Hundreds of seagulls swirled over Gloucester harbor above an assortment of fishing boat and sailings ships late Saturday afternoon — all bidding a final mariner's farewell to Joseph Garland, Gloucester's consummate historian, storyteller and sailor.
Garland, who died Aug. 30 at the age of 88, was the focus of dozens of tales during a more than two-hour celebration of "Gloucester's Joe" that drew up to 500 people assembled under a large white tent on the city's I-4, C-2 site along the working waterfront.
Amid the remembrances, music and poetry, the audience itself demonstrated the wide net of friends that Garland amassed in his lifetime, painters to writers, from veterans to politicians and local activists.
Those attending the event shed tears and laughed and hugged, all connected through their treasured moments with the man known for his frankness when sharing an opinion or advice, whether solicited or not.
Garland would have been 89 years old last Friday. Instead of family and friends gathering for his birthday, they gathered instead for a final sendoff under cloudy but dry skies as a touch of fog hovered over his beloved Gloucester Harbor.
"Joe was never a fair-weather sailor," noted Mayor Carolyn Kirk, the master of ceremonies who thanked his widow Helen Garland for sharing this day with the community. Garland was clear that he never wanted a traditional funeral, rather preferring to be dumped into the ocean — though he understood environmental regulations would prevent that, Kirk related.
Saturday's event took on a life of its own as the stories unfolded like chapters in a book.
The audience heard of three generations of Joseph Garlands before the fourth — Gloucester's Joe — went west after serving in World War II and pursued his writing.
The Ivy-League educated Garland, a graduate of Harvard University, became a Gloucester Times columnist, a historian and author of 24 books. He also became a community activist championing myriad causes from saving the working waterfront to protecting Addison Gilbert Hospital.
He also championed young writers and fellow veterans for peace — and he was passionate about everything he did, speakers noted, from interviewing surviving members of his Army platoon to savoring each and every bite of his evening dinner.
The breadth of the Garlands' connections shone through when Aye Aye Thant, daughter of former United Nations Secretary General U Thant, spoke a few words and shared a healing prayer she wrote for Helen Garland. Thant knew Garland through Helen, who worked with her at the U.N.
"I had the privilege of knowing him. I could feel his goodness," said Thant. "He was a concerned citizen and not only for Gloucester but he was a global citizen."
Kirk read a letter from U.S. Sen. John Kerry who paid tribute to a fellow veteran and sailor from afar.
"He didn't just chronicle Gloucester history, he was part of it," Kerry wrote, "... and he never hesitated to offer his advice to a certain United States Senator."
Kerry also noted Garland's incessant desire to protect the interests of the Gloucester fishing fleet.
Rob Carlson, Garland's stepson, spoke for a fellow platoon mate, 90-year-old Jeremy Waldron, who was in attendance. Waldron was the soldier who saved Garland's notebooks after Garland was wounded in Anzio, Italy. That act of friendship would lead to a book that would become Garland's extended passion, the 2009 "Unknown Soldiers." Through writing that book, Garland would be able to free himself of the lingering post traumatic stress he suffered from World War II.
Peggy Garland, one of his two daughters from his first marriage, spoke for that side of the family, and shared a litany of favorite memories — from climbing lighthouse steps on a rainy day to his treasured vat of homemade dandelion wine.
"He wanted to see the Garland line live on but that was not to be," Garland said in closing. "But many creative people will carry his genes, and when all who knew him are gone, his legacy will be carried on through his books."
Janet Carlson, his stepdaughter, talked about the private Joseph Garland she knew, who in some ways was no different than his public person that so many knew because of his always passionate nature.
Using the image of his large hands, she wove her tale of the man who would not wield a scalpel or stethoscope like his father, but would wield a mighty pen.
"Let's celebrate the Joe that was not just a crusty Yankee caricature but the man we loved at home ... He had really big hands attached to outstretched arms always reaching to give a bear hug," she said.
Those hands, she recallled, could carefully remove a sliver from a child's foot or make doll furniture and bird houses for the grandchildren. Yet he also went to war with those hands, she noted.
"He moved rocks and felled trees —- sometimes the wrong one to Helen's dismay," said Carlson. "Joe also wrote with his hands, chapter after chapter and letter after letter in his chicken scratch that would takes weeks to decipher."
For the past 30 years he held the hands of his second wife, Helen, whose hands he was still holding until his last breath at his Eastern Point home.
"Then, the brave soldier that he was let go," she said.
Sandy Tolan, an author and radio documentary producer, talked about Garland's public passion and the many lives he touched.
"His personal mission was about making connections to make Gloucester better and to hold America to its ideals," said Tolan, adding that Garland always had an urgent matter to discuss, whether a global issue or the endless intrigue of Gloucester politics.
"Thank you for showing us and teaching us what it means to be a concerned citizen," Tolan said, gazing upward.
"He did rail a lot," he continued, "but alongside that railing there was always the Joe sparkle. He would always encourage his younger visitors to pursue their dreams."
Tolan noted that Garland's passing became a kind of "social cement."
"Now those thousands of us whose lives Joe Garland touched," he said, "are knit together by our loss of him."
Gail McCarthy can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3445, or at email@example.com.