Claude Joseph Leon Dern
PFC in 603rd Engineer Camouflage Bn : Co D
Born 1906 in France, Died 1995
County of residence at enlistment: Bennington County, VT
Other residence(s): Dorset, VT; Newark, NJ; Maplewood, NJ
United States Army, did not accompany the unit to Europe
Occupation before the war: commercial artists
College education before the war: Art Students League; Grand Central Art School
Claude Joseph Leon Dern was born on March 4, 1906 in Désertines, France, a small town in northwest France, about 40 miles from the coast. His parents had been raised by nuns in an orphanage. The family was poor.
Claude recalled in an interview later in life that, although both of his parents were born in France, his father's parents had been born in Germany and he remembered the family being called "Boche" during World War I.
Claude's granddaughter says that he left school at 10 to become a cowherd, and then left home at the age of 18 to seek his fortune. He served as a private in the French army for two years during this period in his life. While working as a waiter in the south of France, he met the Goodmans, a couple from Dorset, Vermont, and they encouraged him to visit them. He emigrated to the US in October, 1929 and went to Dorset, and the Goodmans took him in. He was to remain in Dorset for most of the rest of his life.
Two years after arriving, he opened a French restaurant in Dorset, the Lafayette, which he owned and operated until 1936. He had married Olive Harwood in 1935, and their daughter, Suzanne, was born in 1936. In 1937, the couple divorced.
Claude took his oath as a US citizen on September 1, 1938, in Rutland, Vermont. According to an article in the local paper, he changed his name from Claude Leon Joseph Durn to Claude Dern.
He also took up painting in Vermont. In France he had had no ambition to be a painter, nor any art lessons. But over the years in Dorset, before the war, he commuted to New York City to take classes at the Art Students League and Grand Central Art School (which closed in 1944); according to his army enlistment form, he accumulated a college degree. An example of his residence in this period--in April, 1940, he was living as a lodger in Manhattan, presumably taking courses. In October, 1940, when he registered for the draft, he was back in Dorset.
While in New York, there were four exhibits of his work at different galleries, including a 1941 exhibit at the Vendome Art Galleries in Manhattan. Also during 1941 (and possibly before?) he was teaching drawing and portrait classes at the Mid-Vermont Artists Studio in Rutland, and he held his first one-man show at the Bennington Museum of Arts that year.
On December 27, 1941, he married Dr. Elizabeth Byrnes, an endocrinologist and pathologist, in her home town of East Orange, New Jersey. They moved to Madison, Wisconsin, where she had accepted a teaching job at the University of Wisconsin.
Claude enlisted in the Army on September 1, 1942 in Rutland, Vermont. He stated at that time that he had four years of college, was a commercial artist and a US citizen. It is unclear where he spent his military career. His granddaughter says he served in Wisconsin. His obituary and a couple of other articles say that he was in a Camouflage Battalion (the 603rd) and also worked in Army Intelligence as a Staff SGT.
He was hospitalized for tuberculosis (reinfection—chronic or arrested) in a military hospital (no record of where the hospital was) in March 1944, released from the hospital that same year, and released from the Army on January 21,1945.
After the war he and Elizabeth moved back to New Jersey, along with their son, Claude Garrett, who had been born in December, 1943. Claude took a job teaching at the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Arts, and taught adult classes at Columbia High School. He also ran a private art school in Maplewood, New Jersey. Their second son, Robert John, was born in New Jersey in September, 1948. While they spent summers in Dorset, Vermont, he remained a New Jersey schoolteacher until 1954, when his wife retired from her medical work and they resettled in Dorset permanently.
Once back in Vermont, Claude did a considerable amount of painting, and spent time as a dairy farmer, a strawberry farmer (he was known as the "Dorset Strawberry King"), and an "interior and exterior decorating contractor". He also was involved in politics for some years. He and his wife both threw themselves into local organizations and causes.
In the art world, he was known for watercolors and oils, and primarily for portraits, though he also painted landscapes and still lifes. He held a number of one-man shows—in newspaper articles I found shows at in Taylor Park, New Jersey in 1952, at the Southern Vermont Art Center in 1953, at the Kellogg-Hubbard Library in Montpelier in 1960, at the Chaffee Gallery in Rutland in 1973, and at the Dorset Library in 1975. He won awards from the Allied Artists of America, the New Jersey Watercolor Society, and the Vermont Art Guild. His art has also been exhibited in Mexico, Canada, and France. At the time of his death, his paintings graced the US Embassy in France, the French Embassy in the US, and the Vermont State House, along with a variety of museums, corporations, and private collections.
He became active in town and state politics shortly after coming back to Dorset. He was elected town "lister" (related to assessment) for four years, also serving as the first VP of the Vermont Listers Association in 1959. In 1958, he ran successfully as a Republican for the state legislature. (Interestingly enough, he won both the Republican and Democratic primaries that year; he received 4 votes in the Democratic primary, but that was enough!)
He said at one point (in reference to his strawberry farm) that he was "planting strawberries...and cultivating voters." In the 1958 election he wrote to both Charles de Gaulle and Brigitte Bardot to ask them to come to Vermont to campaign for him; no record that they did so, but these tidbits were picked up in dozens of newspaper articles.
He spent one term in the state legislature (1959-1960) where he sponsored bills to bring parimutuel horse racing to Vermont, and to liberalize the Sunday liquor laws in the state. He lost his attempt to garner the Republican nomination for the US House of Representatives in 1960, and switched his allegiance to the Democratic party in 1961. He also ran unsuccessfully for the state senate in 1964 and 1974. He was elected at least twice as a Justice of the Peace during the 1960s and early 1970s, and also served as a member of the Dorset School Board in the mid-70s.
He explained his involvement in politics in a 1974 article: "I've done about everything a man can do in the course of his life. . . . Life has been good to me, so I owe it to this state and country to do what I can."
In the community he had become active in the Dorset Players (a local theatrical group) when he moved to Dorset in 1929, and remained involved with that organization for decades, serving for a time as President. He was a Cub Scout den chief in 1956, and a Trustee of the Historical Society in 1977. He also served as President of the Fish and Game Club, President of the PTA, and Commander of the Dorset American Legion Post.
His wife, who had given up her medical career when they moved to Dorset, also became active in the community. She was active in the Dorset Players, the PTA, and her church, and was a school bus driver and a hockey coach. When her sons got older she took some medical refresher courses in preparation for returning to medicine, and "Dr. Betty" became the only doctor with a medical practice in Dorset in 1961. She served as a beloved town fixture for 11 years until her retirement.
Claude died of Alzheimer's disease at the Vermont Veterans Home on March 30, 1995.
A Note About His Sons
His older son followed in his parents' footsteps, with an eclectic and interesting life.
Claude Garrett Dern, according to a remembrance by Patrick White after his death in 2018, was a "logger, trucker, surveyor, author, electrician, poet, country store owner, talking-bear owner . . . , natural-born educator. And character."
Claude was perhaps most recognizable through his television series, “Vermont Forests,” which was produced for 10 years through CAT-TV, a public access TV service in southern Vermont. The series started in 1996 as a 15-minute show, was a half-hour long by the second episode, and eventually became a one-hour show running monthly.
Patrick concludes: "Like any good Renaissance man, Claude was also an author. In addition to titles such as A Flatlanders Guide: How to be Accepted in Vermont, he wrote a whole series of 'one-a-night' mystery books set in towns throughout southern Vermont. And when the Internet came around, Claude created an online site called “Beartown News,” where he was listed as editor, typesetter, and janitor, while Bruin [his talking bear] was 'cub reporter.' He also had a radio show of the same name."
The Derns' younger son, Robert John, was a CPA, and also an LGBTQ and AIDS awareness activist in the San Francisco area. He was diagnosed HIV positive in 1984, and lived with the disease for 32 years, staying active in his profession while many of his close friends, and eventually his former partner, died of the disease. He died in 2017.
Ancestry family photo
1937 Vermont divorce record
1938 article in Rutland Daily Herald re his naturalization
April 1940 census
October 1940 draft card
1941 marriage record
1941 article in Bennington Evening Banner about his life and art
1941 article in Rutland Daily Herald about his first one-man show
1942 article in Rutland Daily Herald about his marriage; mentions move to Wisconsin
1942 enlistment record
1944 military hospitalization record
1949 article in Rutland Daily Herald with biographical details about his time in New Jersey
1958 article in Bennington Banner re running for Town Rep (contains biographical details including mention of the 603rd)
1958 article in Bennington Evening Banner re his winning election as Town Representative
1959 article in Rutland Daily Herald, includes a lot of biography
1960 article in the Times Argus (Barre VT) re art exhibit
1960 article in The River News and Twin State News-Times with strawberry info
1964 article in the Bennington Banner which contains numerous biographical details
1970 article in Bennington Banner re his re-election as JP
1971 article in Bennington Banner re his wife's retirement as town doctor
1974 article in Bennington Banner re his running for state senate; includes biographical details
1993 article in Rutland Daily Herald about an art auction of 200 of his works (contains biographical details)
1995 letter to the editor about him in Bennington Banner (a few weeks before his death)
1995 Obituary in Bennington Banner
1995 Vermont death record
1995 Social Security Death Record
1995 VA Death Record
2017 son Robert obituary
2018 a remembrance of his son Claude Jr.
2018 son Claude Jr. obituary
Biography by his granddaughter (NOTE: Full text only readable on Fridays.)