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David M. Bartley, state’s youngest House speaker and longtime college president, dies at 88

David M. Bartley, President of Holyoke Community College, in 2003.Knott, Janet Globe Staff

Abiding by advice a previous lawmaker had offered, David M. Bartley often treated the Legislature like an orchestra when, at 32, he became the youngest House speaker in Massachusetts history.

“Sometimes you need more violins, sometimes more horns,” he told the Globe in 1971, two years after ascending to the leadership post.

And in that long-ago time of less polarized politics he also paid close attention to his colleagues’ perceptions of him.

“I have to convince the conservatives that I’m conservative, the liberals that I’m liberal, the Democrats that I’m partisan, and the Republicans that I’m fair,” Mr. Bartley said. “You do it with a juggling act.”


Mr. Bartley, who went on to serve for more than a quarter century as president of his alma mater, Holyoke Community College, died Tuesday while in hospice care. He was 88 and had lived in Holyoke his entire life.

“He was a good leader. He didn’t have an easy job, needless to say, and he did it well,” said former Governor Michael S. Dukakis, who had served as a state representative alongside Mr. Bartley, including into the beginning of his House speaker tenure.

“I always had a lot of respect for him,” Dukakis said. “I thought he ran a good Legislature, a good House, and we did good things because of that.”

Mr. Bartley’s legislative legacy includes cosponsoring the state’s special education law with then-Representative Michael Daly. Chapter 766, which passed in 1972, mandates providing programs for all children with special needs.

Working with a judge, J. John Fox, Mr. Bartley also sponsored a firearms bill that became law. What was known as the Bartley-Fox law mandated a one-year mandatory minimum sentence for those convicted of illegally carrying a gun.

“He was out front on this very early, and the current situation is just intolerable,” Dukakis said of Mr. Bartley’s efforts to curb gun violence. “When it came to policy, he was a very good person.”


Mr. Bartley became House speaker at the beginning of 1969 as part of a series of political events that originated in the White House, when Republican Elliot Richardson, the Massachusetts attorney general, joined President Richard M. Nixon’s administration as under secretary of state.

Robert H. Quinn, who was then the Massachusetts House speaker, replaced Richardson as state attorney general. Mr. Bartley, who was then House majority leader, was elected House speaker days before turning 33.

“There’s no question about it. Richard Nixon was one of the best things that happened to Democrats in Massachusetts,” Mr. Bartley said with a laugh in an interview with CommonWealth magazine that was published in early January 2004, just as he was stepping down from his college presidency.

The beginning of Mr. Bartley’s speakership was one of the few instances when the leaders of state Legislature chambers were from the same community. At the time Maurice A. Donahue of Holyoke, who had been Mr. Bartley’s political mentor from before he became a state representative, was president of the state Senate.

Mr. Bartley was proud of his roots, his heritage, and his upbringing in Holyoke, an experience that left him well-prepared for the political scraps that lay ahead with affluent, powerful Brahmins in Boston’s power structure.

“I grew up in a ghetto, an Irish ghetto,” he said in the 1971 Globe interview. “It was always a Yankee-Irish fight. I grew up only knowing Irish Catholics. My mother taught me that the only people who ever helped us were Roosevelt, Truman, and Kennedy.”


Born in Holyoke on Feb. 9, 1935, David Michael Bartley grew up in the city’s Elmwood neighborhood. He was the youngest of four brothers whose parents were Mary Kennedy Bartley and James Bartley.

“My father died when I was a freshman in high school,” Mr. Bartley recalled, and the family was left with “no pension and no benefits. I can still see my mother crying at the kitchen table because there was no money for food.”

He graduated in 1952 from Sacred Heart High School in Holyoke, where he first demonstrated expertise on the basketball court.

Mr. Bartley said an older brother pushed him to go to college and “forced me to meet my ‘Mr. Chips,’ George Frost.”

Frost was the founding leader of what is now Holyoke Community College, and was Holyoke Junior College, a two-year school, when Mr. Bartley attended.

“Frost brought me to the world of ideas,” Mr. Bartley said. “He instilled confidence.”

He played basketball at Holyoke, was elected to student offices, and graduated in 1954. Mr. Bartley also was on the team at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, from which he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1956, later returning to receive a master’s.

“I hated to lose,” he said in 1971 of his basketball years. “I was a sore loser then and I am a sore loser now. I hate gratuitous losers. There’s only one way to play, and that’s to win.”


After college, he initially was a basketball coach and taught history and civics at what is now Forest Park Middle School in Springfield. While there he met another teacher, Bette Keough. They married in 1964.

During his student years at UMass, an assignment in one course had required Mr. Bartley to work with a politician seeking election or reelection. That led him to pass out campaign buttons and literature for Donahue, a local state senator who guided Mr. Bartley’s early political career.

In 1962, Mr. Bartley ran for a House seat, finishing first in a crowded primary field and prevailing over his Republican opponent in November. He served until stepping down in 1975 to become president of Holyoke Community College.

Aside from taking a leave in the early 1980s to serve as secretary of administration and finance during Governor Edward J. King’s administration, Mr. Bartley remained at the college until retiring at the beginning of 2004.

In 1968, a fire destroyed the main Holyoke Community College buildings, and the legislative efforts of Mr. Bartley and Donahue were credited with securing funding to rebuild the school.

“Throughout his life, Dave Bartley epitomized what it meant to be a public servant and was a true champion for the City of Holyoke,” US Representative Richard Neal, a Springfield Democrat, said in a statement.


In addition to his wife, Mr. Bartley leaves two sons, Myles of Mount Vernon, N.Y., and David K. of Holyoke; a daughter, Susan of Northampton; and three grandchildren.

A service will be announced.

Mr. Bartley “really was an amazing person and a great dad,” said his son David, a Holyoke city councilor. “He had very serious obligations in Boston at the Legislature, and at the college. There’s a lot to be said about how he focused on his various leadership positions, and yet devoted so much of his life to his family.”

And whenever Mr. Bartley returned to Holyoke from Beacon Hill, during his time as one of the state’s most powerful politicians, he was determined that people treat him the same as before.

At the local establishment where he was talking with friends in 1962 when he decided to run for state representative, “they think I’m one cut above an alderman,” he said in 1971, “and I do nothing to discourage that.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at