NARRAGANSETT, R.I. — John O’Hara was a man of many words, according to those who knew him best.
Friends and family, youngsters and veterans listened as he regaled them with stories of his time in the Navy during World War II — service which earned him a Purple Heart and other honors — or of his many years in the postal service and the time he met JFK.
He authored two books of poems, appeared in three World War II documentaries, and made visual statements with more than 50 years of photography.
But as fate would have it, the words had to come from others on what would have been his 100th birthday, March 20.
O’Hara died a little more than a week before the special day.
His Narragansett family — his son Dale and daughter-in-law Sherri — had planned a birthday car parade for him a month before. Dignitaries such as U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, U.S. Rep. James Langevin and Narragansett Town Councilors were invited.
Saturday’s gathering was different, but was still a celebration of O’Hara’s long life, with some saying he was more present than ever.
“He just loved people. He was a people person,” Sherri O’Hara said. “Even when he wasn’t feeling well, he always had a good joke. I’m going to remember all the good times. He’s here with us, I know he is.”
A parade of more than 60 vehicles, bearing neighbors, friends and others who knew O’Hara, cruised past his family home at Breakwater Village in Point Judith. They stopped to offer condolences and perhaps share a memory or two.
A display of his military jacket and hat — decorated with patches and medals for honor, gallantry, bravery, service — stood next to a table holding his urn and some treasured mementos.
They included a Smucker’s Jam jar with his smiling face on the label. It was always his goal to make it to 100 and have Willard Scott, the former “Today” show weather host, announce a Smucker’s birthday tribute on air. Scott retired from TV in 2015, but O’Hara kept going and did finally get his face on the famed jar. He was able to see it before he died.
“I feel like he made it to 100 because he was born in March and died in March,” Sherri O’Hara said.
There was a large bell on the table, too. O’Hara used the bell — rang it loudly — when he wanted to summon a family member or one of “Johnnie’s Angels,” his nickname for the women who cared for him. The “Angels” include Sherri O’Hara, visiting nurse Becky Gilbert and CNA Brandy Gomez.
“If it was 2 o’clock in the morning he would ring it,” Gomez said. A common reason: “‘I just wanted to make sure you were still in the house,’” she added.
“He was just an incredible person. An exemplary person,” Gilbert added. “He had written beautiful poems and a book about his wife, who he loved so much. Just an incredible man.”
He never complained, Gomez said.
“He was comical,” she said.
He also had a soft spot in his heart for his medical team — Dr. Lidia Vognar, Dr. Angela Taber and Dr. Peter Pleasants.
“I took care of John for 10 years. He was an amazing patient, would take directions very well, to a T,” Vognar, his VA doctor, said. “He was always very motivated to feel the best he could feel. For us, it was just an honor to serve him back.”
She started doing home visits about a year ago and then stayed in touch with Taber and Pleasants during O’Hara’s cancer to offer help and support.
Father Craig Swan of O’Hara’s parish, St. Peter’s By The Sea, performed a funeral liturgy, and O’Hara’s friends, Mike Harris, and Gerri Travali, shared memories.
“He was like a father to me. He was a father,” Harris said. “He was a very positive role model from when I met him.”
Travali also read a poem O’Hara wrote about his younger brother Robert, who passed away last year.
It was the last poem he wrote.
“This great man has passed; there will never be another,” he wrote. “As I know, for he is my little brother.”
O’Hara was born in England, but his parents moved the family to Rhode Island when he was 2 years old. He lived in North Providence and attended LaSalle Academy during the Depression before joining the Civilian Conservation Corps to build roads at Burlingame State Park.
He enlisted in the Navy in 1942 and engaged in 13 major battles before ending his tour of duty in 1945. He served in the European, Pacific and Mediterranean theaters.
His Purple Heart came as a result of being severely injured when a German submarine torpedoed the USS Hugh L. Scott during Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa. Wounded and fighting for his life, O’Hara managed to get out before the ship foundered.
He then served on the USS Alabama as a gun captain until the end of the war. The ship led the U.S. fleet into Tokyo Bay after Japan’s formal surrender, a moment O’Hara often said he was proud to witness.
After the war, he worked in New York at the Journal-American newspaper for a time before returning to the Ocean State and a job with the U.S. Postal Service. His 34-year career culminated in being named Postmaster.
Another proud moment: Discussing a U.S. Postal bill in 1961 with President John F. Kennedy, a meeting captured in a photo of the two.
Like Kennedy, O’Hara was a man of public service. He served on several boards and commissions in Seekonk, where he and his beloved wife, Shirley, raised their six sons. They got a summer home in Narragansett in 1955 and built a permanent home there 20 years ago.
He was on a first name basis with “Jack” Reed and “Jim” Langevin, his son added before sharing an unusual anecdote involving Reed.
His father would tell the story about how he was on the USS Scott when it sank in 1942. His crew mates perished and only he made it out, Dale O’Hara said.
But in retelling the tale, something changed along the way.
“He saved one person’s life — Sen. Reed. He carried him out of the boat,” Dale said. “Not that the senator wouldn’t be born for another seven years. But the thing they both had in common was that they were both in the Navy and it was on Nov. 12, Sen. Reed’s birthday.”
The story got a round a of chuckles from Reed, Langevin and everyone at the ceremony.
“He saved all of our lives, not just Jack Reed,” the senator said. He called O’Hara an example of strength, decency, honor, “but most of all, of kindness and love.”
Langevin, too, praised O’Hara and his service.
“It’s fitting we could all be here today to honor John’s memory,” Langevin said. “In true New England spirit, he brought all of us together here today to know each other.”
Dale O’Hara called Gomez part of the family, and said that his father had always considered Sherri his daughter and “favorite person,” which made her tear up.
“I have all his war stories that I heard every day,” Sherri said. “He’s going to be in my heart forever.”