by Chris Graff, Vermont Business Magazine For almost every moment of the 20th century an Ernest W Gibson was in public service in Vermont.
There was the grandfather – Ernest W Gibson Sr (1872-1940) – who served in the Vermont House in 1906 and was president pro tem of the Vermont Senate in 1908 before going to Washington to serve in the US House (1923-1933) and the US Senate (1933-1940).
Then there was the father – Ernest W Gibson Jr (1901-1969) – who was appointed in 1940 to his father’s US Senate seat following the elder’s death and served out the term. Gibson Junior then won election as governor in 1946 and then was appointed by President Truman to a federal judgeship in 1950.
Ernest W Gibson III (1927-2020) served as Windham County state’s attorney (1957-1961), was a member of the Vermont House (1961-1963), chair of the Public Service Board (1963-1972), Superior Court judge (1972-1983) and Vermont Supreme Court justice (1983-1997).
Whole books could be written about the contributions of each of the three Ernests. They served in all three branches of state government as well as in two branches of the federal government.
But it’s not just longevity that earns them distinction. They were progressives in a century in which much of the time Vermont’s Republican Party leaned conservative. All three were fighters for justice. All three were insurgents.
Senior was a member of the insurgent wing of the Republican Party led by Theodore Roosevelt. He went to the Republican presidential nominating convention in 1912 as a supporter of Roosevelt’s “Bull Moose” faction. When Roosevelt walked out of the convention, Gibson, Sr accompanied him.
At the state level Gibson joined with George D Aiken to form what became known as the Aiken-Gibson wing of the Republican Party.
Junior challenged the establishment Republicans by opposing the incumbent governor, Mortimer Proctor, in the 1946 primary, arguing that it was time to oust from power the business interests that had run the state for so long.
He defeated Proctor and went to be one of the most progressive governors in the state’s history, strengthening the education and welfare systems.
He resigned as governor to accept an appointment to the federal court from President Harry Truman, a Democrat and good friend of the Gibsons.
Gibson Junior was so respected in Vermont that Governor Phil Hoff turned to him in 1969 to investigate one of the state’s darkest moments, the “Irasburg Affair,” in which an African-American minister was harassed in a glaring case of racial hatred.
In one instance shots had been fired into the minister’s home late at night from a speeding car.
The Gibson Commission found fault with local and state authorities, including members of the state police.
Ernest the third was a member of the “Young Turks,” 11 mostly freshmen legislators— both moderate Republicans and Democrats – who banded together to push a progressive agenda.
In 1962 one of the Turks – Hoff, a Democrat – was elected governor while another – Bill Billings, a Republican – was elected Speaker of the House.
Billings appointed many of the Turks to chair House committees, paving the way for change. Gibson chaired the Judiciary Committee.
On the state Supreme Court, Gibson continued to break traditions and carve new paths.
He authored court opinions that focused on the power of the Vermont state Constitution to provide protections at a time when the US Supreme Court was pulling back from finding such protections in the US Constitution.
Ernest Gibson III retired from the Vermont Supreme Court in 1997 at the then-mandatory retirement age of 70.
He died May 17 at the age of 92, bringing an end to the public service of the three Ernests.
As an aside it must be mentioned that other Gibsons served the state as well. It is a family steeped in public service.
Ernest Gibson III’s brother Robert (1931-1999) was a municipal judge (1963-1965), assistant secretary of the Senate (1963-1967), deputy secretary of state (1974-1976) and then secretary of the Senate for 32 years (1967-1999).
His other brother David (1936-2010) was a state’s attorney (1967-1970), a member of the state Senate (1977-1983) and then became secretary of the Senate in 2000, taking over from his brother Robert.
It should also be noted that all three of the Ernests served in the military.
Gibson Jr was a decorated war hero with the Silver Star, Legion of Merit and Purple Heart among his awards from World War II.
In a time of deep distrust in government, a time in which many people question the value of public service, the Gibson family – and the three Ernest Willard Gibsons – remind us of the good that can come from such service.
Chris Graff, a former Vermont bureau chief of The Associated Press and host of Vermont PBS' Vermont This Week, is now vice president of corporate communications and community relations at National Life Group. He is author of, Dateline Vermont: Covering and uncovering the newsworthy stories that shaped a state - and influenced a nation. His series on “The Governors” is available at www.vermontpbs.org
Ernest W. Gibson III
1927 - 2020
Justice Ernest W. Gibson III, of Montpelier VT, died peacefully of natural causes on May 17, 2020 at Mayo Rehab and Continuing Care in Northfield at the age of 92.
Ernest had a long history of service to his community, state and country and will be remembered by all who knew him as intelligent, kind, and humble. He had a wonderful and warm sense of humor.
Ernest was born in on September 23rd, 1927 in Brattleboro Vermont. He was the first child of Governor Ernest W. Gibson, Jr. and Dorothy Pearl Switzer Gibson. Young Gibson attended elementary school in Brattleboro and graduated from Western High School in Washington DC, completing his education at Yale University and Harvard Law School. Soon afterwards he opened a law office in Brattleboro, and served as Windham County State’s Attorney for four years.
In 1960 he flew to Pasadena, California for his wedding to Charlotte Elaine Hungerford, whom he had met while the two were college undergraduates. After returning home with her to Vermont, he represented Brattleboro in the House of Representatives, and served as Chair of the House Judiciary Committee. During his time in the State House, Ernest bonded with ten other new legislators – eight Republicans and three Democrats – who became known as “The Young Turks” and generally supported progressive legislation; the group remained friends throughout their lives.
Ernest moved to Montpelier in 1963 with his growing family to serve as Chairman of the VT Public Service Board. In 1972, he was elected by the Legislature to a Vermont Superior Court Judgeship and served in all 14 counties until 1983, at which time Governor Richard Snelling appointed him an Associate Justice of the Vermont Supreme Court, a position he held until his retirement from the bench in 1997. He especially took pleasure in serving as a mentor to his law clerks and enjoyed the personal relationships he maintained with them throughout the years.
Like his father and two grandfathers before him, Ernest was drawn to military service. Following graduation in 1951, Ernest continued his service in the Army and spent several months overseas as a forward observer in a field artillery unit of the 45th Infantry Division during the Korean War. He completed his assignment in 1953 with the rank of First Lieutenant and two Bronze Stars. When he retired from active service, he joined the Vermont National Guard and two years later he was appointed by General Reginald Cram to serve as Judge Advocate General for the Vermont Brigade, a post he held until he retired from the Guard in 1971 with the rank of Major and twenty years of military service.
A life-long Episcopalian, Ernest was active at St. Michael’s Church in Brattleboro and Christ Church in Montpelier, where he served two terms as Senior Warden. In 1977, he was appointed Chancellor of the Diocese of Vermont, a position he held until 1998. From 1976 to 1994 he served on the national level as a deputy to the Episcopal General Convention.
Always interested in games and sports, Ernest took up Bridge and tennis at an early age and played first base on the Supreme Court softball team - the Court Jesters - until his retirement at age seventy. He enjoyed spending time with family, friends, and books, and watching the Boston Red Sox for whom he had new hope every spring.
Looking back, Ernest’s greatest happiness in life has come not from his accomplishments or recognition, but from pride in his family. Ernest was predeceased by his parents, brothers Robert H. Gibson and David A. Gibson, and daughter Mary Cerutti. Ernest is survived by his sister, Grace Newcomer, of Westport Point Massachusetts; his wife of almost 60 years, Charlotte; their daughter Margaret Gibson McCoy of East Montpelier, her husband Patrick and grandsons Jackson and Jacob McCoy; son John Gibson of Watertown Massachusetts; son-in-law Charlie Cerutti of Montpelier and grandchildren Adam and Helen Cerutti; his daughter Mary’s son Evan Frank of South Woodstock VT; and many nieces and nephews and their extended families.
A virtual memorial service for Ernest will be held in June (details to come) and the burial with military honors will take place at Morningside Cemetery in Brattleboro in the fall. The family would like to thank the staff at Mayo Healthcare in Northfield for their wonderful care of Ernest during his last years. Contributions in Ernest’s honor can be made to Mayo at https://mayohc.org/donate/.
Condolences and remembrances may be shared online at www.guareandsons.com.
Guare & Sons, Barber & Lanier Funeral Home. (802) 223-2751. 30 School Street, Montpelier, VT