Bill Carrigan had a way with words, and most of the time, that way was his own.
He labored over each thought, wrestled with every detail, inspected (then reinspected) for accuracy, clarity and tone. He collected words and carried them with him for decades, including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Wreck of the Hesperus, which he learned in the fourth grade.
He scrutinized other people’s words, whether they were from willing peers in his Sarasota writers’ groups or sloppy copy on the back of the cereal box.
Carrigan died Nov. 20 shortly after a fall. He was 100.
Making words into meaning
He grew up in a home filled with books, and an encounter in middle school deepened Carrigan’s love of words.
After his family moved from New York City to Washington D.C., Carrigan met American poet Vachel Lindsay. That meeting introduced the middle schooler to the delights of the recited word. After college, at the beginning of World War II, Carrigan’s language skills brought him to a job at the National Institutes of Health. There, he translated, edited and shared the work of scientists.
“Over time, he became sufficiently knowledgeable in medicine and medical research to write some papers himself,” wrote friend and fellow writer Pat Gray in a remembrance. “Some scientists gave him their analysis and let Bill do the writing. Sometimes, he even helped them with their research because he facilitated scientific communications between departments and even individual scientists. He brought a sense of clarity to much of the medical research done at the NIH.”
Carrigan and his wife, Theodora, had two daughters, Bonnie and Delane. After 46 years at the National Institutes for Health, he retired and began a second career doing similar work at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. When he retired for the second time, Carrigan and his wife moved to Sarasota, and he turned to his own writing full-time.
The process was as rigorous for fiction as it was for science.
Grandson Matthew McCarthy remembers the street maps of Tampa tacked up in the den while Carrigan worked on Manic, a thriller set in that city that reads like a blend of Jimmy Buffett and Tom Clancy.
“Everything in the book is very accurate,” McCarthy said. “It almost plays out like a movie.”
Carrigan joined and eventually ran the Fiction Writers Forum, which works on critiques, and was a longtime member of the Sarasota Fiction Writers group.
“He really helped me,” said friend and author Susan Klaus. “I really was not a writer. I just had some great stories to tell.”
Carrigan was precise, she said, and could tighten a sentence, add the right verbs and make it sing.
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He always spoke last when the Sarasota Fiction Writers group met, said friend and fellow writer Raymond Ryder. And Carrigan was the only member of the group whose advice was accepted by everyone, Ryder said.
Carrigan published seven books and a collection of short stories. He was working on one more with his grandson. The two worked off and on for years on Write Your Song, a guide to composing songs.
McCarthy plans to finish it, but, as his grandfather taught him, knows it’s due for many, many more edits.
In his own words
The Doctor of Summitville, chapter 20, by Bill Carrigan
One day in early spring, the life she had left behind on the farm came starkly into focus. A letter addressed to “A. Duval” arrived, posted in Phoenix, Arizona. Henri must have learned her address from Schmitz. His words, scrawled in rambling, barely legible French, were bitter and threatening. She had deserted the farm, he said ― had taken up training for which she’d never have any use. He had run out of money and couldn’t find work in this shit-hole. Did they pay her at the hospital? He needed money if he was to stay in the West. Martin, he said, ignored his samples of spit, or didn’t bother to tell him what they showed. Sick or not, he might have to return to the farm — Schmitz wasn’t up to running it alone — and she had to help. Send him any money she had.
Well! how could he have spent all his savings so soon? And why was he being so unreasonable, heaping everything on her? Did he think for a minute she gave a hoot about him or that old farm? Damn him, anyway! But the fear that he might somehow force her to return compelled her to write in feverish haste.
She told him he was wrong about everything, especially her. Nursing was a noble profession and much in demand. She wasn’t paid yet, but she’d have plenty of work after her training. As for now, she was enclosing a money order for her very last cent. He mustn’t even think of returning. He must stay out West until he was well— until Dr. Martin said it was safe to come back. And Schmitz would do better if he were just left alone.
After posting the letter, she returned to her duties much sobered. She had come face to face with the threat of falling back into the life Henri meant for her, the life of servitude and drudgery he considered proper for a wife. The years of training that lay ahead seemed a lifetime, but desperation strengthened her resolve.
In time, desperation became new ambition. She set her sights on the future. In carrying out her chores — changing dressings, giving enemas, washing or spoon-feeding her helpless charges — she welcomed the opportunity to prove her willingness, for these lowly tasks were only details of a grand picture. And she was thankful for Jim’s vision and support that had set her on the way. She tried her best to express these thoughts in her next letter.
Poynter news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.
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