Small city turns big page
NORTH ADAMS -- Former colleagues from across the region and the state hailed Mayor John Barrett III as a "regional treasure," a "legendary" advocate for his community who displayed "grit" and "passion" in steering his city through its darkest times and preparing it for a bright future.
"John is a regional treasure," said U.S. Sen. John Kerry via e-mail from Washington D.C. "His visions undoubtedly transformed North Adams and we all should wish him well in this next chapter of his life. Everyone should be grateful for his decades of service."
Barrett, the longest serving mayor in Massachusetts, was defeated while seeking his 14th two-year term as mayor, ending his 26-year reign. He was defeated by seven-year member of the city council and bank vice president Richard Alcombright. Alcombright attracted 3,046 votes to Barrett's 2,166.
He was first elected to office in 1983, and one of his first duties was to inform his city that Sprague Electric, the city's lifeblood and primary employer, was closing its plant and moving away.
Many people have forgotten the things Barrett did for the city during those early years. Rep. Dan Bosley, who was elected to the state House of Representatives three years after Barrett was first elected mayor, recalls how the mayor had to essentially rebuild the water system, roads and sidewalks.
"You'd wash your clothes in North Adams and they'd come out dirtier than they went in because most of those pipes had been installed in the 1860s," Bosley said. "He had to essentially rebuild the city."
Other feathers in Barrett's cap, Bosley noted, are Mass MoCA, the North Adams Armory, the city's first new elementary school in 60 years, the skating rink, the ongoing renovation of the Mohawk Theater, the rebuilding of Hadley Overpass and a revitalized downtown.
"He kept taxes low and at the same time made the city look and work better," Bosley said. "He was a good guy to work with because he was always focused and not afraid to step on people's toes to get something done. He's been a very good mayor for North Adams and I think he's got a tremendous legacy. He's got a lot to be proud of."
Mary Grant, president of MCLA, lauded Barrett's tireless support of the college, which is also his alma mater.
"John has been a great professional colleague and a good personal friend, something that I value even more than the brick and mortar aspect of our collaborations" she said. "And I'm looking forward to seeing how we can continue to work with him as he moves into this new phase in his life."
Barrett's combative spirit was well-known in political circles. It seems that when it came to advocating what he thought was best for his city, the bigger they came, the harder they'd fall.
"I will always have the best memories of the battles we waged together," Kerry said. "I'll also remember the fact that he was always blunt, honest, and direct with me when he disagreed with me. He taught me a lot. He made me a better senator. He was a fierce advocate and I can tell you first hand that he's the guy you want on your side in a fight."
Kerry also listed some of the many victories for the North Adams Barrett leaves behind, such as the Mohawk Theater, Mass MoCA, laptops provided to middle school students and improvements at MCLA.
"John Barrett served the people of North Adams with everything he had -- integrity, passion and distinction," Kerry said.
Congressman John Olver also praised Barrett's years of service.
"Mayor Barrett is legendary and leaves behind a two-and-a-half decade legacy, with Mass MoCA being the gem of North Adams' achievements," Olver said.
Joseph Thompson, director of Mass MoCA, was there in the beginning when Barrett and he and a few other supporters were fighting an uphill battle to turn the old Sprague campus into a world class museum for contemporary art.
"In 1991 when Mass MoCA was far more dead than alive, John Barrett and I were talking, trying to come up with yet another plan," Thompson recalled. "He looked at me and said, ‘You know, we might still salvage this. But if we do, it will set in motion a series of changes that will eventually cost me this office.' And it took a long time for that premonition to play out. But at the time I thought it was a sign of grit and leadership that he fought for something that was good for his community and yet could end up separating him from his job."
Friend and recently re-elected mayor of Pittsfield James M. Ruberto said he considers Barrett a "true friend, a guy that has a heart of gold."
"John Barrett redefined North Adams, and took that city through the darkest period in its history and delivered rock-solid results," Ruberto said. "And the size of his voice has been disproportionate to the size of his city."
Ruberto noted that Barrett was considered a leader by other mayors in the state, and many across the country.
"I can assure you that there are dozens of mayors today who are truly in shock, asking what are they going to do now without John Barrett," Ruberto said. "He belongs in the Massachusetts mayors hall of fame because he's hit the ball out of the park for that community over and over and over again."
There are many residents of North Adams who feel the same.
"He is the dean of mayors in Massachusetts," said Debra Coody, 56, of North Adams, as she headed into the Big Y. "To me, he'll always be the mayor of North Adams."
To reach Scott Stafford: email@example.com or (413) 496-6241.
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