WOONSOCKET, R.I. — City residents Douglas T. Brown and Rosemary Brown still remember the time they went on vacation with friend Susan Menard and her family 40 years ago. They’d rented a house up in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, for a week, and at the end of the trip, their rental needed to be cleaned up.
Menard took charge, immediately delegating tasks.
Someone needed to get rid of the rubbish. Someone needed to sweep. Someone had to vacuum. And someone needed to lead the way. That was Susan Menard.
She was like that in private, and she was like that in public when she ran for Woonsocket School Committee a few months after that trip to Wellfleet. Douglas Brown, who had also served on the committee, had urged her to apply her strongly held and strongly expressed beliefs directly to the political process. Brown was onto something: Menard’s take-charge political career would span three decades, first on the school board, next on the City Council, and then as mayor. She served as Woonsocket mayor for 14 years — a tenure that was sometimes tumultuous, sometimes controversial, and always on her terms.
Police say they are certain that no crime was committed. Menard and Grabowski were both in their mid-70s and dealing with serious health problems. Grabowski died of Type 2 diabetes and Menard of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, state health officials said Friday.
Woonsocket is mourning a woman once described in The Providence Journal as its “undisputed political queen.”
“She got a lot done,” Rosemary Brown said. “She was one of the best mayors in Woonsocket for a long time.”
After becoming the first woman elected as mayor in Woonsocket, in 1995, Menard then became its longest-serving. To this day, only four women have been elected as mayors in Rhode Island, according to Lisa Baldelli-Hunt, who was the third when she became Woonsocket mayor in 2013.
Menard had plenty of critics, including, over the years, anti-poverty advocates, teachers, and the police union. Allies credited her with keeping taxes stable, and even some of those who didn’t always appreciate her approach say she had to be tough in a tough city like Woonsocket.
In 1997, she moved to oust the city’s acting police chief James Mullen, who was also a state police lieutenant. He’d served only 100-odd days, but they’d clashed over arrests of her political allies and her insistence that he keep her informed about police issues — what some officers viewed as interference in criminal investigations.
Officers wore mourning badges. “These are usually worn when a police officer dies, but I guess we are wearing it on the night that justice died,” a detective was quoted saying in The Providence Journal. Menard and Mullen resolved their differences within days and he ended up staying on. The charges against her allies were dropped, too.
Two years later, she was criticized in The Journal for using campaign funds to buy clothes and dinners, which she explained that she needed — she was a 24-hour mayor and needed to look the part, she said. She later said she would stop the practice because the rules had changed, but, she explained in The Journal: “When it comes to the city, I’m a fiscal conservative, but when it comes to my clothes I have good taste.” She was ushering in what she once called the new golden age of Woonsocket, citing the growth of CVS, and the arrival of Starbucks and a new museum in a gritty industrial city. And few could rival her power.
In 2005, when a city police sergeant and state representative named Todd Brien was running against her, Menard launched her campaign at a senior picnic. Brien’s supporters posted campaign signs on nearby cars and trucks, but then city dump trucks “mysteriously appeared and blocked them from view,” The Journal reported at the time. A TV reporter asked Menard about the trucks, and Menard blew up, telling the reporter he wasn’t welcome at the event. The unseemly episode was broadcast on television.
Didn’t matter. Menard beat Brien by a 2-to-1 margin. When she left office in 2009, it was because she decided not to run again, not because someone beat her at the ballot box.
Friends and family point to the 2009 death of her daughter, Carrie Pilavin, at the age of 31, as a turning point. Menard and Pilavin were incredibly close, and Pilavin’s death shattered her. Never one to glad-hand, she withdrew even more from public life. Even some longtime friends said they had fallen out of touch over the years, though in the wake of the former mayor’s death, they’re recalling both the Menard who by her own admission swore like a truck driver, and the Menard who would reach into her own pocket to help people who needed it.
“Some people didn’t like her style, because she could be tough,” Owen Bebeau, who served in her administration from 2004 to 2009, said in an interview. “Sometimes the males, when they’re tough, they’re called tough. If women are the same way, it’s a different word, and that’s too bad.”
Her onetime adversaries are among those mourning her death, and wondering how it could have happened. Vincent P. Ward was the person Menard defeated to become Woonsocket’s first female mayor.
“She was a tough woman,” Ward recalled Thursday. “She was good at getting things accomplished.”
Ward now runs Home Care Services of Rhode Island, an agency that provides certified nursing assistants to people in their homes.
Neighbors say a ramp was recently installed at Menard’s house, because she had mobility issues. Menard’s and Grabowski’s bodies were found after a neighbor reported to police that he hadn’t seen them in some time, around two weeks, police said.
“That puts me at a loss as to why this happened,” Ward said. “But it’s sad — it’s really sad to see that happen.”
“It’s just very sad, what happened to her,” Rosemary Brown said. “She was just so vibrant, intelligent, and such a strong woman.”