Book Review

Fighting for black adoption pushed Phil Hoff into public spotlight

New memoir by newsman Bennett describes furor over judicial foot-dragging on adoption of black child by white family

By Guy Page

When a Rutland Herald editor in 1961 reported that a probate judge refused to sign the birth certificate for a white family adopting a black girl, the resulting ruckus led to the political rise of a then-unknown Burlington lawyer: Phil Hoff, who in 1962 was the first Democrat elected governor in Vermont since before the Civil War.

The fascinating, unlikely story is told in “The Man of the Family,” a 2022 memoir by Robert Wallace Bennett, a former Vermont journalist, public relations and marketing executive, Brooklyn Dodgers hero Johnny Podres biographer, internationally-recognized expert rabbit breeder – and diligent, committed husband and father.

During the 1960’s, Hoff oversaw a decade of seismic change in Montpelier that saw the downsizing of the House from 246 (mostly small town) seats to 150, environmental legislation, elimination of the poll tax, and creation of a  statewide public welfare system. His participation with NYC Mayor John Lindsay’s summer program for disadvantaged youth temporarily doubled the black population of Vermont. He was also the first Democratic governor to split with Pres. Lyndon Johnson on support for the Vietnam War.  

But he was a relatively unknown lawyer when he argued a case before the Vermont Supreme Court arising from a conversation between Judge and Bennett, then the city editor of the Rutland Herald

Bennett writes “The Man of the Family” in a third-person, present tense. His quick, lively style – irreverent in the unmistakable style of newsroom badinage – covers many Vermont public and not-so-public figures. It can be found at Amazon or special-ordered through your local bookstore. 

The book takes its name from an early, formative experience in Bennett’s life: in 1942 a flatlander’s father leaves his wife and three boys to “kill Hitler.” Before he goes, he tells the oldest one, six, he is now “The Man of the Family.” While WWII rages on, the family moves to Vermont, ostensibly to “spend the war,” but the six-year-old is now 80 years older and still lives in the Green Mountain state. “The Man of the Family” follows the “man” all those years as he attempts to live up to his father’s charge and includes all its disappointments and triumphs. 

Bennett, something of a political conservative, describes his early, unwitting role in the political emergence of Phil Hoff:

“Bob interviews Probate judge George Jones, who prevented adoption of a black child by white foster parents. He refused to sign a birth certificate showing a black child born of white parents, a genetic impossibility. That keeps her out of first grade, because a birth certificate is mandatory for entry. Bob’s story goes all over the country via the Associated Press. He gets some colorful quotes, no pun intended, from the judge.

“Well, she’s not exactly as black as the ace of spades, but she’s definitely chocolate milk color,” the judge tells him in his chambers. The two of them are there alone so Bob produces no pencil and notepad, a technique he uses to get good quotes when no third party can testify to the truth or accuracy. Interviewees relax and open up in that situation, and nobody can deny their statement in case he doesn’t get their responses word for word. 

That includes the judge, who calls him the next day.

“I had no idea you would print that. I’m not saying I didn’t say it but I can’t believe you would put it in the paper.”

“Judge, you have been dealing with reporters for years and you know anything you tell them might wind up in print.”

The story gets a big play in southern papers. It also gives a young lawyer, Phil Hoff, the opportunity to take the case to the state supreme court. Bob’s story and ensuing publicity propel him to the governorship.”

Judge Jones, having been re-elected for 30 years, was turned out in the same 1962 election in which Hoff was elected governor.

The author has published 10 previous books as Bob Bennett, selling nearly half a million copies. Locate this one on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Smashwords, as an E-book and in print, or order it from your favorite bookstore, under the author’s full name, Robert Wallace Bennett, as well as by the title.