Featured Alumnus: Geoff Doughty ’68
On that first trip, when I was led by the hand into the green sanctuary of a Pullman drawing room and saw spread out for my pleasure its undreamed-of facilities and its opulence and the porter holding the pillow in his mouth while he drew the clean white pillowcase up around it and the ladder to the upper and the three-speed electric fan awaiting my caprice at the control switch and the little hammock slung so cunningly to received my clothes and the adjoining splendor of the toilet room with its silvery appointments and gushing privacy, I was fairly bowled over with childish admiration and glee, and I fell in love with railroading then and there and have not been the same boy since that night. —E.B. White, “The Railroad,” Essays of E.B. White
When asked where his love for the railroad came from, Avonian Geoff Doughty ’68 references the essay by E.B. White that is imprinted on one of the first pages of his most-recent book, Amtrak, America’s Railroad: Transportation’s Orphan and Its Struggle for Survival, published by Indiana University Press. The book details the history behind the creation of “America’s Railroad” and how the failure of a national transportation policy and partisan politics have impaired its legitimacy as a necessary component of the nation’s passenger transportation network.
As a young child growing up north of Chicago in Winnetka, Illinois, he recalls traveling to LaSalle Street Station with his parents and brother to board the train that would take them for the summer to his grandparents’ home in Williamstown, Mass. His memories are just like that of the youth in E.B. White’s essay, immediately in love with the world of trains unfolding around him.
It was a love that would follow him from his home in Illinois to the quiet village of Avon Old Farms School, where each weekday night around 7:30 during study hall, he would ‘hear the plaintive wail of a Hancock air whistle blowing for the grade crossing which was located just a few hundred yards from the water tower.’ It was a love that would offer him a lifelong career when becoming a history teacher didn’t work out. And, it was a love that would inspire him to draw on lessons learned from Avon greats—to include Sid Clark, Seth Mendell, Frank Leavitt, and Don Pierpont—and write 30 books on the topic of the American railroad industry.
Upon earning his history degree at Franklin College, Doughty had difficulty finding a solid teaching job—as it turned out, schools weren’t looking for English or history teachers back then - schools wanted sports coaches who could teach English or history. After teaching for two years, first in Maine and then in Connecticut, he returned to Maine, a state that a college friend had introduced him to.
“I visited a friend’s home in Maine after Christmas while in college, and really enjoyed my stay. I thought to myself, this isn’t such a bad place to live. And so, two years later when money was cut at the school in Connecticut where I was teaching, I got a job at Maine Central Railroad through a family connection.”
Doughty started out in an intern-like role within the operating department before being moved to the accounting department (a role that was not his favorite, but would provide necessary insight later in life when he began writing railroad histories). After a couple of years, he moved to the engineering department in a clerical function. After a couple of years there, he was promoted to the safety department because of his familiarity with, and knowledge of, the railroad’s operations - and his ability to write.
“In a lot of things I’ve accomplished throughout my life, I can identify threads that trace back to Avon Old Farms School, and for that I am always grateful,” he explains. “My love of history really began at Avon taught by Courtney Bird, and my love of books was heavily influenced by Sid Clark. When I was promoted to the railroad’s safety department and had to go to my first hazardous materials spill, I wished I had paid more attention in Bill Kron’s chemistry class—and every time after that when there was a hazardous materials incident I would think, I REALLY wish I had paid more attention in Kron’s chemistry class.”
His early railroad experience and later as a safety official for three Northeast railroads served Doughty well when tasked, among other projects, with the creation of a drug and alcohol testing program for employees that predated federal regulations covering post-accident drug testing in the transportation industry. It was the first such program to be initiated for the rail industry in the Northeast. Another of his important contributions to the industry was aiding in the development and initiation of a railroad grade crossing safety program called Operation Lifesaver, for Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont.
After leaving the railroad he went on to work as a safety consultant to Maine municipalities creating training programs for emergency services and taught at the state's criminal justice academy. In 2007 he was hired as safety director for two northern New England trucking associations (New Hampshire and Vermont) where he worked with association member companies to reduce commercial vehicle collisions and personal injuries, wrote for the two associations' publications, created highway safety programs and seminars for the two associations, wrote, directed, and produced 11 safety training videos in collaboration with New Hampshire State Police, all of which, combined with his railroad experience, led to creating seminars in collaboration with federal and state law enforcement in New Hampshire and Vermont focusing on drug and alcohol substance abuse recognition. He retired in December 2017.
In tandem with his career, Doughty also pursued other passions. While he missed working for the railroad, in the mid-90s he realized that for rail lovers there were very few pieces of literature that were not locomotive picture books. He could hardly find anything on passenger trains and service, such as the one he fell in love with as a young boy.
“A little voice inside my head at that point said, ‘well, you can write…’ so I set pen to paper and started pretty soon after that. In fact, when it came time to write his first book, Doughty shares that one of his first phone calls was to Sid Clark seeking advice on where and how to begin. “Sid was a huge railfan actually. When I told him I wanted to write a book, he asked me, ‘Who’s going to buy it?’ When I replied, ‘Rail fans I suppose.’ he said, ‘Oh my God! There are thousands of those!’”
While his books do still contain many images, Doughty wanted his books to have a solid historical narrative, and so he entwined his love of history with his love of passenger trains and proceeded to write a history of his favorite railroads’ passenger services. When his first book was published and printed, it sold out and the publisher asked for another. To date, he has documented the passenger services of several of the major railroads in the United States and Canada, copies of which are all collected in Avon’s library, along with an encyclopedia of North American Railroads that contains several histories of railroads he also wrote.
Aside from his love for railroads, Doughty also enjoys classical music. During his years at Avon, he often went to the symphony with classmate Don Janney ’68 and others chaperoned by Jack Grove and other faculty. “About once a month during the winter season, we would load into Jack’s and another teacher’s car and drive into Hartford for the concert after dinner at the school. After the concert, we’d stop at Friendly’s for an ice cream or milkshake. Don would always get a cheeseburger, as rare as rare could be.”
One day in 1975 while still enjoying listening to a symphony play on the radio, he was offended when a local DJ butchered the name of a musician during a Portland Symphony radio broadcast. “I said, I could do a better job than this (I had worked for my college’s radio station) and my neighbor said to me, ‘why don’t you?’ So, I went down to the local station and as it turned out, the regular announcer had just retired and I was able to take over the broadcast as announcer and producer. Eventually I met with the orchestra’s manager and convinced him that we could manage the production ourselves for Public Radio and leave the local station out of the production mix, so we did.” A benefactor donated all of the equipment, and Doughty began broadcasting, year after year. Then, in 1987 while narrating a work on stage with the orchestra during a Christmas concert series, Doughty met a viola player backstage named Pam. In 1991, they got married. He is now in his 46th year as the orchestra’s radio broadcast announcer.
“It gives me pause to realize that more than 50 years have passed since my graduation from Avon in 1968. When we scattered after the ceremony, I’m not sure any of us gave any thought about class reunions. With the exception of saying farewell to a few close friends, we departed the school without looking back. Our future lay before us. Graduation changed our lives. Five years later at our first official reunion, we began forging stronger friendships with those whom we found shared a common love: Avon Old Farms.”
When asked what he thinks it is that keeps a core group of his class so tight, he says that it is “The enigma of friendship. The people who I call my closest friends today from Avon were not my best friends during our high school years. But, there’s something about our shared experience, shared understanding, and shared instruction that has bonded us together. We all truly loved and are grateful for our time at Avon, and while we may recall different highlights of our high school years, we have a shared love of place when it comes to our school.
“Those bonds became stronger as years passed. This is a credit to the school that Mrs. Riddle founded, but what became more apparent was the bond forged between Donald Pierpont, his faculty, and us. The faculty was hand-picked by Pierpont after he opened the school. Pierpont was a remarkable human being; a genuine humanitarian. When we graduated in June 1968, most of them had been at the school for close to 20 years and were part of the school’s tight-knit fabric. As we matured, we realized the role they and the school played in making us who we are. We also were Don Pierpont’s last graduating class and I believe that weighed heavily upon us.
“For 50 years the school has flourished. While its outlook has changed some, much remains the same. Avon shapes character because of leadership, structure, academics, sports, and tradition; it provides students opportunities never imagined by us, although I suppose there are some things of which Mrs. Riddle wouldn’t approve. Certainly, wifi, cell phones, Facebook, television, use of the word ‘awesome,’ shorts, t-shirts emblazoned with political or social commentary, fast foods, are just a few among them. But, there’d be a lot she’d be proud of. One aspect in particular remains constant: Avon provides a compass for those in search of direction.”
We hope that all of our alumni who feel a pull in their heart when thinking about Avon Old Farms find their way back to us this spring as we plan to celebrate Reunion Weekend in June.