A Vermont Living Treasure

Vermont Public Radio Commentary
by Chester H. Liebs

© 1999 by Chester H. Liebs, Aired 8/24/00
Made possible by: The Alma Gibbs Donchian Foundation and the Preservation Trust of Vermont

Treasure is more than a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Some of the most valuable treasures are people, special people who enrich the world around them. They are living treasures. And since they are living we can thank them. Some receive Nobel prizes. Others MacArthur genius grants. The Japanese even designate living treasures as important cultural assets.

Today I would I would like to nominate an extraordinary individual as a Vermont living treasure. But first a little background, starting with Napoleon. That's right. Napoleon. For it was Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte who granted a young general, Gaspard Gourgaud, a Barony and a legacy. A century later, in 1917, Gaspard's grandson, the Baron Gourgaud, married Eva Gebhard, an intelligent New York socialite who was living in Paris. During summers on the Isle of Aix, the couple became interested in preserving the building where Napoleon spent his last days in France. This interest snowballed into a passion for conserving the architectural and natural beauty of the area.

Enter a young lawyer, Robert Sincerbeaux. Fresh out of the U.S. Navy after World War Two, he was specializing in trusts and estates in his father's law firm. Fluent in French, he was assigned to help Eva settle her affairs when she returned to New York after the Baron's death in 1944. Sincerbeaux and the Baroness hit it off and decided to establish the Eva Gebhard-Gourgaud Foundation in 1947 to help preserve cultural sites and natural beauty here and in France.

A decade after Eva's death in 1959, Sincerbeaux, his wife Betty, and the Foundation moved to Woodstock. The timing could not have been better. Congress had just passed sweeping environmental and preservation legislation, and citizen response was springing up everywhere. Before long, another client, Cecil Howard, entrusted Bob with an additional legacy for the same purpose, and Bob realized that special moment had arrived when small matching-grants to encourage natural and cultural conservation would be most effective.

I remember being filled with trepidation when I trekked to Woodstock in the early 1970s for a first-ever meeting with a foundation president. Bob's welcoming voice soon melted my anxiety. He approved my request to help fund a film that encouraged reusing old industrial buildings. Later he helped me develop the UVM Historic Preservation Program. Scores of others Vermonters made the same pilgrimage to Woodstock to request Bob's help.

From 1959 to 1991 (when the final funds were dispersed) Eva and Cecil's largess helped to restore hundreds of historic places from the great barns at Shelburne Farms, the Flynn Theater, and the Windsor House, to churches, libraries, and town halls from Richmond to Bennington. If you see a beautiful building in Vermont, chances are Bob, Eva and Cecil had a hand in preserving it.

Bob also provided early support for environmental and cultural organizations, including the Preservation Trust, the Vermont Land Trust, and VPR.

Today some gift givers want their name on everything they fund, from ballparks to marathons; Bob gave out grants the old fashioned way, quietly, understatedly, and with no strings attached. Fortunately for Vermont, other Foundations, such as the Freeman Foundation, have generously picked up where Eva and Cecil and Bob left off.

Thank you, Robert A. Sincerbeaux for all that you have done and for the example you have set. I hereby proclaim you a Vermont treasure for now and for always.

Author and landscape historian Chester Liebs is former Vermont Supervisor of Historic Sites and UVM Professor Emeritus of History and Historic Preservation.