THE PASSING OF GOVERNOR J. JOSEPH GARRAHY
PROVIDENCE — Former Gov. J. Joseph Garrahy is being remembered for his calm leadership and strong devotion to his Catholic faith and pro-life issues.
Gov. Garrahy, 81, died Tuesday evening at a West Palm Beach, Fla., hospital with his wife of 55 years Margherite at his side, according to his son John, who said his father succumbed to heart disease.
“He had very strong faith and a very strong commitment to the church,” said John Garrahy, in an interview Wednesday with Rhode Island Catholic.
John, a member of St. Augustine Parish, Providence – one of five Garrahy children – said his father was a family man with a firm sense of optimism and Catholic values.
“He was absolutely wonderful. He had such a positive attitude in everything he did. He was so excited by his children’s and grandchildren’s accomplishments.”
A former beer salesman for the Narragansett Brewing Company, Garrahy began his political career as a state senator in 1962. He held the seat until 1968, when he was elected Lt. Governor. After serving nine years, he was elected to the state’s highest office. He served as governor for four, two-year terms, from 1977 to 1985.
Former State Rep. Bill McKenna, who served as a former chairman of the Rhode Island State Right to Life Committee, and who worked on pro-life legislation with Garrahy when he served as governor, said that the governor worked very well with the late state Sen. Bob McKenna (who passed away last week), who was also well-known for his pro-life views.
“Those were the ‘Golden Years’ for pro-life legislation. We had a Democratic state pro-life platform,” said McKenna, a parishioner of St. Paul Church, Cranston.
He said Garrahy always remained true to the values instilled in him by his Irish-born parents at their home on Esten Street, a half-mile from the State House where he would one day serve.
McKenna said that perhaps Garrahy’s most important achievement in supporting pro-life issues came not through the passage of legislation, but rather through an administrative action he undertook.
Following a 1980 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Harris v. McRae case – which held that states receiving Medicaid funding were not required to fund abortions deemed medically necessary, but which did not qualify for federal reimbursement – Garrahy denied the use of Medicaid funds to pay for most abortions in Rhode Island, a policy that is still in effect today.
“That’s quite a legacy to know you did that,” McKenna said.
Diane Manning, a founding member of the Rhode Island State Right to Life Committee, and who now serves as board chairman, remembers Garrahy as a very calm and controlled leader who was comfortable with the decisions he took.
“He had a very even disposition, like the way he handled the storm of ’78,” she said, referring to the now iconic image of the governor – wearing a red plaid shirt – appearing fully in control of the state at the height of the “Blizzard of ’78.” The storm, one for the records books, dumped upwards of three feet of snow across much of the region, amid hurricane-force winds.
“He was a devoted family man and a very faithful Catholic,” Manning added.
Barth E. Bracy, executive director of the Rhode Island Right to Life State Committee, said the organization offered its heartfelt condolences to Margherite and the entire family.
“Governor and Mrs. Garrahy have been part of the Rhode Island pro-life family for years,” he said, noting that their support continued long after the governor left public office.
The Garrahys live in Narragansett most of the year, and had been spending part of each winter in Florida.
At St. Thomas More Parish in Narragansett, the pastor, Father Marcel L. Taillon, said Garrahy would be remembered for “his fidelity to the church’s teachings and bringing them into the public square.”
Father Taillon said Garrahy never spoke ill of anyone.
“He remained always a graceful gentleman. He was very humble, but he always had a very strong presence in our church community.”
The governor humbly shared his lighter side when the occasion called for it.
When the parish celebrated St. Joseph’s Day last year with a dinner at the Village Inn, Father Taillon recalls the governor getting up to tell some jokes to entertain the gathering.
“He was a holy story teller,” he said. “It will be a big adjustment without him.”
Father Carl B. Fisette, assistant pastor at St. Thomas More, ministered to members of the family during his previous assignment at St. Augustine Church, Providence.
“He’s a true Christian who cared about people, from the unborn to those the Lord had called home,” he said of Garrahy.
Kevin O’Neil, a lector at St. Thomas More who sought guidance from the former governor during a bid for a state senate seat in 2010, described Garrahy as “a great mentor,” who always put “principle before party.”
“He was lovingly pro-life and he was not shy about it. He was committed to the church’s belief in the sanctity of life,” O’Neil said.
A humorous story about the governor that O’Neil has told through the years involved a trip to 1999 trip to Ireland with his wife Chantel and his aunt and uncle.
The group stopped one day for lunch at McMahon’s Pub – which had at one time been run by Garrahy’s mother – in the town of Lahinch. As he stepped up to the bar for a pint of ale, he noticed an old photo of Garrahy standing with Sen. Robert Kennedy.
When O’Neil pointed out to the bartender that they were from Rhode Island, the barkeep replied, “Who is that man standing there with Joe Garrahy anyway?
O’Neil said he later reminded the governor how famous he was on both sides of the Atlantic.
Kevin McDevitt, a parishioner at Our Lady of Mercy Parish in East Greenwich, worked with Garrahy at several Right to Life events, noting how proud he was to be pro-life.
“I was saddened to hear the news,” McDevitt said. “He was a great man and a great statesman.”
He said Garrahy’s faith was evident in both his public and private life.
McDevitt had the pleasure of playing golf with the governor on occasion, and said Garrahy was always gracious to everyone he met.
“Joe was as nice to the head pro as he was to the guy cutting the grass. He always had a kind word to say about everyone.”
The diocese released a statement Wednesday, extending its sympathies and prayers to Mrs. Garrahy and the members of the Garrahy family.
“We applaud the outstanding and dedicated service Governor Garrahy extended to the state of Rhode Island during his time as governor. He was an exemplary example of a faithful and involved Catholic who made a significant contribution to his parish and the Diocesan Church. May Governor Garrahy’s soul rest in the peace of God.”