as Vermont's Governor's mansion. World War II veteran Ernest Gibson Jr. was elected Vermont Governor in 1946 and his large family home set back from Western Avenue took on a new role.

In 1946, across an ocean 3,700 miles away, Hugh Mulligan met Brigid Murphy outside a church in Frankfort, Germany. Mulligan was a recently discharged GI from Long Island and Murphy was a secretary from Armagh, Ireland working for General Eisenhower's military command in the German city. Within two years all three veterans of World War II would be living together on Western Avenue.

Hugh Mulligan met Brigid Murphy in front of a Frankfort church. It was raining, he was driving a jeep and offered Brigid a ride. Over the course of the unfolding months they became engaged and made plans for a wedding. With the ending of the war Brigid returned to Ireland and Hugh completed his service in Europe. Hugh planned to get established in the United States and come back to Europe to marry Brigid.

Mulligan had been a rifleman in the Army's 106th Infantry Division. When the European war was winding down Mulligan heard of a military university that was starting up in France for GIs who were waiting to be sent home. His sergeant signed Mulligan up and he took a train from Germany to France and attended an experimental impromptu university for 16 weeks. The head of the English department was Walter Hendricks.

Mulligan and Hendricks struck up a friendship and when Mulligan returned to the United States in 1947 he received a letter from Hendricks inviting him to attend a new college Hendricks was starting on a farm in Marlboro, Vermont. Mulligan had already completed three years of undergraduate work so he only had one year to go. He called Hendricks to explain his situation and Hendricks said, "Good, we'll start a senior program, you'll be our only senior." This is how Hugh Mulligan became Marlboro College's first graduate in 1948.

In the fall of 1947 Mulligan came to Vermont and completed his first semester at the new Marlboro College. Like many of the early students, Mulligan was able to afford the experience because of the GI Bill. As part of a Marlboro College oral history project, Mulligan explained that the school ended up with so many GIs because there was such a large demand for education from returning veterans and the established colleges could not accommodate all of the students. There were waiting lists for colleges so Marlboro filled the gap.

The school on Potash Hill established a culture that would continue throughout its existence. Small classes and town meetings were cornerstones of the program. Mulligan said classes had seven or nine people in them and the faculty often had people come to dinner. Sometimes the classes were held in their houses. Over 50 years later Mulligan fondly remembered the brownies served by one of his professors.

As the first semester was coming to a close Mulligan found that he was desperate to marry Brigid. They had remained in contact by mail so he made arrangements to sail to Ireland, marry Brigid and return with her to the United States. Mulligan told Hendricks he wouldn't be returning to Marlboro College as married dorms were not part of the school. Hendricks said, "Don't worry; we can solve that." Hendricks arranged for the newly married Mulligans to move into the large Gibson house on Western Avenue. So Hugh sailed to Ireland in December, married Brigid in January and returned to Vermont with his new bride in February.

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Mulligan said, "Vermont has no governor's mansion, so when the legislature was in session in Montpelier, (Governor Gibson) was looking for a live-in couple to look after their four kids. So Brigid came here, this beautiful mansion on Western Avenue - she was the Mary Poppins for these four kids, ranging from twelve to eight."

In February 1948, a week after the newlywed Mulligans arrived in Brattleboro, they were interviewed by the Reformer. Mrs. Brigid Mulligan was asked how she liked Vermont. Trying to be diplomatic she replied she would come to enjoy the state but felt she came at the wrong time of year. She said, "It doesn't get as cold in Ireland as it does here."

During the second semester Hugh commuted to the college from Western Avenue. There were five or six students who lived in town and one of them had an open-ended pickup truck. Hugh would get a ride up and down the hill every day and passengers would take turns riding in the back of the truck.

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As graduation day came close, Hendricks asked if Hugh could get Governor Gibson to come to graduation. The Governor agreed so Brigid and Hugh rode to the ceremony in the Governor's limousine with the Vermont license plate #1 on it and Hugh's parents were very impressed. Hugh remembered that Robert Frost was there to read a poem at graduation and Dorothy Canfield Fisher was one of the speakers. She ended her talk with what Hugh said was "the most feminist note I've ever heard; she said, `Trust in God, She'll be with you always.' It shut the whole campus right up."

On the boat trip across the Atlantic to marry Brigid, Mulligan began what would become his lifelong career in journalism. Hugh said, "in those days there was a list of passengers on board. I noticed the name Tennessee Williams, he had a top-deck suite; I wrote him a note, saying I was a student at Marlboro College and I'd like to interview him for the Marlboro Citizen (college newspaper), which I think he thought was some kind of literary magazine ... anyway I did get to interview with Tennessee Williams. He was a very nice guy ... 'A Streetcar Named Desire' had just opened on Broadway, to smash reviews, and he was going over to London to open 'The Glass Menagerie' ... I remember he invited me up, and he had champagne and pate, and I remember him saying, `I hope you don't think this is pretentious, but there's no point in being a success if you don't enjoy it. Three years ago tonight I was washing dishes in the Rosemont Hotel.'"

Hugh Mulligan would be the first graduate of Marlboro College. He and Brigid left Vermont and headed to Boston. Hugh then, while still on the GI Bill, simultaneously earned Master's Degrees from Harvard and Boston University. He then began work as a reporter for the Associated Press and went on to interview John Steinbeck, Marilyn Monroe, Bob Hope, Bob Dole, Margaret Thatcher, John Glenn, Joe DiMaggio, the Shah of Iran and other world celebrities and politicians.

After a stint in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Hugh and Brigid were based in New York City, except for a 1970s post in London. However, Mulligan traveled to 146 countries on assignments that included wars in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Ireland, Cyprus and Angola. He covered President Kennedy's Cold War visit to the Berlin Wall in 1963 and was there again in 1989 when the wall came down. He co-authored a book with other AP staffers on the assassination of President Kennedy and also wrote books on the Vietnam War and the racehorse Kelso. Hugh and Brigid were devout Catholics and he accompanied Pope John Paul II on more than 20 trips. In his quest to see it all he went to the North Pole in a Navy blimp and made it to Antarctica as well.

Hugh Mulligan retired from the AP in 2000. He published a memoir entitled, "Been Everywhere, Got Nowhere" in 2005. Hugh passed away in 2008. In 2015 the AP posthumously published a collection of Christmas columns from his many distant datelines called, "Mulligan's Christmas Stew."

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In 1946, two Irish kids from different continents, Hugh and Brigid, began their 60-year love affair when they met in Germany. Hugh began his globe-trotting journalism career while attending Marlboro College and living with the Gibsons on Western Avenue.

Much of the information for this article comes from the Marlboro College Oral History Project.

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