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True Faith and Allegiance: Dave Vigneault 1936-2019…

Then UMass-student Dave Vigneault with former Vermont Senator Ralph Flanders (via UMass Archives)

Before there was Jesse Lederman, Marcus Williams and Michael Fenton. Before there was Eric Lesser and Paul Caron. Even before there was Richie Neal. There was Dave Vigneault, a forerunner to Springfield’s undercurrent of electorally ambitious twentysomethings.

First elected at the dawn of the Kennedy era, Vigneault would become a witness to history, if not always a maker of it. Yet, his common, earthy touch, commitment to the fight, and encouragement of succeeding generations endeared him to many.

Vigneault championed and supported reform as a legislator. In his second act, he advocated for the underprivileged in Washington. Even after tragedy unwound parts of his life, he returned to his roots in Springfield, pushing, advocating and campaigning for up-and-comers and the Democratic ticket.

On Wednesday, Vigneault died after a short battle with pancreatic cancer.

“Dave had no political ego,” former state Rep Paul Caron said. “He did whatever was needed in whatever campaign he was committed to.”

Caron’s campaign was among many to which Vigneault committed. They met, ironically, having knocked the same voter’s door 22 years apart.

“The first thing she said to me was you have to meet my friend Dave Vigneault,” Caron said recalling meeting that voter in 1982. Caron likened meeting Vigneault to Luke Skywalker meeting Yoda.

Among Vigneault’s mentees was Springfield City Council Jesse Lederman. (via Facebook/Lederman campaign)

Vigneault was ubiquitous in city politics, always in jacket and tie. He showed up at public meetings, campaign kickoffs, debates, visits of dignitaries, and fundraisers. Old school, if not always in the best of ways, he could rattle off the names of old political haunts or switch gears and debate the local issues of the day.

Zaida Govan met Vigneault campaigning for School Committee. “He impressed me with his knowledge of politics now and the past. He remembers everything it seems.”

Shanique Spalding, an activist in the city, first met during Ed Markey’s 2013 senate campaign. Vigneault came to every event she told him about. The following year while working for Don Berwick’s gubernatorial campaign, she converted him into a supporter at the first event she organized.

“No doubt Dave was there—if you know Dave you get the inside joke—but he leaned in and said I’ll be supporting Don now,” she recalled. “I said what changed your mind he said, ‘I trust you.’”

US Representative Richard Neal hailed Vigneault as a “sincere and thoughtful” public servant and friend, who “never lost his passion for local politics.”

“Dave was inspired by John F. Kennedy, and was a regular presence at the annual remembrance of the 35th president in Forest Park every November,” Neal said in a statement.

David Norman Vigneault was born in Springfield on September 3, 1936 to Joseph and Laura Vigneault. He attended Tech, AIC and later UMass after an army stint in Korea and stateside.

Vigneault and JFK shared a historic ballot. (via wikipedia)

On November 8, 1960, John F. Kennedy’s election was an ecumenical triumph. Arch-Catholic (and arch-Democratic) Springfield welcomed the victory like any similar city—though Mayor Thomas O’Connor failed to unseat Republican US Senator Leverett Saltonstall that day.

But the same day in Pine Point, voters bucked a trend that had favored the Irish and Italian in Springfield politics. They sent Vigneault, a 24 year-old Franco-American Korea-era vet and UMass sophomore, to Boston.

Before the Kennedy era—and during it—America was not the ideal latter-day nostalgia mistakenly suggests. The 50’s were awash in paranoia and red-baiting. Redlining and restrictive covenants remained in fashion.

“That’s the world we grew up in,” former Governor Michael Dukakis recalled. When Dukakis joined the legislature two years after Vigneault, he and few others formed a coalition to bring change to clean up state government and produce progressive policy.

“There was a group of 20-25 of us who were younger, I think it’s fair to say somewhat more liberal politics,” Dukakis said. “But we were also very committed reformers.”

No landmark bill or issue, aside from civil rights, stands out as Vigneault’s cause.  He and his comrades challenged a sitting speaker. Leadership sent them to the backbenches.  But they did bring change and pushed bills on campaign finance reform, labor, unemployment, and education.

Vigneault sponsored multiple bills to restore district Springfield City Council seat in the years after the 1961 charter eliminated them. His was a legislative manifesto strikingly similar to prescriptions of today.

Senator Eric Lesser observed that the rep was always on the “right side of history.”

Vigneault “was a champion of progressive causes as a State Representative in the Massachusetts Legislature,” Lesser said. “He was always fighting for justice. He was always ahead of his time, frankly.” Vigneault told Lesser stories about traveling the south helping African-Americans register to vote and about fights “around housing, around transportation access, around fighting for the poor and the underprivileged.”

Indeed, Vigneault’s commitment brought him to Philadelphia, Mississippi a year after Klansmen murdered three civil rights workers there. Neshoba County sheriff Cecil Price was among 18 that authorities charged. But in 1965, he was still free and still sheriff. He arrested Vigneault and a friend while they were monitoring voter registration.

“It was our right to watch the registration,” Vigneault told The Springfield Union at the time. “We were doing nothing but watching.”

Vigneault said Price made not-so-subtle threats about “night-riders” visiting them after their release. Friends in the legislature appealed to Gov. John Volpe and Sen. Edward Kennedy who worked the phones to involve the Department of Justice and activists in Mississippi. Vigneualt and his friend James Donovan paid their bond and left without further incident.

Former Gov. Michael Dukakis in 2016. (WMassP&I)

“We were worried,” Dukakis remembered. “In those days you had those southern sheriffs…He was gutsy.”

Vigneault’s southern sojourn did not receive a universally warm welcome in Springfield. Vile epithets flew at his mother while she held signs outside the polls in 1966. Vigneault all but gave up at one point, but he won reelection by 129 votes.

“That’s the mark of a true leader,” Caron said. “Dave never hesitated. He always jumped in with two feet and made his voice heard.”

But Vigneault, Caron noted, always counseled to explain decisions in terms people could understand.

As a freshman rep in 1983, Caron himself faced backlash for derailing a bill following up on Proposition 2 1/2. Along with the Springfield delegation, he extracted millions to plug holes the tax cap left in Springfield’s budget. But their move tickled the reactionary nerve of The Boston Herald.

Caron took Vigneault’s advice and mounted a public relations campaign to explain the havoc inaction would have wreaked upon firefighters, cops, DPW workers and teachers. Caron dispatched a challenge in 1984 and never faced significant competition until his 2002 retirement.

Rep. Dave Vigneault circa 1965 (via Mass State Archives)

After Vigneault’s close call in 1966, he endured for another six years. But never beloved by leadership, the battle for influence burned him out. He later moved to Washington to battle homelessness.  A voracious reader, he found a second home at the Library of Congress, vacuuming up knowledge. His sharp memory led to his next gig working for the Massachusetts Senate under his old House colleague William Bulger.

Setbacks would follow. Reforms eliminated his senate job. Years later, his longtime companion Karel Welch—the very voter who introduced Caron to Vigneault—died of cancer. Her death hit Vigneault hard. Friends like Caron helped him out and got him into St. Luke’s Rest home, where he lived out his life.

But he bounced back and stayed involved. When he could not get a ride to events, he took the bus or walked, newspaper tucked under his arm.

Senator Lesser recalled a rally in 2016 with Governor Dukakis “and Dave of course was there.”

“When Gov. Dukakis saw Dave Vigneault, he just stopped in his tracks and was just so delighted to see him,” Lesser emailed. “And the two of them instantly went back, reminiscing about common efforts they had together, both when Dukakis was Governor and also going back to when Michael Dukakis was a State Rep.”

“Dave had a wide impact and a wide circle of friends and admirers, and lived a life of purpose and a life dedicated to helping others,” Lesser continued. “He will certainly be missed, but he casts a long, wide net of goodwill for many, and will for a very long time.”

That was in part because he embraced everybody. He developed a close friendship with Victor Davila, a business owner and past (and possibly future) candidate. “Knock those doors!” he advised in one of their last conversations.

“I was impressed with his political intuition and overall, for his true belief that being an elected official is to be a servant of the people, to fight for the little guy, to fight for justice,” Davila emailed.

Vigneault was fighting, from campaign to campaign. He supported candidates across New England and the country in 15 presidential elections.

They never raised buildings or schools in his name, but the political classes everywhere got to know him. Presidential hopeful Gary Hart dove into a crowd to speak with Vigneault during a campaign stop. Senator Edward Kennedy stopped his car after spotting Vigneault on a Springfield street corner—just to chat.

The city’s activist class, even as they moved up or won office themselves, never forgot him. They tried to give back however possible.

“Whether its rides from church [that they both attended], a brand-new suit or tie for Christmas, gifts during the holidays or simply providing a hand at his dear sister’s funeral I’m grateful for those moments I could stand by him,” Spalding said. “It’s very rare that you can give anything to a legend who’s done and seen it all.”

What Vigneault saw defined him and his generation. They saw the optimism of a new decade and saw it shattered with an assassin’s bullet. Many lost hope. Others never gave up the fight.

When asked in 1965 why he had gone down to Mississippi, Vigneault replied, “When I was stationed in the South, I saw the situation and that oppressed people couldn’t register and it always stayed with me.”

But the idea something better was possible always stayed with him, too.

Dave Vigneault was 82.

(Via Twitter/@DaveVigneault)

Linda Matys O’Connell contributed reporting and research to this story.