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July 31, 2009

WALTER GERVAIS

Walter Gervais, the eventer who completed his first CCI* at age 75, died from congestive heart failure at his home in South Attleboro, Mass., on June 17. He was 87.

Mr. Gervais entered the Navy at age 18, serving in World War II on the aircraft carrier Ranger, which was engaged in searching for German U-boats in the North Sea. He also served in the Korean War.

He was a lifelong athlete, boxing in the Navy and placing 25th in the 1946 Boston Marathon. He did not take up riding until he was in his 50s, however.

Mr. Gervais retired from his job at a bank and began working for veteran eventer Denny Emerson at Tamarack Hill Farm (Strafford, Vt., and Southern Pines, N.C.) in the 1980s, living in an apartment over the barn. He won his first novice event at Huntington Farm at the age of 69. Shortly thereafter, David O’Brien gave him his retired advanced horse Sail On Simcoe to compete.

O’Brien had lived and worked with Mr. Gervais at Tamarack Hill in the 1980s and early 90s, and had recently acquired a farm in Southern Pines, N.C., when he learned that Mr. Gervais was in need of a horse to compete. Sail On Simcoe was too old to go advanced, but O’Brien thought that he still had many competitive years left. Finding a suitable rider was a challenge, however, because the horse could be very strong on cross-country. O’Brien thought that Mr. Gervais would be a good match for the gelding and offered him the ride.

With Sail On Simcoe, Mr. Gervais reached the preliminary level at the age of 72. He continued to keep the horse with O’Brien in the winters when he traveled south to compete.

“Walt really loved that horse,” O’Brien said. “He so appreciated what he was doing and truly enjoyed himself. It was a joy to watch.”

“David gave Walt wings, and Walt had the guts to fly with them,” Emerson said. “He was an amazing man and never took no for an answer. Whatever he wanted to do, he did.”

Mr. Gervais rode in the Bromont Three-Day Event (Que.) at the CCI* level when he was 75 and continued to ride for several more years.

“I don’t think anyone has done what Walt did,” said Emerson. “He kept riding until he had heart bypass surgery when he was pushing 80.”

Emerson noted that Mr. Gervais had an amazing drive that enabled him to be a lifelong athlete. When he was 80, he lived in an apartment above the barn, and Emerson remembered seeing him relaxing by the pond one day.

“I thought, isn’t that nice. Walt’s learning to settle down and enjoy a warm summer evening. I come around and see that he’s curling iron weights. That’s why he was able to do the things he did,” said Emerson.

O’Brien echoed those sentiments. “He exemplified ‘the greatest generation,’ ” O’Brien said. “He was humble, and I feel privileged to have known him. He was an asset to everything he was involved in.”

Mr. Gervais is survived by his wife Joyce Gervais, two daughters, Nancy Moore, of Providence, R.I., and Robin Kew, of North Eastham, Mass., grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Memorial donations may be made to VNA Hospice, 475 Kilvert St., Warwick, RI 02886.

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