Anne and Peter Silerfarb in 1991

Elder Profile: The Silberfarbs


Submitted 2 years ago
Created by
Ruth Sylvester

Let us know what time you’re coming, and we’ll pick you up. Don’t try to drive up our driveway!” say Peter and Anne Silberfarb on the phone, their hospitality shining through their repeated warnings. And sure enough, the driveway up from Bragg Hill Road to their charmingly private house site has enough hills and curves to warrant the requirement of four-wheel drive. Even as a visitor watches the footing because of one of this winter’s less lovely weather events, it’s clear that the house nestles into a gently shaped landscape as though it has always been there.

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In some ways the house is indeed very old, though Peter and Anne completed it in 1975. They copied the center-chimney 1750 colonial design from a friend’s historic house in Rockingham, NH, and they tracked down period building materials. Boards in the ceiling show the marks of a pit saw—the up and down working of an earlier system than the circular saws now in use. Wood wall paneling, as velvety to the touch as to the eye, was planed by hand from rough boards by Peter. The center chimney contains nine flues, serving hearths in three rooms downstairs and three upstairs, and a bread oven and a smoker. Local mason Lee Ilsley built the chimney (and the garden’s stone walls). The bricks in the massive, heat-storing chimney date from the 1700s; one even has “1771” graven into it. “Most people don’t want a center chimney now,” notes Anne. “It takes so much space out of the middle of the house.” The chimney’s footprint is about ten feet on a side.

Peter jumps in with stories about the fireplaces. One time they decided to build a fire in each fireplace. They went from room to room restocking the fires—it was a full-time job, and the house got so warm they had to open windows.

The house construction was an engrossing project in its day, a time when the couple’s two children were young. Daughter Leah told Anne, “When I grow up I want to be a mommy just like you, but I never want to build a house.”

Attraction of Opposites

Peter and Anne met at Bucknell. Their backgrounds were very different: Peter was from Jersey City, “living in poverty,” he laughs, while Anne came from wealthy Darien, CT. “I was an Aryan from Darien,” she jokes, but her family was initially not pleased when she introduced Peter, her Jewish boyfriend. Anne and Peter overcame such objections, and are obviously highly compatible, pointing out each other’s talents and successes, and sharing interests that include travel and maintaining the fabulous gardens that surround their home.

Cutting Edge Work

Anne stayed home with the children for nine years, during which time she started the first Jewish Sunday School in Norwich/Hanover. She then returned to elementary school teaching, which she had begun at Friends Select School in Philadelphia when Peter was in medical school. “I was lucky to begin my career there,” Anne says. “It made a lifelong impression, teaching at a Quaker school.” After a year of teaching at the Ray School in Hanover, she turned to working with students with learning disabilities, a field that drew her because she herself is dyslexic. “In sixth grade the teacher sent a note home saying ‘Anne can’t read,’ and it was true,” she recalls. “It used to be, kids with severe learning disabilities were kept shuttered at home.” Federal laws mandating a “free appropriate public education” for children with disabilities began in 1975 and have since been reauthorized. When she returned to teaching in 1975, Anne earned a Masters as a Learning Disabilities Specialist from Goddard College. She worked in several local schools, including Dartmouth, where she found students whose disabilities had never been diagnosed. Directing much of her considerable energy to training teachers, she spread understanding of learning disabilities and techniques to help students overcome them.

Meanwhile, Peter, who initially trained as an internist, had returned to his early love, psychiatry. He had turned away from the field when analysis seemed the only arrow in the doctor’s quiver, but advances in available treatments and Robert Weiss, a compelling mentor, led him to switch fields. “I noticed in med school, when I was making rounds on the cancer ward, patients had a positive attitude, while cardiac and GI (gastrointestinal) patients were less upbeat.” Why on earth would that be? Peter became eager to probe the question, and others like it. He joined the DMS faculty in 1972, and two years later became the first psychiatrist in the US to work full time in a Comprehensive Cancer Center. He noticed that people getting chemotherapy often had a slight cognitive impairment. “They didn’t like to talk about it,” he recalls, “but they’d say things like ‘I don’t feel as sharp as I used to.’” Now the phenomenon is referred to casually as “chemo brain.” Peter was the first to publish articles about it.

Peter chaired the Department of Psychiatry at Dartmouth Medical School for 18 years. He amassed an impressive list of service on international, national, and regional boards, including the board that sets standards for certifying psychiatrists, thus ensuring a high level of clinical skill as well as medical knowledge in newly minted psychiatrists. He has worked to bring the insights of psychiatry into many fields, including forensic work, and neurological, and geriatric care. He, like Anne, has multiplied his influence by changing the training of practitioners in the field.

Efforts for Norwich

Anne has devoted serious amounts of time to causes in Norwich, joining—and usually chairing—boards such as the Montshire, Upper Valley United Way, Norwich Special Places, the Vermont Nature Conservancy, and the Norwich Historical Society. While running the Historical Society, she succeeded in having the town recognized as a Historic Town on the Federal Register of Historic Places. While she was the chair of the Hitchcock Foundation, which gives research grants to researchers at the hospital, “I became the most hated person at DHMC,” she recalls with a pained expression. “We were running out of money and I had to tell people they wouldn’t be getting their promised grants.” With typical Anne-energy, she went on to fix the problem, enlisting the aid of fundraiser extraordinaire Lilla McLane-Bradley, and coming up with the necessary funds both short and long term.

“You can see, Anne’s enthusiastic about everything,” says Peter with the obvious pride they each take in the other. The couple is also proud of their children, local filmmaker Ben, and teacher of karate and mindfulness-educator, Leah.

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