Time again for a poet governor

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It’s time we elect a poet as governor of Connecticut. We’ve had a seemingly endless series of professional politicians, lawyers, and businesspeople on the ballot. Let’s vote for change. Although I’m as fatigued as anyone by the long presidential campaign, it’s not too early to look ahead and see who will lead our state in two years. Candidates are already throwing their hats in the ring.

A poet occupying the second floor corner office under the capitol’s gold dome? Sounds crazy, no? But Wilbert Snow was a nationally acclaimed poet and the author of five volumes of verse when he became governor. A resident of Middletown and professor at Wesleyan, Snow was lieutenant governor under Gov. Raymond E. Baldwin. He was defeated as the Democratic nominee for the top post on Election Day 1946, but became governor on December 27 when Baldwin resigned to take a vacant U.S. Senate seat. His term lasted only 13 days before the man who defeated him at the polls in November assumed the state’s highest office, not enough time for poetry to triumph.

There was no parade, no inaugural ball, and no impassioned speech to a convening legislature when Snow assumed office, and he was “pestered by a sense of futility” at his brief tenure. Never losing his droll sense of humor, even when his official state car broke down on the Berlin Turnpike with a bad universal joint, he likened his term to the “consolation prize at an old-fashioned whist party.”

Snow was a man of compassion and strong conviction with a vision for Connecticut. As governor he spoke out in favor of an income tax and against the sales tax “as a blackmailing program against low-income people.” He was an ardent supporter of fair employment practices, improved education and a tax on tobacco growing. He opposed gambling “fearing it would teach our youngsters that life is a gamble.”

Regardless of left-leaning political views, Snow’s background fostered a unique perspective generating an expansive and intuitive outlook. He was born in 1884 on an island in Maine’s Penobscot Bay and attended school there until age 14 when he left to become a lobsterman. Eventually he returned to high school classes and earned degrees from Bowdoin and Columbia. In 1914 he was teaching Natives in Alaska and serving as a federal reindeer agent, traveling by sled over the Seward Peninsula to corral and brand the animals. In World War I he remained stateside, serving as an army artillery officer.

After the war, Snow had a long college teaching career, but was no stuffy academic. At Wesleyan for 30 years, he was once reprimanded for swearing on the tennis court and using profanity in debating class. As much as he loved teaching, “poetry,” he wrote, “was my breath of life.” He was friends with literary luminaries like Carl Sandburg and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Robert Frost once stayed at Snow’s Middletown home for a couple of weeks. About a decade before becoming governor, he was commissioned to write the official ode for the state’s Tercentenary. In it he linked character and landscape, perhaps capturing in haunting words an essential Connecticut trait when he wrote: “Whence came the sternness? Was it from the rocks/ that pauperized their hillsides? Or the soil/ So thin it set young men to making clocks.”

Many cultures laud poets as visionaries. Whether it’s true or not, there is no doubt that Connecticut needs politicians who can articulate a vision for the future. A poet might just be the ticket. But poets delight in metaphors, and maybe we don’t absolutely need a versifying governor, just someone with a poetic eye who can inspire with both an understanding of our rich, complex past and deep insight into the broad sea of future possibilities.

A nimbus of white hair above still penetrating blue eyes, Wilbert Snow died in 1977 at 93, having had a heart attack while listening to a radio broadcast of his beloved Red Sox. It’s unlikely we will see someone like him again. But we can hope.

David K. Leff is an attorney, author of nine books, and the poet-in-residence for the New England National Scenic Trail. See his writing at www.davidkleff.com

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