BOSTON – He lived "off the grid" in Idaho, and his children were raised to fear and distrust the government. But Michael McGuckin was hardly the typical mountain man. His roots were in a well-known Boston family, and he had a degree from a prominent prep school.
McGuckin, who suffered from multiple sclerosis, died of dehydration and malnutrition May 12. His wife, JoAnn, was arrested last Tuesday for child neglect, triggering a standoff in Garfield Bay, between their children and authorities.
The children released a pack of dogs against authorities, and acquaintances said they had been imbued with anti-government sentiment. One child surrendered Thursday, and the remaining five on Saturday.
News of the standoff surprised some who knew Michael McGuckin as a polite, engaging man, an entrepreneur and a talented musician.
"He was an enormously likable, highly successful, highly intelligent man," Francis Laidlaw, the former husband of Michael McGuckin's sister, said on Monday. "He was not a separatist in any way shape or form -- the antithesis of that."
But classmates of McGuckin's at Groton, a prestigious Massachusetts boarding school, said they had few memories of his time there even though there were just 44 students in the class of 1957.
One remembered him as an unfriendly oddball.
"I don't know of a single person who fit the definition of a friend of his," recalled classmate Jonathan Yardley, now the book editor and a columnist at The Washington Post. "He was not a friendly guy."
McGuckin was the son of a Harvard-educated stockbroker and of Jane Shreve, whose family was associated with the well-known Boston jewelry firm Shreve Crump & Low Co.
According to Yardley, McGuckin's senior yearbook indicates he planned to attend Harvard, where about half of that year's Groton class matriculated, according to another classmate, Robert Mintern. But for unclear reasons, he ended up with Yardley at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where Yardley said he continued to carry "a chip on his shoulder."
Later, McGuckin served in the Army, where he learned to speak Arabic, before starting a number of businesses, including a furniture company.
But his plans to build a sawmill in Idaho failed, and the family fell into poverty and reportedly became increasingly withdrawn, rejecting help from neighbors.
"It's just incomprehensible to me," Laidlaw said. "He was a veteran for one thing, and certainly if they were without funds he could have gone to some VA hospital and gotten some relief. But he was a proud man."
Groton classmates recalled that McGuckin played on the football team and did well in school.
"He had a lot of spirit in him," Dr. Timothy Revinius, a Providence, R.I., psychiatrist who roomed across from McGuckin, told The Boston Globe. "He was just a little wacky, just a little bit different."
Richard Porteus, who said he last saw McGuckin at their 25th reunion, said he was surprised when he heard what had become of McGuckin, but not surprised that someone of McGuckin's background ended up "off the grid."
"Sometimes people want to get away from that, too," he said. "If you track back through any of these colleges, you find that in some respects you get a bigger range of possibilities about what people do."
The last time Laidlaw spoke with McGuckin was three years ago, when McGuckin called to inquire about acquiring some teaching materials for home-schooling his children. McGuckin was already suffering the effects of his disease.
"He didn't mention that," Laidlaw said. "He accepted the end."
But the topic came up as they talked briefly about music. McGuckin played several styles of guitar and Arabic instruments.
"At the end of the conversation I said I always loved the way he played," he said. "And the sad part was when he said he couldn't even hold an instrument any more."
Afterward, contact with the family broke off.
"He was a back-to-the land type person, but he had a purpose to go there," Laidlaw said. "He was even talking at one time of establishing a haven for underprivileged children. I think he had the means to do that."
But Laidlaw never heard anything further of the plan.