When U.S. Sen. Robert Stafford retired in 1988 with a farewell address, he saved his most appreciative words for his chief aide throughout his three-decade Vermont political career, Neal Houston.
“He has been my partner working on your behalf all the Washington years,” Stafford said. “Whatever we have accomplished, much credit should go to him.”
Friends and colleagues are concurring after news of Houston’s death at age 87 this past Saturday.
“Neal was everything to Dad and by his side every single step of the way,” Stafford’s daughter, Dinah, said Tuesday. “He was way more than Dad’s right arm — he was like a second father. We all loved him.”
Born and raised in Barre, Houston moved from his enlistment in the Army Air Corps and education at the University of Vermont into a life of public service.
The onetime sports editor of the university’s Vermont Cynic newspaper worked at the Rutland Herald and Burlington Free Press before joining the staff of Gov. Joseph Johnson, who led the state from 1955 to 1959.
Houston teamed with Stafford when the Republican served as governor from 1959 to 1961, the state’s lone congressman from 1961 to 1971, and U.S. senator from 1971 to 1989.
“They don’t make them like Neal J. Houston on Capitol Hill anymore,” the New York Times wrote in a 1988 story just before his boss’ retirement.
“He is distinguished looking,” the newspaper said of Houston, “with deep gray hair, moving among the throngs of youthful staff assistants, most of whom are in their 20s or early 30s, here to soak up a few years of experience on their way to careers in law or public office of their own.”
“There does not seem to be any commitment — any long-term commitment anymore,” Houston told the Times. “I think it is considered more of a stepping stone to something else.”
Houston never wanted to run for office himself.
“My family was too important,” he told the Times. “For all intents and purposes, I’ve gotten a heck of a lot of benefits without the guff. What’s important to me was not as much the legislative thing but being able to help people who had problems.”
Houston also enjoyed the view.
“One of the things I still very much love to do more than anything else is, when the weather turns nice, to sit in front of the Capitol by myself and look up at the building,” he told the Times. “I’m still a country boy when it comes to admiration for this government. I can get weepy there.”
Even so, Houston foresaw current-day problems with Congress.
“It seems to be everyone for himself, not the institution,” he told the Times. “When we lose sight of that, we could be asking for trouble.”
Houston and his wife, the former Marilyn Mills, retired to Arlington, where he served on the boards of the Bennington Museum, the Vermont Folklife Center in Middlebury and the Vermont Achievement Center in Rutland when he wasn’t visiting with his six children and 11 grandchildren.
A memorial service is set for 1 p.m. Sunday at Federated Church of East Arlington.
“He was a great boss,” said Carolyn Crowley Meub, a former Stafford aide who worked under Houston. “He was smart, unassuming, balanced and fair, like the senator was. He was a man I really admired.”
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