Ray Duckler: Local died where he loved to live: the Merrimack
Gary "Crabby" LaCroix sunbathed on Sewalls Fall Road every day before going for a walk along the nearby train tracks and fishing in the Merrimack River. TAEHOON KIM / Monitor staff Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »
Gary LaCroix lived at the river, died at the river and, later this month, will rest at the river.
His family said yesterday that the Concord man with the flowing silver hair, sunglasses and leathery dark skin, the guy who became part of the summer landscape near the Sewalls Falls Bridge and the Second Street boat ramp, will be cremated, his ashes scattered July 27 into the Merrimack River.
His second home, after his Perley Street apartment.
“If he was going to go, that’s the way he was going to go, down by the river,” said LaCroix’s brother, Scott LaCroix of Boscawen. “He went where he loved being. Down by that river.”
He died Friday, found by rescue divers about three hours after the angry Merrimack, swollen from the recent weeks of never-ending rain, pulled him down as friends watched in horror.
The incident, along with two others over the holiday weekend – one of which took
a second life – reminded us of the river’s deceptively strong grip, one that doesn’t tire and sometimes won’t let go.
In the case of LaCroix, it claimed the life of a 59-year-old man whose presence was known by anyone connected to the area. Maybe you saw a shirtless LaCroix just south of the bridge, sitting on a folding chair, a coffee by his side.
Or maybe you saw him near the boat ramp, where he swam and fished nearly every day through the summer. As Scott recounted, “He knew that river like the back of his hand. He was always in the river, every day, always in that area or walking up the little river line, so he knew all the spots.”
Scott called his brother by his given name, but many of his river friends called him Crabby. That’s what it said on LaCroix’s license plate, and that’s how people viewed him, at least when they first met him back a few decades ago.
LaCroix was an imposing figure at the time, 6-foot-3, at least 240 pounds, and siblings said he posted a gruff exterior that could be hard to penetrate. He grew up in a family that rarely showed affection.
“It was a family that didn’t really say a lot,” Scott said. “We didn’t say we love each other. You didn’t do that stuff.”
They had a tough upbringing by a Concord cop who was hard on his six children and particularly venomous toward LaCroix.
His siblings never figured out why.
“Gary was a loner, he kept to himself,” said LaCroix’s 63-year-old sister, Joyce Audet of Loudon, the oldest of the six children. “What did it, I think, was our father.”
“It stuck in his mind, and it stuck with him forever,” Scott said. “There were things that happened to him that should not happen.”
Both parents died from illness while their children were relatively young. Later, LaCroix’s armor began to soften after he fell in love and his partner gave birth to his only child, Heather LaCroix.
She is a 15-year-old student at Newfound Regional High living in Bridgewater with her mother. She lived with her father in Concord from third through eighth grade. She expressed her love for her father in an interview through Facebook. She said she misses him.
And she described what the Merrimack River meant to him, adding that he loved greeting people there.
“He would go there every single day,” Heather wrote. “He would wake up early in the morning, make something to eat to bring with him, and go to the Merrimack River, rain or shine. He would talk to the fish which made me laugh so much. I can’t describe enough how much that river meant to him.”
In recent years, his relationship with Heather’s mother ended, and he lost his construction job after years of hard labor caused severe arthritis in his hands.
“He could not put his hands in his pocket to get his wallet out, so I don’t think he should have been in that water,” Joyce said.
She and Scott both worried about the curvature of their brother’s fingers, about the stories he’d tell describing the rough water he’d gone swimming in.
“He was here last week and he was telling me he almost drowned,” Joyce said. “I told him that the way your hands are and with the current and how deep it is, he shouldn’t even be in the water. He didn’t listen of course.”
No, he didn’t. The day before LaCroix died he was nearby when a father and his daughter were rescued from the Merrimack. On the day he died, LaCroix jumped in to retrieve a bag of ice that had fallen into the river from a floating cooler being dragged by two teens rafting. He went under and never resurfaced.
LaCroix’s family members wondered why he entered the water to fetch a bag of ice. They speculated that his love for clean water might have been the reason.
And while the irony of a strong swimmer and fisherman losing his life in this fashion was not lost on those who loved him, they searched for some form of relief, something to help them make sense of it all.
They said they found it.
“I know he wanted to die in that water,” Heather wrote. “It’s a sad way to go, but that river was his life.”
Added Joyce, “He loved that river. He was that river.”