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May 31, 2012

In Memoriam: Bernard "Bernie" Beaudoin, Burlington Philanthropist, "Unsung Hero"

3a7aac6342Bernard "Bernie" Beaudoin, a man of modest means who donated his own home on North Avenue in 2007 to become the current headquarters of HOPE Works (formerly the Women's Rape Crisis Center), died earlier this month after a brief illness. He was 89.

Beaudoin, a lifelong Burlingtonian and Korean War-era Air Force veteran, was hardly a stereotypical philanthropist. A former barber who ran the Palace Barber Shop on Bank Street in Burlington in the 1960s and ’70s, Beaudoin later dabbled in real estate in Burlington and Winooski but never grew rich from it. In fact, in a 2007 interview, Beaudoin told Seven Days that he couldn't even afford his own health insurance.

Nevertheless, in October 2007 Beaudoin approached what was then the Women's Rape Crisis Center with a virtually unheard-of real estate offer: He agreed to sell the nonprofit group his 3200-square-foot Victorian house (right) at 336 North Avenue for its assessed value rather than its true market value — a $40,000 discount — and further agreed to finance the deal with a zero-interest loan. In effect, the WRCC scored a double win from Beaudoin's generosity because it enabled the group to move into much larger quarters and pay less each month than it was doing previously. As Cathleen Wilson, WRCC's executive director, remarked at the time, "Bernie kind of fell from the heavens for us."

Beaudoin died on May 5 in a VA Hospital, according to an obituary in the Burlington Free Press. But even in death, Beaudoin didn't stop giving. According to Wilson as well as an unnamed family member, Beaudoin agreed to absolve HOPE Works of the remainder of its debt to him upon his death — a sum of about $250,000.

Prior to Beaudoin owning the house, the 108-year-old building served for years as the Vermont Women's Health Center. In the 1970s, the Women’s Health Center was a national focal point for anti-abortion protests. The clinic first opened its doors in Colchester in 1972, a year before the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade legalized abortion. In 1977, following a fire at the health center’s downtown location, the clinic moved into 336 North Avenue.

As Beaudoin noted in 2007, he was well aware of the building's controversial history, and even suggested that his gift, to an organization that serves victims of sexual violence, was his own personal way of exorcising some of its "ghosts." As Wilson points out, Beaudoin took a keen interest in her group's mission, and would meet her for lunch about once a month at his favorite downtown haunt, Henry's Diner, to talk about her work there.

HOPE Works, the largest organization of its kind in Vermont, serves victims of sexual violence throughout Chittenden County, including operating a 24-hour rape crisis hotline. Last year, the organization changed its name, in part to better reflect its expanding mission, which also includes male victims of sexual violence.

Wilson says her organization hasn't decided yet how it will honor Beaudoin's legacy, noting that "He never wanted fanfare, which I think set him apart from other philanthropists.

"Bernie wasn’t a wealthy person but he was incredibly generous," she adds. "In my mind, he’s kind of an unsung hero in our community."

Seven Days file photo.

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