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Roslyn Garfield, 91, moderator and lawyer for years in Provincetown

By Kathleen McKenna
Globe Correspondent / July 6, 2012
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Roslyn Garfield was a lawyer and realtor, a philanthropist, artist, and teacher. She was best known in Provincetown, though, for her love and commitment to the community that was her home for more than 50 years.

“If you walked down the street with Roslyn, it was clear that everyone in town knew her,” said her friend Deborah Heller. “If you went with her to a restaurant, I can’t tell you how many people would stop by the table to say hello.”

Ms. Garfield, who also served as town moderator for 18 years, died of cancer June 21 in her home in Provincetown. She was 91.

In the 1960s, she started Roslyn Garfield Associates, a real estate company she ran with her longtime partner ­Phyllis Temple, who died in 2007.

Temple took over day-to-day management of the company when Ms. Garfield decided to pursue a law degree in her 50s. In 1977, she graduated from the New England School of Law in Boston.

“Her real estate business was very successful,” said Jay Critchley, a Provincetown artist, “but I think she wanted to make a larger impact on the community, and she had a natural affinity for the law.”

As a small-town lawyer, he said, Ms. Garfield “touched all aspects of the town.” Critchley, who also is head of the Provincetown Community Compact, a nonprofit cultural advocacy group, said Ms. ­Garfield “worked with a lot of people with AIDS, and she helped out lots of artists.”

In 1981, she helped Critchley persuade the Provincetown Board of Selectmen that a sand-encrusted Dodge station wagon he had created was not a mere car, but a sculpture that should be displayed as a work of art. To commemorate her support, he presented her with a sand- ­encrusted gavel at a celebration that kicked off what was designated Roslyn Garfield Week in Provincetown in 2010.

Since she arrived in 1956, “Provincetown has gone through seismic changes,” Critchley said. “She made a real impact on the quality of life here.”

Ms. Garfield was “feisty, with a real sense of humor,” he said. “She smiled and laughed a lot, but she was also a very good listener. She really enjoyed whatever it was she was doing.”

Besides being a patron of the arts, Ms. Garfield was an artist herself, said Chris McCarthy, executive director of the Provincetown Art Association and Museum.

She began playing cello in her later years, McCarthy said, and took drawing and painting classes ­because she “liked to make art as well as music.” Once, friends recalled, Ms. Garfield built a harpsichord.

She also had a deep interest in town politics and took an active role in local organizations, including the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, and the Fine Arts Work Center. In addition, Ms. Garfield represented Provincetown on the Cape Cod Commission.

During the 18 years Ms. Garfield served as town moderator, she was active in the Massachusetts Moderators Association and took a leading role in recrafting the manual called Town Meeting Time, a parliamentary guide to the town meeting form of government that is used across the state.

Irene Rabinowitz, who succeeded Ms. Garfield as town moderator, called Town Meeting Time “the moderator’s bible.” Through Ms. Garfield’s work on the manual, she said, “she made a lasting impact on Provincetown and on the Commonwealth, and on those towns that still believe in that form of government.”

Before every town meeting Ms. Garfield ran as moderator, “she knew exactly what the issues were,” Heller said. “As people went up to the microphone, she knew their names and understood just what they were saying.”

As director of Helping Our Women, Rabinowitz also worked with Ms. Garfield, who often donated legal advice to clients of the advocacy group, which offers resources for women diagnosed with conditions that are chronic, disabling, or life-threatening.

“When I took this job, she called me up right away and said, ‘If you need help, call me.’ And I did,” Rabinowitz said, adding that Ms. Garfield often offered free legal advice to the organization’s clients.

“The most important thing to Roslyn was her deep sense of community, which was manifested in her love of Provincetown and which she showed through her philanthropy, her involvement in town government, and her love for the arts,” Rabinowitz said. “She was a brilliant, classy, and very wise woman, lovely and extraordinary, and always full of surprises.”

Ms. Garfield regularly helped run local fund-raisers and was instrumental in starting the Provincetown International Film Festival, Heller said.

In addition to her other careers, Ms. Garfield once worked at a Provincetown fish-packing plant.

Ms. Garfield was born in Providence, where she attended Hope High School. She went to New York University and received a master’s degree from Columbia University in New York City.

After graduating, she taught physiology at a college in New York and moved to Cape Cod to take a job as a guidance counselor and field hockey coach at Nauset Regional High School.

Ms. Garfield, “was amazingly active,” Heller said. “She played tennis, she bicycled, she walked for miles and miles every day. She was really in marvelous physical condition.”

Ms. Garfield “had close ties with people in the Portuguese fishing industry, the Jamaican community, the lesbian community, the arts community,” Heller said. “She bridged all the many aspects of ­Provincetown, and she was very well respected.”

Friends plan to announce a memorial service for Ms. Garfield later this year.

Though Ms. Garfield loved Provincetown and enjoyed its dining scene, she also loved to travel and was known to invite friends to accompany her to Paris.

“She was almost a renaissance woman, given the breadth of all she did and all the people she touched,” Heller said. “Somehow, she always had a number of lives going.”

Kathleen McKenna can be reached at

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