David Bartley is rarely at a loss for words, and this cool autumn afternoon is no exception, as he spins tales from a lifetime of public service and blurts out pointed opinion, reveling in the role of cantankerous contrarian.

The president of Holyoke Community College is in classic form as he drives toward Boston for what seems like the millionth time. Bartley figures he’s spent four years of his life on the Massachusetts Turnpike–a significant chunk of time for someone who is still shy of 70. But after 40 years of state service, including 28 at the helm of the western Massachusetts campus and more than 12 in the state House of Representatives, including six in its top position, Bartley doesn’t expect to be making the two-hour trip from Holyoke to Boston too often in the future. And now the man known in Holyoke as “Mr. President,” but still referred to in Boston as “Mr. Speaker,” is heading to the Hub to finalize some paperwork for his retirement, effective January 1.

David Bartley then, as House Speaker, and now,
as outgoing president of Holyoke Community College.

Reflecting on his rise to Beacon Hill power more than 30 years ago, Bartley laughs when asked if he owed his speakership to Richard Nixon. “There’s no question about it,” he says. “Richard Nixon was one of the best things that happened to Democrats in Massachusetts.”

When Republican state Attorney General Elliot Richardson resigned in January 1969 to become Nixon’s undersecretary of state, a joint session of the Legislature convened and chose then-House Speaker Robert Quinn to succeed him. The move suddenly put Bartley, then the majority leader, in the pole position for the Speaker’s post. The dominoes were tumbling much faster than he had anticipated.

“I had been thinking that my hour probably would be in 1974 when Bob Quinn ran for statewide office,” says Bartley. “But you take what you can get.”

Later that night, the House elected the 32-year-old Bartley to succeed him in the Speaker’s chair. Bartley was not the youngest speaker ever elected, but he still holds the title of the youngest Democrat to lead the House. “I was three years younger than Tip,” he says, referring to Thomas P. O’Neill Jr., who in 1949 became the first Democrat to wield the gavel in the lower branch.

With Holyoke’s Maurice Donahue presiding over the state Senate, Bartley’s rise marked a rare Beacon Hill moment when the leaders of the Legislature’s two branches hailed from the same community. Donahue, who was 17 years Bartley’s senior, “was almost a second father to me,” says Bartley, whose own father died when he was 13. “We were great friends. And it was a fantastic time for both of us.”

“In my book, legislators are totally underpaid.”

And a good time for Holyoke, too. “We helped the community as much as we could,” says Bartley. “Hospital reimbursements got done quicker for the hospitals. Money for the city of Holyoke got back.” He recalls with pride how former Holyoke mayor Bill Taupier “used to say that the best thing that ever happened to the city was the two of us down there.”

To this day, Bartley remains a proud defender of those who enter the political fray, especially much-maligned lawmakers. “The bottom line, [in] my book, is legislators are totally and ridiculously underpaid,” he says. “If I had my druthers I would double their salary immediately. When a Boston city councilor makes more than a state legislator, that’s ridiculous.”

As for criticism that chairmen of the Legislature’s ethics committees are often chosen not for their teeth, but for lack of them, Bartley says, “Oh, I think that’s newspaper hogwash. I think that the ethical standards of elected officials–they sure as hell are a lot better than businessmen. Just look at what’s happened over the past couple of years.”

Bartley doesn’t care much for the idea of shrines devoted to political figures like him, but the gymnasium at Holyoke Community College does bear his name. “Earlier in my career I was captain of the UMass basketball team,” he says. “That’s when white midgets could play basketball.”

Bartley says he and Donahue didn’t overstep their authority by doing “special favors” for Holyoke. But one joint effort to help out a hometown institution remains near and dear to his heart, although it actually took place before Bartley became Speaker. “When I was majority leader and Maurice the Senate president, the Holyoke Community College burned to the ground,” he says. The school needed a new site, “and we clearly helped in buying the land and we helped in getting the place built up again.”

Did that have anything to do with his eventual elevation to the college’s presidency? Bartley shakes his head. “If you asked me” back then if he might one day serve as president of Holyoke Community College, he says, “I would’ve laughed at you.”

James V. Horrigan is a writer living in Boston.