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Codger’s Column: A local hero

It was always reassuring to open the FIT Center door and come upon the welcoming bulk and boom of Garth Griffin, the red-topped gentle giant.

Typically, Codger had dragged himself to the chore of working out, but Garth’s smile reinforced the vague notion that a joyless half-hour on the elliptical machine might just be the best use of his body, and maybe its last chance of redemption.

But first they would talk about the New York Rangers and the Henley-on-Thames rowing regatta. Garth had been a championship athlete, Codger a sportswriter who had covered ice hockey and crew racing. By the time Codger finally mounted one of FIT’s cruel machines, he was beginning to feel better.

Garth was an exhausting Rangers fan, far less obviously a jock with impressive creds. In 1972, he was in the Kent School eight-man shell that won the Princess Elizabeth Challenge Cup at the Henley Royal Regatta, a top schoolboy race. Codger had covered that race, alas not the year Garth won. (You can see Garth and the race on YouTube.) Garth later won a national championship, at Marietta College in Ohio, rowing as a freshman.

So who better, Codger thought, after several years of talk, to hear his own athletic confessional.

Fifty-odd years ago, Codger told Garth one quiet afternoon, he quit lightweight college crew in the middle of his freshman year. He simply hated rowing, especially when it was cold and the backwash was wet.

Garth didn’t scowl, didn’t even blink, barely sighed. “It’s not for everyone,” he said kindly, erasing Codger’s half-century of guilt.

That was the moment when Codger understood why so many people on the Island loved Garth, especially kids he had coached.

Many of them turned out last Saturday at the refurbished Community Center atop the American Legion Post for a ceremony in which the FIT Center was formally named for him. Garth, who died last year at 66, had been Recreation Director for 36 years, a steady, humane presence in the lives of children and seniors he shepherded and mentored.

Garth started the Shelter Island School volleyball program and was the high school varsity golf coach for 10 years. He was a fire chief, an EMT and a part-time police officer. People who served with him said he never shirked the hard jobs. He maintained his own painting and snow-plowing businesses. He even dug out Codger and Crone.

There was a wise sweetness about Garth. Codger once told him about Bill Stowe, a gold-medal-winning Olympic oarsman and former Columbia crew coach, who liked to declare that there were only two kinds of men in the world, jocks and pukes.

The jocks were real men like Stowe and his rowers, brave, manly, ambitious, focused, patriotic and goal-driven, while pukes were woolly, distractable, girlish and handicapped by their lack of certainty that anything mattered as much as winning. Codger, certainly woolly, never forgot that conversation.

Garth took his time, carefully turning it over in his mind before saying that he didn’t think those definitions fit all jocks or all … non-jocks. Codger was glad Garth didn’t like the word puke either.

The all-star team of local jocks at the dedication ceremony last Saturday included Cliff Clark, the runner, coach and ferry champ, who recalled the FIT Center’s humble origins as a $3,000 plan to put a universal weight machine in a large, unused storage room that became, with the early help of Jim Read, Jay Card Jr., Michael Coles, and others a $285,000 community centerpiece.

(Best trivia, contributed by newly re-elected Supervisor Gerry Siller: Those Shelter Island license plates were part of the early FIT fund-raising effort, quarterbacked by Garth.)

Walter Richards, considered one of the Island’s greatest athletes, remembered Garth’s passion for emergency services, always ready to spring into action when he wasn’t in the gym, which was almost always. Richards read a tribute from another famed player and coach, Jay Card Jr., fittingly hospitalized after a knee operation, who recalled Garth as “father-figure, big brother, someone who knew the gym was the best place for kids like us.”

A common thread among the speakers, perhaps best expressed by coach and social studies teacher Peter Miedema, was “the importance especially in these times, to come together and remember what’s special in our community. Rooster, Big G, was special because he epitomized community.”

School Superintendent Brian Doelger also spoke along with Garth’s brother and community members, all touched by a man they described as a stable, reliable, compassionate, everyday local hero. He encouraged, inspired, just bucked them up with what Cliff Clark called “love, generosity and sacrifice.”

Town Board member Jim Colligan, the master of ceremonies, had the last, most poignant words: “Sometimes we wait too long to do these things. Two years ago, say, he could have been here.”