BENNINGTON — Longtime local attorney and former Select Board Chairman Thomas Jacobs, who died unexpectedly Wednesday afternoon while riding his bike, is being remembered by friends and colleagues as a force for positive economic change in Bennington.
While serving on the board for six years, Jacobs was chairman as the $54 million Putnam Block project moved from an inspirational idea toward a groundbreaking in August 2019.
"With the passing of Tom Jacobs the Bennington community has lost a true leader in every sense of the word," said Bill Colvin, assistant director of the Bennington County Regional Commission and local point-person for the Putnam project.
"As an attorney for the private sector and the medical system and throughout his many civic contributions Tom always exhibited a calm, steady hand and treated everyone with fairness and respect," Colvin said. "He was creative and thoughtful in his approach to addressing challenges large and small and was a loud and consistent cheerleader for this community."
Colvin added, "On a personal level I have lost a friend with whom I connected when I returned to the area after college. The countless hours cycling, running, swimming and skiing with Tom and his large group of friends will always be some of my fondest memories. My heart goes out to Lee, Tiffany, Lindsay and the entire Jacobs family."
Although he declined to run for another Select Board term in March 2019, Jacobs, 74, continued to be an advocate for collaborative approaches to strengthening the downtown and the local economy. During a public hearing in February on a proposed local option tax plan, he saw that revenue source as an opportunity to invest in Bennington's future.
"We are on the cusp of something really special," he said, referring to the Putnam project and others, adding, "We've got to do something really significant, through collaboration with those outside."
"I've known Tom a long time," said Town Manager Stuart Hurd. "We met when he was in Norton Barber's office in the 1970s. Norton was town counsel; I was zoning administrator. Later, he and my wife [D. Justine Scanlon] were law partners for many years. When he was elected to the board and became chair, it brought us very close together.
"He was a strong supporter of municipal government and sought to introduce new ideas to respond to the changing times; to the impact of social media; to calls for more board accountability, and to strengthen the relationship between the board and the people it served. He always treated the employees with respect and kindness. He served his community well," Hurd said.
"'Good to the core' is a phrase that applies to extremely few people, but Tom Jacobs was one of them," said current Select Board Chairman Donald Campbell. "His total commitment to Bennington, to building a better, stronger community, and to treating people fairly and respectfully was unwavering. Tom loved a lot of things: his family, his community, the outdoors, helping people, fair process, sports, and his bicycles. There is no good way to lose a man of his significance, but it is great that he lived a life doing things he loved."
Campbell added, "He will be sorely missed by many for his calm demeanor, his steady leadership, and the good friend he was to so many in this community. I thank Lee and the rest of Tom's family for sharing him with us generously. And with our thanks come love and shared sorrow."
Michael Keane, who served with Jacobs on the Select Board, said in an email, "I regard him (I will use the present tense) as a friend and an example of steady, quiet, effective leadership in a town which does not have enough of that quality. So many others who have known Tom Jacobs longer than I, will describe him as an authentic and devoted husband, father, grandfather, neighbor, and longtime supporter of all things Bennington I see Tom as clear-thinking, candid, focused on making Bennington better for everyone and never hesitant to take a stand on an issue. (Here I go into the past tense): I found him always accessible, responsive, well-prepared, and decisive. He was a careful listener. He always looked at both sides of a question before making up his mind. He was an example of that rare old term: a gentleman."
Assistant Town Manager Dan Monks said, "Tom Jacobs passed away yesterday. He died doing one of the things he loved — cycling with friends. I have been struggling with this horrendously sad and shocking news. First and foremost, our thoughts are with Tom's wife, Lee, and the rest of the Jacobs family. I am sure that the community will rally around the Jacobs family and support them through this very difficult time."
He added, "Tom's passing is also a huge loss for the citizenry of Bennington. Tom was a pillar of the community — a steady and inspirational leader who challenged us all to do better and who lead by example. He will be deeply missed. It is my hope that we will all honor his legacy by stepping up and working even harder to serve the community he loved. Goodbye Mr. Tom Jacobs — you lived life well and left the world a better place than you found it."
"It is devastating news to hear of Tom's passing," said Bank of Bennington President James Brown, one of the leaders of the collaborative of institutions and local businesses that formed the development group overseeing the Putnam Block project. "I had the privilege of knowing and working with Tom for 20 years. I will sorely miss his kindness, warmth and guidance. It is a deep loss to our community, and our hearts go out to Lee and his entire family."
"Tom to me was the `godfather' of viewing Bennington as a brighter, stronger town in the future," said Matt Harrington, executive director of the Southwestern Vermont Chamber of Commerce. "He was proud of our past, but he was excited about our future. He was at the forefront and one of the loudest cheerleaders of the Putnam Project. He understood the risk, the idea that something like this had never been done before, he understood the financial burden and little return on investment and he also understood and heard the naysayers — and yet, he championed on. Many of us have seen select board chairs come and go. Many of us have asked for a visionary chair that took risks for Bennington — Tom was that person.
"Personally, Tom was a good man," Harrington said. "He's what all of us aspire to be — a good husband, a good dad, a good grandfather and a good citizen of our town. I'd often see him and Lee at the gym early in the morning, working out together, smiling and saying hi to people. I think we all looked at Tom and thought — wow, you can really have it all The chamber sends our condolences to the family and friends of Tom. I will personally miss how his eyes would light up and he'd have this big grin on his face whenever he saw new leadership and ideas pop up. He loved this town; he was excited for Bennington, and, he loved people. Something we can all aspire to do in Tom's name."
"The loss of Tom Jacobs is made more difficult by the state of isolation we find ourselves in today," said former Select Board member Greg Van Houten. "Tom was a uniter and a champion of our best selves. I was privileged to work with Tom in a very important period for Bennington, and was well aware of the passion he held for our town, his neighbors and the human spirit that we all count on in difficult times. Tom Jacobs always brought his best to his profession, his friends, his town and his family. When I left my seat as chair of the Bennington Select Board, I knew it was in good hands with Tom. I also knew I had made a great friend through our mutual respect and recognition of what makes Bennington the wonderful place it is. In a very short time I came to admire the Jacobs family, and I ask you to join me in holding them close to our hearts. Tom and I used to discuss the need for role models in today's hectic world. Tom is one of those role models for me. I am better for knowing Tom Jacobs and his wonderful family, we are all better."
Select Board member and state Rep. Jim Carroll said of Jacobs, "Whenever I think about someone in my life, there is always a visual image that comes to mind and the image that comes to mind when I think of Tom is his smiling face. Tom has been an inspiration. Tom always had the best interests of the people of Bennington in his heart and he demonstrated that through his actions."
"We are all so sad," said Select Board Vice Chairwoman Jeannie Jenkins. "Tom was one of the most caring and thoughtful people I have ever had the honor of knowing. He was forceful, clear, honest and funny. He was someone with whom you could share concerns, frustrations and joys. Tom's influence on Bennington has been profound and he will be sorely missed."
"I was stunned when I heard the news this evening," said a neighbor, Telly Halkias. "Tom Jacobs was my attorney, neighbor and friend for 20 years. I just saw him the other day walking on Frost Street with his beloved wife, Lee Tom took the high road in every personal and professional dealing I ever witnessed from him. I used to joke with him that he was 'the most honest man in Bennington,' but of course Tom was so humble he would laugh it off. Still, there's no question in my mind how much truth there was in that label."
Jacobs had lived in Bennington for the past 40 years. He received a bachelor's degree from the University of Vermont and his law degree from Suffolk Law School in Boston.
For more than 20 years, he was with the law firm Jacobs, McClintock & Scanlon and formed his own firm a decade ago. He was first elected to the Select Board in 2013, then was elected chairman in 2015.
Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal. Twitter: @BB_therrien