WOONSOCKET — Former mayor Susan Menard was found dead in her home in the city Monday, state health officials confirmed.
Police do not suspect criminal activity of any kind in the death of Menard and another individual who has not yet been formally identified, Chief Thomas F. Oates III said Wednesday. Police said a neighbor on Marian Lane alerted them after not hearing from them for a week or two. Menard was identified by the Office of the State Medical Examiners at the Rhode Island Department of Health. The other person’s identity has not yet been finalized, nor has a cause of death.
Menard lived with her longtime boyfriend Dan Grabowski. Both were in their 70s and were dealing with health problems. Menard’s death sparked an outpouring of grief, public and private: The city will fly its flags at half-staff in honor of the former mayor, while family members were in mourning around the region and country.
“Everybody is heartbroken,” said Jim Pilavin, who was married to Menard’s daughter, Carrie Pilavin.
People who knew Menard said she was not the same after Carrie Pilavin died in 2009 at 31. The two were very close, her friends and family say, and Susan Menard was devastated.
“She was a very strong woman,” Jim Pilavin said of Menard. “She had a strong intellect. She was a devoted mother to her children, devoted grandmother to her grandchildren. … And she was very proud of her son Kevin.”
Authorities have declined to speculate about what happened, but said that they do not believe any crime had been committed by anyone, based on the fact that there was no forced entry or signs of trauma. Menard’s and the other person’s bodies were found in different parts of the house.
As the mayor of a city like Woonsocket, Menard had to be tough, her friends and family say. But she also had a soft side, like when constituents would call her during holiday dinners. She’d always respond, Pilavin said. She was the city’s first woman elected mayor.
Current Woonsocket Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt and Menard worked together when Baldelli-Hunt was in the General Assembly and Menard was mayor. They did not always see eye to eye, Baldelli-Hunt said. But Woonsocket voters appreciated Menard’s style, Baldelli-Hunt said.
“Clearly it was effective,” Baldelli-Hunt said. “She got elected seven times.”
When Menard left office in 2009, it was because she chose not to run again, Baldelli-Hunt noted. Baldelli-Hunt said Menard had withdrawn from public life after the death of her daughter. But when Baldelli-Hunt was first running for mayor in 2013, she was at her campaign office on Cass Avenue when the door swung open and Menard strode in, “dressed impeccably with her big sunglasses on,” Baldelli-Hunt said.
“Everybody in there was like, ‘Whoa,’” Baldelli-Hunt said. “And she said, in her forceful way, ‘I want one of those signs. I’m putting your lawn sign in my yard.’ … It was special to me,” Baldelli-Hunt said.
Baldelli-Hunt was speaking Tuesday in the room where the City Council meets, which is ringed with 17 portraits. Sixteen of them are men. One is Menard. According to Baldelli-Hunt, there have been four women elected mayor in all of Rhode Island: Former mayor Kathryn O’Hare of West Warwick, the first; Menard and Baldelli-Hunt in Woonsocket; and Central Falls Mayor Maria Rivera. The list doesn’t include members of city or town legislative bodies who take on the title of mayor in an administrator-led municipality.
Woonsocket’s city government now faces turmoil over efforts to remove Baldelli-Hunt from office.
“I’m going to continue to lead the city,” Baldelli-Hunt said.
In the leafy neighborhood of single-family homes where Menard lived for years, neighbors said Menard was a kind person who often kept to herself — even, in some ways, when she was mayor. Enough people knew her for so long that she didn’t have to glad-hand locally. And when she was mayor, neighbor Todd Stinchfield said, it was the best plowed road in the city.
Police have not raised any concerns about foul play in relation to deaths, so the mood in the neighborhood was not one of concern.
“It’s sad to see people go like that,” Stinchfield said.
Eight years ago YWCA Rhode Island published a video about Rhode Island women holding office. In one clip in the documentary, Menard, speaking at a forum for potential candidates, rattled off a list of questions that she’d been asked over the years. (Menard, before serving as mayor, was a city councilor and school committee member.)
The increasingly intrusive questions were about her marriage status, dating history, sexual activity, clothing size, weight, drinking habits, whether she swears like a truck driver (yes) and how much she spends on clothes.
“It may sound bizarre, but these are all questions as a woman in office that I have been asked over the past 22 years,” she said. “If you can’t answer them, don’t run.”