Severance cornered: Colchester landowner talks history, new book

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Malcolm Severance, 91, speaks at his Colchester home last week. (Photo by Jason Starr)

Malcolm Severance, 91, speaks at his Colchester home last week. (Photo by Jason Starr)

When Malcolm Severance was looking to settle down and raise a family, he and his wife, Gladys, surveyed all the possibilities that would combine proximity to his job at the University of Vermont and the rural lifestyle of his youth.

The best choice just happened to be right next to his parents’ farm on Route 7 on a parcel just north of the Colchester road that carries the family name. That is where, 50 years later, Severance began penning a history of an institution where he was educated, taught and served as a trustee.

“A Pursuit of Excellence: A History of the University of Vermont School of Business Administration” was published this year. Severance discussed the book and the future of his 100-plus acres in the geographic center of Colchester last week.

His property makes up the northern half of Severance Corners, a state-designated growth center pre-permitted to absorb a majority of the town’s residential and commercial growth over the next 50 years as a bulwark against suburban sprawl.

The right answer

The Severance family goes back six generations in Vermont. Severance’s father, Herb, grew up on the original family farm in Colchester’s village off Main Street. Herb moved Severance and the family to what is now Severance Road when Malcolm was 5. They owned and farmed the land east of Route 7 and leased some of the fields on the west side, where Severance now lives.

At one point, the Severance family owned all four quadrants of what is now the Severance Corners growth center. They have since sold the two southern quadrants, including the southwestern one to S.D. Ireland, where a neighborhood of condominiums and commercial space has sprung up over the last decade.

Severance retains the two northern quadrants.

Ideas for the land have come and gone, including locating the headquarters of the Colchester Police Department, a neighborhood of single family homes (the developer backed out after waiting for the housing market to recover from the 2009 recession) and most recently community center there (see related story, page 1.)

Even the circumferential highway, with a right-of-way that bisects the property, has been tabled.

Severance has been involved in all these discussions, as have his three children who all live in Chittenden County.

The book cover of Severance's new book, "A Pursuit of Excellence." (Courtesy photo)

The book cover of Severance’s new book, “A Pursuit of Excellence.” (Courtesy photo)

“It’s a good idea, but it had to be fleshed out, and it’s still being fleshed out,” Severance said of the 2006 growth center legislation that Colchester’s then town planner, Brenda Green, helped write. “There are so many different thoughts that rise, get critiqued, fall away, then another thing comes up. Sooner or later you get the right answer, and what that’s going to be is yet to be determined.”

Severance and Gladys describe their family as close knit and without secrets. They get together regularly to discuss the future of the property.

“We do know people who are interested, and the town is very interested in helping us find developers, because they want to concentrate growth,” Severance said. “We are happy to talk about it, but we want to make sure that whatever we do is right for the long haul.”

Fortunate finale

Severance spent the last five years, working from a home office on a part-time basis, researching and writing the history of UVM’s business school. As a former business department chairman who shepherded the department into business school status in 1981, it’s “a history that he, in no small part, created and inspired,” said former UVM president Daniel Fogel, who wrote the book’s foreword.

Severance had the book ready for publication in 2013, when he discovered there would be one essential final chapter. He had heard rumors about a wealthy philanthropist, UVM graduate Steven Grossman, who was preparing a large donation to the school.

Last October, Grossman publicly committed $20 million to the school. It was a fitting finale to a story that began with a $50,000 endowment in 1899 from John Converse, whose name bears Converse Hall on the UVM campus.

After the public announcement, Severance interviewed Grossman and finished the book. The business school is now named the Grossman School of Business.

“John Converse and Steven Grossman are the Alpha and the Omega of this story,” Severance writes at the beginning of the final chapter.

“I lucked out because this story has a great beginning and a great ending, but it wasn’t by design,” Severance said.

Severance held a book signing at the Burlington Phoenix Books location on Church Street on Tuesday.