Surfing the Waves of Life

Being a naive 17-year-old kid, Roy Vestrich was about to prove to his friends that he owned the Atlantic. Although they were the ones to convince him to paddle out and surf the waves one frigid December day, he was the one going to prove this was his domain. The waves off New York’s Long Beach were running around six to eight feet as he ventured out to see what kind of rides he could slash, not knowing that the water had other intentions. After getting a few short rides in, a huge closeout caught him by surprise and forced him off of his board.

The water was unmerciful, sucking him under and causing his wetsuit to fill up with cold water. With thousands of tons of water spinning him about, Vestrich became disorientated and lost his sense of up and down. When he finally surfaced, he was surprisingly still conscious and lucky to be able to swim back to shore.

“It was just another day, but I guess it was really a pretty close call,” the now Castleton State College Communication professor said, reminiscing of his surfing days as a youth.

Vestrich sits behind his cluttered desk, his feet propped up and his hands behind his head, sipping some tea. It’s almost as if a tornado had recently ripped through his office, throwing poster board, papers, DVDs, and VHS tapes in every direction.

With his days of surfing in the past, but not forgotten, Vestrich traded in the waves for life at Castleton State College. He now has a wife, Dawn, and two children, Joel, 23, and Wylla, 18.

Although somewhat of a hippie at the time, with hints of it even still, Vestrich knew as a teenager that an education beyond high school was in his future.

“I may have fantasized life as a professional surf bum and wandering artist, but I always planned on going to college,” he said.

He graduated high school in 1971, and immediately attended Bard College in New York. He had been writing all of his life so it only made sense for him to get a degree in literature and language.

“Ever since I knew how to put words on a page, I have been writing. It just feels like it was something I had to do.”

In 1979, he got accepted to the Master of Fine Arts Creative Writing program for poetry at UMASS Amherst. He completed the degree in 1983 and decided to go for his doctorate degree, which he received in 1988.

For a brief period, after his first four years in school, Vestrich moved to Boston for three years and then to France for almost one. During this time, a lot of his attention was focused on his artwork, whether it be writing poetry or doing paintings.

He began his career at Castleton just after receiving his doctorate, where he started out teaching various writing courses, effective speaking, and some communication courses. In 1989, he started the film studies minor, or “his baby” as he likes to refer to it. The communication program turned into a department in 1993 and turned into his new Atlantic ocean. Here he was able to teach what he truly enjoyed — script workshops and film classes.

Dawn, also a teacher, likes to jokingly say, “As he teaches communication, he can watch TV or movies all weekend and claim that he’s working, while I have to grade economics exams.”

Robert Gershon is not only a fellow professor at Castleton, but also a good friend of Vestrich since 1988. Like everyone who has come in contact with Vestrich, Gershon said he knows just how much he cares about his students as well as his colleagues.

“Everybody loves working with Roy. He is very enthusiastic in a laid back manner,” Gershon said.

Students feed off his enthusiasm.

“Take a class with Roy and it is apparent that he gets excited about you getting excited,” former student Tyler Rudder said.

Vestrich said the favorite part of his job, what makes his job worth doing, is when a student is truly enthusiastic about something they have written, directed or watched.

“Roy is an awesome teacher because you know he cares about the effort you put into things, and it makes you feel good getting a compliment for a job that you know you did well,” Rudder said.

After watching thousands of films, Vestrich has the ability to look at movies in a way a way that a normal viewer wouldn’t. Rather than simply judging a movie for its entertainment value, he evaluates every possible aspect of a film like the way it’s shot and what the director is trying to get across. Although he doesn’t have a favorite movie, one film he truly loves is The Graduate.

“I’ve been showing ‘The Graduate’ as the opening film in my intro to film class for about 15 years now, and though I could probably recite the script from memory, I am always amazed that each viewing I see something new or fresh in terms of the film’s visual style. Perhaps part of that is that as I age, my perceptions of the characters and my sympathies towards their situations also change. There are only a few films that hold up so well to repeated viewings and keep revealing themselves anew. It’s much like listening to a good piece of music,” he said.

His knowledge of films and experience is not lost on students.

Dan Fisher, another former student, said “We’ll discuss a movie in class for about an hour, and I only have like five minutes of stuff to say. It’s amazing how in-depth he can go into a movie.”

These days Vestrich is trying to focus more energy on getting his work published. In 1991, he was one of about 10 northeast writers competitively selected to participate in the Warner Brothers Television Comedy Writers’ Workshops. As part of the deal, he had an options contract with Warner Brothers for his scripts. Although none of his work was produced, he got a lot of experience and understanding of the industry, which in turn has been very useful in his work with students.

In 1999, one of Roy’s plays titled “Green Mountain Bucks” was selected for presentation at the Edward Albee Theater Festival in Valdez, Alaska.

“This is a week long festival that was for playwrights what Sundance is for filmmakers,” he said.

Throughout his life, the 55-year-old Vestrich has had a huge infatuation with poetry and art. During his early surfing days, he liked to do pen and ink sort of sketches, M.C. Escher style, often creating psychedelic surrealist drawings. During his college years, his energy shifted gears, focusing more on painting. Painters ranging from Matisse to De Kooning heavily influenced him, and because of these influences he started doing a lot of abstract figure studies, as well as large grid paintings, he said.
Lately, he has been focusing his attention on landscapes and waterscapes. He enjoys exploring the relationship between composition and paint texture. He said he believes that “to paraphrase the abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock, I don’t want to re-create an experience in paint, but experience the act of paint and allow my work to show the process of construction.”

He has a studio/writing cabin that he built near his house in Middlebury where he loves spending time working on all his aspects of art

Although he has come a long way from hanging ten back in the day Vestrich is still the definition of extreme. His more recent hobbies now include a number of outdoor activities like sea kayaking, biking, and hiking. He also recently took up sailing, purchasing a small 20-foot “pocket-cruiser” sailboat, sailing for five weeks from Florida to Vermont.

He may not be surfing anymore in the dead of winter, but sailing 1,800 miles is arguably just as impressive.

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