John Ewing sought common ground

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John Ewing sought common ground

Thu, 11/30/2017 - 6:06am -- tim

by Timothy McQuiston Vermont Business Magazine John Ewing was a lawyer who eventually became a bank president, which is an unusual progression in the financial world. He’s best remembered today as an environmentalist. But John Ewing did not conform to the usual in any regard. He didn’t try to be a maverick and never raised his voice to be heard above the crowd. But people listened anyway. He simply was a man who loved his adopted state and wanted to do right by it.

Ewing, a longtime Burlington resident, died November 26 after a battle with bone marrow cancer at age 85.

I first interviewed John Ewing soon after he was named president of Bank of Vermont. The former Burlington Savings Bank is now KeyBank Vermont and Ewing oversaw a couple of its transitions. He had come to the bank as general counsel and served for 20 years before getting the top job.

As I waited in the spacious second floor hallway of its Burlington headquarters, Ewing emerged from the wall barely noticed. It was one of those doorways that’s blended into the paneling. But that was just like him, hardly making a big fuss about anything but being there and doing important things.

He ran in Republican circles and was great friends with former Lieutenant Governor Barbara Snelling. They were both quiet and smart. But Ewing was not political. He was a graduate of Amherst College and Yale Law School.

After leaving the bank as it transitioned to KeyBank, he was appointed by Governor Dean to chair the Vermont Environmental Board. This was not a squishy tree-hugger job. At the time it was, among other things, the rancorous appeals board for Act 250 decisions (in 2009 the E-Board’s judicial functions were transferred to Superior Court, Environmental Division and the E-Board was renamed the Natural Resources Board).

The Vermont Natural Resources Council sometimes complained about the direction of the E-Board during Ewing’s tenure, but even that came full circle with Ewing eventually being a member of the VNRC advisory council.

By 1998, E-Board passions had cooled and professionalism restored. Ewing eventually was given much of the credit by all sides for the restoration of civility.

Ewing is also known for his contributions to dozens of non-profit organizations across Vermont and for his years of service on the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board.

Together with Elizabeth Humstone, Ewing founded the Vermont Forum on Sprawl in 1997. His VNRC bio said he saw an urgent need for an organization that would bring together diverse, and at times opposing, interests to discuss how Vermont could have a strong economy and housing options while protecting the farms and forestland that define the state's working landscape. (The Vermont Forum on Sprawl, which was renamed Smart Growth Vermont 2007, merged with VNRC in 2011.)

John Ewing could find a way forward between opposing forces that put humanity first.

In 2012, the Vermont Natural Resources Council recognized Ewing with the Arthur Gibb Award for Individual Leadership.

When he took the E-Board position, I asked him why he’d ever want to do that.

“There's a whole bunch of reasons. First of all, I have a very strong sense that people ought to have some public service in their life, particularly in Vermont, where democracy is still possible, and works fairly well. It's so important for people to be involved in the public process. And an awful lot of people are, and I've just felt very strongly about that, so that was one reason. I've always wanted to finish my working career out of private business and in the public sector. Secondly, I've always had a strong interest in environmental regulation. I was on the District Commission in Chittenden County, and as chair for quite awhile, I got quite knowledgeable about the Act 250 system. I feel that Act 250 is not the answer to everything, but it's an important piece of the puzzle in Vermont. I don't think a regulation like Act 250 is ultimately going to make the difference between a strong environment and a weak environment. But it's certainly a strong contributor to helping that. And I believe very strongly in the environment in Vermont and protecting it. Thirdly, I've always been fascinated about the tension between the business community and the environmental community. Or, more broadly, quote, the environment versus jobs. And I feel very strongly that it's not the environment versus jobs, but the two are totally consistent, particularly in Vermont. In fact, they depend upon each other. There's so much misperception about them. And I was very interested in the challenge of working on that misperception as best I could. I think I'm perceived as a person that's moderate in my views. I think people realize I have a strong feeling about Vermont and the environment, but that I also come from a business background. So, that puts me in a good position to try and bridge the gap. Polarization, I think, is one of the biggest problems we have in terms of making progress. I'm trying to work on that polarization.”