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J. Joseph Garrahy, 81; led R.I. as governor in blizzard of ’78

david m. tenenbaum/associated press/file 1983

Mr. Garrahy and Prince Andrew waved to a crowd in Newport.

PROVIDENCE - Former governor J. Joseph Garrahy, remembered by many in Rhode Island for the flannel shirt he wore while leading the state through the blizzard of 1978, has died. He was 81.

Mr. 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.

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Mr. 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 3 feet of snow.

“Nearly every day, if I’m out someplace, people will say, ‘Where is your shirt?’ ’’ Mr. 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.’’

Mr. Garrahy worked to eliminate pollution in Narragansett Bay, modernized the care of children with developmental disabilities, and launched programs for elderly residents. He also led efforts to attract high-tech business to Rhode Island and preserve open space for recreation.

Political leaders and friends praised Mr. Garrahy as a statesman who led through example. Governor Lincoln Chafee hailed his leadership and said his unassuming manner belied his capability as a leader.

“Governor 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.’’

Mr. 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.

Mr. Garrahy served in the state Senate before being elected lieutenant governor in 1968. Following his time as governor, Mr. Garrahy was a business consultant and served on the board of the Southeastern New England Shipbuilding Corp. and the Providence and Worcester Railroad company.

He leaves his wife, Margherite, and five children.

“He was a kind, compassionate individual who was respected and liked,’’ said Barbara Cottam Garrahy. “He invited you to share his joy in life.’’

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