McIndoe Falls Academy trustees got the news this past spring.

“Obviously, it was amazing news and it came totally out of the blue,” said Wally Thrall, president of the board of trustees on Friday morning. “Every meeting that the trustees have, the subject always comes up. But we wanted to do it right … we’ve never dealt with something like this before.”

The news?

Olive Cheney — longtime Peacham resident, 1936 Academy graduate, WCAX Super Senior and centenarian who passed away on Sept. 25, 2020 — divided her estate between McIndoe Falls Academy and the Peacham Church. Each entity is the recipient of $350,000, 80 percent of which will fund an endowment account dedicated to the long-term preservation of the buildings in question.

This Sunday, Oct. 17, at 2 p.m. the Academy grounds will be host to an outdoor celebration of Cheney’s life and legacy — rain date Oct. 24. Thrall said he expected the celebration to run about an hour to hour-and-a-half.

Thrall and Barry Lawson, friend of Cheney and another longtime Peacham resident, will be speaking at the celebration along with Ben Doyle, President of the Preservation Trust of Vermont and Jay Craven of Kingdom County Productions.

On Friday afternoon, Lawson said that he and his wife met Cheney soon after they moved to Peacham 26 years ago, but he got to know her a lot better when she asked him to be the executor of her estate.

“I always admired her a lot,” Lawson said. “She was a dear friend and a real lady. She had a great sense of humor, dry as it might be, and she was really authentic.”

“She walked around town as if she was 30 years younger than her actual age,” he added. “She loved community — not only here in Peacham where she lived and was a part of the church, but also she had a real fondness for McIndoe Falls, especially the Academy, which reminded her of her childhood.”

According to Cheney’s obituary, she attended the Academy from 1932 to 1936. Upon her graduation, she moved to New York City and worked at a bank for 25 years.

Following her departure from the bank, she spent six years working for a worldwide steamship company. Eventually, the firm relocated to New Orleans but Cheney, not wishing to make the move, took early retirement to spend more time in Vermont.

Most recently, Cheney was a board member of Peacham Community Housing and Emeritus Deacon of the Peacham Congregational Church.

“Cheney kept in touch with [McIndoe Falls Academy] people,” said Lawson. “Every so often they would have a reunion and it would have to be something very important to tear her away from attending that. The people like Wally on the board now, most of them knew her in her later years and I think they had the same feelings about her that I did.”

Lawson recalled Cheney’s 100th birthday party at the Peacham Church in 2019.

“It was a great thrill because the social hall was filled with friends from all over, including Quebec and New Hampshire,” he said. “We had a person doing some background music and I just got the feeling seeing her sway, sitting in her chair, that maybe she would like to dance.”

“I asked her if she’d like to have a dance, and she said ‘of course,’ Lawson continued. “So we got up and we had a dance for about 45 seconds … it was really a memorable thing to me. Everybody loved it and I know she did too.”

According to Thrall, Sunday’s celebration will formally acknowledge the receipt of Cheney’s gift, but it is not the last thing the trustees will do to try and express their gratitude.

“I think that’s a wonderful thing that they’re doing over there,” Lawson said of the celebration and the Academy. “It’s been wonderful for me to get to meet them and see and hear what some of their dreams and plans are for that community.”

Thrall said the endowment fund, established with the majority of Cheney’s generous gift, will be set up before the year’s end. The rest of the funds, unrestricted, have recently allowed the trustees to move forward with asbestos abatement that had to occur before other necessary structural work, now underway.

Earlier this year, the Academy received a $20,000 state historic preservation grant to help with the structural needs — replacing support columns in the basement, reinforcing trusses in the attic and replacing a 20-foot section of rot in the back wall — the Caledonian previously reported.

In addition, the trustees have started to engage a construction firm for planning and a conceptual design of the building’s “total rehab” job, which Thrall hopes will happen next year, as long as funding is available. The trustees have been working with Cynthia Stuart of Stuart Consulting to put their ducks in order and apply for further grant funds.

“The trustees have rolled up their sleeves and we intend to see this thing through,” said Thrall. “It’s a big project, but I think the community is behind us and I hope that people — not just in Barnet, but in Ryegate and Monroe, N.H. too — get wind of this and consider what it could mean for themselves and their villages.”

In the fall of 2020, the 10-member board of trustees adopted a new mission statement after a vote to turn the Academy building into town offices was defeated. The mission statement reads: “As a self-sustaining and all-inclusive community center, McIndoe Falls Academy will continue its enduring educational purpose, enrich the region with events and activities, and inspire an appreciation of local history.”

“We want to plan this out to do it once and to do it right,” said Thrall.

“I viewed that vote as a positive thing for the Academy,” he said, elucidating that 220 Barnet voters saw enough value in the historic structure that they were willing to borrow up to $1.65 million for the restoration of the Academy building.

“To be honest with you, speaking for myself: for the town to take over the building was the easy way out for the trustees,” Thrall said. “The building was too big for the town. […] I just felt we would have a much better community center if we continued to own the building and have it as the Academy versus the town owning it.”

Following this weekend’s celebration, Thrall is looking forward to grooming cross-country skiing trails out behind the Academy come winter, as long as the snowfall is adequate.

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