By Auditi Guha/VTDigger
CASTLETON — More than 150 people packed the Fine Arts Center at Vermont State University’s Castleton campus on Sunday afternoon, Oct. 22. They were there to remember Fleming, who husband Ron Powers described as “brilliant in science and brilliantly loving.”
Gail Freedman remembers an afternoon stroll with Honoree Fleming on the very rail trail where her friend would later be killed.
During that conversation, Freedman recalled, they discussed “the healing power of impassioned work, her fascinating, truly groundbreaking research, the simple joys of preparing food, the more complicated joys of marriage to wonderful but challenging men.”
Freedman, an independent filmmaker, was one of several speakers Sunday afternoon at a memorial service for Fleming, a retired scientist who had served as academic dean at Castleton.
Fleming, 77, was shot to death on the D&H Rail Trail, not far from the campus, on Oct. 5. The identity of the shooter is unknown and no arrests have been made, though police have released a sketch of a “person of interest” who was seen in the area at the time of her death.
A former dean at Castleton who hired Fleming as an associate academic dean in 2002, Joe Mark called Fleming a good friend and a trusted colleague whose sudden death has shaken the community. “The fact that someone so caring, so generous, so good would be savagely gunned down in broad daylight in our little town shakes us to the core,” he said. “It profoundly threatens our world view, our understanding of human beings, our sense of what we can expect of life, even our confidence in moving about in nature.”
Freedman is finalizing a documentary inspired by the nonfiction book “No One Cares About Crazy People: My Family and the Heartbreak of Mental Illness in America,” which Fleming’s husband, Ron Powers, wrote about their family. It was during Freedman’s walk with Fleming that the latter agreed to be a part of the documentary that would tell their family story.
“Her brilliance was manifest. So were her warmth and her wit and her wicked sense of humor,” Freedman said in her remarks Sunday. “I came to marvel at how this amazing, accomplished woman was so fundamentally good and decent and unspoiled.”
Fleming, according to Freedman, was “one of the world’s true gifts to humanity.”
Dean Powers, Fleming’s son, said in a eulogy that she always protected and looked out for her family. She had supported him steadily through tumultuous teenage years, he said, and a struggle with substance use disorder. “She just kept putting up with me and kept forgiving me and kept loving me,” he said.
Though she was an agnostic who believed in science, not miracles, Fleming was “more Christian in her deeds than those who profess faith but practice it not,” Dean Powers said. She sacrificed for her family and was loyal to its members.
“Mom was so concerned with providing for our family that she often wore discount or recycled clothing. I don’t even own a suit,” he said. Fleming didn’t believe in outward appearances, he said, only in inner character.
“Brilliant in science and brilliantly loving,” is how Ron Powers, a Pulitzer Prize and Emmy Award-winning journalist and writer, described her Sunday.
He said they met in the spring of 1976 on a flight from LaGuardia Airport to Chicago O’Hare International Airport. He remembered her as a luminous woman with long auburn hair and bright green eyes. But it was her serenity and aura of wisdom and decency that captured his heart. He prayed she would sit next to him, he recalled, and she did. “We were friends before we landed in Chicago, but I knew I wanted to marry her before she sat down,” he said.
Fleming was the best human he had ever met, he said. He described how she had supported the family through grave misfortune, including the schizophrenia diagnoses of both their sons and the death by suicide of their younger son, Kevin, a week before his 21st birthday, in the summer of 2005.
“Her name could have been chosen by the gods. Honoree consecrated her life to love and goodness,” Ron Powers said. “She was a happy woman and she made others happy. She made me happy on a scale I’d never known existed. I hope I made her happy.”
Scrupulously honest, of staggering intellect and serene courage is how some of the speakers described the professor who retired from Castleton in 2012 but continued her research in cell differentiation.
Many shared stories of how Fleming touched and changed their lives.
“She showed me the importance, through her actions of love and unceasing support, of family. And it’s for that reason that I wish to celebrate the life of my friend and mentor,” said Ronald Sherwin, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.
Sherwin said Fleming hired him at Castleton in 2004 and “immediately began to mentor me in ways that changed my life.”
Despite tragedies in her life and challenges in his career, Sherwin said, Fleming “never missed a beat in her efforts to mentor me to help me become a more fully developed academic and, frankly, to be a better human being.”
He then sang a hymn: “Take my hand, precious lord, lead me home.”
By Glenn Russell/VTDigger
Ron Powers (left) husband, and Dean Powers (right) son, both spoke during a celebration of life for Honoree Fleming at the Vermont State University’s Castleton campus on Sunday, Oct. 22.