Warren neighbors mark loner's life well-lived
Two days after Christmas, 85-year-old Norman Mann Jr. returned to Warren from his office in Providence, walked from the bus stop on Main down to his lifelong home at 46 Washington St., and died on the front step.
A neighbor whose partner found him that evening said he looked like he was at peace, as if he'd just lain down on his stoop, closed his eyes and gone to sleep. Though he had no family, those closest to him in the world, his neighbors, came out when news spread from house to house and stayed with him until the coroner took him away.
"I believe he just wanted to make it home, the only home he ever knew," his neighbor, Karen Dionne, said. "He wasn't found by a busfull of strangers, or in his office. It was truly peaceful and quiet, like his life."
Mr. Mann was a curious figure in Warren, recognized by many but known to very few. He was born on Washington Street and lived his entire life there, but he left behind no family or close friends. Now, a month after his death, the retired attorney's remains lie in a morgue at the Rhode Island Medical Examiner's Office, a fate not uncommon for those, mainly the indigent and transients, who die with no one to mourn them.
But Mr. Mann was neither. And while he made few close ties in life, his neighbors are trying to make sure that he is properly remembered and put to rest. It is the least they can do for a man who they say was quiet but had a good heart and lived a fruitful, if peculiar, life.
It hasn't been easy. Mr. Mann's remains and estate are in limbo as state officials and Warren police conduct what so far has been a fruitless exercise — trying to find a next of kin and determine his last wishes. Though many people die without close family, Warren Police Detective Joel Camara said Mr. Mann's is different from the majority of similar cases he's seen since he started on the job 23 years ago. He's gotten nowhere.
"It's actually kind of a rare thing," he said. "Usually there's a family member or someone they're in contact with. There hasn't been anything like that" in this case.
Over the past month, Det. Camara has talked to neighbors, sought out friends and acquaintances and researched records in hopes of finding kin who will claim Mr. Mann's remains. The process is being repeated at the Rhode Island Medical Examiner's Office, where workers ran an advertisement in the Providence Journal 12 days ago seeking any kin to come forward and claim his body.
'Family' comes forward
Through it all, his neighbors have stepped in where official channels have hit roadblocks. Ms. Dionne, who lives across the street from Mr. Mann's old home, wrote an obituary for the Warren Times a week after his death. Another neighbor has taken in Louie, one of Mr. Mann's cats. There have been offers to pay for oil to keep his house warm and the pipes thawed through the cold winter. Finally, neigbhor Deidre Julian has petitioned the state to be named temporary administrator.
If the state grants her administrator request this week, Mr. Mann's body will finally be able to be released to a funeral home. And just as important, being named administrator will give her the legal right, and 30 days, to go through his belongings in search of a will or other important information about his estate. The state is required to advertise for a next of kin for two weeks and that period ends Friday, at which point the state will rule on Ms. Julian's petition.
Others, too, have stepped forward, including Barrington attorney Robert Healey, who has helped advise Ms. Julian on probate and administration matters. Also, representatives from LaSalle Academy, where Mr. Mann graduated high school in 1944, have expressed an interest in helping resolve his estate's legal issues.
The level of care brought to bear on Mr. Mann's behalf, a case worker at the medical examiner's office said, is telling.
"It speaks very well of the decedent," she said.
Ms. Julian has lived on Washington Street since 2004 and considers herself as close a friend as Mr. Mann had in his last years. She said that while he was quiet and introverted, he had a good soul and deserves to be put to rest with dignity. That's why she took on the daunting task of applying to be temporary administrator.
"I'm just trying to get his body so it's not sitting in a morgue, and hopefully get it cremated because I believe that was his wish," she said. "Somebody has got to get the ball rolling."
Eventually, she said, she would like to mingle his ashes with those of his late sister Dorothy, who like him was born at 46 Washington St. She died at home four years ago and while no one knows where her ashes are, Ms. Julian believes they are in the house.
"My hope is that we can reunite them and I would like to sprinkle them in the yard," she said. "That was their place."
A life in Warren
Mr. Mann tiptoed through life in Warren, but he did leave footprints. He was the small, frail man who every morning would walk from Washington north on Main to the bus stop at Delekta's Pharmacy, passing in front of the Coffee Depot just before rush hour. He was always dressed the same: In a neat suit, usually gray, with a fedora hat. He always carried a newspaper under his arm. Apparently, a lot of people knew him just from his daily walks, though he seldom stopped to talk to anyone.
Warren Town Clerk Julie Coelho's father knew him years ago, and remembers that he went to LaSalle Academy. Ms. Dionne said he was always proud of the fact that he put himself through law school working as an actuary at area greyhound racing parks. His job was to determine payouts, and the work forced him to be quick and good with numbers. It was a skill he kept his whole life.
"He and his friend had adding machines, and they only had a few minutes to determine the payouts before people started rushing the windows," Ms. Dionne said. "He worked at all the local parks; Lincoln, Raynham. He was very proud."
Ms. Dionne bought her house across the street in 2004, but it took him years to get friendly with her.
"He wasn't all that trusting of people he didn't know," she said. "But he always knew when people were coming or going. He had stories about the whole street, about people who had lived there 50 years ago, and people who lived in my house. His best boyhood friend used to live in my house, and he said it broke his heart when he moved away to Boston."
She also remembers a soft heart and caring soul, particularly when it came to animals.
"He and his sister took in squirrels, skunks and whatever animals wandered into his yard," she said. And though he never knocked on her door and initiated conversation, he made an exception after one of Ms. Dionne's cats went missing.
"He said, 'I had a cat that was missing for four weeks and he came back, so there's hope for your cat.'"
Ms. Julian remembers that same kindness. Mr. Mann's home was one of several broken into during a spate of house break-ins last summer. When police caught the thief, they wrote a letter to Mr. Mann asking him to testify against the young suspect. But he refused, Ms. Julian said.
"He said, 'He's a kid, he's confused. I don't want to put him away,'" she said.
"He had a good heart. He wasn't vindictive, he didn't want to punish this kid."
Ms. Dionne said she has been particularly affected by Mr. Mann's death, and has thought a lot about the life he lived. Though it seemed that there was always a bit of sadness to him, she thinks he was happy with his lot and how he chose to live. She's glad that he had neighbors who cared for him, though he had no family of his own.
"He made it home and he died at home, where people who watched over him could find him."
Assuming the state grants her request and Mr. Mann's legal issues can be resolved, Ms. Julian hopes to conduct a simple service for her friend; just something to mark the passing of a good life.
"He deserves that."