Richard Vangermeersch ’64: From accounting professor to librettist of William Sprague and His Women.
As a young man choosing a career, Richard Vangermeersch put his love of numbers ahead of his love for history. He didn’t know that what he saw then as divergent roads would ultimately run together—and lead him to pen an opera, William Sprague and His Women, based on a vibrant segment of Rhode Island history.
Vangermeersch grew up in Johnston in what he calls “a classic first generation family,” with Belgian immigrant parents fixated on war memories and what they left behind. “My brother and I were on our own figuring things out,” he says. The family lived in an 18th century farmhouse with an outhouse, and they raised rabbits and poultry. “In school, I liked math and history. But history as a field only seemed to lead to teaching high school. If I had known there was an amazing field out there in business history, I might have chosen differently.”
And, in fact, Vangermeersch did become a specialist in accounting history. “Accounting is a field of numbers,” he points out, “but there are heroes who made it happen, with stories to be told.” His research has resulted in a vast output of published writing, including biographies of two giants in the field, Harvey Stuart Chase (1861–1946) and Stuart Chase (1888–1985). That research led him to famous beauty Kate Chase, wife of Civil War hero and R.I. Governor William Sprague.
A few years ago, Vangermeersch was involved in a local struggle over how the town of Narragansett was planning to use Canonchet Farm, the land where the Spragues’ famous mansion once stood. When the anniversary of the great fire that destroyed the mansion approached in 2009, he wrote a paper and gave a presentation in Narragansett. “My specialty in history is anniversaries,” he explains. “Seventy people came to the presentation—that proved there was interest in the subject.”
When local historian Jim Crothers suggested Vangermeersch do something more with his Sprague research, he decided on a play. After penning a four-page summary, he wrote the whole play in ten hours. “I had all of this information already in my head,” he says modestly.
Composer Geoff Gibbs (URI Professor Emeritus of Music) was tapped to create the score. Images and period music were combined with original work by Gibbs to create a memorable accompaniment to the libretto. William Sprague and His Women, the story of Sprague and his scandal-prone family, premiered on September 30, 2012 in the URI Fine Arts Concert Hall to tremendous audience response. New opportunities to present the opera are being explored, especially as our state celebrates the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. “Give me an anniversary, and I’ll give you history,” declares Vangermeersch, relishing his new role as opera librettist.
–by Gail Eastwood-Stokes