Gail Cahalan-Conley was born in Central Falls on August 29, 1943 at Notre Dame Hospital. On her father’s side she was Irish and French-Canadian; on her mother’s side she was a mixture of Polish, Russian, and Ukrainian Slavic ancestry.
Gail was educated in the public schools of her native city, graduating from Central Falls High School in 1962. She was a member of the schools cheerleading team and was voted the Best-Looking girl in her graduating class. Her striking beauty would be retained through life.
Soon after graduation she married Henry Violet, thereby foregoing a chance to attend college. During her marriage, (which was annulled by the Catholic Church in 1982), Gail had four children. Tragically three, Lawrence, Bradford and Nicole predeceased her a sorrow she would bear with great pain, but with dignity.
In August 1976, Gail moved from her home in Smithfield to the Elmhurst neighborhood of Providence with her husband and three children. To gain self-sufficiency in advance of an anticipated divorce, she obtained work in 1978 as a home-based teacher for Providence Head Start. In this position she visited the homes of scores of needy families in poor neighborhoods to provide their children with pe-school learning and guidance. She was cited for her proficiency despite her lack of formal training in educational practice.
In 1981, after her divorce became final, she met Pat Conley and soon became involved in his historical and real estate ventures as a full partner. In that capacity, Gail immediately began researching the voluminous land records of the City of Providence and other municipalities for tax reverted properties, viewed them, and began bidding on such properties throughout the state, but especially in Providence.
By 1988, a feature story in the October issue of Rhode Island Monthly described her as “the woman who held title to more parcels of real estate than any other woman in the city’s history.” With her partner, Pat, they not only acquired hundreds of vacant lots and abandoned buildings, but they put them into productive use for housing, business, and institutional development, or donated them to non-profits after Pat cleared title to these properties via Superior Court decrees.
Gail also joined in the development of the Parsons Medical Building at 90 Plain Street, a modern four-story structure. She and Pat ordered extra-heavy gauge steel for the superstructure because they planned to live in a roof-top apartment overlooking the Downtown, the Interstate, and the harbor. That plan was abandoned in 1987 when they acquired Gale Winds in Bristol. To facilitate this acquisition, Gail sold her newly remodeled home at 151 Wyndam Avenue using it as a down payment to secure the Bristol estate.
The Parsons Medical Building, named for a physician-founder of Rhode Island Hospital, was across the street from a former Swedish Lutheran Church acquired earlier by Gail, Pat, and Paul Campbell. After they remodeled this structure, its first occupants were the Rhode Island Publications Society (which was moved from the Old State House on Benefit Street), P.T. Conley Used and Rare Books, and the law and real estate offices of Pat Conley. Gail was involved in all three ventures as real estate partner to Pat, as office manager of RIPS, and as a researcher and scout with Pat throughout New England and New York for used and rare books. With her findings in various book barns and antique stores, she compiled a large library on the culinary arts, and interior design, half of which she eventually donated to the Johnson & Wales University Library.
These new ventures caused Gail to resign in 1984 as a teacher in the Head Start Program from which she had received a Head Start plaque in 1982 “for her inspiring leadership as an educator.”
In 1991, Gail’s service to Providence was again recognized as part of a public event at Veterans’ Memorial Auditorium when Mayor Cianci gave her a proclamation/citation and the “Key to the City” in recognition of her many municipal endeavors including Head Start teacher; researcher and marketer, through RIPS, of the Providence Pictorial History and the history of the Providence Fire Department; her role in urban revitalization; her contributions as a member of the Providence Heritage Commission; and her support of the mayor’s come-back election campaign in 1990 at the start of which she and Cianci were depicted in a large photo on the front page of the Journal.
For the next three decades, after 1990, Gail not only acquired real estate for resale but she also joined with Patrick, whom she married in 1994, in donating real estate valued at several million dollars to such donees as the Providence Redevelopment Agency (58 lots for recreation, community gardening, affordable housing, and parking now valued at over $3 million); the towns of Cranston, Glocester, Portsmouth, Burrillville and Jamestown; St. Michael’s Parish in South Providence; Gail Cahalan Park along the Blackstone River in Central Falls; and approximately fifty-five acres of land in Cumberland and 350 acres of lakebed in Burrillville given to the Seaconke Wampanoag Tribe.
The grants by Gail and Pat are of great benefit to the tribe. Although the Cumberland land along the Blackstone River needs further remediation by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, when completed that large parcel will be worth about $4 million and be a tribal reservation. Gail has recently been informed by the new chief of the tribe, that her joint grant to the Seaconke Wampanoag of the 350-acre bed of Echo Lake in Burrillville and its immediate surroundings furnishes steady revenue to the tribe for dock construction on the lake bed and use of the lake for recreational boating.
Gail has been especially generous to other institutions in the Blackstone Valley where her family settled. In addition to land, she made a sizeable gift to the Central Falls Public Library and a sound system to Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church in Valley Falls in memory of her uncle Edward Cahalan who was a lector there.
Gail has also jointly renovated and designed interiors of several alternative homes and condominiums owned with Patrick, namely those on Slocum Street, Plain Street, DePasquale Plaza, and Pequot Street in Providence, the Rosedale Apartments in Edgewood, and especially her oceanfront home “Shack Sur Mer” on Matunuck Beach which she designed and expanded to double its value from $469,000 to $950,000 during her fifteen-year tenure.
The money derived from these ventures was donated in part to historical and cultural causes. Gail was the leading patron of the Irish Famine Memorial with her husband and the Gilbane family. She also bought slate markers at the memorial for her late son Brad and for the Cahalan Family of Central Falls. With her husband, she sponsored the $125,000 sculpture of Thomas Wilson Dorr by Joseph Avarista and donated it to the state for display at the entrance to the Senate chamber, and, with Patrick and the Heritage Harbor Foundation, collected and then donated many artifacts from the historic Fabre Line to create a permanent Fabre Line exhibit at the Museum of Work and Culture in Woonsocket.
Gail has a remarkable talent for interior decoration and design as evidenced by the décor of Gale Winds. In the mid-1990s, she opened a boutique shop in Bristol which she called Gifts Unique. Its purpose was to display and market the creations of Rhode Island artists, crafters, and writers. She visited numerous artist studios to purchase their works for her store, thereby giving them support and visibility. Despite its beauty and diversity, the business did not succeed financially and closed after two years of operation. She remarked that “the operation was a great success but the patient died.” Many of the artworks from that store now grace Gale Winds.
Gail’s support for local artists was renewed when she and Patrick renovated the Conleys’ Wharf Building at 200 Allens Avenue as their first step to develop that Providence waterfront.
Working directly with Eric Bright and Lisa Carnevale of the Partnership for Creative Industrial Space, Gail set aside the front half of the ground floor of the 4-story building as the Gail Cahalan Gallery. During its brief tenure, this donated space hosted dozens of local artists and earned a stop on the regular Grand Tour for Gallery Night in Providence. Several of the artists joined the Fabre Line Club and staged exhibits for club members.
As an assistant to her husband in the book trade from 1981-1998, she compiled many books in the culinary arts and interior design while he scouted for history books. She donated over 600 volumes from her hand-picked personal collection to the library of Johnson and Wales University.
With her husband she endowed a lecture series at the Herreshoff Marine Museum in honor of her deceased friend, curator Carleton Pinheiro, and gave generously to other Bristol nonprofits including Rogers Free Library, Blithewold, Mount Hope Farm, the Pastime Theater Linden Place, the Columban Fathers, the Sisters of St. Dorothy the Audubon Society, and Roger Williams University. In 1995 she became one of four incorporators of the Bristol Statehouse Foundation, a group that would renovate and preserve this historical structure and former state capitol.
In 2007 Gail and her husband purchased the King Philip House on Mount Hope in Bristol, the former summer home of Rudolf Haffenreffer, Jr. They remodeled this structure, located next to King Philip’s Chair, and named the road to it “Pokanoket Place.” It was their intention to eventually donate the structure to the Pokanoket Tribe as a visitor center, but the project failed in the Great Recession. Nonetheless, Gail has continued her support of the Pokanoket and has published articles in Rhode Island newspapers urging Brown University to return its Mount Hope lands to the tribe.
Other than her husband, Gail has done far more than anyone to advance the work of Clio’s Trio – The Rhode Island Publications Society (RIPS), the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame, and the Heritage Harbor Foundation.
Her work with RIPS began in 1981 when she commenced her ten-year tenure as office manager for the society. In that capacity she handled not only society records but also the marketing of its books by personally visiting all of the then numerous Rhode Island bookstores with her chest of RIPS publications to take orders for RIPS titles. As a result of her efforts, RIPS sales were greater during the decade of the 1980s than at any time before or after. Gail also tried her hand at photo research at the Providence City Archives and at the Rhode Island Historical Society, using the microfilm newspaper reader and scouring its collections for illustrative material. Her assistance (with her husband and Paul Campbell) were very helpful in three RIPS books: Providence: A Pictorial History (1982); Firefighters and Fires in Providence; A Pictorial History of the Providence Fire Department (1984); and An Album of Rhode Island History (1986). As previously mentioned, the result of these and other civic efforts, Mayor Vincent A. Cianci presented Gail with a key to the city upon her retirement as RIPS office manager in 1992. All her efforts were as a volunteer.
Some of Gail’s philanthropy extended beyond the borders of Rhode Island. Her pride in her Eastern European Heritage prompted Gail to join with a group of Polish-Americans to raise money to construct the Mothers’ Memorial Hospital in Lodz, Poland near the Russian border. Gail and Jean Babiac, chair of the Polish American Subcommittee of the Rhode Island Heritage Commission, were the two Rhode Island delegates in the American delegation of May, 1988 who dedicated that $8 million women’s hospital. On that philanthropic trip, Gail had the honor of visiting the grateful Solidarity leader, Lech Walesa, at his home in Gdansk, where Lech warmly embraced her – a greeting captured in a memorable photo later reproduced in the Polish pamphlet of the Rhode Island Ethnic Heritage Series.
During that decade of the 1980s Gail also lent her support to the U.S. Constitution Council supervising the distribution of its several publications and hosting a major meeting of the council at Gale Winds that included a huge lobster-bake on the shore. She was also involved with the related Rhode Island Bicentennial of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and the observance of the Bicentennial of Rhode Island Statehood on May 29, 1990. With her friend Mary Brennan, former Hall of Fame president, Gail chaired the lavish Statehood Dinner at Rosecliff on May 29, 1990, the day after she hosted the huge lobster bake and its 175 guests.
Gail’s support of historical projects continued in 2000 when the Rhode September 17. Gail supervised the arrangements and hosted these events for a decade (2000-2013), first at Gale Winds (until 2004) and then at the Fabre Line Club. Patrick edited the scholarly lectures delivered at these gatherings by nationally renowned historians, including two winners of the Pulitzer Prize in History, in a book called Constitution Day. When it was presented at Gale Winds in September, 2010, all of the scholars returned for that event and gave Gail a rousing standing ovation for her role in orchestrating the Constitution Day observance. The Constitution Day book was dedicated to Gail as hostess of this unique scholarly event.
Gail’s volunteer efforts with the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame began shortly after her husband’s induction (1995) and his appointment as a director (1996). From that time onward she worked to advance the Hall of Fame’s activities. She was the sole or joint nominator of such inductees as Halsey Herreshoff, Mayor Vincent Cianci (her former suitor), Scott Molloy, Ken Dooley, Henry Shelton, Wilfred (Eagle Heart) Greene, Louis Yip, Judge Rogeriee Thompson, and Dr. Edward Iannuccilli. She also nominated Viola Davis of Central Falls, who declined induction.
Even more important than these induction nominations was her advice in the choice of directors. Among those directors placed on the board after her strong recommendation were Arlene Violet (her maid-of-honor), Warren Lewis (her accountant), Al Beauparlant (her contractor) and such respected friends as Anthony Marandola, Dr. Donald Deignan, Ken Dooley, Russ DeSimone, and Judge John Rego.
The Hall of Fame conducted eleven historical inductions at the Conley Conference Center with these events held under her supervision. Gail was not only co-owner of the building but the manager of Patrick’s Pier One Function Center that worked in concert with the Hall of Fame in staging these convocations and providing the food and drink. In recognition of her advisory role for the Hall of Fame, Patrick placed her formally on the Hall’s Advisory Council which she now chairs.
From a financial perspective, Gail’s contributions to the Hall of Fame were also substantial. During the abortive attempt in 2014 to build a Hall of Fame Museum adjacent to Roger Williams University, she joined with her husband in making the initial monetary gift for the huge project. That starting donation to the fundraising campaign was $50,000.00. Still the largest donation to the Hall of Fame, it resulted in the establishment of The Hall of Fame Endowment. The earliest members of that endowment, all of whom donated to the failed museum project, were Hall of Fame inductees Alan Hassenfeld (2009), Vincent Di Bona (2011), and Sol Koffler (1981). After the demise of the museum project, Gail alone suggested an alternative site in the huge National Register barn at Bristol’s Colt State Park where Gail had walked for many years. That site, although reviewed and endorsed by the Hall of Fame Board, was denied by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. A third option at the Historic Bristol State House, where Gail was an incorporator, was also unsuccessful.
By far Gail’s most important contribution to Clio’s Trio and the promulgation of Rhode Island’s history and heritage was her joint gift of Gale Winds to the Heritage Harbor Foundation after which she became a Foundation director. She and Patrick have reserved a life estate in this spectacular property. It was appraised by two impartial evaluators (one being a bank) at $3.3 million in mid-2019. The recent surge in real estate values, especially for prime waterfront estates, has raised its reasonable value to over $4 million at the end of 2022. When the Conleys’ private mortgages are deducted, the net value of this gift exceeds $3 million, an amount nearly equal to the Foundation’s original corpus.
Gail had the option to sell this large property and retire comfortably to a smaller home with far less maintenance and expense, but she sacrificed that option – despite the fact that nearly all of her assets (and Patrick’s) had been depleted by donations and the loss of $5.3 million in their vain attempt to develop the Allens Avenue waterfront in Providence.
Gale Winds was not merely a portion of her assets, it was nearly all of her assets given the failure of her husband to accumulate an adequate pension or any long-term investments. As always, Gail took the risk. Many benefactors give a portion of their wealth to charity; Gail gave nearly all of hers
Gail, despite her beauty, always shunned the spotlight. Although an assertive and perceptive conversationalist in private, she dreaded public speaking. Her influence was exerted behind the curtain, but those who knew her well realized that such influence was enormous. Al Beauparlant, with whom she worked in business and with Clio, referred to Gail as “Madame Advisory Council.” Ken Dooley in a revealing chapter written about Gail in his memoir Dooley Noted stated that she “walks gently but carried a big stick.” Patrick, in a chapter on Gail’s life in An Historical Cruise Through the Ocean State called her his “navigator.” Dooley objected to this description because “navigators follow courses that have been plotted for them.” Gail, said Dooley, was a “tactician” who must plot the course based upon her own intuition and instincts.
There is precedent for the joint induction of philanthropic spouses such as Merrill and Sylvia Hassenfeld, Austin and June Levy, John and Lela Sapinsky, Bob and Wini Galkin, William and Olive Wiley, and Ralph and Barbara Papitto.
It is time to add another husband-and-wife duo and partnership to our Hall of Fame.