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ALEX BEAM

Dean's conversion experience

One could trace the downturn in Senator John Kerry's presidential fortunes back to the revelation that, unbeknownst to him, his paternal grandparents were Jewish, or God's Chosen People. Yet things have gone much better for Kerry's rival, Howard Dean, ever since he let slip that he is no longer one of God's Frozen People, i.e. Episcopalian. The exchange in which Dean abjured the One True Faith, as we lapsed Episcopalians like to call it, took place this fall in an interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos. Dean said he was raised Episcopalian but left the church "because I had a big fight with a local Episcopal church about 25 years ago over the bike path. . . ."

"Over the bike path?" an incredulous Stephanopoulos asked.

"We were trying to get the bike path built," Dean answered. "They had control of a mile and a half of railroad bed, and they decided they would pursue a property-right suit to refuse to allow the bike path to be developed."

Henry VIII abandoned a great religion because he wanted a better wife. Howard Dean abandoned Henry VIII's new religion because he wanted . . . bike access. Dean, whom no one in Vermont remembers as being particularly religious, said he became a Congregationalist as a result of the bike path imbroglio.

Rewind the tape to 1981, when a young, civic-minded Dr. Dean was championing a bike path to run along the eastern shore of Lake Champlain in his newly adopted home of Burlington, Vt. The path was to follow a 10-mile stretch of abandoned Rutland Railroad roadbed. The Episcopal Diocese of Vermont owned -- and owns -- a 130-acre property on Rock Point, which juts out into the lake. The bishop's home, a school, offices, and a conference and retreat center are on the property.

Tom Little, a lawyer who has practiced in Burlington since 1979 and advises the diocese on legal matters, has some memories of the bike-path flap. He says the proposed conversion of the unused railway bed to recreational use prompted some landowners to sue. He recalls that the diocese joined an existing lawsuit, then dropped its opposition to the bike path as the litigation dragged out over 10 years.

"The church was primarily interested in preserving its own privacy, in not having people swarm all over its property," Little says. "I imagine that Dr. Dean felt the church didn't have the right attitude of public-spiritedness about all this." Dean spokespeople were not available for comment.

It's academic

If and when a publisher decides to buy Joe Boskin's novel, which I have perused in manuscript, it will certainly want to append the familiar caveat: "Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead is purely coincidental."

Boskin is a professor emeritus of American social history at Boston University, and his still-untitled novel tells the story of Reuben Lamm, a young sociologist who leads a dual life. By day, he is struggling for notice and tenure at an urban university. Many nights, he pursues a secret career as a stand-up comedian named Josh Billings.

I can't imagine that anyone would ever confuse Boskin's fictional campus with BU, or that anyone would mistake his cantankerous president Jeremiah Brittle for anyone who ever served in the BU administration.

Here is a partial description of the character:

"Jeremiah Brittle had managed with shrewd mental sinews and a peculiar physiognomy to purge his enemies at every level of the university. . . . [He] had accomplished what most university presidents dream of; a genuflecting board of trustees and a faculty shorn of political activism. Trained as a philosopher, he offered harmonic cliches about the virtues of cooperation yet eventually blurted out his take on issues institutional: `A university is not a democracy!' "

Brittle's "peculiar physiognomy" refers to a glass eye that Brittle plucks out on occasion and brandishes at the fainthearted. A few readers might recognize this comic flourish from the novels of Carl Hiaasen, who has used a recurring character named Skink. Skink is an ex-governor of Florida who was driven mad by the corruption in Tallahassee and who haunts the byways of the Sunshine State, subsisting on road kill.

Heady company, Mr. Boskin.

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His

e-dress is beam@globe.com.

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