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Legend lost

WNY?football icon, Dick Gallagher, passes away at 79

OBSERVER File Photo Dick Gallagher speaks at Section VI Football Media Day last November at New Era Field in Orchard Park.

A month or so after he graduated from Fredonia Central School in 2004, Ty Harper was invited to play in the Kensington Lions Club All-Star Game, a contest that annually features some of the top senior football players from Western New York.

Among Harper’s fondest memories that night, however, was not what happened on the field, but instead what he experienced off it.

That’s the night he met Dick Gallagher for the first time.

“He made a point of shaking all of the players’ hands and wishing us luck in our futures,” said Harper, now the coach of the two-time defending New York State Public High School Athletic Association Class D champion Clymer/Sherman/Panama. “And it wasn’t just for show or a photo op. You could tell that he genuinely meant what he was saying.

“I think that was Mr. Gallagher’s greatest characteristic — he generally cared about people.”

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The folks the Western New York icon cared so much about are now grieving his loss. The Williamsville resident passed away Monday after a lengthy cancer battle. He was 79.

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I didn’t come to know Gallagher personally until the late 1990s, but I certainly knew of him. That’s because the newspaper he published, which chronicled high school football in Western New York, arrived in The Post-Journal sports department a couple times a year.

Jay Sirianni, a 1993 Southwestern graduate, remembers “Western New York High School Sports” well, too. In fact, he couldn’t wait to get his hands on it. In those days, there was no internet, which meant Gallagher’s preview of the season was a must-read for anyone who loved football in these parts.

“You opened it up to see if your name was in there,” said Sirianni, who coached his alma mater to two NYSPHSAA Class C championships in 2008 and 2009 and is now the Section VI football co-chairman. “That’s how you found out about other teams.”

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The newspaper, which Gallagher started in 1983, was a bi-annual publication complete with predictions, articles and records. Its mission statement on the second page read: “The objectives of Western New York High School Sports News are to educate and enlighten the student-athlete, to inform the general public about high school sports and to provide additional coverage and exposure for interscholastic sports throughout Western New York.”

In more recent years, Gallagher partnered with WGRZ in Buffalo where his thoughts on WNY high school football were available on the TV station’s website. No matter the format, no one did it better than Gallagher, who mixed his encyclopedic knowledge of players and coaches from Maple Grove to Medina and points in between, with a hefty dose of humor.

“Dick used to instigate friendly arguments among our stuff in regard to who was the ‘best-dressed coach,'” Jamestown head coach Tom Langworthy said. “Once he found out that our coaches ordered the newest Nike gear every year, he would rotate his choice of ‘top best-dressed coach’ in his publication with the thought in mind that we would all give each other a hard time about it. One time I described one of our friendly arguments about his pick of ‘best-dressed coach,’ and he laughed out loud, with a smile ear to ear.”

It was hard not to be in a good mood when you hitched your wagon to Gallagher.

In 2017, Harper said he was feeling “pretty disappointed” after Maple Grove beat the Wolfpack by six points in the Section VI Class D semifinals.

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“I was checking out Mr. Gallagher’s weekly updates (online) and saw that he included me in a group of up-and-coming young coaches, and there were some other guys that I really respected in the group,” Harper said. “I was honestly really surprised to see that — this was before (C/S/P’s) state championships — and we hadn’t even made it to the (sectional championship game) yet.

“But, again, that was Mr. Gallagher. He had a way of making people feel valuable.”

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Former Jamestown head coach Wally Huckno and his former assistant, Joe DiMaio, have called Gallagher a friend for more than 25 years, an era during which the Red Raiders claimed three state championships.

“It was just an awesome relationship,” DiMaio said. ” … He is one of a kind. Sometimes we use cliches too much, but he’s one that fits that cliche perfectly.”

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Because Gallagher wasn’t just a man focused on kids who could play football. He was a man who was focused on kids.

Period.

“He held youngsters to the highest standard of behavior, and that’s what he demanded,” Huckno said. “At his (annual football) banquet he always emphasized that. Scholarship and academics were right at the top of his list and athletics was second.”

In his professional life, Gallagher was the executive director of Alcohol and Drug Dependency Services and operated eight different programs, including the Renaissance House in West Seneca, which provided in-patient treatment. Another facility, Stepping Stones, was a halfway house for young people. He was also co-founder of Kids Escaping Drugs.

In a tragic irony, Gallagher knew in an all-too-personal way what drug and alcohol dependency can do and the heartache it can cause because he experienced it first hand. His daughter, Christine, committed suicide in 1993. She was 24.

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“The pain stays with you for years,” Gallagher told me eight years later. “The biggest thing is the suddenness. It traumatizes you. … I have a tremendous amount of faith and I always have. For the first six months (after his daughter’s death), I carried a towel around. All I did was cry and I went to the cemetery every day. Over time, you accept the fact that she’s at peace with the Lord, and we’ll join her someday.

“She had problems with alcohol and had been treated for chemical dependency. It’s ironic that I was in the field of addiction and I saw my daughter die as a result of addiction. I think that gave me more of a push and more energy to do as much as I can in the time that I have, both in the addiction field and the sports.”

It was that resolve that impressed Sirianni the most.

“High school football is only a small part (of Gallagher’s life),” he said. “The profound effect he had on so many people’s lives is what I remember him as. I remember my first couple years in coaching I would go to Jerry Butler’s Athletes in Action camp. Dick was always there. That’s where I really got to know him. That’s where he shared with me and the campers. It’s important to tell that side of the story.”

And that part of the story has one memorable chapter, one that Gallagher told me about almost 20 years ago. During a routine physical, his doctor determined he had an enlarged aorta. If undetected, the condition could have been fatal.

“I was blessed that they found it,” he told me in 2001. “God gave me a gift, that’s for sure.”

Gallagher also received a gift shortly after his surgery in the form of a letter, which was written by a young woman who was graduating from Renaissance House.

“It was one of the nicest letters I’ve ever received in my life,” he told me.

It read:

“I wanted to write to you to thank you for all you’ve done for me in my stay here. I am graduating on Sept. 4, finally after all those times you asked me when I was graduating. Now I can say, ‘Yes!’ I know that you won’t be able to be present at my graduation, and I feel very sad, but I will be thinking of you and my prayers are always with you. I wish that you could make it for my special day, but I will see you when you are feeling better. I’ll be next door at Stepping Stones so I hope that you will come over and give me some high fives! I miss those.

“Honestly, your story about your daughter has touched me. It’s given me so much strength to go on. It amazes me of everything you have done for this campus and us kids. If it weren’t for your love for me, I wouldn’t have a chance to turn my life around and get better. Thank you. I will send you a picture of me at my graduation or I’ll keep it for you.

“P.S. Get well soon!”

There’s one thing that needs correcting, though. The young woman didn’t need to send a picture to Gallagher. Two weeks removed from his surgery, he was in the audience to see his special friend achieve a personal milestone.

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It was long, long overdue, so I grabbed my iPhone a couple months ago, searched for Gallagher’s cell number, punched out a text and hit send.

“Just wanted to let you know,” I said, “that I’m thinking about you and sending good thoughts your way.”

The date of the message was April 1.

A little more than an hour later, Gallagher texted me back.

“Thanks for thinking of me,” he said. “I appreciate your friendship very much. Start chemotherapy on Monday at Cancer Care of WNY. 5 weeks, 5 days, 25 minutes a day. I hope all is well. God is great. Be safe. Be well.”

Typical Gallagher, I thought. In the midst of his cancer battle, he ended our messaging by expressing his deep faith and wishing me well.

Months earlier, Huckno and his wife, Dixie, received their annual Christmas card from Gallagher.

“That last note he wrote to us said something like, ‘Go Red Raiders, and you’ll never be forgotten,'” Huckno recalled. “He won’t either.”

Added Harper: “Dick Gallagher was a giant. He had a profound impact on the lives of thousands of people … His legacy will live on forever.”

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