Monday, December 14, 1998

Man of constant sorrows

Miles Gerety lost a brother in the Swissair crash. Now he has become a focus of others' grief.

By Stephen Kimber -- Special to The Daily News

It's easy to mistake the measure of Miles Gerety's grief. He is almost always relentlessly upbeat - in his own cheerfully self-deprecating words: "over-talkative and hyperactive."

As he leads a visitor on a car tour of the rustically well-to-do Fairfield, Connecticut, neighbourhoods where he and his much-older brother Pierce grew up, he skips from subject - "When Pierce and Peter (another brother) were little, our family didn't have much money, but when I was 15 and Pierce was long gone they installed that swimming pool in the backyard so it was almost as if we grew up in different worlds" - to subject - "I talk all the time, he didn't; he read all the time, when I was a kid I couldn't read a goddam word."

This is just the way he is.

He is Miles Gerety, 48, the theatrical public defender who will tell you he loves nothing better than to cross-examine a cop on forensic evidence he believes he knows better than anyone else in a courtroom; the defiantly proud subject of a "Harvard study of successful dyslexics" who single-handedly scared Mitsubishi into dropping an ad campaign he thought demeaned dyslexics; the acting chair and spokesman for a group calling itself The Families of Swissair Flight 111.

And, oh yes, the brother of Pierce Gerety, the United Nations Director of the African Great Lakes Region for the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees and one of the 229 victims in the crash of Swissair Flight 111.

It's the seminal significance of that last connection Miles Gerety keeps mostly to himself.

But there are moments when the mask slips away and he's simply another bereaved middle-aged man desperately missing the older brother he never quite got to know as well as he would have liked, and now never will. "Sibling rivalry is just part of growing up in an Irish Catholic family," Gerety jokes today. But growing up in a family as large, as socially and politically prominent, and as full of overachievers as the Geretys of Fairfield, almost certainly had to make that rivalry more intense.

Gerety's father, Pierce, Sr., was one of nine brothers whose number included two lawyers, one of whom became a judge; two priests, one of whom became an archbishop; and two doctors. Pierce, Sr., himself became a prominent New York corporate lawyer who headed the U.S. refugee relief program in the Eisenhower administration in the fifties.

"As a little kid, I remember dad getting dropped off at the White House on Saturdays," Gerety says now.

By then Pierce, Jr., his big brother, was an over-achieving teenager. He scored off the charts on his college boards and was admitted to Yale at 16. By the time he was in his twenties, he had already considered and abandoned the priesthood, married a French noblewoman, and earned a Harvard law degree.

Rather than accept the inevitable offers from prominent Wall Street firms, Pierce Gerety devoted himself to "helping the poor and the downtrodden," first as a lawyer for prison inmates and later as an advocate for the world's refugees.

Though Miles shared his oldest brother's passion for helping the weak and the oppressed, his preferred canvas was much more parochial. He bought a house in Redding, 20 minutes from where he grew up, and became an outspoken and successful public defender in nearby Bridgeport.

Miles and Pierce and their families - Pierce and Marie had three children, Miles and his wife Sylvie have two - would see each other briefly each year when Pierce would "come back to Fairfield for a few days in the summers, and then be off again. Pierce always seemed to be going wherever all hell seemed to be breaking loose."

He was still doing that.

But this summer, there was family talk that Pierce and Marie might finally settle again fulltime in nearby New York so they could spend more time with their grown children.

Pierce himself, Gerety says now, seemed to be "mellowing. He was always more complicated than his image," he explains. "He could be sullen and distant sometimes in the family. But I think we all get wiser as we get older. There was a kind of sweetness growing in him that I hadn't seen before."

In fact, Gerety, who says he had become "very close" to their father in his last years, was hoping for a similar understanding between himself and the brother he had always seen as a father figure.

And then the plane crashed.


Today, Miles Gerety juggles his official duties as a public defender with his self-assigned role as the organizer, protector, and spokesman for some of the many families still attempting to make sense of the Swissair crash. He helped organize the group, he says, when he realized the "protective cocoon" that had enveloped the families in Nova Scotia in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy had disappeared after they returned to their homes.

He also did it, he allows, because he remembers being on the rocks at Peggy's Cove a few nights after the crash, crying over the loss of his brother and trying to think "how can I make it better."

With help from his teenaged son, he set up a Web site so the families could communicate with one another independently of Swissair, organized meetings with the U.S. State Department, and lobbied Swissair officials to try to get them to let the families know about the group.

Several weeks ago, he organized a trip back to Nova Scotia for some of the families so they could not only thank local people for their humanitarian efforts in the days after the crash, but also have some input on the kind and location of a memorial in honour of the victims of Swissair Flight 111.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given the depth of the emotions surrounding the crash and Gerety's own sometimes larger-than-life persona, it hasn't all gone smoothly.

There are now a number of splinters from the family association - including one Web site focused more on discussing the causes of the crash than on sharing "upbeat" memories of loved ones featured on the official site.

There is also resentment among some family members about not only how Gerety moderates his Web site (he deleted some postings he considered inflammatory) but also the fact he has come to be seen by many in the media as the spokesperson for all the families.

Gerety makes no apologies. He has to be cautious about his legal responsibility for the Web site, he explains, and besides, he feels protective of those who want a place simply to share their grief and their memories.

Strangely - or perhaps not so strangely - he hasn't shared many of his own memories on his Web site. He's been too busy being the organizer, the facilitator, the public face of the families' group.

But don't think for a moment he doesn't have memories, too. Or that he doesn't grieve.


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