Journalist Heather Lende has been writing obituaries in the small town of Haines, Alaska, for 20 years.
Listener Jim Edgerton brought our attention to his father’s story about an American icon. When artist Norman Rockwell and his family moved to West Arlington, Vermont in 1943, the two families began a lifelong friendship. Jim, also known as Buddy, said he was like family to the Rockwells.
The Edgerton girls became the daughters that Norman and Mary Rockwell never had. The Edgertons, including Jim’s grandmother, posed for Norman Rockwell for several of his works, including “Going and Coming,” “The Long Shadow of Lincoln,” and several Boy Scout calendars.
Decades later, Jim’s son Jimmy carried on the tradition by posing with his father. As Buddy Edgerton tells Here & Now’s Robin Young, Norman Rockwell was very particular with his models.
“He was a very good actor, he would act out what he wanted the models to do and he was a great prompter,” he said.
Buddy wrote about his family’s friendship with the Rockwells in the book “The Unknown Rockwell: A Portrait of Two American Families” co-written by Nan O’ Brien, excerpted below.
SOUTH BURLINGTON, VERMONT
My name is James A. Edgerton, Sr., but I have always gone by the name Buddy because my dad was a James, too. I’m seventy-nine years old; I have brown eyes; have shrunk an inch since my youth and now stand at 6’2”; and am on the slim side after years of hard work, a healthy metabolism, a pacemaker that was put in 2001, and triple bypass surgery in early 2005. I still have most of my hair, all of my teeth, and I need glasses to see where I’m going. I’ve been married for more than fifty-five years to a wonderful woman, Dot, who loves me, supports me, and worries about me when I push myself too hard physically, which – being an honest person – I must confess is more often than it should be for a guy my age.
We live in a modest split-level home in South Burlington, Vermont, a hundred miles from my childhood birthplace of West Arlington, a small farming community of about 2,500 people that lies between the Taconic Range and the Green Mountains, along the Battenkill River. I have two grown children, Jim, Jr., and Deborah Joy, four grandchildren, and a new great-granddaughter, who I am proud to say is not only beautiful, but has a cleft in her chin just like her great-grandpa. Jim lives nearby; Deb, whose friends call her Joy, moved back to Vermont from Phoenix two years ago, which has been wonderful for us all.
For more than forty years I have thought about writing my memoirs, and for more than forty years, I have procrastinated, overwhelmed by the task of having my life on paper for others to see, as – all things being equal – we Vermonters are inclined to be private folks. I wasn’t sure it was right to tell what I know. I didn’t want to do the wrong thing, so I didn’t do it at all. That was the safe choice, and I’m inclined to be conservative in how I approach most things. I also wasn’t sure how to even begin writing all of the thoughts in my head. I could talk for hours and hours, but to sort through and try to make any sense of it for others to read seemed to be a mountain I seriously doubted I could climb.
Well, times change, and old dogs really can learn new tricks, if they’re motivated enough, even if I don’t actually feel like an old dog yet. In short, I reversed my self-imposed decision to keep quiet and decided that I’d take a stab at it, and if nothing else, it would be a record of our family for future generations. I can’t promise you it will be perfect, but I can promise I will do my best to honor the truth as I remember it, which is about all I can do, I suppose. At my age, I’m still pretty good with details, so there’ll be plenty of those, but I’m not a flowery-language kind of guy, so don’t expect it to be War and Peace. My life growing up was simple, and that’s what my memoirs will be, too.
To begin with, I was born on March 5, 1930. I’m told my birth took place on a table in the living room of my family’s 1812 colonial farmhouse that still sits on River Road, just across the covered bridge from Route 313. The house had been in our family ever since Grandma Buck, my dad’s mom, was just six months old. It sat on 212 acres of land, where my dad raised dairy cattle along with chickens, garden produce, and even some potatoes. We had timberland, too. Our farm was self-sufficient, and we felt fortunate to live on a farm during the Depression. Even though we may not have had much in the way of clothes or the nicer things in our home, unlike many people in those times, we always had plenty of food. We marketed milk and eggs, and in the spring when the sap ran, we produced and sold our own maple syrup under the label “Covered Bridge Farm” for obvious reasons. I’ll tell you more about all of that later on.
I was the second child of Jim and Clara Edgerton, my sister Edith had arrived a year before me and my sisters Joy, and then Ardis, and my brother, Harold were born in the following six years. Life was not easy for my young parents as they struggled to raise four kids during the Depression, but my mom and dad never complained, they just went about their work with a determined hand and an unswerving belief in the proverbial golden rule, and they instilled that same belief in my sisters and me. We were raised to treat others with respect. We were raised to believe that hard work brought just rewards. We were raised to believe that your word was your bond and that a handshake sealed the deal as well as any piece of paper could. We were raised to believe that doing the right thing was more important than winning. And we were raised not to put on airs or try to be something other than the farm kids that we were. Though mom and dad worked hard, we had what now is called “quality family time,” too, with clam bakes and Grange Hall dances and afternoons spent at the local swimming hole on a hot summer’s day. Our life was like a Norman Rockwell illustration – because for more than fourteen years Norman Rockwell, literally, illustrated our life.
Excerpted from “The Unknown Rockwell: A Portrait of Two American Families,” by Buddy Edgerton and Nan O’ Brien.
Peter O’Dowd follows the route of Abraham Lincoln's funeral train 150 years ago, to look at modern-day race relations and Lincoln's legacy.