Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Guy in the Flannel Shirt

For the LORD
takes pleasure
in his people;
he adorns the humble
with victory.

Psalm 149:4

Today I am wearing a red plaid flannel shirt in honor of Joe Garrahy who passed away yesterday at the age of eighty-one.

I was not a big fan of Governor Garrahy when he took office in 1977. The idea that our governor was a former beer salesman who never finished college, and worked his way up the political ladder by not offending anyone seemed like the punch line to a bad Rhode Island joke. Looking back, the ability to get along with people seems more valuable in a politician now than it did then.

Those of us who were here for the “Blizzard of ‘78” remember Governor Garrahy’s daily updates on television wearing a plaid flannel shirt. His steady and reassuring presence was an important part of guiding the state through that emergency and that is the image that most Rhode Islanders will remember.

Possibly in the spring of that same year, I was in my office at Mathewson Street Church in Providence late in the afternoon when the phone rang. The voice on the other end said, “Hi, this is Joe Garrahy, is this Reverend Trench?” At that time, I chaired the Social Action Department of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches. We had taken a stand in opposition to something that the Governor was advocating, and he called to discuss the issue. He explained why he was taking the position that he did and I explained the concerns raised by the Council of Churches. He did not change my mind, but he did change how I thought about him, and the conversation led me to reflect more deeply on the issues.

In an overwhelmingly Catholic state, the Council of Churches has never been a big player in state politics, so I was amazed that he would call at all. And he didn’t have is secretary set up the call. And he did not introduce himself as “Governor Garrahy.” He was just “Joe.”

Later the Council worked with the Governor to pass a hand-gun safety bill and I was invited to his office for the signing. On that issue he stood up to considerable pressure from the gun lobby and went against many in his own party. In many ways he was the ultimate political insider and the consummate party politician, but he had principles and he did not like the wheeling and dealing that goes with the political games.

As he prepared to leave office in late 1984, he was asked how he wanted to be remembered. He said that he hoped Rhode Islanders would remember him as "conscientious" and "sensitive."

"I hope they remember me as a governor who worked hard and tried to do the best he could for his state, and that when I made decisions, I always tried to make them in what I thought was the best interest of the entire state."

I have seen Governor Garrahy twice in the last few years. Both times he was attending funerals for former members of our church. On each occasion he was careful not to call attention to himself. With his wife, Margherite, he was there for friends. It was not about him.

Joe Garrahy was not a great political theorist. He was not a policy wonk. He was not a charismatic public speaker. He was not a crusader. And he was not without his faults. But if we remember him as just “a nice guy,” we miss the point. He was a good person, who simply wanted to do the best he could for his state. He did good things, and he had no great sense of his own importance, and that is rarer than it should be.

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