In the Arena: A new appreciation
I could feel my stomach tighten as I prepared to make the turn into the Bank of America parking lot, I was not at all looking forward to what awaited me across the street.
Just last year, after Marty McGuane’s wake, I swore to myself the next I would attend would be my own. But I knew I’d be breaking that promise as soon as I found out that Thomas W. Merrigan had died this past weekend after a lengthy illness.
I’d love to be able to say I knew him, but I really didn’t. He was before my time as a reporter and we’d had no real contact, aside from a couple of very polite conversations here and there — none of which focused on politics, which I will forever consider a badly missed opportunity.
What I knew about Merrigan was his resume and what a resume it was. From reporter to real estate agent to lawyer, and eventually to selectman, county commissioner, all the while raising a family of eight that included a former judge, a former state representative and current Register of Probate, and the long-time town clerk of Greenfield. In his spare time, Merrigan helped found a Democratic Party that largely didn’t exist until he and some good friends decided the time had come to change Greenfield from red to blue.
It was mostly out of respect for that commitment to public service that I found myself standing with Penny Ricketts, Northwestern District Attorney Dave Sullivan, and a host of others for a solid hour on the porch at Kostanski’s Funeral Home waiting to say goodbye.
But as I stood in that line, I felt like I got to know Tom Merrigan a little bit, and I very much liked what I saw.
Lining the walls heading into the viewing room were huge collages containing hundreds of photos of Merrigan with his kids, his grandkids, his great-grandkids on trips, at the ocean and in his beloved Ireland. I swear somebody in that family had to have bought stock in Kodak at some point, because it was a truly remarkable array. And as I scanned it, I kept thinking about something another political patriarch, Joseph P. Kennedy, once said to a reporter who’d asked him which was more important, his business or his family.
“My business is my family, and my family is my business,” Kennedy said.
It was pretty obvious that Merrigan lived by the same credo.
Given the extent of his political involvement, I expected to see a lot of campaign artifacts. I counted exactly three and it became apparent that, as important as politics may have been to Merrigan, it was not his true legacy.
The real legacy could be found in the sitting room, that was packed with the extended Merrigan family. I’ve never seen so many people from one family in one place at one time in my life. There must have been 30 or 40 Merrigans of varying ages and generations, shaking hands, swapping stories, paying tribute to a man who was clearly one rich dude, no matter what the bank ledger may have said at the end of his 86 years.
When the name Merrigan appears in this space, it is often in the context of a political machine that has launched and, in some cases, ended a number of Franklin County political careers. That political reality has made the Merrigans unpopular in certain circles. But the love and respect shown by the people who passed through that funeral home Tuesday night gave me a new appreciation of what this clan has meant to Greenfield. I also was forced to reflect on the many other families who helped create the town that so many of us grew up in, but too few still call home.
For all of its warts, Greenfield is still a special place that was largely built by people with names like Merrigan, Ruggeri, Farrell, Forbes, Allen, Kostanski, McGarrah, Bompastore, Cohn, McGuane, Hawkins, Sandri, Petrin and, yes, even Collins, to mention a mere handful. These generations of hard-working people didn’t always agree on every issue, but they were willing to make the sacrifices and compromises necessary to help build a community — the same one that now finds itself threatened by petty bickering over burning issues like where people will be allowed to shop and who is going to sit on the conservation and planning boards.
It’s not too late to get that sense of community back, but we need to start working on it now — because, as much as we’d like to believe otherwise, they simply aren’t making them like Tom Merrigan anymore.
Chris Collins is the Franklin County News Bureau Chief for WHAI, WPVQ and WHMP Radio. He is a former staff reporter for The Recorder, and is a Greenfield native.