In September of 1963, just days after watching Martin Luther King, Jr. deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on television, Recruit Francis K. Brooks left his home outside of Washington, D.C., and arrived at Norwich for the start of his rook year.
The youngest of five children born to the businessman and Baptist minister Rev. Houston Brooks and his wife, Evelyn Lemon Brooks, Francis says his father “stressed to his children the value of education and ‘the concept of doing the very best that you can.’” At Norwich, “Brooksie” did just that, majoring in education, joining the Society of American Military Engineers, and singing in the Glee Club all four years—serving as its president as a senior.
Following graduation, his teaching credentials in hand, Brooks taught science and coached football at Montpelier High School, forging a career which lasted more than three decades. In 1973 he earned a master’s degree in chemistry from Thomas S. Clarkson Memorial College of Technology in Potsdam, N.Y. An outstanding civic leader, he sat on the boards of nonprofit organizations, taught at the Community College of Vermont, served as a church deacon, and volunteered as a firefighter. Embracing Vermont as his permanent home, he married and raised two children.
Running for Public Office
Brooks’ father taught him that there are five things you must do to be happy: Let go of anger. Let go of worry. Live simply. Expect less. Give more. It was this last piece of advice that no doubt prompted Brooks to run for a seat in the Vermont House of Representatives in 1982. He won the election, and was subsequently reelected 11 times for a total of 24 years of service, including three terms as Vermont’s first African-American Majority Leader. While in office, he helped sponsor the historic Equal Educational Opportunity Act of 1997, signed into law by Governor Howard Dean. “Act 60” ensured a fair balance of educational spending across all school districts, independent of the degree of prosperity within each district. And as a voice for any Vermonter who is perceived as being “different,” in 2000 he offered measured and thoughtful testimony which helped influence the passage of H-847, the Civil Unions Bill.
After retiring from teaching in 1999, Brooks devoted himself fulltime to his legislative responsibilities while continuing to give even more. He served three terms on the Norwich University Board of Trustees and also sat on the boards of the Vermont Historical Society and Vermont Public Television. He sang in the Vermont Symphony Chorus.
In 2007, the position of sergeant-at-arms opened up in the Capitol building. Seeking a change in duties but not location, Brooks ran unopposed for the post. For eight years, this unlikely Virginia transplant donned the dark green jacket and employed his hospitable Southern roots as “the face” of the Statehouse, greeting visitors, directing tours, and managing staff and daily operations with uncommon dignity, compassion, and humor. Then, in 2015, in the wake of Governor Peter Shumlin’s second inauguration speech—which was briefly disrupted by protestors demanding healthcare reform—the legislature failed to reelect Brooks.
You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down
By age 72, most men would have welcomed the idea of retirement, but Brooks was not ready to abandon public service just yet. Less than two years after being ousted as sergeant-at-arms, and despite suffering a heart attack during a parade on July 4, 2016, Brooks made a stunning comeback, securing a spot on the ballot for a senate seat by a single vote in the August primary, and then unseating longstanding incumbent Bill Doyle (R-Washington) in the November election.
Brooks’ triumphant reentry into the political arena underscores how deeply he is respected and beloved by the citizens of his adopted city and state. One voter wrote in an editorial, “He is the epitome of a statesman—a person of integrity, with the heart and the brain to represent us faithfully.”
Brooks credits Norwich for nurturing his lifelong passion for public service. “Norwich teaches young people to understand how they can be involved as citizens in this society and how important this participation is to our nation. Individuals who possess a strong sense of self and confident leadership skills are in a better position to be active in the institutions that make our society function.”
By Diana L. Weggler
To learn more about the remarkable life and career of Francis Brooks, read Brooks of Montpelier, by Robert L. Walsh, available on Amazon.com.