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Berkshire Eagle

A visit with Mayor Dobelle 
By Daniel Bellow 

Saturday, January 08, 2005 - PITTSFIELD

 FORMER Pittsfield Mayor Evan S. Dobelle came to visit The Eagle's editorial board Wednesday, to say that he's bought a house on Crofut Street and intends to move "back home" for his new job running the New England Board of Higher Education. Obviously, a lot of things have changed and few of them for the better since he was mayor more than 30 years ago, but he said Pittsfield is still home for him and he intends to live here with his family and commute to Boston, where he has an apartment.

 Few of us now at The Eagle knew Dobelle, but we have plenty of acquaintances in common and he asked us about former colleagues now retired or passed away. Editorial board meetings are often a standoffish affair, but the former mayor was very much at his ease and soon we were all laughing about the people we knew in politics and newspapers. It was easy to see why people thought so highly of him during his tenure as the boy mayor. Intelligent, witty, urbane, he seems still to know everyone in Massachusetts politics and to have retained his national Democratic Party connections -- a Kerry activist, he said he might have gone to Washington had the election gone the other way. Yet he acted like there was nothing he'd rather do with his afternoon than shoot the breeze with the boys from the local paper.

Of course we had to ask him what happened at the University of Hawaii, where the board of regents gave him the bum's rush with several years remaining on his contract, and then had to backpedal on all the mean things they said about him and give him a fat $1.8 million severance package. He explained it all as "politics." The new Republican governor in a traditionally Democratic state, Linda Lingle, suspected this very visible and outspoken Dem. was running for her job.

 Dobelle, who hasn't held elective office since he left Pittsfield, didn't suggest that this was true, only that the local newspapers were touting him as a candidate. Having landed on his feet in a new job, he considers himself vindicated. (The Honolulu newspapers, on the Internet, largely confirm Dobelle's account, though it's also evident he made himself some enemies out there in paradise.)

 We turned back to Pittsfield, our favorite subject, and to all the wrong moves and bad breaks that have brought it to its present parlous estate -- the elusive bypass, the mall in Lanesboro, the departure of GE. Dobelle said Jack Welch wouldn't return his phone calls, and it was pretty clear to him even in 1973 that GE was on its way out. Still, the company kept salaries artificially high to prevent other companies from moving into town and competing for skilled labor, and then left the city its PCB mess.

 Of his bright ideas that were, in typical Pittsfield fashion, nixed by the City Council, he most regretted the failure of the underpass to funnel northbound traffic beneath Park Square from South Street to East Street. He had $15 million in state money lined up for the project and he needed eight votes but only got seven. This would still be a great idea today, only it would cost 10 times as much.

He gently turned aside the question of what he would do if he were mayor of Pittsfield now with an expression of confidence in Mayor James M. Ruberto. But he seemed dismayed at the empty storefronts downtown and the city's decline, especially in contrast to the growth of South County. "I thought, even then, that tourism was the thing," he said. During the first energy crisis, when the summer people realized that the Berkshires were as far as they could get on a tank of gas and so started coming here in greater numbers, he had visions of a Berkshire trolley running from north to south. He still thinks tourism is the thing for Pittsfield, tourism and education.

 Education, says the new president of NEBHE, is the biggest industry in New England, and could become a mightier economic engine in Berkshire County. He says he came away from a meeting impressed with the energy and enthusiasm of Mary K. Grant, the president of Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams.

NEBHE was founded in the 1950s as a cooperative among the public colleges in New England, to fill classrooms, share facilities and give kids a break on tuition. Later, the private colleges joined, but they don't participate as fully as they might. Dobelle has big plans for the institution. He says American higher education is in crisis and doesn't know it. It's the biggest industry in New England, but it doesn't act like a business or demand that government treat it as one.

 Universities in Asia will in the next 10 years produce more highly-trained English-speaking graduates than there are people in the United States today, said Dobelle, and New England colleges should be angling for a share of that market. They should be building classrooms and opening new campuses and most of all developing their brand identity to compete in the global marketplace. And if the new president of NEBHE has anything to say about it, that's what they'll do.

 After an hour and a half, Evan Dobelle put his coat back on, picked up his paper folder, shook a few hands in the newsroom and off he went. He'll turn 60 this year, but he's still very much the boy wonder, full of ideas and enthusiasm, looking to parlay his new job into something big. Who knows what else he might do? 

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