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Joe Garland, 88, journalist and historian

Joe Garland wrote more than a dozen books about Gloucester and Cape Ann. He wrote his most expansive book, 'Unknown Joe Garland wrote more than a dozen books about Gloucester and Cape Ann. He wrote his most expansive book, "Unknown (Frank O’Brien/Globe Staff/File 2000)
By James Sullivan
Globe Correspondent / September 4, 2011

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Joe Garland was born to three generations of Joseph Garlands who were all accomplished physicians. Young Joe rebelled; he wanted to be a journalist.

After serving in the 45th Infantry in Italy during World War II, the Harvard graduate returned to accept a cub reporter’s job at the old Minneapolis Tribune.

“I don’t think you’ll ever make a newspaperman,’’ one of his first editors told him.

But Mr. Garland proved him wrong, working for the Boston bureau of the Associated Press and at the Providence Journal and the Boston Herald before landing in the 1960s as a columnist at the Gloucester Times, where the Brookline native became a fixture in the community.

As a chronicler and defender of his region - no less a neighbor than John Updike would call him “the definitive historian of the North Shore’’ - Mr. Garland wrote more than a dozen books about Gloucester and Cape Ann, beginning with the 1963 adventure classic “Lone Voyager,’’ a biography of Howard Blackburn, known as the “Fingerless Navigator.’’

After a long life residing on the ocean and writing about it, Joseph E. Garland died Aug. 30 in his Gloucester Harbor home, following a recent stroke. He was 88.

As the Gloucester Schooner Festival, which Mr. Garland helped establish, prepared for its 27th annual celebration this weekend, his seafaring friends paid their respects.

“All the sailors who knew him formed a ring on the water,’’ said Mr. Garland’s wife, Helen Bryan Garland. “It was the most touching thing. They all had their flags at half mast. I can’t imagine Joe ever expected such incessant tributes.’’

With Helen’s encouragement, Mr. Garland completed his most expansive book, “Unknown Soldiers,’’ in 2008. The book, decades in the making, originated with Mr. Garland’s own war diary, recovered by a fellow soldier after the future author was wounded in battle.

In the early 1970s, Mr. Garland set out across the country to track down his old Army buddies, equipped with a tape recorder and a bottle of bourbon.

But when he sat down to write the book, Mr. Garland found himself stricken with a colossal case of writer’s block.

It would be decades before Helen, his second wife - a wartime pen pal with whom he later reconnected - realized that he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

She became convinced of it after reading Dr. Jonathan Shay’s landmark 1994 book about combat trauma, “Achilles in Vietnam.’’

Talking with Shay about his war experience enabled Mr. Garland “to rear back and whack through’’ his inability to get started on the book, he told The Boston Globe in 2008.

A painstakingly detailed document of the ordeals of his Army brethren, the book is also the author’s anguished cry about the futility of war.

“It’s the best thing I’ve ever written,’’ he said.

Mr. Garland was born in Boston to a distinguished family that had ancestral roots in Gloucester. He followed in his father’s footsteps to Harvard, where he lurched through his classes in preparation for a medical career. Needing a passing grade in organic chemistry, he flunked the final: “My mind went a-blank,’’ he recalled.

He felt guilty for letting down the family legacy, but he also felt an immense relief. As if to pay penance, he would go on to write several books commemorating medical institutions, including a 150th anniversary history of Massachusetts General Hospital, published in 1961.

Around that time Mr. Garland and his family settled in Black Bess, as he called the waterfront home built by his great-great-grandfather on Gloucester’s Eastern Point. Mr. Garland, an avid sailor, wrote often of the city’s generations of fishermen.

As a Gloucester Times columnist, he developed a crusty reputation, railing against the encroachment of developers and the war in Vietnam. But he also relished his role as a mentor to fellow writers, hosting Sebastian Junger on his porch while the newcomer was researching “The Perfect Storm’’ and helping Gloucester author and rare book dealer Greg Gibson compile a bibliography of Cape Ann literature.

“He’s a treasure for us around here,’’ Gibson said in 2008.

Peter Watson, a former Gloucester Times editor who worked with Mr. Garland in the 1970s and early ’80s, said his colleague came and went, but his presence was always felt at the Times.

“Joe’s office, for all practical matters, was Joe,’’ he said.

Watson was with the writer during a storm that claimed his sloop, Cruising Club, which had once belonged to Howard Blackburn. Mr. Garland wrote memorably about the wreck after he left the boat in the water before the storm.

Standing on the rocks below his home to see it capsize, he watched helplessly as various contents of the boat washed ashore. When a bottle of rum surfaced, he toasted the old boat.

Over the past year or so of his life, Mr. Garland met weekly with Fred and Stephanie Buck, husband and wife archivists who work for the Cape Ann Museum. Mr. Garland donated the research and manuscripts for all of his Cape Ann-related books, among them “The North Shore,’’ “Bear of the Sea,’’ and two collections of his Gloucester Times columns, “Beating to Windward’’ and “Beam Reach,’’ to the institution.

“He was very meticulous about his research, just very curious, always,’’ said Stephanie Buck. “He was steeped in the maritime history of this place, and he became very passionate about the things he was researching.

“He kept saying, ‘Take it all. I can’t take it with me.’ He had a wonderful, wry sense of humor. He could be a curmudgeon, but if Joe was your friend, that was something worth having,’’ she said.

Helen Garland joked through tears about how often her husband was described as “curmudgeonly.’’ Yes, he made his opinion heard.

But “he was one happy guy, let me tell you. He loved his life.’’

In addition to his wife of nearly 30 years, Mr. Garland leaves two children from his first marriage (to Rebecca Choate), Susan Choate Garland of Wellesley Hills and Peggy Tucker of Newton; four stepchildren, Anna Gannett of New York City, Janet of Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., Alison of San Francisco, and Robert Carlson, of Pawling, N.Y.; 11 grandchildren; and one great-grandson.

In lieu of a funeral, the family is planning a celebration of Mr. Garland’s life over the weekend of Sept. 30, which would have been his 89th birthday.

James Sullivan can be reached at sullivanjames@verizon.net.