Guest columnist Larry Hott: ‘Daughter of Cummington’ brings stories to the stage

A still image from “The Cummington Story,” a 20-minute propaganda film about tolerance and acceptance of immigrants made in the small hilltown in 1945.

A still image from “The Cummington Story,” a 20-minute propaganda film about tolerance and acceptance of immigrants made in the small hilltown in 1945. Office of War Information

A still image from “The Cummington Story,” a 20-minute propaganda film about tolerance and acceptance of immigrants made in the small hilltown in 1945.

A still image from “The Cummington Story,” a 20-minute propaganda film about tolerance and acceptance of immigrants made in the small hilltown in 1945. Office of War Information

By LARRY HOTT

Published: 05-23-2024 7:54 PM

In 1945, the U.S. Office of War information came to Cummington to shoot “The Cummington Story,” a propaganda film about tolerance and acceptance of immigrants.

The people of the small western Massachusetts hilltown had several European refugees living among them. The film, with a score by Aaron Copland, creates an idealized view of democracy, while at the same time acknowledging that it took time for the locals and foreigners to feel comfortable with one another.

You can watch the 20-minute film on Vimeo. Look closely at the children walking together through the village and you’ll see a 7-year-old girl with a page-boy haircut. That’s Judy Cowell Meredith, now 85 years old and the wife of my dear friend Peter Rider. Judy grew up in Cummington on a small farm on Main Street.

I’ve known Judy for 46 years. When we first met in 1978, she took me to Cummington to visit her father, stepmother, and her family’s famous pet pig Susie, an enormous 2-ton sow who would chomp down giant zucchinis in one bite and guzzle a liter of orange soda as a chaser.

I heard stories about Judy’s dad, Stanley Cowell, whose position of selectman once brought him death threats. Judy told me how she and her friends worked at the camps and homes of the New Yorkers who summered in town.

Judy left Cummington and became a renowned political organizer in Massachusetts, eventually opening a lobbying firm, thriving in her job at the Massachusetts State House for over 40 years, representing poor, elderly and disabled people in legislative and equity campaigns.

She says she always thought of herself as a “Hilltown girl.” Her secret to success was approaching elected officials as if they were volunteers in her hometown.

“I left Cummington when I was 18, and yet I have never left Cummington. I have always thought of myself as a Hilltown girl in my personal and professional lives,” she writes in her new memoir, “A Hilltown Girl’s Storybook: Growing up in Cummington, Massachusetts.”

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I like to think she got the political bug, and perhaps her savvy, from attending the kind of town meetings portrayed in the propaganda film made in Cummington during her childhood. That childhood is lovingly and, sometimes, hilariously portrayed in Judy’s memoir.

“Our house on the main street had a big side yard, a barn, and key to this story, a clothesline,” opens the book, and the tales spin out from there: the embarrassment of trying to buy a bra for her mother at the general store, attending a small school with the same seven students from first grade through ninth, how the refugees featured in the Office of War Information film took English lessons from Judy’s teenage babysitter.

The book is more than sweet stories from the countryside. Judy doesn’t ignore the prejudices against outsiders, nor the challenges in her life after leaving western Massachusetts. In the latter part of the book, she writes about her decision to expand her family of three children by adopting an African American boy and a Native American boy through the Home for Little Wanderers. She turned her experience raising her multiracial children into the book, “And Now We Are a Family,” which got her involved in politics and helped launch her career.

Judy Cowell Meredith will be reading from “A Hilltown Girl’s Storybook,” which is published and distributed by the Cummington Historical Commission, at the Kingman Tavern Museum, 38 Main St., Cummington (next door to the house where Judy grew up) on Saturday at 2 p.m. The event is open to the public and is sponsored by the Cummington Historical Commission. Tea and cookies will be served.

Larry Hott of Florentine Films/Hott Productions lives in Florence.