Scott MacKay Commentary: RIP RI 2016, The Lives We Lost

Dec 31, 2016

As a New Year dawns, RIPR political analyst summons the spirit of Scottish poet Robert Burns, author of Auld Lang Syne, to recall some prominent Rhode Islanders who died in 2016.

Buddy Cianci, Rhode Island’s political rascal king, never lost his rapier wit. Two days before he died of cancer, a friend called to congratulate him on his engagement to a woman forty years his junior.

“I could marry her,” he quipped. “Or adopt her.”

Cianci, Providence’s longest serving mayor, ruled City Hall like a barony in two separate reigns. He was chased office after 1984 a conviction on charges of beating up his ex-wife’s lover.

After a run as a top-rated talk show host, Cianci in 1990 won an improbable comeback election. Then history repeated. After an FBI investigation, he was tossed from office again after his indictment on the municipal corruption charges that sent him to federal prison for nearly five years.

Cianci mounted a third comeback in 2014, losing to Jorge Elorza.  Rhode Islanders still debate his legacy. Defenders maintain that he knew how to get things done, that restoring Providence’s downtown to its glory days was worth the whiff of corruption.  Skeptics cheered his loss to Elorza, saying it was time to end the politics of reward-and revenge and pay-to-play at city hall.

Another political figure who carved an outsized figure in our small state was Democratic operative Mark Weiner. Weiner parlayed his talent for raising money to nights at the Lincoln Bedroom during Bill Clinton’s presidency.  Weiner was a confidante of both Bill and Hillary Clinton; Bill Clinton gave Weiner’s eulogy at Temple Beth-El in Providence. A former Democratic state chairman, he died of cancer at 62.

Tom LaFauci was not a household name in state politics. Yet, he too, gained a national reputation.  A talented speech writer and policy advisor, his eloquence and advice were coveted by an array of top Democrats, including John Kerry, Jack Reed, Bob Menendez and Joe Biden. He died of heart failure at 67.

At the Statehouse, just about everybody liked Bill San Bento, the longtime Pawtucket state rep who served on the Finance Committee for years. He took his job, but never himself, seriously. He won his last election by one vote and laughed as hard as anyone else when he was given the nickname “Landslide San Bento.’’

Those who met Henry Shelton never forgot him. A Roman Catholic priest turned social justice advocate, Shelton was a passionate voice in our state for those who had none. For decades, he was a familiar figure at the Statehouse and in protests around Rhode Island, a tribune for those who had little or had their heat shut off on a chilly January night.  

There were two Rhode Islanders last year  who inspired us with their courage in the face of cancer. Ann Beretta Morsilli of Lincoln, a dancer with the Festival Ballet in Providence and teacher at La Salle Academy, danced to the end even as pancreatic cancer weakened her legs. Dorian Murray of Westerly was just 8 years old, but his battle with a rare, untreatable form of pediatric cancer resonated far and wide.  He told his father that he wanted to be famous before he died, so his dad set up a Facebook hashtag, #Dstrong, that drew prayers, best wishes and photos from around the nation and globe.

For a half century, Cranston’s Dick Ernst was a pillar in tennis and hockey circles in the high school sports world.  Ernst coached boys and girls in Cranston, North Smithfield, Lincoln, Barrington, North Providence and at Moses Brown. Ernst also coached the men’s tennis team at Providence College.

Rhode Island journalism suffered some big losses .  Providence Phoenix publisher Stephen Brown took over the money-losing alternative newspaper in the 1980s. He put the Phoenix on a solid financial footing and nurtured  journalistic talent before dying of heart failure. Bill Malinowski of the Providence Journal was one of the finest investigative reporters of his generation. A writer with an eye for telling detail, he died of ALS at just 57.

Three other Providence Journal  reporters, all long retired, also left us.  Lorraine Hopkins was a celebrated feature writer and early feminist. Bob Fredriksen was an environmental reporter and watchdog of Rhode Island’s air and water. Don Breed, was a versatile scribe whose graceful prose and interests that ran from food and wine to local history graced the features page.

We’ll sorely miss these folks, yet we’ll never forget them. Death can never steal the memories

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday at 6:45 and 8:45 on Morning Edition and at 5:44 on All Things Considered. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at our “On Politics” blog at RIPR.org