My neighbor Bill Oakes passed away on August 1st, 2012. Bill and his wife Mitzi Oakes, were welcome and open neighbors for the year I lived across from them in South Burlington. Their house, white ranch style built on a hill looking out over the highway to Mount Mansfield. The driveway always contained two trucks and a snowmobile, all three constantly under the wrench. The backyard was a museum of snowmobiles, 30 at Bill’s last count, of almost every brand and every year snowmobiles have existed.
Bill and Mitzi are also known as Mr. and Mrs. VAST after founding the organization, the Vermont Association of Snow Travellers, which today maintains, administers and regulates snowmobiling in Vermont, the industry is estimated to bring up to 5 million dollars every winter to small communities and business throughout Vermont.
Besides being Mr.VAST, Bill has had a long, full life, born to farmers in upstate New York, before being drafted for the Korean war and returning to marry Mitzi and eventually moving to Vermont to be the General Manager of the then newly built UVM Gutterson Field House. Bill and Mitzi would remain in Vermont to raise three children, see Bill Leave UVM to work in the refrigeration business only to leave to start his own business. During his time installing heating and refrigeration systems he built Ben & Jerry’s first refrigeration system for their first shop.
His accomplishments are not the things that stand out in my memory, the short time in which I knew him, his presences is what stays, what can be recalled. A shorter man by most standards, but his ability to fill the space around him, quick to smile and laugh he was not a man to curse or talk ill of others, Bill was a simple man with a large heart. My first memory of Bill, he had his shovel in hand, standing next to an excavator moving rocks the size of fists, bill in synch with excavator and the excavator in synch with Bill. Bill ceded nothing to the metal behemoth, any work a machine could do Bill could and would do it, maybe not as fast but by gosh it would get done.
At 81 he and Mitzi would be finishing up shoveling and digging out their car in 4 feet of snow at 7 a.m. As my roommates an I were rushing to throw on our snow gear to go out and lend a hand, guilty at our inability or our failure to help our neighbors. They appreciated our too late attempts, but were just as happy to do the shoveling themselves, Bill and Mitzi both come from a generation that could still out work any twenty-something today.
Unfortunately in the last few years before Bill passed away, he began to lose his past, friends, loved ones, home, his memories and familiarities. He was later diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. I was fortunate to meet Bill before the disease really could affect him noticeably. When I met Bill I immediately wanted to start taking pictures of him, so I began looking into VAST so I could do a piece on snowmobiling and Bill. After driving over 1000 miles around Vermont chasing Snowmobiling I realized the real story and my interest was completely in Bill. Around this time I found out that Bill was suffering from dementia and began to notice gaps in our conversations.
This changed the story, from Bill and what he built, to Bill what he built and what he’d begun to lose. Just before I leaving the country for a Fellowship, Bill was admitted in an adult care program that he went to daily after he became too much for Mitzi to handle on her own. I was able to have a day to visit and photograph Bill at PACEVT (Program of the all-inclusive Care for the Elderly). From excercise, cooking class, lunch and activities I followed Bill and his group around, Bill swinging between quite acceptance, to remembrances of times and places past and the hardest, confusion of where he was and what he was doing in this place coupled with the need to be heading someplace. Bill was placed with a smaller group of clients that need more individual and specialized care because of his tendency to wander and his impulses to leave and fix.
The day was difficult, it was the first time I had been around Bill at that stage for such a long period of time, the realization and the impact of the disease on him finally sunk in for me. He would remember me occasionally for who I was, a neighbor, a photographer interested in snowmobiling and VAST, a young man about to travel abroad. At other times I was another friendly face to talk with, to question about why I was taking pictures, to related stories of when he had bought his first Kodak in Germany on his way back from the Korean war. occasionally Bill would remember me as his assistant, we had to get going and get some work done or else “by golly we’re going to be in a bind” tomorrow with one person from Bill’s past or another.
I left Bill helping to prepare banana bread with his group, this would be the last time I would get a chance to talk with Bill. That afternoon as I drove away from PACEVT I struggled to picture the man I had first met two years ago and was left sad and grateful I had met such a man as Bill Oakes.
By the time I returned back to the states after 6-months away, I discovered Bill had been put into a full-time care facility, and Mitzi was living by herself. A week after I returned I received a call from a friend who still lived next to the Oakes to tell me Mitzi had fallen and hurt herself and that Bill was no longer living at home. I called Mitzi up, talked and made a plan to drive up from NH in two weeks to visit. A week later, another friend called to break the news that Bill had passed away. “Bill Oakes?” I said, “wow, Bill Oakes? Bill Oakes wow, wow? Bill Oakes?”
Bill Oakes is VAST.