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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

In Memoriam: Governor J. Joseph Garrahy

A good and decent man who cared about those in need
Gov. Garrahy (r) with former
Congressman Eddie Beard (center)
By Will Collette

In the 1970s, when I was a young adult, Governor J. Joseph Garrahy governed this state with grace and compassion. This morning, it was confirmed that Joe died at age 81.

Rhode Islanders of a certain age all remember Joe's leadership during the Blizzard of '78 when he worked 24/7 out of the State House command post to bring the state through the crisis. He was a reassuring figure when he appeared on television in his flannel shirt to tell us all what was going on and to keep our spirits up. All governors since then have been measured against his standard when they are called upon to respond to a disaster.

In the 1970s, while working with social justice organizations, I knew Joe for his openness and compassion. I worked for the Community Affairs Office of the Providence Diocese in a former Catholic school building across from the State House. My job during the legislative season was to prowl the halls of the Capitol and monitor legislation that could affect low-income Rhode Islanders. I spent a lot of time in Joe's office, frequently chatting up his chief aide, Mike Ryan, who now heads up National Grid in Rhode Island.

And I was often part of lobbying groups and protest actions by low-income people who were trying to get help with food, heat and utilities and health care. We usually stopped at the Governor's office, and if he was in town, he would always make time to talk to the people. He couldn't always do what we wanted, but he always listened in a way that made it clear he understood.

Shortly after returning to Rhode Island after a 25 year absence in Washington, Cathy and I sat with Governor Garrahy at a dinner. He remembered us and we had a great old time talking about those times. It was great to see him looking fit and carrying himself with wisdom and wit.

Joe Garrahy was one of the first elected officials I had ever met, and certainly the first politician I had ever dealt with extensively. He showed me that the word "politician" is not a dirty word, and that a person can rise to power yet still retain one's humanity - and in Joe's case, humility.