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Professor Bill Doyle to retire

Professor Bill Doyle

Professor Bill Doyle

Ryan Mercer/Burlington Free Press

Ryan Mercer/Burlington Free Press

Professor Bill Doyle

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“After more than 40 years teaching Political Science at Johnson State College, I’ve decided it’s time for me to retire,” wrote JSC professor and former Vermont State Senator Bill Doyle in his retirement announcement to Vermont State Colleges System Chancellor Jeb Spaulding on Jan. 25, 2018.

Doyle began a distinguished teaching career at JSC in 1959 and has been a core member of the institution’s faculty ever since. “My greatest achievements have been my students, many of whom have continued to pursue political, legal, and teaching careers,” he stated in his retirement letter. “Over 80 of my former students have become involved in the Vermont State Legislature.”

Doyle certainly had a point. The current Vermont Legislature is so lush with his former students on both sides of the aisle that his impact will reverberate through the halls of the Vermont Statehouse for generations. Among the many JSC alums whom he inspired and guided towards a career as a public servant is Dylan Giambatista, a Chittendon County representative who currently works as director of outreach and financial literacy in the Vermont Office of the State Treasurer.

“Bill Doyle’s Johnson State College classes are one of the first autobiographical details I share when asked about my involvement at the Vermont Statehouse,” said Giambatista. “He opened our eyes to a new world and dared us to get off the couch to head out to local meetings and state events. I am indebted to Bill Doyle in so many ways—it’s a remarkable legacy.

That legacy began for Giambatista when he first learned of Doyle while touring with a punk rock band in 2006, something that would change the course of his life. “The guitarist, Alan, was on summer break from Johnson where he was pursuing a teaching degree,” he said. “Noting my interest in history, Alan encouraged me to take classes with Bill Doyle if the opportunity ever presented itself. A short while later, I found an old, tattered Bill Doyle book at an antique store. Today I have multiple volumes on my bookshelves that bear Bill’s name. My Doyle collection ranges from primary sources he edited to his ubiquitous blue “The Vermont Political Tradition” book. Over the years, Bill gave me several copies of his books, some of which I passed on to interns or aspiring politicians with whom I’ve worked. It’s this legacy of giving back, of sharing Vermont’s political and civic history with his neighbors, that is extraordinary. The story of Vermont was kept, told, and retold by Bill Doyle. I will always be grateful for the part he played in shaping my history.”

Another of Doyle’s former students is Senator Anthony Pollina of the Washington District. “Bill Doyle exposed me and many other students to Vermont politics in the best possible way, bringing us in direct contact with politicians, policymakers, and activists, bringing the process to life [and] making it real in a way that went beyond the classroom,” he said.

Pollina, a Progressive/Democrat, noted that Doyle, a classic Vermont Republican, sought common ground whenever possible. “As a politician, he was always willing to reach out, not only across the aisle to other parties, but also to average citizens to help them have a voice and become a part of the process,” he said.”

A third JSC alum, David Yacovone of the class of 1976, is a representative of the Lamoille-Washington District and echoed many of Pollina’s sentiments. “Bill Doyle inspired me to pursue public service,” he said. “He helped me build my confidence by giving me opportunities to write, to speak publicly, and to learn critical inquiry. These are gifts I have used throughout my working career and I am grateful to him.

Yacovone noted that Doyle’s influence went beyond both the college and the Statehouse where he had served for so long. Doyle’s influence, he said, especially in a time of growing political partisanship, helped to maintain Vermont’s political tradition of civility. “Bill has contributed to the political landscape in Vermont in countless ways,” Yacovone continued. “His ‘Doyle Poll’ helped foster involvement in Vermont issues and helped generate discussions throughout Vermont about our future. All of his work has been done with civility and grace. We are in his debt.”

Lamoille District Senator Richard Westman graduated from JSC in 1982 and began his tenure in the Vermont State Legislature the next year. “As a teacher, he [Doyle] sparked the interest of many students in the political process,” he said. “Many, many of his students have now served in government positions. His influence through his students has extended his contribution to Vermont in an extraordinary way. I’m grateful to him for the tools he gave me and am lucky to have been one of his students.”

When asked what he thought were Doyle’s greatest contributions to the political landscape of Vermont, Westman said, “Bill for many, many years was the chair in the Senate of the Government Operations Committee and has been for most of all of our lives a leader in the protection of democracy in Vermont. He was the champion of the creation of the Vermont Presidential Primary and he has long been an advocate of opening Vermont’s democratic process to people participation.”

While Doyle was undoubtedly the impetus behind many political careers in Vermont, he also made a permanent influence on his peers within the Legislature. Former Vermont Governor Jim Douglas began working alongside him nearly five decades ago and still uses Doyle’s wisdom in his post-political career as a professor. “I can’t think of anyone who has made a greater impact on state government in recent times than Bill Doyle,” Douglas said. “He literally wrote the book on Vermont politics. I’ve used ‘The Vermont Political Tradition’ in my class at Middlebury College as long as I’ve been teaching it. Bill’s Town Meeting Day survey has offered invaluable guidance to policymakers for decades. His balanced, moderate approach to public issues in his many years in the State Senate helped fashion legislation that has kept Vermont such a great place to live and work.”

In terms of their relationship, Douglas refers to Doyle as a mentor. “As a young legislator in the 70’s, I had the privilege to chair the House Committee on Government Operations,” he said. “Bill chaired the Senate’s counterpart committee, which gave me the opportunity to work with him, learn from him, and gain a lot of respect for such an outstanding public servant. In my executive branch roles, I continued to partner with Bill to improve the electoral process and other functions of state government.”

Although Douglas didn’t have the opportunity to enroll in a Doyle class, he has been a visitor many times during his own long political career. “I’ve visited Bill’s classes at Johnson many times and greeted them occasionally at the Statehouse,” he said. “He has never wavered in his dedication to empowering the next generation to participate actively in our system of self-government. Vermont is grateful to Bill Doyle for his energy, his integrity, his focus, and his commitment to the state we love.”

Despite Doyle’s retirement and JSC’s impending name change as it transforms into Northern Vermont University- Johnson in the coming months, his presence and effect on the campus will be lasting. NVU President Elaine Collins only worked with him for three years after being hired in 2015, but it didn’t take much time for her to gain an appreciation for the man.

“Bill Doyle has made numerous indelible contributions to Johnson State College across the years,” she said. “I have particularly appreciated his two-week course in Montpelier, where students observe the Legislature in action and sit in on committee meetings. Additionally, he has consistently brought in, as guest lecturers, top government leaders and policymakers, allowing students to make important connections. Clearly Bill Doyle has positively influenced many JSC students who now participate actively in government. Finally, I must acknowledge his highly acclaimed video documentary series that continues to disseminate important local knowledge about each of our countries in Vermont.”

Chancellor Spaulding offered his own thoughts on Doyle upon receiving his retirement letter: “Professor Doyle has cheerleaders all over the state of Vermont, and especially in Montpelier. But there is no greater cheerleader for Johnson State College than Bill. His love of and pride in Johnson and its students is obvious. He takes a genuine interest in his students and has provided the motivation and mentorship for hundreds of them to get involved in community and public service. He makes a difference to students who then make a difference on their own.”

Professors David Plazek and Paul Silver have worked closely with Doyle in the Humanities Department at JSC, allowing them prolonged access to witness his dedication to both the state and the institution he has devoted his life to. “Through his course Observations of the Legislative process he has made students aware, thoroughly aware, of the political process in Vermont,” Silver said. “Students in the course met everyone involved, not just for a few minutes with the Governor and two minutes with the Lieutenant Governor. One student said one of the people they met asked his [the student’s] opinion on an important matter!”

In Plazek’s eyes, Doyle was far more than a professor at JSC. “He’s been an institution here,” he said. “His contributions are many. Three items stand out for me. One would be the video documentaries about counties in Vermont he made with students. Probably his biggest contribution was how he has connected students in state governance. He has brought so many officials to campus and coordinated student participation in Montpelier for so many [that] you just do not know where to begin. One thing is for certain, many of his former students have served in governance and won political office. The last item is his book on the ‘Vermont Political Traditions.” It is the clearest and most accessible text for teaching Vermont politics out there.”

In a few years there will no longer be a student enrolled at JSC who has experienced a Doyle class. But for the time being, stories of how he has aided them remain very much part of the institutional narrative. Senior Phil O’Neil-St. Pierre is not a political science major, but took ample advantage of the courses offered by Doyle.

“Doyle’s classes went beyond the norm,” he said. “In his classes, you didn’t just learn about the political system, you got to meet the people who make it function, and actually be a part of it. His Observing the Legislative Process course put me in the Statehouse, working with the committees and legislators that meant the most to me. Being a part of his Campaigns and Elections course was particularly special because week after week, we saw debates for every contest on the ballot. We didn’t have to sit and read about how each candidate differed from the other. We got each candidate’s stance from their own mouth and had the chance to be an active part of the political process. Doyle’s contribution to Johnson and Vermont as a whole cannot be understated.”

Staff Assistant for the Humanities and Writing and Literature departments, Sandy Noyes has been a longstanding friend and colleague with Doyle, spending time with him both on and off of the JSC campus. “I think that when he brings speakers in from Montpelier and does the debates during the election years has really helped a lot of the students want to go into politics themselves, and it also got the public to want to come up here and listen,” she said. “He’s put Johnson State College on the map, and he’s a great guy too.”

Noyes concluded with a personal Doyle factoid. “When I was in Maine this weekend I found a postcard with a bull moose on it and I sent it to him [Doyle],” she said. “If you ask Senator Doyle how he’s feeling, no matter how rotten he’s really feeling, he’ll always say, ‘strong as a bull moose.’”

Editor’s Note: a full interview with Bill Doyle will be in our next issue.

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Professor Bill Doyle to retire