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James "Buddy" Edgerton, seen at a surprise 90th birthday party with co-author Nan O'Brien, center, and his wife, Dorothy Edgerton. 

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WEST ARLINGTON — James “Buddy” Edgerton was a quiet and humble man for his whole life, despite his natural good looks and his family’s connection to one of the 20th century’s most famous artists.

Edgerton, who grew up on a subsistence dairy farm living next door to Norman Rockwell in West Arlington, was also a wonderful husband and father, and a loyal and giving friend, family and close friends said Friday in remembering his legacy.

Edgerton died early Thursday morning at Harbor Village in South Burlington, where he had been a longtime resident. He was 92 and had been diagnosed with heart failure, having survived a heart attack years ago while hunting in West Arlington.

“He was incredibly honest. He always saw the good things in people. He was hardworking. He was very, very well-liked,” his son, James Edgerton Jr., said Friday. “The outpouring of people has been unbelievable.”

“Honestly, he was one of the nicest, most gentle, kindest people anyone would ever meet. I never heard him say anything bad about anyone,” his daughter, Deborah Joy Edgerton, said. “He was a quiet man. He lived by example. He didn’t have to talk by words — it was his actions.”

Author Nan O’Brien, with whom Edgerton co-wrote the family memoir “The Unknown Rockwell: A Portrait of Two American Families,” said Edgerton was like a second father to her. The two remained close until his passing.

“He was just constant in his character and integrity,” she said. “I never saw him angry. I never met a person who knew him who had anything but good things to say about him. He was generous. He truly was, in my eyes, a giant. And yet the humility and groundedness of him were the hallmarks of his character.”

O’Brien met Edgerton on his 50th wedding anniversary, having been invited by his daughter, Deborah. For years, the family had been trying to get Buddy to write down his amazing recollections of life in West Arlington, and with the Rockwells; but upon meeting O’Brien, he decided she was the right person for the task.

“I asked him later why he said yes to me after he said no to everybody else so long. He said, ‘I’m pretty good at figuring out who people are.’ Which is the highest praise I can imagine now.”

Efforts to turn the book into a movie met several hurdles, including the death of a screenwriter who had just taken on the project. O’Brien has been working on the project.

Upon telling Edgerton she was going to do it herself, he replied “Well, stop talking if you decided to do it.”

Longtime friend Don Trachte Jr. said Buddy Edgerton was an indispensable source of information in putting together the Rockwell model reunions that had been held every two years until the COVID pandemic.

“I’d be putting together some list of names and call Buddy and say ‘Hey, who was in that April 1958 Saturday Evening Post cover’ — and he would tell me. He had an amazing memory. And he knew all these people,” Trachte said. “He loved West Arlington, and he loved the Norman Rockwell connection.”

One of those models is his lone surviving sibling, Ardis Clark, now of Florida.

“He had a good life and he was a good father and a wonderful brother” Clark said Friday.

Despite the family growing up on a dairy farm, where there was plenty of hard work and not a lot of money, “he was kind of an idol to a lot of the kids,” Clark recalled.

“I’m going to miss him every day.”

A service will be scheduled at a later date, James Edgerton Jr. said. He will be buried in the West Arlington Cemetery plot Norman Rockwell gave to him when he moved south to Stockbridge, Mass.

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One of four generations of the Edgerton family to be painted by Rockwell, Edgerton was featured in a number of Rockwell paintings, most notably calendars for the Boy Scouts of America. The last of them, “Growth of a Leader” (1966), also featured his son, James Edgerton Jr., in a painting depicting the maturation of a young Cub Scout to Eagle Scout and manhood.

He was also the cover model for 16 issues of Lone Ranger comic books.

Born March 5, 1930, in West Arlington, James “Buddy” Edgerton was the oldest son of James M. Edgerton and Clara Wilcox Edgerton and a descendent of Captain Daniel Edgerton, a Revolutionary war hero.

He attended a one-room schoolhouse in West Arlington and graduated from Arlington High School in 1948.

He was about 14 years old when new neighbors moved in next door — Norman and Mary Rockwell and their three sons.

That led to four generations of the Edgerton family modeling for Rockwell’s paintings and illustrations — or, in the case of James M. Edgerton, being the real-life inspiration for one of Rockwell’s masterpieces, “Freedom of Speech.”

But it also led to deep friendships that Buddy Edgerton maintained for his whole life.

“The family knew they were living next to a famous person. But they didn’t act that way — they were just neighbors and good friends,” James Edgerton Jr. said. “My father was the oldest brother to the Rockwell boys. They became very, very good friends … my father spoke to Jerry Rockwell last week.”

As the only son, the expectation was that Buddy would carry on with running the dairy farm. But “Mary Rockwell convinced my grandparents he should go to college,” James Edgerton Jr. said.

The first of his family to attend college, he earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Vermont in 1952 and helped manage the family dairy farm with his father. He earned a master’s from UVM in 1965 and worked for the University of Vermont Extension Service for 32 years.

He was a 4-H Youth Agent in Bennington County from 1956 to 1966, and a community resource development specialist in Woodstock from 1966 to 1974. He served as an area administrator, until his retirement in 1986.

Buddy met his future wife of nearly 68 years, Dorothy, at a wedding in Rhode Island.

“He looked at her and said ‘Isn’t she pretty. I’d like to make her my bride,’” James Edgerton Jr. said of their meeting. “It was kind of instantaneous attraction.”

“They’re both honest people and I think they shared that sense of self together,” his wife Nancy Edgerton said of the couple. “He had a very gentle side — he always called Dot his bride and found lovely ways to share his emotion for her.”

Buddy was an avid sportsman, enjoying fishing and hunting and was fond of sharing experiences with hunting buddies at Camp James, the family deer camp in West Arlington.

He is survived by his wife Dorothy of South Burlington, and their two children and their families: son James A. Edgerton Jr. and his wife Nancy Clements Edgerton of Shelburne, and their two children, Katherine Edgerton and James “Mac” Edgerton of Boston; and daughter Deborah Joy Edgerton and her husband Dave DeBerardinis of South Burlington and Deb’s two children, Justin Gelinas and his wife Brie of Charlotte, and Kori Gelinas of South Burlington.

He is also survived by his youngest sister Ardis Clark of Ocala, Florida, and many nieces and nephews. He was predeceased by his oldest sister, Edith Zindle, his middle sister, Joy Freisatz of Guilderland, New York, and infant brother, Harold Edgerton.

Greg Sukiennik covers government and politics for Vermont News & Media. Reach him at gsukiennik@benningtonbanner.com.

Greg Sukiennik has worked at all three Vermont News & Media newspapers and was their managing editor from 2017-19. He previously worked for ESPN.com, for the AP in Boston, and at The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, Mass.


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