World will miss Rhode Island newspaperman

By Emmet Meara, Special to the News
Posted Nov. 26, 2010, at 7 p.m.

The planet is a drearier place today. Paul Harrigan, one of my very favorite people died in Rhode Island last week at age 68. It was reported that he died quietly in a chair in his condo.

I never expected the fiery Harrigan to die at all, but if he did I assumed it would be in a high-speed car wreck, scuba diving with sharks or in a shootout with a jealous husband.

After he carried my unconscious body over snowbanks to a waiting ambulance one Christmas Eve long ago, I guess I was cursed with him as a friend forever.

Paul was a member of the finest fraternity in the world, a newspaperman, back when newspapers meant so very much. When I first laid eyes upon him he slammed into the Gloucester Times parking lot, late and limped into the office explaining to the perplexed editor that he had been meeting with “sources.”

He had a pronounced limp from a childhood bout with polio. If that slowed him down, I never noticed. If anything, it made him more determined to do what he wanted to do.

When he got severe polio, the doctors said he would never walk again. Right. Harrigan dragged himself to the Atlantic and swam every day he could until his arms and shoulders were weight-lifter powerful. He wore a brace and he had a hell of a limp, but he walked.

I had a BMW and he had an MG and we raced through the Cape Ann roads. It’s a wonder we both made it. He quit and took off for a mighty road trip driving from Germany to Africa, a trip that included an earthquake in Turkey, or someplace. He just kept driving.

I went off to Maine and he went off to Rhode Island to the Providence Journal and the Warwick Beacon, but we always kept in touch. He sailed across the Atlantic a time or two, when he had to lash himself to the wheel. He always had the stories. Most of them I believed.

When he visited Rockland, he adopted the name “Sandy” to meet new women. If it worked, I never saw it.

When I finally got a sailboat about 10 years ago, I begged Harrigan to come to Maine and teach me the ropes, so to speak. I called him five days in a row, with each message on the answering machine more rude than the last.

It ends up that he was out sailing during all of my calls. When he finally returned he called Cobb Manor to complain about the “threatening phone calls.”

Harrigan thought it was me on the phone when Big Pete answered. Big Pete, a 6-foot 5-inch bellicose ex-Marine (there are no ex-Marines, I know) was moving the woodpile in 100 degree heat and not in good humor. When Harrigan started accusing him of the threatening calls, an explosive argument started between two highly belligerent Irishmen. Bloody threats were exchanged and it was fortunate (especially for Harrigan) that several hundred miles separated the combatants.

It took a few days to figure it all out.

Several months later, Harrigan finally visited for the requested sailing lessons. We sat on the Cobb Manor deck and Harrigan got his first look at Big Pete mowing the lawn.

“Oh, my God,” he said.

We laughed for days and days. At least I did.

When I visited him in Rhode Island, I followed him in my car to his house. When he stopped for a red light in Providence, I pushed him a little ways through the red light, just to see the look on his face. He thought that was so funny that later in the day he did it to a total stranger. You should have seen the look on that driver’s face.

As it often does, the polio returned with a vengeance a few years ago. Harrigan was confined almost exclusively to a wheelchair. But he found a handicapped van and drove to Florida, where I would meet him in between Red Sox games. God, he made me laugh.

He would call at midnight and say he was dying of an incurable disease, or the Providence Mafia was after him. Once he handed an overnight guest a .38 pistol. He said he was going to his bedroom to get his .45 and they would shoot it out in the living room, for laughs. The guest fled before Paul came back with his arsenal. You never knew.

Then last year, Harrigan broke his “good” leg and his mobility was further complicated. I offered to drive him to Florida and to his trailer park where the women already had adopted him.

But all of a sudden it was too much for him. We kept e-mailing and he adopted a tea party, anti-Obama stance, a strange turn for a Kennedy Democrat. I never knew if he was serious or not.

Now he is gone and I shall miss him terribly. Maybe on some dark and dreary night, I will push a stranger through a red light, in his honor.

Maybe not.

http://bangordailynews.com/2010/11/26/living/world-will-miss-rhode-island-newspaperman/ printed on September 21, 2014