NARRAGANSETT — Former Rhode Island Governor J. Joseph Garrahy, 81, died Tuesday due to heart disease in a hospital in West Palm Beach, Fla. Garrahy has put on many faces during his tenure as a public figure in Rhode Island, from a beer salesman to Lieutenant Governor to the man in charge at the State House, but one always remained the same; his humility and candidness with others.
Garrahy, born in Providence on November 26, 1930, was the son of Irish immigrants, and worked at a number of jobs throughout his education at LaSalle Academy, University of Buffalo, and attended night classes at the University of Rhode Island.
In 1977, Garrahy became Governor of Rhode Island and held the post until 1985, presiding over the creation of the Narragansett Bay Commission, reformation of the state prison system, and the renewal of downtown Providence. His actions in securing the state during the Blizzard of 1978 particularly grasp the hearts of Rhode Islanders, and the image of him wearing a plaid shirt while doing it endures. The every-day encounters which citizens had with Garrahy, from state representatives to the local business owner, were what many count as their most cherished memories of the former governor.
Former United States and Rhode Island Representative Robert Weygand recalled when he became Lieutenant Governor in 1993, a position which Garrahy held from 1969 to 1977, and how the Governor spoke with him about politics.
“He was the Lieutenant Governor, and when I took that office, he was my very first visitor,” said Weygand. “Whenever we talked about things, it always reverted back to what we could do to make Rhode Island better and had nothing to do with Democrat and Republican.”
“Governor Garrahy was one of the very few gentle men who were statesmen and dedicated his life to public service,” he added. “You always felt he was a genuine human being and was as honest as the day is long. He was special.”
Weygand also touched upon the difficult times that Garrahy inherited when he became governor, situations which he handled gracefully.
“He became governor in 1976 through 1984, which was not an easy time,” said Weygand. “We had an oil embargo, and there was a recession at the beginning of the Reagan Administration, which was not very popular in terms of creating new programs.”
“Most people might talk abut a particular program he founded or building he dedicated, but at the end of the day, most people remember Governor Joe Garrahy as one of those outstanding public servicemen that made us proud to be a Rhode Islander. That kind of leadership and public service has been lost quite a bit in the years since Joe Garrahy has been in office. He always had a great smile and always a kind word, and I was just proud to be around him.”
Garrahy left the office of Governor at the end of his term in 1985, not seeking re-election, and devoted his efforts to the development of the Greenhouse Compact, a state economic plan which aimed at revitalizing local businesses and increase state exports. The $250 million plan would create research ‘greenhouses’ which would stimulate business and create approximately 60,000 jobs. Garrahy was disappointed when Rhode Island voters rejected the plan in June 1984, but the ideas put forth in the legislation endure today in the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation.
As a resident of Narragansett in his later years, living on both Kingstown and Ocean Roads, locals regarded Garrahy as a member of the community, and the former Governor’s comportment was not that of a public figure, but a neighbor.
“The kindness he has always exhibited towards me and my family, that is how I knew him,” said Narragansett Town Councilman Christopher Wilkens. “He was a real man of the people.”
“I always called him governor and many times he told me not to, but I couldn’t help myself,” he added. “His wife Margherite, she was a doll, and they were always very nice, good people. The first thing he asked after saying hello would be, ‘how is your family?’ He knew my son was in Afghanistan and my daughter at Syracuse, and was always there to help. He was a rare, decent person.”
Garrahy was also a member of St. Thomas More Church in Narragansett, a place where many residents remember conversing with the former governor on Sunday.
”The everyday encounters he had with everyone were great because he was so humble and kind,” said Father Marcel Taillon. “His inner-life was where he was grounded, and from that his public service flowed.”
“When nobody was looking, he was virtuous,” he added. “He really embodied the gospel and was an exemplary Catholic. He is a really good example for all of us, someone who challenged us to be better just by the way he lived his life. That is the gift of Joe Garrahy.”
Funeral Services for J. Joseph Garrahy will be held on Tuesday, January 31 at the Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul in Providence. Visiting hours will be Monday, 2 to 6 p.m., and burial will be at St. Francis Cemetery in Wakefield.