Howard Dean was a child of privilege, a product of Park Avenue and an
elite New England prep school when he left his cozy world for a
summer of hard labor.
For two months, the stocky 16-year-old hauled boulders, cleared
brush, dug ditches, planted endless chunks of sod and shoveled cattle
manure in the 100-degree heat deep in the heart of Florida's farm
frontier.It was 1965, and rural, segregated Belle Glade was culture
shock for a boy accustomed to summers shuttling between homes on
Manhattan's Upper East Side and in the affluent lily-white Hamptons.
``There was out-and-out racism,'' Dean recalled in an interview.
``People were being called racist things you wouldn't think of using
today. I remember fights and racial epithets.''
Forty years later, Dean is the front-runner for the Democratic
presidential nomination, often under attack from critics who charge
that his upbringing and experience as governor of Vermont, where more
than 9 in 10 residents are white, put him out of touch with the
complexities of race and culture that color most aspects of life in
the politically crucial South.
But Dean insists that he can relate, and he often points to that
summer of '65 - a ``liberating summer,'' he says - as an enduring
education in ethnic diversity.
Laboring in the swamps for $1.15 an hour - $1.25 on Sundays - for
12 hours a day, Dean and several other teenagers worked alongside
poor blacks, Mexican migrants and Cubans who had recently escaped
Fidel Castro's revolution. His boss and surrogate dad for the summer
was a Cuban immigrant whose son joined Dean in the fields, and Dean
learned his first words of Spanish.
The man who would later attend Yale, earn a medical degree, win
five terms as governor of Vermont and transform politics in the
Democratic Party says he chose to spend that summer in Belle Glade,
traveling south with a wrestling teammate whose stepfather was the
ranch's prime investor.
That investor was Walter Beinecke Jr., who bought the initial
20,000 acres in partnership with a Cuban immigrant, Alvaro Sanchez,
who had been one of Cuba's biggest ranchers until Castro took his
land and he fled the island in 1960 with nothing.
In 1963, Sanchez and Beinecke began to build Big B, short for
Soon the ranch was hiring hundreds of locals and Cuban immigrants
to clear the way for thousands of cattle especially bred to survive
the Florida heat. For Dean and Beinecke's stepson, Rick, it was an
opportunity to get far from home.
``I told Alvaro to work their asses off,'' said Walter Beinecke,
now 86, who eventually sold his interests in the ranch. ``I figured
it was time they had a good, swift kick in the pants and learned
something about working.''
Rick Beinecke, Dean's wrestling teammate at St. George's School
in Middletown, R.I., now a Suffolk University professor and clinical
social worker, calls it ``probably the most important summer of my
``We were a couple of preppies,'' said Beinecke, who studies AIDS
and reads about Belle Glade as home to one of the highest
concentrations of HIV cases in the nation. ``It was our first
exposure to blacks and to poverty. For me, my whole life in public
service dates from that. I have to think it had some impact on
Dean, typically loath to open up about his personal past, is not
so introspective about the impact of his journey from the bourgeois
to Belle Glade.
His memories are more fixed on the facts of that life - the grime
of heavy lifting, the stench of slogging through cattle dung, the
satisfaction of building corrals for the cows.
``I remember the black soil,'' Dean said. ``It was so rich, it
would itch when it got on you. And it was always on you. I remember
lying down in manure, fixing the corrals.''
The work that summer was difficult and long, beginning most
mornings at about 6 a.m. It was so hot that the boys wore only jeans,
The daily Florida thunderstorms produced deadly lightning strikes
across the flat swamps, sometimes sparking brush fires from which the
boys would run. Often, they rode around in the bed of a pickup truck.
``At the end of the day, their faces were red, red, red. It was
so hot,'' said Angelita Sanchez, Alvaro's 91-year-old widow, who
still lives in Belle Glade and recalls fondly the times that she
would host the boys in her tiny non-air-conditioned house for dinners
of black beans, rice and plantains.
``It was tough, tough work,'' she said. ``My husband said, `This
is not good work for these boys.' Walter said, `Let them work.' ''
It was no summer camp.
Francisco Sanchez, a son of Alvaro Sanchez who was 19 that summer
and worked alongside Dean and Beinecke, remembers the time a midlevel
supervisor asked him to oversee the work of some black laborers.
``They gave me a gun to put in my belt,'' said Sanchez, an
international banker living in Lima. ``I would speak to these people,
and they wouldn't look at my eyes. They were really scared of me. The
whole thing was really revolting to me.''
Dean said he remembers no such experience during his time at the
The boys spent their nights on the top floor of a dilapidated
two-story building in downtown Belle Glade that also housed the
ranch's administrative offices.
The building still stands, tucked between a parking lot for an
old Winn-Dixie store and a trailer park.
In the summer of '65, it was home to a group of rowdy teenagers
relishing their first taste of freedom. Loud music and beer-soaked
parties were nightly events.
``We'd be singing La Bamba and playing records really loud,''
Asked how rowdy the parties got, Dean said, ``Nobody ever got
shot or killed. [But] the police would come on a regular basis. When
they did, we could hide underneath the house, which was on stilts.''
The Big B Ranch was eventually sold to the mammoth King Ranches
of Texas and split into a separate parcel now used mostly for sugar
cane and sod.
For Dean, the ranch experience continues to arise whenever he is
asked about his childhood.
At a bilingual debate last year in New Mexico hosted by
Univisión, Dean used some of his Spanish learned on the ranch -
carefully accented but halting.
He didn't use all of the words that he learned.
Those are words that ``I can't repeat in the newspaper,'' he
said. ``But they come back once in a while.''