CIRCLES OF COMMUNITY | By JOANNA TEBBS YOUNG
Although a smiling-eyed and white-bearded man carving and sanding trains, trucks, and planes behind a woodworking bench might naturally bring Santa to mind, Michael Divoll relates to a different storybook character: Geppetto, the creator of Pinocchio. Why? “Because I’m the real deal,” he says.
The passion that drives 71-year-old Divoll today, although ultimately a result of his own unique journey, has seeds in the life path of his father, a tool and die maker in the Army Corps of Engineers during World War II — “he built the machines that built the machines,” explains Divoll. Now, you could say, Divoll builds the toys which build the children.
And he envisions a future where they could also help re-build the lives of his fellow veterans.
Divoll, whose grandmother was a full-blooded Blackfoot, was born in Burlington, Vermont and raised in Connecticut. Following in his father’s footsteps, Divoll joined the military in 1962. Beginning as a dental technician in the Navy, he was then trained as a combat medic. In 1966, he was deployed to Vietnam as a medic.
Upon his return to the states, still in the reserves, he attended college in Connecticut as a pre-med student, but quickly switched to art history. But wanting to return to his roots, after his official discharge from the military he headed back to Burlington, where he found work in the financial sector. Four years later, wanting to break out on his own, he landed in Rutland, where he opened a martial arts school on the third floor of the Tuttle Building, with Charlie Tuttle as his landlord. A 4th-degree Black Belt, trained first in the Navy and ultimately in Okinawa, Japan, he operated the school until 1978.
It was then his father’s old tools beckoned him in another direction. Finding workshop space in an old woolen mill in Northfield, Vermont, he taught himself to design and build canoes. But they were a tough sell and he knew he needed to redirect his new-found talents. “Toys came through my mind,” says Divoll. “They used the same machines and the tooling was similar. And everyone became a potential customer.”
His wooden toys — trucks, trains, planes and rocking animals — made their way into gift stores throughout the state, becoming family heirlooms. Customers started asking him to carve signs and a businessman in Stowe, who was to become Divoll’s mentor, especially in teaching him about the tourist industry, introduced him to chainsaw carving. At that point Charlie Tuttle came back into Divoll’s life. Fascinated by chainsaw work, Tuttle visited Divoll in Stowe, and in turn offered him the 2nd floor of the Tuttle building as a workshop.
It was the early 1990s when Divoll returned to Rutland, setting up a shop and retail area in the Tuttle Building. Hanging samples of his toys from the ceiling and up the stairs “like a forest,” he was able to pull customers in from the street for fifteen years. And when the Land Trust purchased the Tuttle Building, having the option to move anywhere, Divoll chose to stay in Rutland. Moving to his current location at 64 Merchants Row, where his signature rocking animals sit on the pavement beneath hanging toys and hand-carved signs, he says he has tried to create a tourist attraction, because, “I can see the potential of growth of downtown. Create an attraction, investors will come knocking.”
And it is in this shop, with “thousands of designs in my head,” that Divoll doesn’t “just” make toys. What started as a way to make money became something far more. First, he found woodworking to be deeply therapeutic, helping him heal from the emotional wounds of his military service. But then, he says, he became impassioned with the toys. “I realized what I had created with my own hands would create joy and was creative and necessary.”
So, as a huge proponent of healthy child development, Divoll has a mission: “To get toys in the hands of as many children as possible in the early brain development stage.” Divoll worries about putting technology, such as smartphones and tablets, into the hands of small children. He sees that these devices deny children creative play. Seeing as vital the critical thinking and problem solving that toys requiring imagination offer, Divoll’s toy designs emphasize “creative play and imagination which the brain needs for proper development.” Because, he explains, “creative play is the building block, the foundation of learning.”
Divoll also grieves over the modern toy industry, which designs toys to break so you’ll buy more. Seeing it as “an ancient and honorable profession,” he believes “we’ve lost the importance, the infrastructure, the process of toymaking.”
“What I’m doing with wood is magical. It supports a process that is special and I feel honored to be touched by it.”
And he wants more to be touched by it. Using the analogy of a medical specialist, he sees that when one is proficient at something, “there is an obligation to continue.” But he questions how he will pass his knowledge, his skill, this profession on to another generation. “I need to find a replacement.”
Bringing it full circle, he sees veterans as part of the answer. Having a special place in his heart for the Special Ops servicemen he treated in Vietnam, and knowing personally the therapeutic nature of woodwork, he looks to a way he can franchise “Michael’s Toys” to wounded warriors. His idea-in-the-works is to somehow create portable woodworking shops which could be placed in downtowns. His idea, which Divoll doesn’t at this point know how to bring to fruition, would in theory help the veterans by giving them meaningful work, provide creative, brain-healthy toys to their community’s children, and contribute to the community itself by boosting the town’s economy.
While he mulls over this idea, Divoll continues to sand away the rough edges of his latest design of train car. Geppetto bought his wooden “son” to life; Divoll is the “real deal” as he says because he feels he does the same. “After so many years of doing this, I came in touch with the spirit of the toys. It’s more than just a wooden toy. You’re not building something that’s soulless. It has soul… and a mission.”