PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Former Rhode Island Gov. J. Joseph Garrahy, remembered by many in the state for the flannel shirt he wore while leading the state through the blizzard of 1978, has died. He was 81.
Garrahy died Tuesday night in a hospital in West Palm Beach, Fla., where he was spending the winter, according to his daughter-in-law Barbara Cottam Garrahy. He had heart disease.
Garrahy, a Democrat, served as governor from 1977 to 1985 and was a year into office when the storm slammed parts of Rhode Island with three feet of snow.
“Nearly every day, if I’m out someplace, people will say, where is your shirt?’” Garrahy told The Newport Daily News for the 25th anniversary of the blizzard in 2003. “I always tell people tongue in cheek, in eight years as governor I did a lot of great things, but the only thing people remember is my shirt.”
In his eight years as governor, Garrahy worked to clean up pollution in Narragansett Bay, modernized the care of children with developmental disabilities and launched new programs for elderly residents. He also led efforts to attract high-tech business to the state and preserve undeveloped open space for recreation.
State political leaders and friends praised Garrahy as a statesman who led through example. Gov. Lincoln Chafee hailed his leadership and said his unassuming manner belied his capability as a leader.
“Gov. Garrahy truly had an unending love for the people of Rhode Island,” said Chafee, an independent, who ordered flags lowered. “And in return he earned the respect, admiration, and affection of the people of this great state. He was a true gentleman, down to earth and lacking any pretense.”
Former State Police leader Brendan Doherty said that he began his career under Garrahy and that they developed a lasting friendship. Doherty, now a Republican candidate for Congress, said he saw Garrahy last week in Florida.
“As usual, the best advice he gave me was not about politics, but the importance of family, values and humanity,” Doherty said.
Former Lt. Gov. Charles Fogarty, who serves as director of the state Department of Labor and Training, called him a close friend and mentor. Fogarty said he was Garrahy’s Senate page when Garrahy was lieutenant governor and a policy aide after Garrahy became governor. He said Garrahy had more influence on his career than anyone.
“He did things in a quiet way,” Fogarty recalled. “Folks remember him as a good and decent man — which is absolutely true — but he was also a great leader.”
Fogarty said that he spoke to Garrahy by telephone last week and that there was no indication the former governor was unwell. He said the two talked about getting together the next time Garrahy returned to Rhode Island.
Sen. Jack Reed called Garrahy a great statesman and said, “We have all lost a great friend.”
“Joe Garrahy combined courageous leadership, unimpeachable decency and a warm and embracing spirit,” Reed said.
Garrahy was born in Providence in 1930, the child of two Irish immigrants. He served in the Air Force during the Korean War and attended the University of Buffalo and the University of Rhode Island.
Garrahy served in the state Senate before being elected lieutenant governor in 1968. Following his time as governor, Garrahy was a business consultant and served on the board of the Southeastern New England Shipbuilding Corp. and the Providence and Worcester Railroad company.
Survivors include his wife, Margherite, and the couple’s five children. In a statement, the family thanked Rhode Islanders for the friendship they showed him while he was in office and in the years that followed.
“He was a kind, compassionate individual who was respected and liked,” said Barbara Cottam Garrahy. “He invited you to share his joy in life.”