(This story was first published in the July 18, 2013 edition of the Vermont Standard.)
By Virginia Dean
If there was one quintessential characteristic that described the late Peter Gratiot it was, according to family and friends, being a problem solver.
An engineer hailing from St. Louis, Mo., Gratiot came to Vermont in the early ’40s to ski, met his future wife, Daphne, and nearly 10 years later took up residence in Woodstock where he founded the Gratiot Engineering Company that he operated for more than 40 years.
Gratiot, 92, died on July 4 at the Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H. Besides Daphne, he leaves four children and three grandchildren.
“As I reflect on my childhood and memories of my dad,” said son Dan, “I think that at the most basic level he had a wonderful sense of curiosity and interest in solving problems. Clearly, this was expressed in his career choice and all of his diverse interests and hobbies.”
One of those interests lay in computers. In the mid-’70s, Gratiot built his first computer, long before anyone even imagined that these machines would become commonplace, as his sons Dan and John recalled.
“I remember Dad coming home in the evening and sitting together at a table in our living room while he would soldier capacitors, resisters, and other mysterious but fascinating bits and bobs together,” said Dan. “When done, it had rows of lights and switches on the front! I had no idea what it could do or not do, but I just loved watching and participating in the process of making it!”
“It” was a MITS Altair 8800 designed in 1975 and based on the Intel 8080 CPU. The computer types were sold as build-it-yourself kits to hobbyists and are now widely recognized as the springboard to the microcomputer revolution transforming eventually into the first programming language for Microsoft’s Altair BASIC.
“Dad created the circuit boards for it,” said John. “I can remember sitting with him actually flipping the switches on and off. The computer required a sequence of these. Otherwise it wouldn’t turn on.”
Described by his son John, Gratiot was a technically fascinating, intellectually challenging man who always looked for solutions to unknown answers. Gratiot’s design of the Killington Gondola wind screen received a national award from the Consulting Engineers Council.
“He was an incredibly passionate technical person,” said John. “He loved solving problems. He spent years working for a company after World War II that designed flight simulators for airplanes and helicopters. In fact, he was one of the earliest professional engineers in the state of Vermont.”
Gratiot attended the St. Louis Country Day School, the Berkshire School in Massachusetts, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he received a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering and a master’s degree in economics.
He also served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, designing wings for new airplanes, according to John. His father also loved to fly and had a private pilot’s license for many years.
Aside from his passion for engineering, Gratiot was involved and invested in many other aspects of community life. He took great interest in education, for example, spending time researching and working for improvements in state aid.
“Dad spent a huge amount of time writing software on his computer trying to find ways to show how education could be funded in a more appropriate way than through individual incomes, for example,” said John.
Gratiot eventually developed a funding system based on a community as a whole, Daphne added, rather than individuals.
“He designed state aid to education by measuring wealth through the income of towns in order to award money to those that needed it,” Daphne said. “It was similar to our Act 60 but it was based on communities.”
Gratiot was also intrigued with town politics and became a Selectman in Pomfret in the 1970s.
“He was so knowledgeable and helpful to me,” said Hazel Harrington who served as Pomfret’s town clerk from 1973-2003. “I was pretty green then, and he was accomplished. He was a nice man who treated me well.”
Whether as an engineer, a Selectman, or an investor in education, Gratiot took great pleasure and joy in his work, according to Gratiot’s wife Daphne.
“He encouraged others to get involved,” she said. “He had a very active mind and was always one jump ahead of people thinking about possible solutions to problems.”
Gratiot’s daughter, Nina, remembered that her father was “always doing, always busy, but busy in a manner of learning and discovering and expanding his mind.”
“He kept a daily record of the high and low temperature at the house and any rainfall or snowfall,” she said. “Then he compared those statistics over time and would talk about the changing weather, this year versus last year, the wettest year, the biggest snow.”
Nina said that Gratiot was very fond of statistics and used that to work on education funding in Vermont.
“(His research) was based on hours and hours of working with the numbers and statistics, sharing those statistics and trying to get others to understand the numbers. He was very passionate about trying to understand how the education funding system worked, and how it could be made more ‘fair.’ He truly believed that the numbers would help show what ‘fair’ really was.”
Projects were apparently ongoing at the Gratiot house, according to John, and everyone became happily consumed. One particular interest was in the Gratiot family history itself.
“He spent years researching and writing a book about his ancestor, Charles Gratiot, his great-great-great grandfather and an early settler in the Mississippi Valley and St. Louis,” said Nina.
Dan and his father traveled together to pursue their genealogy.
“I was traveling to the United Kingdom to visit graduate schools (around 1979-1980), so we used it as an excuse to visit France and follow some family history leads (dad) had been exploring,” said Dan.
Father and son visited a distant relative there and spent a week or so traveling together around the Champaign region and southern Provence.
“It was a wonderful time,” Dan related. “I smile remembering how much my father enjoyed speaking French, enjoying the warm summer, great French food, and the hospitality of a very distant branch of our family.”
Other projects such as building fences, digging holes to find broken pipes, or some other handy work abounded at the Gratiots.
“One trait I certainly gained from my father is the ability to become happily consumed by a project,” said Nina. “At some point, the end is less important than the journey!”
Gratiot helped his daughter build a radio, soldering the transistors and wires together, Nina recalled. He also loved being outside.
“He was always mowing the lawn, mowing the paths up to the fields, through the apple orchard, around the swamp,” she said. “He was the first to plow the driveway when we had snow. And, when we were very little and had horses and ponies on the place, he was always out the door to feed in the morning, chop the ice off the trough in the winter, and throw hay to them. We had to wait on Christmas morning to open presents until Dad had fed the horses. Oh, how we hated to wait!”
Dan remembered walks in the woods, any time of year.
“I especially enjoyed the times we would go cross-country skiing around our farm in the fresh snow and stop somewhere to enjoy a campfire with a few hot dogs and marshmallows,” he said. “We often did this with my parents’ close friends, Will and Jane Curtis. It was always a fun day out.”
Will Curtis was Dan’s godfather, and Jane Curtis, Nina’s godmother.
“He was a slender, elegant man,” said Jane Curtis. “He had a wonderful way of treating you. I can just see him sitting in front of the drugstore or the like right now. You really felt that he was happy to see you, that you had made his day better because he had seen you.”
That kind of endearing support did not seem to be just for Gratiot’s friends.
“I guess what sticks with me is a man who shared his passions, sense of curiosity, and high expectations,” Dan reflected. “Most importantly, at the end of the day, he was there when I needed advice, and he was always supportive of my dreams. When it came down to a decision, he would say, ‘if that’s what you want to do, your mother and I are behind you 100!’ And he was.”
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