Gregor Smith and Block Island: Nature’s gifts and man’s dark side
This piece was derived from a eulogy that Marc Osgoode Smith delivered on behalf of his half-brother.
Gregor Evans Smith was laid to rest April 27, 2013 at the Island Cemetery following a “Celebration of Life” at Harbor Baptist Church, which was attended by hundreds of friends and family who overflowed throughout the church’s meeting rooms to its lawn outside.
Gregor, 21, passed away April 18, 2013 at the family residence on Old Town Road from a drug overdose.
Gregor was the very embodiment of Block Island. Just as the island is a very special place where nature has given us these many wonders, Gregor, too, was a special force of nature that deeply touched those that knew him. The eulogies and spontaneous tributes to him at his service and around town reflect the immense love and affection that his family and island community had for him.
Yet, Block Island also has a dark side created not by nature, but by man. Perhaps it is the price to pay for the island’s stunning beauty: the off-season’s grayness, cold winds and isolation. What in the summer is considered the joy of partying and good cheer can become destructive self-medicating for some. This dysfunctionality becomes even more acute during the off-season.
Gregor shared the island’s conflicting impulses. His decency, his sweetness, his generosity, and his quest for fun were gifts of nature. His dark side, manifested by man, gave him false confidence and the lure of rationalization, leading him down a path of foolish risks that cost him his life.
While Gregor’s parents, family and friends have agonized over the “what could we have done” to prevent this tragedy, Gregor’s family feels no shame in the singular circumstance of his death because we know that it does not define the entirety of his life. Any guilt we and his close friends may have is comforted by the fact that he had unconditional love, affection and support from those closest to him.
But the ultimate responsibility for Gregor’s death — despite the fallacies of youth — lies with Gregor.
Yet, we also acknowledge that the Island — that he and his family love and are a part of — is complicit in his passing. We have come to learn that in the last five years, there have been at least six deaths of young people attributed to alcohol or substance abuse on the island. In any other community, this would be considered an epidemic.
Alcohol and drugs are a rite-of-passage on Block Island. Just as one’s first kiss on the Old Harbor jetties provides that indelible memory, so does that first beer and joint atop Ballard’s Bluffs. Partying is in the island’s very DNA; its economy is dependent upon it.
We see the contrasting approaches: that first martini on a deck to toast one’s arrival to paradise versus the wasted youths that trash Baby Beach and those that vomit their excesses outside the bars at closing time.
Gregor’s family made the very deliberate decision to openly acknowledge — with sadness and anger — the cause of Gregor’s death as a part of our healing process. The community’s response and support for that decision has been overwhelmingly positive. If it can happen to Gregor, a genuinely sweet kid with so much love and support, the sentiment seems to be, it can happen to any of our children.
Gregor’s legacy is secure within his family and close friends: we all are better for having known him. We are hopeful that his legacy extends to the larger island community, that there is an acknowledgement by its residents that lines have been crossed and the issue of destructive partying and substance abuse must be confronted.
While there is a knowing shake of the head to known alcohol abuse on the island by residents and visitors alike, many find it hard to fathom that heroin and other deadly drugs are establishing a foothold on the Island.
New social norms must be asserted by community leaders. Gregor’s friends must decide whether affiliation with those who joined him on his dangerous path are worthy of continued engagement and tacit cover through their silence. Support services should not be seen as a stigma, but a resource. Law enforcement needs to review its difficult tightrope of letting the good times roll while establishing clear boundaries of acceptability, and those efforts must be endorsed by the island community.
It’s time to draw a line in the sands of the island’s beautiful beaches.
Some of Gregor’s family had the bittersweet experience of sharing the ferry as they traveled to the island for the memorial service with the Block Island School softball and baseball teams as they traveled back to the Island after games on the mainland. It was not lost on us that for years that was Gregor with the B.I. cap and Hurricane sweatshirt.
Block Island must have the conversation, so memorial services for its young cease to be as annual as the openings of the hotels, bars and restaurants for the summer season. It can be a leader in managing the razor’s edge of destructive behavior and encouraging good cheer.
Its residents must establish the new norm for those kids on the ferry.