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Hundreds attend Brattleboro vigil

December 20, 2001

By SUSAN SMALLHEER Southern Vermont Bureau

BRATTLEBORO — Even with his death, Robert Woodward had something to give.

Hundreds of people tied simple yarn friendship bracelets on strangers’ wrists as the Brattleboro community came together Wednesday to try to come to grips with the tragedy that has dominated this town for two weeks.

The brightly colored bracelets belonged to Woodward, the Bellows Falls man who was shot to death by Brattleboro police at the All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church on Dec. 2.

Friends and strangers gathered for the first time Wednesday to start to confront the divisions and conflicting emotions in the town, and to pay tribute to a person described as a peaceful man who devoted his life to helping needy children and who rejected materialism.

The bracelets, said his longtime friend Mary Rives of Amherst, Mass., came from Bali, where Woodward had once traveled.

Rives and other friends distributed fistfuls of the small yarn bracelets pew by pew in St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, and Rives asked strangers and friends to tie on the friendship bracelets in memory of “Woody.”

The simple act brought many to tears. Virtually everyone in the church tied on the bracelets, a tangible promise that Woodward wouldn’t be forgotten.

Woodward had called Rives and her family from the church the morning he was killed, crying for help, saying he had been “assassinated” and shouting into a cell phone held by a church member that he loved them.

The non-denominational service Wednesday, organized by Brattleboro people who didn’t know Woodward but who wanted his friends and family to know that many in town were upset with his death, drew people from all political and economic corners of Brattleboro. Acting Police Chief John Martin attended the service, along with Town Manager Jerry Remillard and four of the five Select Board members.

There were business people and lawyers, activists and artists, musicians and mothers, friends and strangers from many towns and at least four states where Woodward had lived.

Some people expressed disbelief that Woodward — who for some reason was acting in a deranged manner the morning of Dec. 2 — was shot by police. But Wednesday’s gathering was peaceful and subdued, not angry.

Patricia Plover of Springfield, who knew Woodward because she was his grandmother’s neighbor, said Woodward had been deeply affected by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Plover praised Woodward, as many have, for his devotion and care. “How many grandsons take care of their elderly grandmothers?” she asked.

Woodward loved to go running, she said, and he would run through the woods to Weathersfield, over to Perkinsville and back to his grandmother’s home on Reservoir Road.

Plover reminded the gathering that material things meant little to Woodward, who worked with special needs children in the Springfield area. Another friend, Stephen Monroe Tomczak of Connecticut, said Woodward collected friends, not possessions.

“He could put all his belongings in this pew,” Plover said.

There wasn’t any outright criticism of the police. Organizer Thom Namaya said the service was held to start the healing process in this town, which prides itself on its acceptance of others and its tolerance for different points of view.

“We’re sorry it took us so long in Brattleboro to come together,” said Jack Rieley, who thanked Woodward’s many friends for “making the difficult trek here.”

The death of Woodward will be a “profound and lasting concern. We’re as troubled as you are,” he said to Woodward’s friends in the front pews. “We need to start this process of moving forward, so this tragedy doesn’t happen again. None of us want this to happen again.”

A group of about six friends sang a song one of them had written in Woodward’s memory. Another sang a song called “Woody’s Flight”:

“Give me sanctuary

I need a place to hide

Til this storm blows over

Let me come inside.”

The crowd left the church by candlelight singing, “Peace, peace, peace in every land.”

Many walked the short distance to the Brattleboro Municipal Center, where the police department is located. On the steps of the town hall, roughly 100 people sang songs, including John Lennon’s “Imagine.”

Later many went to the Common Ground, a downtown restaurant, for soup and tea and fellowship, in the words of Namaya,

“Let’s bring all this energy together and let’s find a way for this town to move forward,” Namaya said. “Action will happen down the road.”

Contact Susan Smallheer at