Lucius Fayette Clark Garvin’s life was one of compassion, political struggle, tragedy and
service to all. Born in Knoxville, Tennessee on November 21, 1841 to educated parents, his father, James, died when Lucius was only four and his mother, Sarah, a school teacher moved to Greensboro, North Carolina where she remarried and bore two more children.
Lucius was attending Amherst College in Massachusetts when the Civil War broke out. Upon graduation he enlisted in Company E, 51st Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. While recuperating from malaria, contracted during the war, he decided to study medicine at Harvard Medical School where he graduated in 1867. While at Harvard, Garvin was offered the post of physician at the huge Lonsdale Company in Cumberland, Rhode Island--a job he held for the next fifty-five years.
On a cold night in January 1893, Dr. Garvin was awakened in his Broad Street home in Cumberland by the cries of neighbors who had witnessed the collision at the Mill Street crossing of a freight train and a sleigh filled with revelers. Eight people had been killed, and Dr. Garvin, who, in addition to his regular practice, had also become a state medical examiner, rushed to the scene and set up a temporary morgue in the train depot.
It was not always such horrific incidents that made Lucius Garvin stand out. Once a German shepherd dog named Prince ran over an iron post hidden from view in tall grass not far from the doctor’s house. The beloved animal, its belly torn open, was not expected to live, but boys in the neighborhood carried to dog to Dr. Garvin’s office. They knew that “Dr. Garvin can fix anything.” Indeed, he saved the animal’s life and waived his usual .50 cent fee. Dr. Garvin would often make house calls on his bicycle and was known to sleep throughout the night on the couch of someone who was gravely ill.
Garvin’s wife, Lucy, died in 1898 leaving him with three daughters who rebelled when the doctor married a blind woman named Sarah Emma Tomlinson in 1907. Tragedy struck the Garvin household when his troubled daughter, Norma, took her life in 1912 by drowning in the Blackstone River.
Always interested in public life, Dr. Garvin, abandoned the Republican party in 1876 because he believed that local Republicans were upholding a governmental system based upon restrictive suffrage laws and a malapportioned legislature. He believed in equal rights and extension of the vote to foreign-born citizens on the same basis as those of native birth.
In 1883, as an Equal Rights Democrat, Garvin was elected to represent the town of Cumberland in the state legislature and served for sixteen terms, including three as a state senator. He gave special advocacy to the passage of pro-labor legislation, voting reform, and proportional representation based upon population via a constitutional convention.
In 1902, Garvin avenged a 1901 defeat and won the governorship, overcoming the Republican opposition of such political potentates as Charles “Boss” Brayton and U.S. Senator Nelson Aldrich, “the General Manager of the United States.” Although serving two terms as governor, Dr. Garvin was prevented from securing the enactment of his reform program by the G.O.P. legislature. He was defeated by moderate reformer George Henry Utter in his attempt to serve a third term.
Lucius Garvin was not through. In 1920, when he was 79-years-old, he won a seat in the state senate. He died in his office still hard at work on October 2, 1922--a courageous civic leader until the end.
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