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Leading with the purest of intentions

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It was in a time before cell phones, the Internet and even the pager – remember those and how “important people” had them clipped on their belts and abruptly stopped whatever they were doing when they buzzed? It was also a time when we used film and tape recorders actually had spools of tape.

City Council chambers were far different at that time. The chambers were located where they are today, but they were much smaller. The walls were made of cheap eight-foot sections of wood paneling reaching up to a drop ceiling with florescent lights. There were two reasons for such desecration of a grand space that fortunately has since been restored. First, the original plaster ceiling was crumbling, the windows offered little refuge from the elements and the hardwood floors were buckled and scarred. Second, the city needed additional office space and they found it by building cubicles along the walls.

But while the environs had a dingy feel it rarely lacked in camaraderie when it came to council meetings. For a time Republicans outnumbered Democrats although Gene McCaffrey, a Democrat, was mayor.

The pre-meeting ritual was for council members to have dinner or at least a slice of apple pie and coffee at Father & Sons restaurant and then as the hour approached head next door to City Hall. Often they would sit at the counter and they’d invite me to join them.

It was on one such occasion Ward 1 Councilman Jerry Goldstein asked if I could bring my camera the following week. He really needn’t have asked because I always have my camera.

Jerry’s fellow council members were curious, what sort of media event had Jerry planned? He gave one of his crooked smiles and teased, “Channel 10 is coming, too.”

Now he had all of our attention.

Jerry ran Town & County Cleansers from a building where Walgreen’s now sits. His office, to one side of steaming machines where shirts and pants were pressed, was command central for Ward 1. Jerry’s desk was always piled high with newspapers and correspondence and across the wall he had taped up photographs, newspaper clippings, business cards and notes he’d received. There was a phone somewhere in all the clutter.

Being in the cleaning business, Jerry had the expertise and access to a whole lot of toxic cleaning agents.

Jerry kept us in suspense for a moment before revealing his plan to brighten council chambers. He personally was going to remove the carpet stains that made the place look like a cheap motel room.

Indeed it was a media event that made the Beacon, the Providence Journal, the Evening Bulletin and the three TV networks. Jerry was on hands and knees making Warwick clean and removing the “spots” from City Hall.

It would be false to conclude that Jerry was a media hound. He turned to the media when he thought there was a need to protect the interests of the community. He was concerned when he heard a massage parlor that had recently opened at Airport Plaza was offering more to its customers than a rub down. I sent one of our reporters over and he returned with a tale of being propositioned. Jerry talked to the chief. The place was shut down.

Jerry was an active member of the Rotary Club of Warwick.

When I joined, the club met at the Holland House (Frog Farm was the unofficial nickname), which is where the Washington Trust branch overlooks Spring Green Pond today. It was just down Warwick Avenue from the cleaners. Jerry always believed in transparency, a word that had not found its way into the “government speak” of today. Two examples of telling things as they are and fairness come to mind.

A member at the time, John O’Connor, had a playful side. He arranged for an actor from Trinity Repertory as a speaker who was introduced as a transvestite. He was so believable in telling his life story, which was entirely made up, that many club members took sympathy on the man. When Jerry learned it was all an act, he was outraged and thought John should be sanctioned. The club board was in a quandary. John and Jerry apparently talked as Jerry spoke at the following meeting, declaring that he thought John had given us a valuable lesson in questioning what we were told.

At the time – it was the early 80s – Rotary Clubs were exclusively male organizations. Clubs in California were the leaders in bringing women into the ranks and the debate reverberated through the international organization. The Warwick club was no exception, with a contingent arguing if women were allowed to join, the club would change dramatically and they would leave. They held their ground even after the American organization opened the door to women.

Jerry came to others and me. With Jerry leading, we co-sponsored Florence St. Jean, who was the director of the Warwick Boys Club (only later to include girls) to be Warwick’s first female member. Jerry couldn’t have made a better choice. Flo was the first female executive director of a Boys Club and highly thought of by her board, many of whom were members of the Rotary Club. Jerry went on to sponsor Carol Batty, who became the club’s first female president.

It was Jerry’s role of councilman of Ward 1 that earned him the distinction as leading off the Gaspee Days parade. He carried the mace, allegedly containing wood from the British vessel burned in 1772, a symbol of authority that mysteriously appears (its ownership is kept a close secret) just for the parade. Fittingly, since he had the means of keeping it clean, Jerry would don an all-white suit to assume his place at the head of the line of marchers.

That image immediately came to mind when his daughter, Jill, called last Thursday to inform me Jerry had died. It’s the way I want to remember him – in the lead with the purest of intentions.

Soon after Jill’s call I heard from Scott Avedisian. Prior to his 18-year run as mayor, Scott was the Ward 1 councilman. He recalled Jerry’s attentiveness to his constituents and sending clippings from the paper along with handwritten post-it-notes congratulating them on their achievements whether it was a son or daughter earning scholastic honors or a job promotion.

“He was present for people – not just a wave of hello but in meaningful ways,” said Scott.

Jerry understood the importance of connecting with people on a personal level. Some would say social media has made it so much easier to do that. And, indeed, with a few clicks we can post a comment, share something we like and add our voice to a trail of likes.

When you got a note from Jerry, you knew he had taken the time. That’s the way he was, whether “cleaning up City Hall,” advocating for change or sending along his congratulations. He invested in the community.

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