While they may have only shook his hand or only seen him on television, just about everybody who lived through the Blizzard of ‘78 feels they knew J. Joseph Garrahy, the governor with the plaid shirt who personified calm, compassion and reason in a time of crisis.
The former governor who served for eight years will be buried today at St. Francis Cemetery in Wakefield following a funeral mass this morning at Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul in Providence. He died last Tuesday in West Palm Beach, Fla. at the age of 81 leaving his wife, Margherite and their five children.
He leaves countless others who, although they aren’t related by blood, also feel he is family. It’s really not that extraordinary because Garrahy made so many part of his extended family.
“He always took time to be with family. It was a very tight knit family and it went for his staff and cabinet,” says Michael Ryan. Ryan’s life was shaped by the former governor, going back to his days as a student at Rhode Island College. The bond between them was strong and enduring.
Ryan was on the phone with Garrahy on two occasions as recently as last week.
“I thought he had a cold,” Ryan recalls. He asked about his health and apparently Garrahy dismissed his concerns saying it was a bug that seemed to be going around. The first of the calls was to let Garrahy know of the death of former Newport Mayor Robert McKenna. The second was a couple of days later to tell him of the passing of Charles Fogarty’s mother.
Garrahy told Ryan that he only phoned with bad news.
“I promise the next time I’ll have good news for you,” Ryan remembers responding. The two talked frequently. Ryan said Garrahy was a “voracious reader,” who closely followed state, national and international events.
There never was a third call.
Ryan has grieved the man who meant so much to him and he has thought about what made him so popular. Much has been said and written about Garrahy’s ability to relate to the common man, how he listened and how he loved Rhode Island. They are all qualities Ryan saw, but under them all – a foundation – “he was very comfortable with who he was.”
Of all things it was basketball that brought the two together.
Ryan played the game with Garrahy’s brother, Edward, in grammar school. When Garrahy served in the State Senate, Ed said there were openings for Senate pages and thought Ryan might be interested. It put Ryan on a path that led him to become one of the governor’s closest confidents and later to the nation’s capitol as chief of the Rhode Island office to the late Senator John Chafee.
From page, Ryan went on to become head page. Then after graduating from RIC, Garrahy asked Ryan what he planned to do. Ryan hadn’t set a course, but Garrahy said he could use his help. He became a legislative assistant and was assigned to work with the medical malpractice commission. From the Senate Garrahy went on to be elected Lieutenant Governor.
“Before I knew it he was running for governor.” Garrahy won his first term in 1976 and Ryan was his press secretary at the age of 25.Apart from the Blizzard of 1978, Ryan said the Providence College fire in Aquinas Hall of Dec. 13, 1977 that killed 10 students was a defining moment for Garrahy. Ryan says Garrahy was struck by the faith of PC President Thomas R. Peterson and moved by how he dealt with the aftermath of the fire but Garrahy also played a role. Ryan said a coed was severely injured and needed to get to a burn center. The only transport available was a military plane. Garrahy called Jack Watson, a special assistant to President Carter. Arrangements were quickly made and Garrahy had the roads closed to avoid delays in getting her to Green Airport.“When he called, they paid attention,” Ryan said of the president’s office. Before Garrahy left office in 1985, Ryan decided he wanted to work in the private sector. He talked with the governor about it and he suggested three companies Ryan might contact. All three gave him interviews and all three came back with job offers. Ryan took a public relations job with AT&T, leaving public service for the time.
The bond with Garrahy was not broken.
“He was humble,” Ryan says, “people trusted him to always do the right thing.”
Ryan found Garrahy “even tempered,” a man who he never heard raise his voice and a man who respected others, even though he may not agree with them.
Speaking of some of today’s politicians and elected officials, Ryan said, “I wish they could be mandated to take a course to be civil in public life.”
Ryan found Garrahy innovative and his style effective although he didn’t always get his way. He called the Greenhouse Compact a “bold effort” although in the end the plan to revitalize the state’s economy was defeated by the voters. At the time labor and business leaders refused to sit across the table even for the common good. Garrahy changed that.
“Both sides trusted that he was doing the right thing. They were aware they had to work with him,” said Ryan.
Ryan turned to his mentor when Senator John Chafee sought to lure him back into public service. He delayed his answer and bought some time saying he needed to confer with his wife, Lynne, who was close to delivering their son at the time.
Then he called Garrahy. What would be his advice about working for a Republican when he had served for a Democrat?
Garrahy quizzed Ryan on his own political ambitions concluding, “’If you’re not going to run for office, you couldn’t be working for a better guy’…and he was right.” After serving as Chafee’s press secretary, Ryan left public service for a second time to work for Narragansett Electric, ironically one of the three companies that offered him a job when he left Garrahy’s office. He is now a senior vice president at National Grid that bought Narragansett.
Ryan didn’t need to reflect on what meant most to the late governor. It was family. On his frequent calls he would hear from the governor about his grandchildren detailing “chapter and verse on what each was doing.”
Ryan says he is privileged and honored to have known Garrahy and for their “extraordinary relationship.” Like so many Rhode Islanders, Ryan was family and then so much more.