ESSEX JUNCTION — For many years, the voicemail message of one Essex Junction resident went like this: "You've reached John FitzGerald. Please let me know if there is anything I can do for you. Thank you."
FitzGerald, a nearly 50-year Essex town resident and man known for his generous service to the community, turned 90 years-old Wednesday.
His children are throwing him a party this Saturday, so family and neighbors can show him their love and gratitude.
“He always said the town was going to educate eight of his children, so he got very involved with local politics,” his daughter Kathy said. “He’s a man of principle.”
Born on July 14, 1931 in Chittenden, Vt, FitzGerald joined the Air Force on a dare at age 17 when a recruiter visited West Rutland High School. After spending the first several years in Korea as an aircraft mechanic and instructor, he returned to Vermont and met Marion Brunelle at a dance in Winooski. They married on Aug. 28, 1954. The couple had eight children.
“As a big Catholic family, we filled an entire pew. If somebody got the giggles, you swore his arm was ten feet long, because you would feel a tap on the shoulder and his eyes would say, ‘No, not in church.’ He ran a tight ship, but my parents were not helicopter parents," Kathy said. "We had our chores, we had to be good, and after that we were free to play outside. I don’t think my dad ever worried much about where we were, and it was great.
At dinnertime, he opened the door, blew a whistle and yelled out ‘FitzGeralds!’ We all came running, ate supper, took our baths, were all in bed by 8, and Dad stood in the hallway, guiding our bedtime prayers.”
While FitzGerald continued his service, the family was stationed in Maine, Hawaii, Louisiana, Massachusetts, and Newburgh and Plattsburgh, Ny. His children remember these cross-country moves well, recalling squeezing into the family’s station wagon for long drives.
After he retired from the Air Force, the family moved to Essex Junction in 1972.
A decade later, he became a member of the Planning Commission, on which he served from 1981-88. As a commissioner devoted to public service, he worked hard to make Essex a better place, whether that was with sidewalks or new development.
He served for a time on the Selectboard and zoning board, and was also a member of the school Board.
The FitzGeralds regularly attended mass at Holy Family Catholic Church, where FitzGerald was a Eucharistic minister and volunteer for many years.
After serving 20 years in the Air Force, FitzGerald entered his second career working for 20 more years at the U.S. Forest Service at the University of Vermont Maple Research Lab as a facilities manager.
“He was a jack of all trades, both performing and supervising plumbing, electricity, maintenance and yard work,” Kathy said. “But I think his favorite thing to do was to stand in the doorways of the scientists and professors and talk about local politics, history, science, and saving the world.”
In later years, FitzGerald offered his helping hand across the ocean, by volunteering with World Computer Exchange, a charity organization that works to reduce the digital divide for youth in developing countries. He also made trips to Sudan and Uganda to help locals mend farm equipment and plant Paulownia tree farms. A fast-growing tree with wood perfect for building, the Paulownias were economic boosters.
Back at home, he was an avid storyteller and writer who was also frequently fixing and building things. He regularly checked in on his children and his friends.
“He’s helped all of us eight kids, above and beyond,” Kathy said. “He loves hard work, and he loves that we all work hard. Whenever he sees any of us, he wants to know what we’re doing that matters. We love him dearly, quirks and all.”