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60 Years of Marriage in 5 Words

The wisdom of Bren and Dorothy Whittaker, who met on campus in 1952.

Bren and Dorothy Whittaker
John Solem

Brendan “Bren” Whittaker ’57 walks beneath a stand of red pines he planted as seedlings in Brunswick, Vermont, in 1960. They tower 80 feet tall, testament to the forestry education he received at UMass Amherst in the 1950s. 

Back at the Whittakers’ farmhouse, Dorothy Whittaker ’56 is preparing to open her vegetable stand for the day. Her organically grown greens, tomatoes, peas, corn, squash, and more also attest to what she learned over 60 years ago at UMass.

“We are growers,” says Bren, “UMass gave us life-giving enduring careers.”

The Whittakers, married 60 years in May, met as freshmen lab partners sifting soil samples in the basement of Stockbridge Hall. Immediately after Dorothy graduated, they were wed in downtown Amherst’s Grace Church, decorated for the occasion with lilac boughs from campus.

In the following six decades, they raised three children in this farmhouse in far northeast Vermont just 11 miles from Canada. Both Whittakers took on dual careers: Ordained in 1966, after achieving a master’s degree in divinity, Bren is an Episcopal priest as well as a forester. A leader in conservation efforts, and a distinguished alumnus of the UMass forestry school, he served as Vermont Secretary of Natural Resources. Dorothy, who switched majors from olericulture (the science of vegetable raising) to education, worked as a teacher before turning back to the farm. Bren is still a visiting minister and busy with his trees and environmental activism, while, with the help of their son Andrew, Dorothy continues to raise vegetables in five hoop houses and on plots scattered over their 70 acres of land.

The five-word key to their 60-year marriage, Dorothy says, is “joint interests and independent pursuits.” And their ongoing labors have kept them impressively strong and sharp. Not long ago, Bren planted some sturdy white pine for his grandchildren to harvest. After walking over a bridge he built himself to where two streams converge in the forest, he stands on a trace of a circa 1830s ox road and quotes John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem “Snow-Bound” at length. For her part, Dorothy cannot restrain herself from pulling weeds and says she can still “throw a rock where I want it to go.” In addition to a shared love of growing things, their joint interests include opera at Catamount Arts in St. Johnsbury and reading. The house they have lived in since 1959 brims with books on every surface.

UMass yearbook photos of the Whittakers.

        UMass yearbook photos of the Whittakers.

One morning this summer, Bren and Dorothy took a rare break to recount memories of UMass that have stayed with them for a lifetime. The first thing they recalled is that back in the 1950s, women were not allowed to enter the forestry building—Dorothy had to wait outside for Bren. They both remember going together to hear Robert Frost read on campus. Dorothy also heard Eleanor Roosevelt speak about the United Nations in her distinctive piping voice.

Bren recalls forestry classes on Mount Toby, reading Thoreau in the Goodell library, and the philosophies of legendary botany professor Ray E. Torrey, who was a lifelong influence on him. Bren washed dishes at Dalton’s Diner while Dorothy worked in the dining hall. Because both Bren and Dorothy came to UMass from eastern Massachusetts, their parents stayed in faculty homes during Parents Weekend. 

Dorothy vividly remembers noted plant pathologist Walter “Willie” Banfield’s almost comical enthusiasm for teaching and how he would change to his field clothes in a classroom closet. “Dig in kids, potato rot!” he would say. Dorothy still relies on his plant pathology lessons on the farm today.

She goes on to quote another of her influences, professor of entomology Charles “Doc” Alexander: “Just as sure as you’re born, you’ll find bedbugs everywhere in the world.”

Back in the fifties, religion was a greater part of campus life than in this secular age, says Bren. He came to UMass a Roman Catholic, while Dorothy was a Congregationalist; together they became Episcopalians. 

The Whittakers don’t spend undue time being nostalgic. Resuming full summer swing, Bren climbs into the car, clearing The Book of Common Prayer and Roadside Geology of Vermont and New Hampshire off the seat before heading to an afternoon appointment with a local landowner who wants his advice on managing his 500-acre forest of northern hardwoods. Dorothy gets back to washing beet greens for market. Anticipating another long day of farm chores, she remarks, “We just keep putting one foot forward and dragging the other behind.”

Read the short version of this story, which appeared in the Fall 2016 print edition of UMass.