copyright the chronicle 05-08-13
by Tena Starr
NEWPORT — Marcel Roberts — real estate agent, businessman, auctioneer, and lender, the man widely known as Boss Hog — died on Monday after a long battle with cancer.
With him goes a vestige of another time in the Northeast Kingdom, a time when dairy farming was quite a different business than it is today, and when what happened to Northeast Kingdom land was less of a civilized matter.
Mr. Roberts was colorful, controversial, and clever, an iconic Northeast Kingdom character who drove a white Cadillac, wore a flashy diamond ring, and was nicknamed Boss Hogg after a character in the Dukes of Hazard TV show.
He was, however, a far shrewder man than his TV counterpart. A self-made man, a farmer himself at one time, he went on from poor roots to become a well-to-do man and a mover and shaker in the volatile world of dairy farming and land sales during the 1980s, a man who had a mixed relationship with the farmers he mostly made his money from.
Mr. Roberts’ name will forever be associated with a time in the Northeast Kingdom when small dairy farmers were rapidly going out of business, but there were always others waiting in line for the cows, buildings, machinery, and land that Mr. Roberts both bought, sold, and even financed.
In an interview with this paper in 1988, Mr. Roberts insisted there was little future for the small, family dairy farm in Vermont, and made no bones about his own thinking:
“Every goddamned farmer’s got a rope around his neck and his tongue’s hanging down to his toes,” he said in his typically flavorful, and straightforward, language. “It’s a hell of a feeling to see some of them walk away with the wolves snapping at their heels, after them for money, and they don’t have it.”
Mr. Roberts himself was sued more than once by farmers who believed he was, in fact, one of those wolves, a man who lent them the money to get in, or stay in, business, but then turned around and foreclosed, or took back their cows when they were struggling.
That was Marcel Roberts, viewed as a fiend by some, a friend, often of last resort, by others.
“I can’t say anything bad about him,” said Roger Lussier, who calls himself a business friend and was a longtime lender and president of the Lyndonville Savings Bank who often worked with Mr. Roberts. “He was a market maker. He created a market for a lot of people. I begged him to go to auctioneer school. No, I can’t say anything bad about him.
“Years ago everyone was putting farmers in business,” Mr. Lussier continued. “The way the market went there was enough money to operate small farms. I really miss those small farms. It changed kind of fast. I loved doing business with farmers. Far as I’m concerned, farmers were the most honest around. Marcel helped out a lot of guys. He took money from his own pocket when they couldn’t get money somewhere else. His word was good as gold. I can’t say nothing bad about Marcel.”
Mr. Lussier vigorously defended Mr. Roberts in a 1987 lawsuit where the real estate agent was accused of illegally repossessing cows he’d sold to an Albany farm couple. The trial was one of many instances where Mr. Roberts was portrayed as both a sharp wheeler dealer and one of the few men farmers and people with bad credit could turn to for help.
At that trial, which Mr. Roberts lost, Mr. Lussier argued that the verdict would be a serious blow to farmers with shaky credit. People who need co-signers for a loan — and Mr. Roberts often did co-sign loans — will have a far tougher time getting loans if co-signers are afraid of getting sued, Mr. Lussier argued.
“Years ago, when you financed people, they came and thanked you for helping them out,” he said at the time.
“Marcel was basically one of a kind,” said Barton lawyer Bill Davies, who once represented Mr. Roberts in a lawsuit, and who was also sued by Mr. Roberts.
“He was from a different era than we have today. He was very personable and he certainly was bright. I do think that Marcel, while being a shrewd business person, generally thought he was helping the people he was involved with.”
His family said they are aware Mr. Roberts’ long career was often a controversial one, but they want people to know the generous, kind-hearted side of him as well.
His daughter Lori said she’d like him to be remembered for his good heart. “He helped so many people.”
Family members said he helped friends and acquaintances who were short of money to buy Christmas gifts for their children, he paid for one woman’s trip to Hawaii to see an injured family member, and he helped many others with money or time.
“These are all things people never knew about him,” said Stella Roberts, his wife of 51 years.
He acquired the nickname Boss Hogg — a name that amused him — when David Turner, a business friend, bought him a white Stetson hat. “The name just stuck,” Mrs. Roberts said. “He thought it was a big joke.”
He was born in East Albany on the farm his father worked; his mother was a real estate agent. And he was a farmer himself, his wife said in an interview at their home on Tuesday.
“We started out on a 1,000-acre farm in Lowell,” Mrs. Roberts said. At the time, they were 19 years old. “The neighbors said we were like kids playing house.”
But farming is no game. It was a hard life, still is, and it can be a hard one in which to turn a dollar. Later in life, Mr. Roberts expressed little sentimentality about farms, which he believed had to be operated as a business.
“He thought there was probably an easier way to make a living,” Mrs. Roberts said about her husband. “So he went to auctioneer school. By then we had three little girls. He practiced in the barn auctioneering the cows, the kids, everything.”
Sue Rhodes, one of Mr. Roberts’ daughters, joked that she’s still around, so apparently no one bought the kids.
Mr. Roberts’ first farm auction was the Lowell farm that he and his wife had owned and operated for five years.
The family moved to the Lake Road in Derby, and the prime years of Mr. Roberts’ career as an auctioneer took place there, Mrs. Roberts said.
At the age of 12, his daughter Lori, who now runs Roberts Real Estate, Inc., became his scribe, meaning that when there was an auction she wrote down what was sold, to who, and for how much. She said it was not uncommon to be taken out of school to work at an auction.
“I learned a lot more than I would have sitting in school,” she said.
Mrs. Roberts was the cashier.
In 1988 Mr. Roberts was still going strong. In an interview that year he said he had no idea how many auctions he’d held, but he was certain it was a record year. He was holding auctions at night to accommodate farmers working in their fields in the day.
At the time, he predicted that the combination of low prices for milk, lack of labor, and the trend toward automation would continue forcing small farmers — and himself — out of business
“I’m putting myself out of business,” he said. “But I can always jump into something else.”
One thing Mr. Roberts jumped into was the subdivision and sale of land, which he called a farmer’s nest egg.
In 2003 a Washington Superior Court judge ordered him to sell some of the subdivisions he’d created illegally through a plan that came to be known as pre-subdivision, where sellers were asked to subdivide land before sale in order to avoid Act 250 review.
In the end, he sued seven local attorneys for giving him bad advice on the pre-subdivision matter, but lost the suit.
“Marcel was a force in our community for many years and he’s going to be missed,” said attorney Greg Howe, one of the lawyers Mr. Roberts sued.
Hard feelings didn’t often linger in Mr. Roberts’ world. “You always knew where you stood with him,” Mrs. Roberts said. “That’s the way he was.”
Mr. Roberts died at age 70. In his later years he spent more time with family, and with his poker buddies, Mrs. Roberts said. He was also active in the Fraternal Order of Eagles #4329, the Orleans County Board of Realtors, and the annual Christmas Charity Auction.
Friends of Mr. Roberts may call from 6 to 9 p.m. on Thursday, May 9, at the Curtis-Britch-Converse-Rushford Funeral Home at 4670 Darling Hill Road in Newport. Funeral services will be held at 11 a.m. on Friday, May 10, at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Newport.
contact Tena Starr at firstname.lastname@example.org