Richard A. Colvin,
former police chief
By GERALD S. GOLDSTEIN
Journal-Bulletin Staff Writer
NARRAGANSETT -- Former Police Chief Richard A. Colvin, who in more than 30 years of public life here displayed the political savvy of a wardboss and the compassion of a parish priest, died Tuesday in the Grand Islander Health Care Center, Middletown. Colvin, 66, was the husband of Lorraine L. (Francois) Colvin.
In his stormy, 16-year tenure as chief, which began in 1963 during his term as president of the Town Council, Colvin was constantly embroiled in controversy, much of it generated because he ran his department more by the heart than by the book.
Some said his unorthodox ways -- he had no police experience when he took the job -- contributed to lax discipline and low morale; others said Colvin was ahead of his time and was more interested in helping townspeople than in putting them in jail.
Once, the Town Council suspended him without pay when it learned that instead of taking juvenile offenders to Family Court, he was giving them the option of coming into the station on weekends to wash floors and police cruisers as punishment.
Some of the youngsters liked Colvin so much that they volunteered for extra weekend duty, even after he told them that their term of indenture was up.
Resembling a Thomas Nast caricature of Boss Tweed, Colvin looked, and in some ways acted, the part. He loved smoking big cigars, driving big Cadillacs, and flourishing the thick bankroll that he always seemed to have in his pocket.
But even as a businessman -- he owned the Cozy Corner restaurant at Point Judith from 1946 to 1968 -- his compassionate side was evident. When Hurricane Carol struck with a fury in 1954, Colvin opened the restaurant to area residents who had been forced from their homes, feeding and sheltering them for three days.
But it did not take a hurricane to spark Colvin's generosity. For years, he routinely invited reformatory youngsters, who were on outings to the nearby state beaches, to the Cozy Corner for clamcakes and chowder -- and to a banquet that he put on for them at the end of the summer.
Colvin was also known to drive elderly residents around so they could do their shopping or keep doctors' appointments, and he helped some of them financially, as well.
Colvin had a particular rapport with young people. Once during the turbulent 1960s a near-riot broke out at Scarborough Beach; he responded with his men and helped defuse the situation by asking one guitar-toting instigator to sing songs with him.
He once assigned a patrolman 10 hours' extra duty for using profanity in a dispute with a citizen.
Colvin's gentle nature followed him in his initial months as police chief -- he was so uncomfortable around guns that he refused to wear one; after several months went by, his men chipped in and bought him a Smith & Wesson police revolver. Once Colvin got used to it he was rarely seen without it.
Colvin thrived as much on influence and power as he did on helping others. In fact, he was accused of masterminding his own appointment to the vacant police chief's job when he was leader of the Republican-dominated Town Council in 1963.
The appointment outraged a number of townspeople, because of its political tinge and Colvin's lack of police experience, and it drove a wedge through the Republican Party, alienating some of its other leaders.
And Colvin could be opportunistic, as well -- sometimes, it seemed, more to impress others than to benefit himself. When the Blizzard of 1978 buried Rhode Island in snowdrifts, Colvin applied for and received emergency food stamps along with several other Narragansett officials, and then reportedly bragged about it, waving the stamps around at a regional meeting of police chiefs.
The action prompted one Town Councilman to say he was embarrassed to be associated with the town. Colvin, who could be tough when he needed to be -- one acquaintance described him as "an iron man in a soft suit" -- responded that it was "nobody's damn business" whether he had received food stamps.
Despite such run-ins with his bosses, Colvin always emerged a survivor, retiring in 1979.