For 4 decades, Karl Decker was a legendary English instructor.
Generations of students knew him as “D-Minus Decker.” That’s the grade he traditionally gave — sometimes in the 1st quarter, sometimes all 4.
But those same students — in AP and remedial classes alike — adored their tall, bearded teacher. He taught them to write. He taught them to think. He taught them to care.
And, they knew — behind that gruff exterior — he adored them too.
“Mr. Decker” retired in 1999. Immediately, he embarked full-time on a 2nd career — one he’d pursued, part-time, while also teaching — as a photographer.
Now — appropriately, for an English instructor – he’s published a book.
The People of Townshend, Vermont is a classic Karl Decker production. It’s a thoughtful, illuminating — and very loving — collection of portraits and stories of the men, women and children of the small town Decker has lived in (and admired) since 1934.
Farmers, fiddlers, families; a doctor, a beautician, a minister — 200 residents of the isolated community fill this handsome book. The photos are black and white; the stories as varied as the colors on an artist’s palette.
Decker is certainly an artist. A photographer since age 11 — over 6 decades ago — he studied at the New School in New York, attended the Maine Photographic Workshops, and earned a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Decker spent 5 years — from 1998 to 2003 — taking photos of his Townshend neighbors, and hearing their stories. He spent time doing both wherever the Vermonters were: in kitchens, barns, pickups, the post office or hospital.
Catherine and John Kenneth Galbraith — the John Kenneth Galbraith — are photographed right there on their porch.
The photos were exhibited throughout New England. But work on the book was set aside while Decker and co-writer Nancy Levine traveled throughout the state, photographing and writing 35 stories on small towns for Vermont Magazine.
Finally, The People of Townshend, Vermont is out. It’s impressive — and it’s impressed another Vermonter with Westport roots.
Jon Gailmor — a singer/songwriter and official “state treasure” who was Decker’s student in the 1960s — says:
Karl Decker loves the simple, elegant dignity of Vermonters. He always practiced and preached artistic honesty. He still does — you can read it in those faces and see it in his words. The folks of Townshend are a proud lot, indeed. This collection should make them prouder.
On Tuesday, October 30 (7:30 p.m.), the Westport Library hosts Decker. He’ll talk about his book, and sign copies.
Get there early. Between Decker’s 40 years of students, the many Westporters who love Vermont, and our town’s appreciation of fine photography, the room is sure to be filled.