GROTON, CT - (From Mystic Funeral Home) William Joseph Gannon, educator, musician, tennis instructor, and true Renaissance man, died Sunday morning, May 3, 2020, of COVID-19. Remarkably, at age 99, he had lived to the exact same age as his own father did.
Bill was born on the first day of spring, March 20, 1921, the eldest of four children to William and Alice Loughney Gannon. His father moved the family from Pawtucket, RI to Sterling, CT to become foreman of the Sterling textile mill.
Bill loved growing up in the small rural community of Sterling. Bright, athletic and musically gifted, he excelled at baseball, tennis, and won several singing and dancing competitions. But it was his many happy hours spent skating on Sterling pond that led to a life-long passion for ice hockey. A fine skater, he cherished any opportunity to play, watch, or if need be, simply LISTEN to a hockey game broadcast only on his crackly A.M. car radio.
After serving with the Army in the Pacific Theater during World War II, Bill attended Mitchell College, continuing on to Hillyer College (now the University of Hartford) on the G.I. Bill. Fulfilling his goal of becoming an educator, he insisted on completing an advanced Master of Education degree, not required in those days.
Bill became part of the original staff at the new West Side Junior High School in Groton, teaching seventh grade English and Social Studies. He was a born teacher, educating generations of students in his 35 year career. Following his personal teaching philosophy of the 3 F’s – firm, fair, and flexible: not just saying those words, but living by them. As an educator, Bill was an early champion of civil rights, refusing to join any club or organization that denied admittance to people of color.
Bill and his wife Ellie moved their young family to an antique “fixer-upper” home near the Mystic River. And fix it up, they did. Bill embraced living by the shoreline, and his motorboat, The Three Sisters, was a familiar sight moored on the river. Whenever the summer opportunity permitted, he and Ellie packed the children (think sardines) into his trusty station wagon and trundled to the Weekapaug surf.
If there was one word to describe Bill during these hectic days, it would be…industrious. An original multi-tasker, he found numerous creative ways to supplement his modest teacher’s salary and support his now five children.
A consummate tennis player, Bill was a congenial competitor who enjoyed winning and often did. With his skill at tennis, he became an instructor for the Mason’s Island Yacht Club, Groton Parks and Recreation, and countless private lessons. He relished the joy of tennis his entire life, playing well into his 80’s.
Bill was also the superintendent of the Groton Motor Inn’s grand “Olympic size” swimming pool. He often took a fortunate child or two with him on those warm summer evenings to dive into that glamorous pool under the stars. When Bill finally had time to install his own pool, needless to say, it was immaculate. No one kept a more pristine pool than Bill.
But perhaps the greatest love of Bill’s life was music. He enjoyed all types of music, with a special affinity for jazz. He was a natural and instinctive drummer, headlining with his own ensemble, The Billy Gannon Trio, and with numerous other musicians as their guest percussionist. For many years, Bill was a frequent sight cruising on the Mystic River as the drummer of the steamboat Sabino’s Dixieland band, along with their signature red shirts. He cheerfully loaded and unloaded those heavy drums well into his eighth decade, and believed in the transformative power of music until the end of his life.
This is not to say that Bill Gannon did not know how to relax. Quite the contrary, he turned relaxation into an art form. A deep thinker, philosopher, poet, and excellent writer, retirement allowed him to turn some of his attention to the literary pursuits that he had always treasured. Quiet time and solitude held a special place in Bill’s heart. A devoted father and grandfather, he knew the importance of showing up, of being there. Always a habitual early riser, as dependable as he was punctual, Bill logged untold hours as a chauffeur for his children and grandchildren, usually in one of his creaky (oops, vintage) automobiles.
Bill never stopped being a teacher, always with the keen sense of humor that had served him so well in the classroom. His habit of grading everything was legendary. “I’ll give that movie a B minus”, he would exclaim. Or, “Those new shoes are a C plus.”
Despite his many accomplishments, Bill was modest and humble about his achievements. A thoughtful man of deep faith, Bill’s religion was a comfort and consolation for his entire life. He was well aware of his blessings, refusing to wallow in regret or disappointment.
Upbeat and positive, Bill Gannon always saw the glass as half full. A good and decent man, he was comfortable with his beliefs, with what he thought was right and why. He found pure joy in the simple things, in everyday ordinary miracles. During later years, he could often be found sitting in a spot of sun on his deck; his favorite cigar in one hand, a chilled short beer in the other. Looking out over his impeccably mowed lawn, watching the sun sparkle on the pool, he would flash that wonderful smile. “This is the life, isn’t it, kids?” he would ask.
Yes, Dad. It sure was.
Left to honor Bill’s legacy are three daughters; Lynn Gannon of Ledyard, Sheila Gannon and Julie Gannon Thompson (Lon) both of Mystic; two sons, John Gannon of Colchester and Thomas Gannon of East Hampton; eight grandchildren; Gina Sacco Velez of Stonington, Elizabeth Thompson of Los Angeles, CA, Caroline Thompson of Glastonbury, Emily Thompson of Nashville, TN; Hillary and Johnny Gannon, both of Colchester; Erin and Benjamin Gannon, both of East Hampton; two great-granddaughters, Violet and Vivian Velez of Stonington, and his brother, Joseph Gannon of Sterling.
He was predeceased by his dear wife of 69 years, Eleanor Rouleau Gannon, in 2018; and two sisters, Dorothy Howard and Alyce Walker.
In lieu of flowers, contributions in Bill’s memory may be made to The Groton Education Foundation, Mystic Seaport Museum, or The Groton Animal Foundation.
Due to COVID-19, a family graveside service will be held in St. Patrick’s Cemetery, Mystic, with a true celebration of his life later in the year.