GROTON — If you’re a fan of breakfast at Johnson’s Restaurant on Boston Road, you might’ve noticed a chatty group of guys sitting around a table sipping coffee and shooting the breeze. No matter what was going on in the world around them, the “Johnson’s Gang” still made time to catch up with each other. The gang lost a member last month and his fellow patrons, along with others, saluted him for his conversation and contributions to the community.
That member was George “Jay” Rider Jr., who passed away July 20 at the age of 74. Rider served the Groton Police Department for over 30 years, starting as a dispatcher in 1966 before become a patrolman. He worked for the Ayer Police Department from 1970 to 1976, then he returned to the Groton force and continued to serve. He became chief of police in 1984 and kept watch over Groton in that position until his retirement in 2000.
Along with his time in law enforcement, Rider also served his community outside of a badge and uniform. He was a member of the Groton Minuteman Company, and served with the Groton Fire Department and Ambulance Service. He was also a speaker at local schools, Lions Clubs and Rotary Clubs.
“He was a good man with a great sense of humor,” Town Manager Mark Haddad said last week. “I enjoyed my time with him. He also served as a constable for me here in Groton and was always ready with friendly advice.”
On top of his job and community service, Rider also made time to connect with old friends on a near-daily basis. Rick Santiano, owner of Johnson’s Restaurant, said Rider would come in almost every day around 9:30 a.m. to meet with friends for breakfast and chat about various things. Santiano, who knew the former chief for 30 years, specifically noted how often Rider would talk at length about town issues and sports.
“He always talked about the Patriots, even during the off season,” Santiano said. “He knew everyone and was a nice guy to talk to, really down-to-earth.”
One of Rider’s frequent breakfast buddies was Barry Cunningham, a resident of Groton. Cunningham said other members of the “Johnson’s Gang,” as he called it, include former state Rep. Robert Hargraves, Robert Lacombe of RJ Lacombe Septic Service, and local residents Jeff Wallens and Carl Flowers. Cunningham said the group came together after Rider retired from the Groton Police and he and the rest of the members received invites to check out the restaurant for coffee.
“He was always positive and had a big heart,” Cunningham added. “He always had his opinion and he’d let you know by saying, ‘This is the way I feel and it you don’t like it, that’s alright.’ “
Cunningham had a long relationship with Rider, first meeting the ex-chief in the late 1960s when he was a police officer in Groton and Cunningham was a high school student. He also recalled an incident where he and his friends were playing stickball outside and Rider pulled up to ask if he could “take a swing.” Cunningham and Rider met each other again at various points over the years, ranging from mutual friendship with Cunningham’s building partner Norm Johnson to running into each other at the Nashoba Pizza restaurant in Ayer.
“He was an old school guy, but he kept with what was going on,” he said.
Hargraves said his relationship with Rider had something of a reverse origin compared to Cunningham’s: he first met Rider when the ex-chief was in seventh grade at the former Groton Junior Senior High School and Hargraves was one of Rider’s teachers. Hargraves described Rider as a “bright kid who did well in school,” eventually meeting him again while Rider was chief of police and Hargraves was a member of the Groton Select Board.
“Jay and I were very close,” Hargraves said. “He and I last talked three weeks ago, when he told me he had two months to live. He called me and talked for me for seven minutes, he was very solid. He knew what was coming and was facing it like I knew he would.”
Hargraves added that he and Rider would “chit-chat” at Johnson’s about “generalities.” That frequent conversation along with their history in town service made for a major loss in Hargraves’ life.
“I was very shook up by his loss,” he said. “He was about friends and family. He was like a little big brother, that’s how close he was to me.”
Though most conversations at Johnson’s were casual, Wallens said Rider was also a great storyteller.
“He could talk about the old days of being a cop in Groton and Ayer,” Wallens said. “He knew the old characters in town. The guy was the same person, whether as the chief or just having coffee at Johnson’s. The best part of Jay was him hanging out and being Jay.”
Ed Davis, Lowell’s former chief of police, also saluted Rider and had a longtime friendship with the fellow ex-chief. Davis said he met Rider in the early 1990s after John “Jack” Sheehan, who was Lowell’s police chief at the time, introduced him to the “well-known” Groton chief. After that, Davis would run into Rider in various capacities ranging from monthly state police chief meetings to other emergency situations throughout the northeast like a mill fire in Lawrence or a robbery in Chelmsford.
“Jay was always the voice of reason and very committed,” Davis said. “I was struck by his great personality. He was a funny guy, a great guy, a decent human being and everything you could’ve wanted as a friend. We’re gonna miss him.”