A Life: Al Pristaw ‘always did what good neighbors do’

Al Pristaw, right, shows his neighbor Hunter Putnam, 9, how to check for moisture in the soil before watering at a raised bed in his yard at Riverside Mobile Home Park in Woodstock, Vt., on Tuesday, June 21, 2022.

Al Pristaw, right, shows his neighbor Hunter Putnam, 9, how to check for moisture in the soil before watering at a raised bed in his yard at Riverside Mobile Home Park in Woodstock, Vt., on Tuesday, June 21, 2022. "Quite a few years ago we noticed that nobody was talking to anybody else," said Pristaw, and he had the idea to build garden beds for neighbors in the park to start conversation. That original project had a resurgence after the flooding of Tropical Storm Irene when the Ottauquechee River cut a swath through the park, and is gaining momentum again as food costs have increased. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News - James M. Patterson

Meals on Wheels volunteer Al Pristaw, of Woodstock, Vt., chats with Joyce Phillips while delivering her pork tenderloin lunch on Thursday, March 24, 2022. Last summer, Phillips moved in with her son in Bridgewater, Vt.

Meals on Wheels volunteer Al Pristaw, of Woodstock, Vt., chats with Joyce Phillips while delivering her pork tenderloin lunch on Thursday, March 24, 2022. Last summer, Phillips moved in with her son in Bridgewater, Vt. "They really take good care of us," she said. Phillips can no longer stand for any length of time at a stove or counter and Pristaw has been driving for about six years. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News file — Jennifer Hauck

Riverside Mobile Home Park residents from left, Pauline Holt, Sue Esty, Al Pristaw and Ethel Davis wave goodbye to Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin in Woodstock, Vt., on Sept. 6, 2011, after a his short visit to the park that was heavily damaged by flooding from the Ottauquechee River during Tropical Storm Irene. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Riverside Mobile Home Park residents from left, Pauline Holt, Sue Esty, Al Pristaw and Ethel Davis wave goodbye to Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin in Woodstock, Vt., on Sept. 6, 2011, after a his short visit to the park that was heavily damaged by flooding from the Ottauquechee River during Tropical Storm Irene. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

Al Pristaw with his grandsons, Oscar, left, and Charles outside his home in Riverside Park. Photo by Josh Pristaw

Al Pristaw with his grandsons, Oscar, left, and Charles outside his home in Riverside Park. Photo by Josh Pristaw Josh Pristaw photoghraph

Al Pristaw at his Woodstock optometry practice, getting an

Al Pristaw at his Woodstock optometry practice, getting an "eye exam" from his grandson Charles Pristaw. Photo by Josh Pristaw

By JIM KENYON

Valley News Columnist

Published: 03-16-2024 7:01 PM

Modified: 03-17-2024 7:55 PM


WOODSTOCK — Al Pristaw was the ultimate doer.
After Riverside Mobile Home Park was swamped by Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011, Pristaw and another park resident, Nelson Gilman, pushed a wheelbarrow filled with donated orange juice, bread and eggs through the mud to hand out to their neighbors in distress.

In recent years when spring came around, Pristaw knocked on neighbors’ doors to let them know that Sustainable Woodstock, a local nonprofit, was offering wooden garden beds, soil and seeds to anyone interested in growing their own vegetables.

“With the cost of food going up in grocery stores, Al wanted a way for people to have their own gardens,” said Dan Putnam, a Riverside resident who, along with his brother, Josh, continue to build the wooden beds.

Pristaw’s penchant for doing good for people in need didn’t stop at Riverside’s entrance. He volunteered at Woodstock’s Thompson Senior Center, delivering Meals on Wheels — no matter the weather — to older people who lived on back roads in neighboring Bridgewater.

But there was one thing that Pristaw wouldn’t do. And that was cut corners.

An Upper Valley optometrist for almost 50 years, Pristaw took a part-time job near the end of his career with a private company hired to provide medical care to people incarcerated in Vermont prisons.

“As a prison doc, he brought eye care to the neediest,” said Paul Karofsky, who grew up with Pristaw in Brookline, Mass.

Pristaw believed that people in prison deserved the same quality of care that he gave patients who came to his office in Woodstock.

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The company that Pristaw worked for, however, preferred he take an assembly line approach when it came to people behind bars. His bosses expected him to speed through exams and turn a blind eye to health problems requiring costly treatment.

Pristaw’s work ethic and ethics, in general, got him fired from the prison job. “He was really proud of that,” his son, Josh, said.

Pristaw died Feb. 20 at Alice Peck Day Memorial Hospital in Lebanon, after a brief period of declining health. He was 80.

Until last October when Pristaw and his longtime partner, Pauline Holt, moved into nearby senior housing, they lived at Riverside for about 25 years.

In a mobile home park consisting mostly of working-class families and low-income retirees, Pristaw was a bit of an outlier. For years, he had his own optometry practice and served as president of the Vermont Board of Optometry.

But he was “more at home at Riverside than anywhere else he lived,” his son said. The 50-year-old park sits on the banks of the Ottauquechee River, where Pristaw, an avid fly fisherman, could cast for trout by walking out his back door.

At Riverside, about three dozen manufactured homes are bunched together on 21 acres that outsiders sometimes disparagingly refer to as “Tin City.”

Pristaw wasn’t one to worry about what others thought of his mailing address. “He was not impressed by people simply because they had money,” his son said. “He was happier in diners than fancy restaurants.”

After Irene, Pristaw took a leadership role in rebuilding the park, where residents own their homes but the land and infrastructure falls under the auspices of a Vermont affordable housing nonprofit.

Pristaw made sure elected officials from Windsor County and the state didn’t forget Riverside, which temporarily lost its drinking water supply and septic system in Irene.

“Al took good care of us,” resident Ethel Davis said. “If we needed help, he knew who to call.”

When major flooding hit other parts Vermont last July, Riverside escaped largely unscathed, thanks to the state shoring up river banks and other park improvements after Irene. Still, a dozen homes suffered damage that required Dale Snader’s Hartford construction company to return to the park that it largely rebuilt after Irene.

Before Snader’s crew began replacing the skirting and making other repairs to flood-damaged properties, Jenevra Wetmore, executive director at Sustainable Woodstock, made a point of visiting Riverside.

“I thought I was going to the park to meet with Dale and Al, but then all (Pristaw’s) neighbors showed up too — he had invited everyone,” Wetmore said. “He welcomed everyone into his home and we all sat down together in the living room to discuss the best options for moving forward.

“Al knew his community and how to keep them involved. He was always looking out for other people.”

Dan Putnam lived next to Pristaw and Holt. Putnam knocked on their door one evening, explaining that earlier in the day while running a chainsaw, he’d been struck in the eye by a wood chip. Putnam asked if Pristaw would mind taking a look at the eye that was still bothering him.

“The next thing I knew, we were in his car, headed to his office,” Putnam recalled.

Pristaw gave Putnam a thorough exam and prescribed medication. But he never sent a bill. “He always did what good neighbors do,” Putnam said.

On a Saturday morning earlier this month, more than 70 of Pristaw’s relatives, neighbors and friends attended his memorial service at Cabot Funeral Home in Woodstock.

Charles Pristaw, 12, talked about his family’s visits from New York City to his grandfather’s home in Woodstock. They skipped rocks in the river, roasted s’mores in the back yard and picked berries from Pristaw’s blueberry bushes.

“My dad loved Vermont — its covered bridges, fishing streams and general stores,” said Josh Pristaw, senior managing director at a residential real estate investment firm based in New York.

On trips to visit Josh’s family in New York, Pristaw was determined to bring a part of Vermont with him. Surrounded by tall buildings, he got out his fly rod at a pond in Central Park.

Before the afternoon was over, he was “teaching a whole slew of neighborhood kids how to fly fish,” Josh Pristaw said.

Early this year, Al Pristaw was admitted to APD with the flu and later contracted COVID-19. While in the hospital, he called his daughter, Dara Sweatt, who lives outside of Boston, to warn her that a snowstorm was headed her way.

“I need to know the situation with your snow tires,” he told her.

Sweatt assured him that her car’s tires were in good shape. He wasn’t convinced. “I’m your dad,” he said. “It’s my job to worry about you.”

Within days, Pristaw’s condition took a turn for the worse. But it didn’t stop him from reaching out to a family friend to bring his checkbook to the hospital. He needed to write a check.

As the end approached, Sweatt and her brother made it back to APD. When Sweatt returned home after her father’s death, she found a letter in a stack of mail on her kitchen table. Inside was a check for new snow tires from her dad.

Wetmore, who heads Sustainable Woodstock, received her last text message from Pristaw in December. He no longer lived in Riverside, but was “concerned about mail delivery in the park,” Wetmore said. “He was worried about his neighbors and their needs. Never once did he complain or reveal that he was having health issues himself.”

This spring, Wetmore will again knock on doors in Riverside to sign up residents for free gardening supplies. For the first time, Pristaw won’t be joining her.

“It won’t be the same without him,” Wetmore said.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.