Ever-preserved in the minds of Rhode Islanders as the ‘regular Joe’ who worked around the clock in his plaid shirt through the blizzard that stopped the state in 1978, Gov. J. Joseph Garrahy is also remembered by one former politician for his progressive role in state politics.
“Fortunately Joe was very calm and collected and appeared very folksy with his lumber shirt,” said Robert O. Tiernan, a one-time US Congressman and State Rep., after news of Garrahy's death on Tuesday. Tiernan reflected on Garrahy’s handling of the blizzard that surprised Rhode Island three and half decades ago. “He did a very nice job with that, which was difficult with so many demands for service.”
The blizzard defined Garrahy early on in his tenure, but he went on to redefine two problematic state institutions – the prison system and the Ladd School.
Garrahy’s efforts to close the Ladd School in Exeter and move developmentally disabled people into group homes helped abolish misconceptions of disabled people that were as rigid in the minds of the public as the walls that had locked in its disabled patients since 1907.
Further proving his progressivism, Garrahy also championed hiring minorities in his reorganization of the state’s prison system as governor.
“I remember he had a great interest in treating disabled people,” said Tiernan, Matunuck resident. “He did an awful lot of good things and served an awful lot of people.”
Though the political peers each grew up in Irish families in Providence and attended LaSalle a year apart, Tiernan, 82, said the pair didn’t really get to know each other until years later when they served together in the state Senate from 1962 to 1967.
Later in life both men ended up in South County, where they would occasionally cross paths on the golf course at the Point Judith Country Club.
Garrahy raised his five children in Narragansett on Kingstown Road. He later moved with his wife, Margherite, to Ocean Road. Tiernan lives near Deep Hole in Matunuck.
In an interview Wednesday, Tiernan reflected on a time in Rhode Island politics where progress was less hampered by partisan agendas - a fact he said was attributable to Garrahy’s ability to balance issues and egos on Smith Hill.
“I remember the manner in which he conducted himself personally and his ability to operate with his opponents,” said Tiernan. “He was able to get legislation through the assemblies in the House and Senate when at the time in the Senate there were 44 and only 22 of them were Democrats.”
“He was able to work with that, he was a good negotiator,” Tiernan added.
Tiernan said the demeanor he carried throughout the handling of the Blizzard of 1978 defined and propelled his career more than the event itself.
“As a leader, as a person, he was really a fine gentleman,” said Tiernan. “He was polite, considerate, friendly and well liked. He had a way with people.”
Editor's note: Reporter Erin Tiernan is the great neice of Robert O. Tiernan.