Karl Decker And The People Of Townshend, Vermont

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.

Self-portrait, by Karl Decker.

“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.

Roger Griswold (in suspenders), and his friend Steve Utley. (Photo/Karl Decker)

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.

(For more information on Karl Decker — including how to order a signed copy of his book — click here. To hear his interview on Vermont Public Radio, click here.)

Jesse Lynn Gentlewolf and her daughter Miriabi. (Photo/Karl Decker

12 responses to “Karl Decker And The People Of Townshend, Vermont

  1. Before Karl collected the stories of the people of Townshend, he gave his senior English students at Staples the gift of telling their own stories in an autobiographical format. He encouraged them to look for the truth and the pattern in their lives and the resulting papers were treated with sensitivity and respect. As the parent of one of those seniors, I will always be grateful for Karl’s emphasis on clarity and honesty as the most important tools in the search for meaning. And, of course, grammatical precision!

  2. Karl Decker fired my mother! In 10th grade honors English I submitted a paper that had 3 spelling errors – clearly due to my late night typing skills and my Mom’s tired editorial review. That meant I started with a 70 (-10 points for each spelling error) and it went downhill from there! When Mr. Decker asked who had reviewed my paper, and I replied “my Mom,” he said, “Fire your Mother!” The story lived on in our house as a source of amusement for many years. I am now very thankful for spellchecker. I look forward to next Tuesday night.

  3. Karl Decker was my English teacher in 10th grade and he had us do one of the best writing exercises I ever had in any course, high school or college. We were required to do a daily journal–with no grade to be given.

    You had to write down something every day of the week, including weekends. The students were free to write about anything whatsoever–and you could choose the form on any given day (e.g., you could write a poem).

    The point of the journal was to get in the habit of putting pen to paper and, in the process, learning how to express yourself.

    Re grades–when you got an A in Mr. Decker’s class, you know you had truly earned it.

  4. Westporter4ever

    I completly agree with you Fred..I ended with a B+ in Deckers class…which was not easy for me in general. My brother and I both have fond memories of Mr. Decker’s classes..I walked away with a love of reading and Shakespeare. He was my Brother’s teacher around the time my father passed away..although he was tough academically, you could tell he really cared about my brother and I and always wished us the best! I’m bummed i can’t make to the Library, but just put my check for the book in the mail. Funny too is that he actually lives right around the corner from me in Monroe!

  5. Karl Decker threw a piece of chalk at me and hit me in the head 🙁

    I guess it didn’t help that I was blabbing away with a friend in the back of the class.

  6. Nancy Powers Conklin

    Hey, Dan, why do you call Townshend, VT an “isolated community?” I have been through Townshend many, many times when going skiing.
    Route 30 runs right through it and the town does lure drivers into it when driving through. It is a quaint, New England tiny town yet has so much character and individualism. It certainly is not isolated, as far as I am concerned.

  7. Hi, Nancy! Townshend surely is not at all isolated in the sense of southern Vermont location, as, say some towns up in the Northeast Kingdom certainly are. But the fact that you “pass through” the town on your way to somewhere else, suggests a kind of isolation. Some in town call it a “pass through” town. Indeed, there is little to stop or bring the tourist–save for the annual Grace Cottage Hospital Day, Art Monet’s auction house on Saturdays or Mary Meyer’s. Isolation may well be a state of mind–or of cellphone service of which there is none in Townshend!

  8. Karl’s the best. I love that man. Wish I could be there, but alas, I’m going to be out of town.

  9. Please remove me from your email list. Thank you.

    Sent from my iPhone

  10. From Doug Davidoff, Staples ’75

    A copy of Karl’s black & white portrait of the Westport & Saugatuck Railroad Station from the 1970s adorns a wall in my hallway. As I recall, one of the advertising posters is for the latest issue of Newsweek, which, of course, in this day and age is available on the newstands, but only terminally so.

    There are so many great Karl Decker stories. I’ve been going through papers in my basement and found several assignments from Karl. I don’t have them in front of me, so I cannot report the comments Karl made on them. What’s important to me is how imperative it was that I kept them, moving from Westport to Indianapolis to Chicago and now to Boston. I’m throwing much stuff out, now that I’m 55 and willing to part with things. But I’m not ready to give up on proof positive of how much Karl cared for me and other Staples students.

    The Karl story I likestarts off with the late Paul Newman, who is walking with a friend down Main Street one day several decades. Few people bother the famous actor as he strolls along, because the general agreement among Westporters was to leave Paul Newman alone when he was in town. Approaching from the other direction and on the other side of the street was the Staples English teacher, Karl Decker.

    “Hi, Mr. Decker!” one young adult yells, waving.

    “Hello, Mr. Decker!” another pedestrian shouts.

    And so it goes, a half-dozen times, the greetings like popcorn popping up from the crowds on both sides of Main Street. The score is running up to a half-dozen or so greetings for Mr. Decker. For Mr. Newman, there have been no greetings.

    Incredulous, he turns to his companion.

    “Who is Mr. Decker and why is everyone greeting him?” asks Mr. Newman.