Former Sen. Bill Doyle sat in the Statehouse cafeteria Tuesday morning, surrounded by eight students from his Johnson State College government class, finishing off a breakfast of bacon, eggs and potatoes, washed down by a V8.
“I couldn’t feel better,” declared the 90-year-old, who uses a wheelchair. “I’m stronger than a bull moose.”
The genial political science professor and author of the Doyle Poll was upbeat, despite having lost his bid for re-election last fall after serving 48 years as a Republican representing Washington County in the upper chamber, the longest any lawmaker has ever served in Vermont.
“I’m happy to be where I am,” he said, including his plans to teach at Johnson State “until I don’t enjoy it.” The students joining him were wrapping up a course called “Observing the Legislative Process.”
Asked if he wished he’d not sought re-election and avoided the loss, Doyle looked shocked by the question.
“Absolutely not,” he said, adding he was seriously considering running for his old Senate seat next year. Doyle was regularly the top vote-getter in the three-member Washington County delegation but finished fourth in November.
For the next half hour, he touched on the highlights of his legislative service that spanned seven governors. He also spoke of growing up the son of the mayor in Sea Girt, New Jersey, his first job — taking care of tennis courts — and fondly recalled meeting baseball greats Gil Hodges and Pee Wee Reese as a teenager. He quizzed a reporter on what the big issues would be this year.
Then he was wheeled into the ornate Senate chamber and feted by his colleagues, at least two of whom said they got into politics because of Doyle’s courses and encouragement: Sen. Anthony Pollina, P/D-Washington, and Sen. Richard Westman, R-Lamoille. Another, Republican Dustin Degree, the new minority leader from Franklin County, had a well-worn copy of Doyle’s classic, “The Vermont Political Tradition: And Those Who Helped Make it,” a book that is part history and part Doyle’s observations of the Vermont political scene.
During the Senate ceremony, which at times took on the air of a celebrity roast, Doyle was recalled as dedicated to opening up the electoral process, especially during his tenure as chairman of Senate Government Operations, and wanting to teach others how the government and legislative process works, particularly through his teaching at Johnson State. He started there in 1958 after moving from New York City.
Doyle, who has lived in Montpelier since 1959, was also fondly recalled for regular dinners he hosted at Sarducci’s restaurant in the capital city and for his uncanny ability to find buffets at political events at home and out of state, including a memorable one where he and former Sen. Vincent Illuzzi met the boxer Muhammad Ali. Illuzzi also drew a laugh from Doyle by recalling when another senator, former Sen. Art Gibb, raved about the “party mix” at a Doyle gathering that turned out to be cat food the guest mistakenly found.
Doyle closed his eyes periodically during the more than hourlong Senate event, as he did during committee meetings last year. Earlier, in the cafeteria, he said he felt able to follow the discussion in the hearings and “never really felt tired” during the session last year, although he had appeared to doze off. Some colleagues questioned his effectiveness but were unwilling to say so publicly.
Gov. Phil Scott, who served with Doyle in the Senate, praised his wisdom and his ability to listen and take criticism.
During the ceremony, Scott said Doyle proved “you don’t have to be the loudest in the room. It’s about remembering you’re a public servant.” He signed a proclamation declaring March 7 to be Bill Doyle Town Meeting Day.
Typical of the praise Doyle received were comments from former Sen. Jeb Spaulding, now the chancellor of the Vermont State Colleges system. He said Doyle took him under his wing when he entered the Senate 32 years ago, even though they were of opposing parties. Doyle was also remembered for advocating to include senators in the minority party for committee chairs.
Doyle said his proudest accomplishment was pushing for a presidential primary instead of a caucus, which happened in 1976. He said the move made sense because it would open up the selection to more people.
Asked to recall his biggest argument with another senator, Doyle couldn’t list one. “We had discussions of course,” he said with a smile. Ever the diplomat, when asked to name his favorite governor, Doyle said: “They all had great attributes.”
Doyle said he is still living at home and plans to continue to do the Doyle Poll at town meeting statewide, a tradition of a dozen or so questions about Vermonters’ view on issues facing the Legislature. He began the unscientific survey in 1969.
Some of Doyle’s family attended the Senate event, including his wife, Olene.