I have often told people that I go through Vermont winters by not going out. When I was a kid in Maine, I fell in love with basketball at an early age, and the hot gym was my cold weather sanctuary – and in many ways it still is.
I played on the Middlebury College basketball team many years ago, which meant I was in the gym most days from October 15, the first official practice day at the fall, to the second week of February after the last game – and on the days that I didn’t have to be there, I was probably still there, playing alone.
Middlebury College has been playing basketball for more than 100 years, since 1918, but only in two buildings: McCullough Hall in the center of campus, the first gymnasium built in 1912 — and on its current site.
In 1948, to accommodate its growing enrollment (the men on the GI Bill returning from the war), the college raised $700,000 and purchased a “surplus recreation building” from the Navy in Sampson, NY, dismantled it , transported it to Vermont, and re -erected it.
Memorial Field House was dedicated in 1949 to Middlebury graduates lost in World War II. In the hall between what was then the hockey rink and the gymnasium is a magnificent marble monument encased from floor to ceiling with the names of all those lost. (The next time you go to a basketball game or other event at the resort, check it out, when pandemic restrictions ease).
It was my gym, the Memorial Gym.
In 1984, the Memorial Gym was completely renovated: an alumnus named Art Pepin, Middlebury ’47, made a major donation guaranteeing the renovation and his name was put on the ground. I often wondered “Who was this Art Pépin? Why is his name on my gym? »
I have studied the history of the Middlebury hoop and have never seen a single reference to Art Pepin. I think it’s entirely possible that he’s never seen a match in the gym named after him.
After digging through the Middlebury archives a bit and talking to people who knew Art Pepin (Mike Schoenfeld ’73, recently retired VP of Development, and Pete Brakeley ’75, a close friend and football teammate of Art, Tom ’75) , I get to know Art Pepin — and I come back to it.
Although Art may not have been a basketball player or fan, his appreciation for his alma mater was genuine and enduring, as was his passion for sports and his belief in their value.
Art Pepin was indeed a wealthy man who liked to give away his money – his name is attached to many other worthy projects. He made his money selling beer, Budweiser beer, in large quantities, eventually becoming one of Anheuser-Busch’s largest distributors and a personal friend of August “Gussie” Busch himself. .
Art Pepin had a great personality, was affable in the extreme: a storyteller; a crooner – he liked to sing and recite whole poems from memory (Birches de Frost, for example). He said he was in the “business of making friends”.
After owning dealerships in Manchester, NH, and then Gainesville, Florida, in 1967 he acquired the Anheuser-Busch dealership in Tampa, where he became one of that city’s most prominent citizens and good friends. with that other Tampa colossus, George Steinbrenner.
Art Pepin was a Vermonter!
He was born in Newport, Vermont, four miles from the Canadian border, the seventh of eight Pepin children. Her father was a Quebecer, a railroad worker, and her mother, from Holland, Vermont, did laundry and cleaned houses to make ends meet.
The Pépin children all had to work. Newport had a beautiful nine-hole golf course where Art caddyed from the age of 10. He was the favorite caddy of a certain Mrs. Leoni Hayes, a summer resident of New Jersey. Mrs. Hayes became his benefactress, encouraging him to go to college and then paying for it. They remained friends for Art’s entire life. At the same time he funded the refurbishment of the gymnasium, he established a scholarship at Middlebury in his honour.
Art came to Middlebury with one of his best friends from Newport High School, Bobo Sheehan, who became the college’s legendary ski coach. Art was a formidable athlete, first at Newport High and then at Middlebury College. A tall 6-foot-2, 200-pound kid, Art made his mark in football, hockey and athletics at Middlebury, and captained the football and hockey teams.
Art left Middlebury in 1943, after his freshman year, and joined the Marines, serving in the South Pacific during World War II, stationed in Guam. He returned to school in 1946, re-engaging in sports and earning a degree in political science in the spring of 1947. He was unquestionably a big man on campus, a member of the Blue Key Honor Society, Winter Carnival King and winner of the Stabile Cup at the graduation (“to the athlete who best exemplifies the spirit of Middlebury”).
After graduating, Art embarked on a number of professional pursuits. He was playing semi-professional football for the Glens Falls Commodores and manning the bar when he met Polly Pooler of Westport, just across Lake Champlain from Middlebury. They married in August 1949 and were partners for life.
In January 1986, Art received a heart transplant that allowed him to live another 14 years. He died just before his 79th birthday in 2000.
This is the story, in a nutshell, of Art Pépin. It’s a good story. I don’t think I’m going to bristle anymore when I hear Memorial Gym called “Pepin Gymnasium”.
In fact, you might even hear me say “See you at Pepin’s!”