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Column: Tragedy Transformed to Inspiration

Meriden

Doctors at Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital gave him two weeks to live. Later, after he spent months at Bellevue Hospital in New York City, the prognosis was he’d last maybe 15 years. But when he died a couple of weeks ago, Bobby Garrity had survived 59 years since a car accident left him a paraplegic.

His life story is one of indomitable courage and of a wife’s deep love and unfailing commitment to his care and well-being. And it is one of how a tragedy became seared into the psyches of a bunch of teenagers who comprised the Hanover High School Class of 1956.

It was in the fall of 1954 when Garrity and three fellow football players set off to see some girls in Claremont. Details of exactly how it happened have grown murky with time, but somewhere down Route 120 their car crashed and he suffered a broken neck. He was taken to Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital where the initial evaluation held little hope for his survival.

Dr. Ernest Sachs, a famed orthopedist, led a medical team that stabilized Garrity by connecting a steel plate to his skull linked to a taut cable that held the head in rigid alignment with the spine.

When schoolmates were allowed initial visits, they were stunned at the sight of their friend laid out in this grim traction hookup.

Garrity hung on, and his days in the Mary Hitchcock ward would stretch into weeks, then months. The Upper Valley community followed his case closely in the Valley News, and there were benefit basketball games and events to raise money to help with the mounting costs of his care. Every day there would be a steady stream of friends from Hanover High as well as kids from other local schools coming by to see him, and invariably they would find him eager to talk about local sports happenings.

As time went on, though, people began to move on, and there was less and less chatter about how Bobby was doing, although his plight was always in the back of their minds. The Hanover High yearbook the following year was dedicated to Garrity, and after graduation classmates headed for college, the armed forces, work and marriage, though most kept abreast of his progress by word-of-mouth.

There would be several years of therapy and rehabilitation in and out of hospitals. He and a caregiver at Mary Hitchcock, Ethel Bushey, would fall in love and eventually marry, beginning lives of more than 50 years together. She dedicated herself to his comfort and well-being, enabling him to participate in Hanover community life. Once he ran unsuccessfully for Grafton County commissioner as a Democrat at a time when the Hanover-Lebanon area was still a Republican redoubt. Garrity worked in several paraprofessional capacities at Hanover’s Richmond School, and he became a founding member of the town’s juvenile diversion committee. Delmar Goodwin, a former teacher at Hanover High, encouraged him to pursue higher education, and eventually and with Ethel’s boundless support, he obtained first a bachelor’s degree in social science with honors and then a master’s in teaching.

They would settle in Tennessee where he began a 14-year tenure as an adjunct professor at East Tennessee State University. He and Ethel would become part of many students’ lives beyond the classroom, and one year they voted him adult educator of the year for his deep commitment to lifelong learning. The couple travelled extensively, and Bobby maintained a keen interest in politics and public issues throughout his life.

In October 2006, surviving members of the Hanover High Class of 1956 gathered at the Lake Morey Resort for their 50th reunion, and Bobby and Ethel made the long drive up in their wheelchair-accessible van. For most it had been a half century since they had seen Garrity, and for all it was to be a joyous and emotional reconnection.

That was largely because of his cheery demeanor and enthusiastic embrace of others’ life stories. Nobody could match the physical and psychic punishment this man had endured in his lifetime, but here he was, laughing and bantering with one after another of his long-separated classmates.

He told me his life couldn’t have been better — that he had no regrets or rancor about any of the sad events in the distant past. He would ascribe this to what he termed “a good marriage and good health.” While I could agree about that, it was also because Bobby Garrity was himself a strong, resilient, rare human being.

Steve Taylor lives and farms in Meriden and contributes occasionally to the Valley News. He was a classmate of Bobby Garrity at Hanover High School.