Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Remembering Rick Schwag

A long-time member of Congregation Beth El, Rick Schwag z"l died after sundown on September 18, 2023. I'm sorry that my husband David Kanell z"l cannot be one to talk about Rick's many contributions to the Jewish community in Vermont. As a subscriber to the New York Times, I was able to access this article on one of those contributions, from July 5, 1987—please click on the image to read it:

Saturday, February 4, 2023

"Toll on Call": The Seven Days article on Dr. David Toll, from November 14, 2012

 Dr. Toll's obituary (appended below) missed quite a few details that this 2012 article includes. A child and grandchild of Jewish immigrants, Dr. Toll was a long-time member of Congregation Beth El in St. Johnsbury, Vermont.


Dr. David Toll: A Beloved Country Physican, by Amy Ash Nixon, Caledonian-Record, December 128, 2018


DANVILLE — A visit to Dr. David Toll’s pediatric practice was like a step back in time.

If a child was sick, you were instructed to come right in, and often Dr. Toll himself would take the phone call and talk to the child’s parent to find out what the concern was.

He had a laboratory upstairs in his building, so getting a strep test, or bloodwork done was fast and he had the results almost immediately.

Dr. Toll’s office was Norman Rockwell-esque, vintage Fairbanks scales in the patient rooms, his office itself a converted Main Street white wooden house, with toys for the kids and magazines for the parents on tables.

He was known for never turning anyone away for inability to pay.

The death of Dr. Toll, 93, over the weekend, caused many in Vermont’s rural Northeast Kingdom to offer their condolences to his family, and to share stories of what the region’s most treasured pediatrician meant to them, their children, and their lives here.

“The Kingdom has lost a friend,” shared Darcie McCann on behalf of the NEK Chamber of Commerce. “We have lost Dr. Toll.”

McCann said, “Medical professionals like Dr. Toll came from a different era, one we will never see again. It was not just the longevity of his practice but how he put his heart and soul into the tens of thousands he treated during his decades of service. Being a doctor was not just a profession to him; it was a calling. His life was truly extraordinary on how many lives he touched in his own long life.”

Sue Willey of Kirby shared, “I had a trusting love for this wonderful friend and doctor. Shared my family with him from day one of Tracy’s life (50 years ago), then Christy for 17 years and Dallas’s into college even … So so sad … love to his family and his office staff that made every visit with him pleasant. Took the girls in once when they were covered with red spots and Dr. Toll entered the room took a look from across the room, announced ‘Your cats have fleas!’ followed by a few helpful suggestions about flea terminating and grinning left the room.”

Dr. Tim Thompson of Kirby, now retired, arrived in the Northeast Kingdom in 1973 and knew Dr. Toll for many years.

The three tenants which Dr. William Osler, remembered in history for being the father of modern medicine, are what Dr. Thompson pointed to in remembering Dr. Toll and his care of children in the Northeast Kingdom – availability, affability and ability.

“David had plenty of ability, and that’s not to make it the last one, but he was amazing at being available to his patients. He had people coming from all over the Northeast Kingdom and New Hampshire to see him. It was a great testimony to his persistence, to his ability to convince people he could really take care of them. He was just a wonderful doctor here for a very long time.”

Dr. Thompson continued, “His interest was in really making sure that kids had access to care, and it’s amazing that he did that as a single practitioner. St. Johnsbury was a pretty interesting place (to choose to practice in.)”

Of Dr. Toll practicing until his 90th birthday, Dr. Thompson said, “David didn’t know what else to do. He wanted to continue being a doctor and it was really important to him. His patients were very dear to him. He was sick once and I put him in the hospital and he said, ‘I’ve got to go take care of my two patients first,’ and he went to discharge them. I couldn’t stop him.”

Dr. Thompson said Dr. Toll’s wife, Bridget “took great care of him, she was a great wife and a great caregiver.” Running a medical practice as the sole practitioner for so many years is a huge commitment and “Bridget gets a lot of credit,” for being at his side, he said.

Dr. Thompson said Dr. Toll’s work here and reputation was “why a lot of people were willing to stay here,” and make their careers in St. Johnsbury.

People adored him, and trusted him with the care of their children, he said.

He said, “David was the standard here for pediatrics … I think everybody respected his persistence and his capacity to be able to deliver care.”

Paul Bengtson, the recently retired CEO of Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital, worked with Dr. Toll for many years. “I worked with him as a board member and sometimes president of the medical staff,” said Bengtson. “I worked with him actively for more than 30 years. He always had a very active intellect, which personally I enjoyed. He wasn’t particularly enamored of administrators, but I could roll with that because I actually could understand his point of view a lot of times.”

“He had a very long and I would say vibrant and interesting career. He enjoyed a huge following, almost like I’d never seen as a medical professional. He was a very smart diagnostician,” said Bengtson. “A lot of people would approach him I guess around the region for his ability to diagnose, particularly conditions with children.”

Bengtson said, “He is one of those people who was a legend - and he was a legend in his own time. He leaves behind a very nice, large extended family. He was very aware and smart culturally, too. One of the things I enjoyed about him was his enjoyment of classical music.” Dr. Toll also was a reader of The Book of Ecclesiastes, and he and Bengtson would discuss things from it, he said. “He knew The Book of Ecclesiastes very well,” said Bengtson. “He made many references to it.”

Toll continued to see some patients well into adulthood – even their 50s, said Bengtson.

Holly Blair of Kirby on Monday said her mother, Merrillee Blair, worked as a lab tech for Dr. Toll in the years prior to his retirement.

“He was my doctor from birth until he retired when I was 33,” said Blair, now 35. “He was such a great man … I have a million fond memories of him – which is something to be said considering I do not typically like doctors and have been sick a lot over the years. Dr Toll saw me through everything from routine childhood illness of strep throats and stomach bugs to more complicated situations like hospitalizations … (he) probably saved my life several times.”

“The world has lost so much with his passing and we were so lucky for the many years of service he gave to so many,” said Blair.

Carrie Peters of Groton on Monday said Dr. Toll took care of her four children, Torie, 22, Shelby, 21, Wyatt, who died at 15, and Luke, 12.

“When I was pregnant with Torie I was trying to decide on a pediatrician and I thought it would be neat to go to the same doctor as my husband had,” she said. “So that started our journey. Things were pretty uneventful with my girls but when my son Wyatt was born with special needs then there was lots of visits to Dr. Toll and lots of questions. Wyatt was born with Microcephaly and had all sorts of neurological problems.”

“Of course we spent lots of time at Dartmouth, but it was Dr. Toll who when I asked him how long did he think Wyatt would live to be told me ‘a teenager,’ that Wyatt’s brain would not be able to keep up with his body’s needs,” Peters said. “Oddly enough the specialists at DHMC told me many different answers – from as long as 50-60 years old to Wyatt will just keep getting pneumonia and die. In August of 2015 Wyatt passed away peacefully at 15 years old, exactly how Dr. Toll predicted, not multiple pneumonia’s, just peacefully at home with us. It still amazes me today how he knew this. And Dr. Toll and Bridget coming to Wyatt’s funeral and coming over and hugging me meant the world to me and I will never forget that.”

When her son Luke was about 5 and was admiring the sailboat pictures on Dr. Toll’s office wall, Dr. Toll invited him on a 3-day sailing trip, which Luke went home and packed for, said Peters.

Peters said, “There are many stories about how he fit us in any day no matter how busy his schedule was,” said Peters, who said she still misses his ability to diagnose what is going on with her children. “I always knew I could call, get in, and that Dr. Toll would take great care of my children.”

A celebration of life service for Dr. Toll will be held at The Creamery Restaurant in Danville from 1-4 p.m. on Friday.


Sunday, January 29, 2023

The Lyndonville Jewish Cemetery Controversy, and the St. Johnsbury Relief: Congregation Beth El

My husband Dave Kanell (1952-2019) used to talk about "institutional memory": the capacity for an organization to know and understand its past. In many ways, Dave tried to BE that set of memories for Congregation Beth El in St. Johnsbury. 

Recently I realized that the history of the Jewish burial area at Mt. Pleasant Cemetery had faded from most people around me. Dave is no longer here to tell the story, but I think these documents speak well to what happened and the flaring emotions around it.

From the Memories File: Congregation Beth El

Between us, Dave and I kept many scraps of paper, photos, cards, from our years as part of Congregation Beth El in St. Johnsbury. Dave probably first stepped into the sanctuary in 1970 and committed right away to leading in every way he could; I arrived on his arm in 2002. 

Here are some of our treasures.

Ben and Rosalie Harris shared this on their 50th wedding anniversary.

The other side of the invitation card.

Three long-term presidents of the congregation: from left, Ben Harris, Al(fred) Zeller, and David Kanell.
Ladies in front: Phyllis Pegula Benoit, Gloria Caplan, Sheila Aronoff. Back row, Steve Dolgin, Harvey Caplan, Steve's sister Laura, Sid Nurenburg, Rayna Caplan.

Announcement of the service for Harvey Caplan's father Joseph Caplan -- may their names be for a blessing.

Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Photos from the History of Congregation Beth El, St Johnsbury, Vermont

Congregation Beth El used to meet in an upper floor of Luv's department store, across from today's Boxcar & Caboose in St. Johnsbury, Vt.

                                             From the Burlington Free Press, June 27, 1981.

Three long-term presidents of the congregation: from left, Ben Harris, Alfred Zeller, David Kanell.

                                            Art that hung in the entryway.


                            West Wall art by Chick Schwartz, on the west wall of the sanctuary.

Saturday, March 19, 2022

Jews and Slaughterhouses in the Northeast Kingdom: Appendix

 I'm adding this item for the sake of completion for the earlier piece, "Jews and Slaughterhouses of Vermont," https://jewsinvermont.blogspot.com/2012/01/quilting-pieces-jews-and.html.