After Hurricane Irene sent flood waters raging through the tiny town of Wilmington, Vermont, in 2011, residents responded the way they always had. They showed up with bucket loaders, shovels and anything they could find to clean out mud-caked basements.
When word spread in April that Cleon Boyd, a lifelong resident who embodied the town’s toughness, had died from coronavirus, residents of the community of 1,800 people knew they had to do something. The 64-year-old Boyd is the only person to die from the virus in Wilmington. It also claimed his twin brother Leon, who died a week later at a hospital across the border in New Hampshire.
The virus that was ravaging faraway big cities such as New York and Los Angeles had found its way to Wilmington, where the deaths of the twins serve as a stark reminder that few places — no matter how small or out of the way — are safe from the devastating reach of the virus.
“I don’t know if we will ever move on from it,” said Meghan Carrier, one of Cleon Boyd’s four children. “With all the pandemic stuff going on and the way my dad died first from the virus, I think it has left a mark on people. Once my uncle died, it made a bigger impact because they were brothers.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of an ongoing series of stories remembering people who have died from coronavirus around the world.
A funeral for Cleon Boyd was out of the question, so friends and family members took a page from their history and organized an old-fashioned horning — a procession that often follows weddings.
About 1,200 vehicles set about in a slow trip through Wilmington, a tiny town known for its historic downtown, summer blueberry festival, record snowfalls and a scenic drive in the nearby Green Mountains. The procession made its way past an elementary school, the Boyd Family Farm and the homes of relatives. A smaller procession was held for Leon Boyd.
The size of the procession reflected the twins’ larger-than-life presence in the community and the influence of the family that traces its roots back to the 1700’s.
Beefy and bearded with big smiles, the brothers were family men who in some ways symbolized what the community stood for — toughness, generosity and an appreciation of traditions. They could fix almost anything and never turned down a request for help.
They were hard to miss at ski resorts where they worked like so many others in the area. And they were popular musicians, playing together in bands that provided the soundtrack at graduations, weddings and family get-togethers.
Some of their favorite country songs by Travis Tritt and others blared from cars in the processions that honored their lives, Well-wishers displayed signs saying BoydStrong and threw flowers and condolence cards from their car windows as they passed relatives of the twins. A long line of fire trucks and motorcycles reflected Cleon’s time as a volunteer firefighter in town and his passion for biking.
The procession even featured a massive snow groomer, honoring Cleon’s work as a groomer on Mount Snow and several other sites for much of his life.
“In a normal situation when someone is ill and passes, you go over to your neighbor’s house. You bring food. You share stories and give them a hug and listen and all of those things. We just couldn’t do that,” said Jill Adams, who organized the procession with her friend Julie Moore.
Adams rode with her dad, Bill, whose Jeep featured a saddle and stirrups with the boots turned backwards — inspired by riderless horses in funeral processions. Bill Adams had played fiddle with Cleon and Leon Boyd and dedicated a version of “Amazing Grace” to the men after they died.
“It means a lot to people when we stick together,” Jill Adams said. “This is why we live here. We don’t have a lot but we have each other. That seems to be enough.”
Cleon Boyd’s son, Chris, serenaded the passing cars on his guitar, stopping only to cry. He had often played alongside his father and uncle. On a table at the bottom of his driveway, Chris Boyd had placed his dad’s picture and his favorite drink — Canadian Club whiskey and ginger ale.
“It was amazing. I was blown away when that day happened,” Boyd said of the procession. “It was beautiful. That is the only way I can look at it. That was us. That is who we are.”
Reflecting on his dad, Boyd recalled how Cleon was proud of an 8-point buck he shot with a gun once owned by his grandfather. After a day in the woods, the brothers would gather at the family’s camp for jam sessions and cookouts that lasted well past midnight and could include dozens of people. Cleon sang and played washboard and Leon, a father of two, played guitar.
In the spring, they loved watching their sons boiling sap in the family’s sugarhouse to make maple syrup.
They lived about a half-mile from one another and struck up friendships with almost everyone they met — from wealthy skiers up from New York to down-on-their-luck dishwashers. Some of it was the way they carried themselves, always greeting people with a handshake, a sincere “How are you?” and an occasional hug. Family members said they wouldn’t have liked the new social distancing rules.
“When you are kind and downright goodhearted, a lot of people pick up on that and they want to be around you,” Carrier said. “My dad was always kind to everybody. He never judged. So when it came to my dad, this community did lose a family member.”
Betsey Reagan, who owns the popular diner Betsey’s Dot’s of West Dover, said the twins had a place at her counter and were there every day. They loved poking fun at the wait staff and tasting her latest creations. They were always talking up their children, and tourists, transfixed by their stories, would sometimes buy them breakfast.
“They were characters. They were nice characters. They were gentlemen characters,” Reagan said. “They really brought something to the table into this world. They touched a lot of lives and that is what life is about, touching lives.”