By Kathleen McKinley Harris, Charlotte
Some words about Mary Greene Lighthall—or what I might have said at her memorial reception last Sunday: I met her at the first meeting I attended of the Charlotte Historical Society that met that night in 1978 or 1979 in the Tavern on Church Hill Road. Who was this somewhat older than I woman with the figure of a 20-year-old? I soon learned that her childhood home was in Morrisville, Vermont, and that she was the niece of one of my friends who as a widow had an apartment and art studio in a fine old house within walking distance of Peoples Academy and my apartment in a big Victorian house that had been Sen. Fleetwood’s near the library. Mary’s Aunt Ruth Greene Mould (yes, that was her name, much to her and Mary’s amusement) was a noted artist, largely a portrait artist whose work hangs in the Vermont State House and in the Fleming. I was teaching senior English at Peoples Academy and had a student gifted with artistic ability, so I went to the library and tried to borrow art books for him. The librarian said, “I think you need to meet Ruth Greene Mould,” and phoned her. I was told to come right over. Ruth and I spent the rest of the day together, and she lent her precious art books, a gift from her late husband, to my student.
Mary was equally delighted that her married name, “Lighthall,” was so appropriate for her since she was a photographer. I wonder how many know that Mary was entrusted with and asked to print pictures of Snowflake Bentley’s snowflakes from his glass negatives? Or that she removed the screen from her upstairs lakeside bathroom and set up a camera on a tripod permanently so that she could take photos of the lake whenever there was something memorable and the image would not be obscured by a screen? On display at the Charlotte Museum during last Sunday’s reception for her was a photo she took of a moose swimming by her house. I’m not sure she took the shot from the bathroom window, but she was always ready.
Some of Aunt Ruth’s traits were strong in Mary. How I will miss evening telephone calls from Mary, calls where we would let the conversation carry it wherever it might lead. Those calls reminded me of my first meeting with Aunt Ruth when my casual visit turned into lunch, an afternoon and a friendship. After I became a widow, Mary’s calls became more frequent, and I know it was her way of being there for me.
Because I had taught in Morrisville and Hyde Park and had roots in Stowe, I could talk about Lamoille County with her, even though she was a generation older than I. I found in Special Collections at UVM a typed manuscript of Craig Burt, father of much that now is modern Stowe (at one time he owned much of Mt. Mansfield and was an early skier). I drew this to Craig’s family’s attention. They decided to publish it as a book, We Lived in Stowe, and I was asked to edit it. I also added notes. For example, there once was a violin factory in Stowe, and the oldest woman in Stowe had worked there. Of course, I told Mary that I had an interview with the oldest woman in Stowe and the rest about the factory. And Mary said, “My father made the
machines they used in the violin factory, and I have one of the violins.” Mary’s family owned the Greene Corporation in Morrisville, and her father was the manager. So eventually Mary and I made a trip to the Stowe Historical Society. She took her violin and the Stowe Historical Society man and Mary compared the society’s Stowe-made violin with Mary’s.
Perhaps the time I most admired Mary was when she announced that she was going to appoint herself chief editor of the Around the Mountains book committee in the Charlotte Historical Society. We on the committee had met several evenings, but basically nothing during the long hours was accomplished except chitchat and the devouring of refreshments. After Mary was self-designated chief editor, we made something out of W.W. Higbee’s long newspaper articles. She saw to it that each on the committee handled what that person’s skills were appropriate for. She did not spare herself. She typed every word of W.W. Higbee’s manuscript and wrote the notes, although the entire committee contributed research.
I’ll never forget when she phoned me a couple of weeks before the final printer’s deadline, or it might have been even less time before. She and I had wondered countless times where in the world were Higbee’s writings on the Civil War? He was exactly the right age to be in the Civil War. He was a lawyer and had Quaker roots, so maybe, we speculated, he hired a substitute to serve in his place. But everyone else in town of his age except Cyrus Pringle served.
“Kathy,” said Mary in one of her phone calls. “Happy Patrick has found Higbee’s writings on the Civil War in the Bixby Library. What are we going to do?” I immediately drove to the Bixby and read the material myself.
“Mary,” I said. “We have to include it. This alone will sell the book. It is what is missing.” So Mary went to work on the Civil War chapter when she least wanted to do the task. I’m sure it was hard for her to face the job. I can’t remember whether we asked the printer to delay the printing.
Did you know for many years she was a chief editor of the Rich Family Genealogical Society (she was descended from a Vermont branch) and made frequent car trips to Massachusetts to work on the editing? Did you know not only was she a chemistry major at UVM but that she also had her master’s in plant biochemistry from UVM and that she worked at Ohio State University before marriage as an editor of Chemistry Abstracts?
She also was effective in helping to pass more modern state laws governing adoption. She was a fine early skier, and she told me she owned a hot car when she was single. From time to time she would tell me of some kindness she had done for somebody in town, the very stuff that a civil society is built upon.
After Harry, her husband, died she supported their two young children by working as a chemist in UVM’s Maple Lab. She talked about an old chemist, C.H. Jones, who worked in the Maple Lab from 1896–1946. Mary admired him and wanted to make sure he had his due. I had the pleasure of editing her article, “C.H. Jones: A Memoir of the Maple Man, Chemist Extraordinaire,” which Mary wrote for the Chittenden County Historical Society Bulletin and was published in the winter 2014 issue. She was close to 90 when her article came out.
Oh, Mary, I will miss you. We all will in Charlotte.