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Prose & Comments: Alex Garcia — A friend remembers
BY JANET ROACH
The friendship began in early 1980, in a snowstorm. I’d recently bought a house on Shelter Island and friends wanted to introduce me to the other Islanders they knew — Alex and Helen-Ann Garcia. We met at the friends’ apartment high above Central Park. A convivial evening and several Negronis later, Alex, Helen-Ann and I waved a cheery goodbye to our hosts and ventured out into what seemed to be a white-out. The streets were still, the snow a foot deep. Not a cab in sight. Even the subway had shut down. Eventually, a crosstown bus wove into view and the three of us boarded. By the time we’d skidded our way to the far side of Central Park, we’d bonded as refugees from the blizzard and vowed to meet again on Shelter Island in the spring.
My future husband, Gordon Potts (DGP), had met Alex years earlier — in 1960, the year he arrived in the U.S. DGP had been recruited to the Neurological Institute at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital. Alex was a top orthopedist at the hospital; the two of them collaborated over difficult spinal injury cases that required both specialties.
In 1976, Alex became the chair of orthopedic service at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, a post he held for seven years. He was also the founding editor-in-chief (in 1971) of what became the American Journal of Orthopedics. And during the tumultuous civil rights era he became the public face of Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital to the Latino community, with which it shared a neighborhood.
He retired in 1983 as the Frank E. Stinchfield Professor Emeritus of Orthopedic Surgery and was honored in 2003 for his distinguished service to the university and the College of Physicians and Surgeons. By any measure, Dr. Garcia’s was an extraordinary career.
My husband, too, went on in his profession, first to Cornell University’s New York Hospital, then as chair of radiology to the University of Toronto in Canada.
Both ultimately bought houses on Shelter Island. Alex and Helen-Ann — also a physician — bought their house on Big Ram in 1958 without ever going inside. Alex, who toured the site alone, peeked through dusty windows and knew, he said, that it — with its wide-open view to the west, a deep-water dock and spacious grounds — was just the right spot for them. They became full-time residents of the Island in 1983.
The search for sailing and other waterside adventures for their three children brought DGP and his late wife Ann to Little Ram in 1975. Because they were near neighbors, the two men kept in occasional cordial touch.
In 1995, when DGP returned to Shelter Island after being widowed in Toronto, Alex — along with a few other friends — undertook a mission: to roller-derby hip-check the two of us toward each other at every possible opportunity in hopes of making a match. They succeeded. DGP and I were married in March 1996, with Alex as our best man. Helen-Ann was my flower girl.
I was nearly 50 and long devoted to the single life when DGP and I married. When Justice Pete Hannabury asked, “Do you, Janet…” I had to think for a moment. My silence rankled with Helen-Ann, who piped up with some asperity, “I do. I do.”
Thus did our lives become entwined. Over the years that followed, DGP and Alex dredged for scallops together, put up competing batches of marmalade, signed on to Cornell University’s SPAT program to re-populate Coecles Harbor with oysters, relived the good old days over cups of coffee on the sun porch. Helen-Ann suffered the discombobulations of dementia, eventually losing her ability to speak and walk.
Alex coped — bravely, generously, cheerfully — all the while maintaining a full schedule of involvement with Shelter Island and those who dwelt thereon. He served on the board of the Shelter Island Public Library and as president of Friends of the Library. Among his initiatives: adding a dumbwaiter to the library so that staff didn’t have to carry stacks of books up and down stairs. “I had visions of people breaking their hips,” Dr. Garcia told the Reporter in 2001.
He was also deeply involved in the Mashomack Preserve, serving on the board of directors for 14 years, eventually taking on the responsibility of vice chair, then chairman of the board. At their annual dinner-dance, he was always among the first to hit the dance floor. “He moved the way only a man with Latin blood in his veins could,” observed one woman admiringly.
He immersed himself in the Ram Island Association, serving as its chair for multiple two-year terms and hosting its annual picnic until just five years ago.
He served for several years on the 2-Percent Committee, leading efforts to preserve open spaces on the Island. He was past president of the Senior Citizens Foundation and a member of the Senior Citizens Affairs Council. He was also a member of the Windmill Club, a group that gathered monthly to discuss Island matters and foster solutions to the common good.
In between times, he created bonsais in his greenhouse, raised chickens and distributed their eggs, fished and sailed the waters of Coecles Harbor, called in frequently for a natter about the good old days on our sun porch and — the occasional Negroni in hand — watched sunsets from his deck or the warmth of his fireside.
Through all the years of his “retirement,” he also quietly tended to Shelter Islanders of all descriptions. When the late Charlie Manillo fell from his Little Ram roof during a DIY project and injured his back, it was Dr. Garcia who guided him back to health — and worried as Charlie launched into renewed DIY activities far from the ground. He advised many other back-pain patients on the pros and cons of surgery, describing himself modestly as “a body and fender man.”
The Shelter Island Lions Club celebrated him as Citizen of the Year in 2001.
But it was only after the need for heart surgery fired a shot across his bow that Alex added Barbara Brush Wright to his life.
Helen-Ann, long lost to Alex as wife and companion, was by then being very capably cared for at home by Kasha Lisek.
DGP and I were in New Zealand the winter Alex and Barbara started seeing each other. But the occasional email from Alex sounded cheerier, happier than we’d heard him in a long while. When we returned in the spring, it was impossible not to notice the renewed bounce in his step, the renewed vigor in his approach to life. For 11 years, Alex and Barbara kept company — dancing the night away at the annual Mashomack dinner-dance, sharing a love for movies, searching all over the East End for the best sources of fried calamari.
Even as advancing age limited his mobility, Alex remained intensely interested in the Island and Islanders. He scoured the Reporter each week for news, welcomed visitors and their tales of Island life; took up a spot near the clam-shucking station at the Mashomack dinner-dance so that he and Barbara could visit with all who partook of the bounty on offer there.
With the help of Kasha, who continued as caregiver to Alex after Helen-Ann died, he got out most mornings for a tour of the Island, with stops at the pharmacy for newspapers and the IGA for supplies. Passersby, knowing his car, waved or stopped to chat, always receiving smiles of welcome.
On January 3, just before his final illness, he and Barbara participated enthusiastically in a luncheon celebrating the third term inauguration of Town Supervisor Jim Dougherty.
Alex died on February 5 at Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead. He was 92 and a half. Kasha was with him until late in the evening; Barbara had also been with him until late afternoon. The two of them gave Alex very lively last years, filled with excellent care, lots of laughter, a social life worthy of a man as sociable as Alex.
Besides Barbara Brush Wright, Alex is survived by five nieces and one nephew: Vicky Garcia Maryon, Janice Garcia, Lynn Garcia Dutry, Carol Garcia Landry, Gail Donohue and Hal Proskey; his son and daughter-in-law Alex and Jody Garcia of Valencia, California.
It is sad now to look across Coecles Harbor toward Alex’s house. There are no lights any longer, and the light he brought to our lives for so many years has also dimmed. But saddened as we are at his passing, we are grateful to have had such a wonderful man among us for so long and comforted by the knowledge that Barbara, Kasha and his many Shelter Island friends loved him well and truly to the end. May flights of angels sing him to his rest, and may those who remain cherish the many memories of happy times we shared with him over the years.
Donations in his memory may be made to the Shelter Island Public Library, the Friends of the Library or The Nature Conservancy’s Mashomack Preserve.
A gathering of remembrance is being planned for May 5 at Mashomack.
Janet Roach knew by the time she was 10 that she wanted to be a writer. She started as a police reporter, later worked as a writer-producer on “60 Minutes” and with Bill Moyers at public television. She has won five Emmys, the citation of the White House Council on Working Women, and was nominated for an Academy Award for her screenplay of “Prizzi’s Honor.”