Last Sunday, the phone rang late in the evening and I received word that my dear friend, Lois Williams, had died. I share news of Lois’ passing because she was so important for me as I began my Vermont journey, back in the 1970’s, showing films and making films here. As a grassroots/populist filmmaker and arts activist – I deeply appreciated Lois and others like her.
Lois was a frontline supporter of what I call “cultural film” and the arts. I first met her back around 1979 or so, shortly after she and her husband, Russ, moved to Lower Waterford. Back then, I ran Catamount Arts which was mostly a film series that played at St. Johnsbury’s Frank R. Adams School – and the Alexander Twilight Theater at Lyndon State College. We’d play Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in “The Big Sleep,” Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times,” Robert Altman’s “Nashville” and a range of foreign films, too – pictures like Fellini’s “La Strada,” “Kurosawa’s “Rashamon,” Bresson’s “Pickpocket” and Pontecorvo’s “Battle of Algiers.”
During our first year of screenings, before the advent of video, people in surrounding towns contacted me to see if I’d consider developing a circuit, where they could show the films, too, in Barton, Johnson and Franconia, New Hampshire, where local arts activists rented the auditorium at Profile High School to screen our films on Sunday nights. We’d arrange a fairly precise hand-off of the 16mm film prints and Bell and Howell projector – and on one snowy Sunday morning, a late model Audi pulled into my Barnet driveway and out stepped Lois Williams.
“I’m here to pick up the film,” she said.
And so it was for the next several years. Sometimes Lois would send one her sons, Alex or Jon, for the pick-up – and I remember a few rendezvous with Steve Dignazio, who went on to establish the Colonial Theater organization that shows films – and saved that classic movie house. We were all film lovers and we’d travel in any weather to keep our circuit going. Lois was a stalwart – she and Russ would also travel a hundred miles or more, round-trip, to see a movie that interested them.
Lois was curious about people and would strike up conversations with anyone she encountered, without much prompting. I’d invite her into my kitchen on some of those Sunday mornings and she’d talk film and world affairs – she proudly subscribed to the Caledonian Record and Boston Globe. I also came to know here life story – she’d lived with her radiologist husband and kids outside of Boston and in Germany – and she’d married Russ, her high school sweetheart from where they’d both grown up on the Illinois side of the Missouri Border. Lois had a bit of what I’d call a southern accent that she used to great effect, telling stories or remarking on the ironies, contradictions and constant sense of wonder she perceived in every day life. She was a dramatic character who never held back on what she was thinking.
Lois also did things. Lois served on my board of directors at Catamount – and at Kingdom County Productions, after I left Catamount in 1991. At Catamount, she was instrumental to making our very first fall auction successful, in 1986. She solicited donations to the auction and drove her cherished Audi to every nook and cranny in the Kingdom – and beyond – to pick up the auction items. She also bid and bought more items than anyone else. And she continued to perform Catamount auction duty until very recently. Armed with tacks and tape, she also loved putting up film and show posters in more than a hundred locations, whenever and wherever, including rain and snow. She said it gave her another chance to drive her cool Audi.
Lois showed up at nearly every screening and most performances and hosted post-show parties for a number of the artists, including her all-time favorite, renowned storyteller Spalding Gray. Spalding sat behind a simple desk, on stage, with a glass of water and some papers that he rarely consulted as he dryly told hugely amusing stories like “Swimming to Cambodia” based on his strange, revealing and whacky experiences in Thailand where he worked as an actor on the Academy Award-winning film, “The Killing Fields.” Spalding was funny and smart his sly sense of irony was immensely appealing to Lois. He performed four times for us, during the 1980’s and, each time, Lois threw a party at her gracious Waterbury home. Whenever I saw Spalding, in New York and other places, he’d always ask about Lois.
Lois loved to cook and entertain and be with people she loved, most of all her warm and tight family – and Russ, her husband of 70 years. But she also cultivated a surrogate local family – and I was lucky to be a part of it. I mentioned Lois’ passing to my son, Jasper, now 28 years old and living in Brooklyn, as a freelance journalist.
“I love Lois,” Jasper said. “I will always remember Christmases, growing up, for the holiday dinners we’d have on snowy nights with Lois and Russ in Waterford. They were more in my life, back then, than my own grandparents on either side.”
Lois and Russ also supported my dream of Vermont filmmaking. They invested in “Where the Rivers Flow North,” “A Stranger in the Kingdom,” and “Disappearances” and Lois threw fundraising parties that included Northeast Kingdom writer Howard Mosher who also held a special affection for Lois. She and Russ visited our film sets and she made food she’d bring to set or to our crew dinners in church basements. She even boarded a crewmember or two, just to help out.
Lois loved her house and garden and cats and spacious well-kept lawn – she relished weeding and hauling brush and operating her riding mower. She was as much in her element outdoors – as she was in her kitchen. She never had a computer or email or even satellite TV. Though she read, watched PBS and insisted she was never bored and had plenty to do, even after Russ died in 2018. Lois was diagnosed with cancer about five years ago – and it never got her down. She went through chemo without missing a beat – and retained her infectious vitality and sense of humor right through my last conversation with her, a couple of weeks ago. I told her then how I love her, something that was not hard to say – or feel – for this remarkable, kind, generous, imaginative life force.