Blizzard of ‘78, Memories & Reflections, Part 3

by | Feb 7, 2023

Above: Wayne Savageau on top of the post-Blizzard of ’78 snow mountain on Taylor Circle. Courtesy of the Savageaus

We finish our remembrance of that great and terrible blizzard 45 years ago Feb. 6 with some recollections from East Greenwichers past and present as well as a couple of friends of EG. They present a wider picture of the storm. Enjoy! If you missed Part 1, click HERE, and click HERE for Part 2. Very sincere thanks to everyone who sent in their stories. What an archive!

It was mid-morning when I looked out of my classroom window at Meadowbrook Farms School and saw some snow falling. It was not heavy at that time, but before long it grew to be quite heavy. An announcement came on the school PA system that school was closing immediately and the walkers were to be dismissed right away. 

Because I lived close to the school I helped to supervise the bus riders as they waited for the buses to arrive while many of the other teachers left for home. When the final bus left my son who (fortunately) was a student at Meadowbrook and we left for home.

I had $10 in my wallet so we stopped at a small meat market on Post Road where I bought the biggest pot roast in the case. Hoping the power would not fail, I started cooking that pot roast right away.

I called my mother, who worked in Providence, and asked her to call me as soon as she got home. I called my husband to tell him that we were home early from school. I was much relieved when I heard from Mom and when Art was safe at home with us. It was impossible to get out for food for days. We ate off that pot roast all week!

East Greenwich resident Judy Stenberg taught many East Greenwich children in her years as a public school teacher. 

~~~~~~

Pam and I were both teaching that day and we both barely made it home because the snow was so intense. I got back from school first from Pilgrim High School, 9-plus miles away. I had one band student who missed her bus so I dropped her at home on my way. I was in a ‘68 Chrysler New Yorker which was built like a tank and it was a close call getting back. Route 95 was like a parking lot. 

Pam showed up a short time later from Frenchtown School, where she was teaching. She had a ‘68 Pontiac but it had limited slip differential (positraction) and it was just able to make it. One neighbor came in after her in a VW Beetle and they cut through snow pretty well. 

We were snowed in for about a week. We did have enough food. We knew a storm was coming so we were prepared but we had no idea it was going to be so nasty. We were in our early 30s and had no children yet. Other things we didn’t have: cable TV and cell phones. But we had fun!

P.S. I learned that students got stuck at Winman and Tollgate schools with some teachers and they got home days later via snowmobile, using plastic bags around their shoes. 

Wayne Savageau and his wife Pam had moved into a house on Taylor Circle just three months before the blizzard. They live there still. 

“There were no snow blowers then,” recalls Wayne Savageau. His wife, Pam, is pictured here digging out. Courtesy of the Savageaus

~~~~~~

The morning of the blizzard, I was living off Route 46, in North Providence almost to Lincoln. I went grocery shopping and was on my way to an appointment. The snow hadn’t been bad but then it just turned into a blizzard. On the highway, everything came to a stop. Truck drivers heading south said the road is backed up for miles and miles and miles. I decided to leave, to walk away, leaving my car there. Everyone was mad at me – they didn’t realize they wouldn’t be going anywhere. I was practically blinded because of a hole in my hat. My groceries were in my car and I left them there. 

I had just been married for just a year. When my husband got home and saw I wasn’t there, he went out looking for me, walking up Route 146. Then he saw my hat with the hole in it. That was the only way he recognized me in the blizzard. 

There were pregnant women on the highway on their way to the hospital. They had to get on sleds and snowmobiles. My mother in law had to sleep in the train station.

I made it home and we invited people in. My car and all the other cars just sat on the road for days and days and days. Buffalo brought down huge tow trucks and towed them to the Greyhound center in Lincoln. I walked back and forth to my car for groceries. It was about 2 miles and it was worth it. I was so thankful I had gone food shopping. People were dropping in … they had heard we had food. We had strangers just coming to the door and we were feeding them.  It was a season of camaraderie. 

Gerilyn (Gigi) Mason lived in East Greenwich during the 1990s, taught piano and ran the EG Music Instruction Company. She lives in Connecticut today.

~~~~~~

Blizzard of ’78 snow sculpture at 25 Spring St. Photo courtesy of Bob Beausoleil

I remember the blizzard vividly. I grew up in Burrillville. My father got home from work at Blue Cross in Providence just in time. My mother’s best friend was stranded on Route 146 and stayed at a stranger’s house for several days! 

I remember everything being really, really quiet. There weren’t any cars on the roads and no one had snow blowers or generators. We were out of school for maybe two weeks.

EG News reader Stephanie Dowd lives in North Kingstown.

~~~~~~

Wow, do I remember that blizzard! I lived in Wickford and was working for Citizens Bank. My office was in Providence. It was a Monday and I had gone to the YMCA (Warwick) for my usual run with the Early Bird Class before work, then didn’t leave work until 5 p.m. There was no warning of a storm back then. I got on the highway with my Pinto. It was snowing like crazy, and instinct told me not to get on the highway. I detoured and found one of the last parking spots around a fountain and walked to a coworker’s house who lived on the East Side. 

Once there, I made three phone calls – remember no cell phones back then – to my parents and sisters to tell them I was fine. 

I was there for a week! We watched TV as the storm unfolded and Gov. Garrahy, wearing his red flannel shirt, would give updates from his location. I would trek to my car and shovel around it several times that week. It was an epic storm and so many were stranded. The people who had snowmobiles really helped out and rescued so many.

Sandy Nolan Burrows, of West Springfield, Mass., lived in East Greenwich for many years and served as the town’s first Main Street Coordinator. Sandy’s daughter lives in EG so she visits often. 

~~~~~

On the day of the blizzard, my husband went looking for me at North Providence High School, where we were both teaching at the time. School had been dismissed. Just about everyone had left but I was racing around among my three classroom-labs, preparing for upcoming experiments. 

“Are you nuts?” my husband said when he located me. “There’s not going to be school tomorrow or the next day or the day after that! Let’s go now!”

We barely made it home from North Providence High School . . . just barely.

Three days after the blizzard, my husband and I walked from our apartment at Royal Crest on Route 117 in Warwick to the K-Mart where I put a quarter in the machine to take a ride on the horse! 

Royal Crest housed many truckers who got stuck on the Route 95 overpass. We all were given boxes upon boxes of Entenmann’s donuts from one of the stranded truckers.

A few days later we walked into Apponaug to purchase a bottle of Crown Royal for our widowed-sister-neighbors!!

East Greenwich resident Mary Madden went on to become a high school principal for both Exeter/West Greenwich  and Killingly, Conn.

~~~~~

“I pulled these out of the album where I had written, ’48 inches of snow!’ wrote Mary Madden, pictured here.

~~~~~

That day started much like any other winter day. Snow was predicted but no one knew that it would become a gigantic nightmare! At that time we lived in Elmhurst near Providence College. My son who was 6 going on 7 at the time, attended St Pius Catholic School.

I dropped him off at school, then headed off to do my usual errands. I went to do my grocery shopping, gassed up my car, went to the post office. I then proceeded to Roger Williams Hospital Cardiac Care Unit to visit my former father-in-law (now deceased) who was recovering there. It was snowing but it didn’t seem worrisome. It was February after all and the snow had been predicted. But my father-in-law was concerned. He said, “Honey, I think you should go home. It looks bad out there. The snow’s coming down very heavy now.” He was watching the snow through the window in his room. I kissed him goodbye and found he was right – the snow was making driving difficult, especially in my Volkswagen Beetle. I decided to pick my son up from school. It was a little early but I didn’t want to go back out a bit later to pick him up. The school principal was not happy to release my son early but I stated it was getting pretty bad out there and that I was taking him home now. We made it home.

We also had just received our heating oil automatic delivery. So we didn’t need to worry about heat. But we were also extremely lucky that we never lost electricity. The old Woman & Infants Hospital was very close to us at the time, so our street as well as other streets in the neighborhood were on the same grid as the hospital. We rarely lost power and if we did, the power was restored quickly.

At the time there were quite a few Providence College students living across the street and down the street. When it was reported that some delivery trucks were getting through to the market two blocks away, neighbors who needed some basic foods like bread and milk walked to the market –no easy feat given how deep the snow was. The students would stop and knock at our door to ask if they could pick up anything for us. The thing that made me laugh was the liquor store around the corner on Douglas Avenue had opened so the students came to ask me if they could borrow my son’s sled sitting as on our porch to do a beer run. I said sure.

It took several days to shovel my very long driveway so that when the street was finally plowed we would be able to get out. Approximately a week after the snow stopped the plows came to plow the street. Neighbors were so happy to see them that we all came out applauding, whistling and carrying on.

We were very blessed that we never lost heat or electricity and had plenty of food to eat! We were also very lucky to have great neighbors and caring PC students to check on us and offer to help.

Many people died. And many others had horror stories of being stuck and walking miles to get warmth and shelter and to get home. It was an extremely stressful and traumatic storm.

But if there was anything good that came with the Blizzard of 1978, it was people helping people. Neighbors opening their homes to the stranded. In the process, many unknown neighbors became new friends. We cared about each other and helped each other like never before. And while this reaching out and helping each other lasted it was a beautiful thing, leaving me with feelings I will never forget!

Ann Licciardi now lives in Warwick and has family in East Greenwich.

~~~~~

Blizzard of ’78 snow sculpture at 78 Mawney St. Courtesy of Bob Beausoleil.

~~~~~

My husband, Mike, grew up in Warwick and was still just a kid. He remembers being let out of school early and walking home. They were lucky and had power throughout the storm. He and his brother had gotten cross country skis and were able to test them out. For a long time snow mobiles were the only way to get around. Snow removal equipment had to be flown in from North Carolina, and the huge snow blowers that cleared the runways at the airport were used to clear some of the roads.

My mom, brothers and I lived north of Boston and the snow amounts were similar but we were dug out more quickly than Rhode Island was. Our house was on a corner and there was a mountain of snow pushed up by the plows that we tunneled into. Clean up continued for several days after the storm, and sadly our dog was hit by one of the plows and had to be euthanized – the driver couldn’t see her because of the drifts. (Strange corollary, several years later we rescued his son’s dog after it was hit by a car.)

My father and stepmother, Ian and Margaret MacDonald, lived on Warwick Neck. Margaret was an administrator at Lincoln School in Providence and was trapped with a group of girls there for many days. My father actually worked in East Greenwich, at Builders Iron Foundry (BIF) on Division Road near Amtrol. He remembers truckers making deliveries and talking about how bad the roads were getting. He reported back to the president of the company and everyone was sent home at 11 a.m. His usual 20- to 30-minute drive home down Division and Post Road took two hours. He remembers the equipment being flown in from North Carolina as well. There was no place to put all the snow when they began to clear, so truckloads of snow were dumped into the rivers. The mountains of snow that were piled up lasted well into spring.

Mallory Walsh is a 29-year resident of East Greenwich. 

~~~~~

In 1978, I was a U.S. Marine Corps recruiter, stationed in Manchester, Conn., my final duty station prior to discharge. It turned out to be bad timing relative to The Blizzard. My fiancé was scheduled to fly from Bradley to San Diego on Feb. 10, in preparation for our wedding on Feb. 24 in San Diego. My flight to San Diego was scheduled on Feb. 20. As an aside, my father-in-law was a minister in San Diego – he would perform the wedding ceremony, and San Diego was a bit warmer than New England. 

Gov. Grasso of Connecticut closed the airport and roads during the blizzard, and for the next three days. Pre-smart phones and websites, we scrambled by old-school phone calls for any viable flight options as soon as the airports were re-opened. Our only option was purchasing a new one-way ticket from LaGuardia to SD on Feb 13. 

The interstates were barely passable, but we slowly made the journey to NYC in my new 1977 VW Rabbit with front-wheel drive (woo-hoo) – until we arrived at the Whitestone Bridge toll booth. We were running on minimal sleep – my fiancé reclined in the passenger seat for a quick nap as we rolled to the tollbooth, feeling the worst of our trip was behind us. 

It wasn’t. We were rear-ended by an early 1970s Ford station wagon with a drunken painter behind the wheel – at 40 mph. While paying our toll. Evidently the nice painter neglected to either recognize the toll booth or brake in advance of hitting our car. The force of collision caused my fiancé to hit her forehead on the sun visor and seriously tweak her neck. AND my car was instantly disabled at the toll booth.

The toll attendant would not help us, so we pushed our car into the median strip behind the toll booth. Prior to cell phones, I walked to the NY Toll Authority office at the bridge to use their landline office phone – with a rotary dial, to call a cab – required for my fiancé to reach LaGuardia, where she managed to board her flight with a few moments to spare.

It was 3 p.m. on a February afternoon. I was 100 miles from home and standing outside of the Whitestone Bridge toll booth with a new, but inoperable car – in freezing winter temps. My wife was injured and flying solo. I’m without sufficient cash or a credit card. Reminder; pre-ATM era, the banks were also closed during the Blizzard, so there was no way to withdraw cash prior to our drive, or anywhere within proximity to the toll booth. I had enough cash for return-trip gas in my pocket. But HEY – other than that, this was an awesome adventure.

Another Marine Corps mantra “adapt and overcome” applied. I managed to hitchhike home, which was another 4- to 5-hour ordeal with a series of sketchy characters. The following day I convinced a friend to give me a ride back to the Whitestone Bridge, as my physical presence plus cash payment was required to get my car towed back to Manchester. Hint: towing your car from NYC to Hartford is an expensive unplanned, unbudgeted expense. It’s ridiculously expensive on a meager military income.

PS: Our wedding occurred on Feb 24 as planned and our marriage lasted six years. My (now former) wife’s neck pain became a permanent reality in her life. Totally undeserved. My car was repaired, and it survived until 1986, when it was booted and towed by the Boston Parking Police. Never to drive again. Another story for another column. 

Dale Van de Vrede and his second wife – to whom he has been married 32 years – live in East Greenwich.

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Elaine vespia
Elaine vespia
February 9, 2023 2:32 pm

I was one of those students that were stranded at Winman and Tolllgate. I lived in Potowomut at the time and the furthest away from the school. I was stuck there for two nights. We were driven home in the back of an army truck. I lived at the end of a cul de sac and the road wasn’t even plowed but my dad had the driveway shoveled.

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