A eulogy given for Hugh Ward Gallagher (August 14, 1929 – June 2, 2009) on June 6, 2009.
There is no way that we can manage to capture the story of Hugh’s life in the few words we will speak here today, let alone capture the mystery of his soul. Nonetheless, words is what we have to work with, and we are compelled to try as best we can to use the words in attempt to give God thanks for the gift of Hugh for nearly 80 years upon this earth.
So let us celebrate his life.
Hugh Gallagher was born in Brooklyn on August 14th on 1929, the year of the Great Depression. He was the only child of Mary Petz whose roots were in Poland, would give birth to. When Hugh was only one and a half years his mother Mary died, leaving his father, Frederick Ward Gallagher, an Irishman to raise the boy as best he could.
When Hugh turned eight, the darkness of his early years was brightened when his father married a very loving woman named America Garrigo. Hugh remembered having been totally won over by America before the wedding when she took little Hugh out by herself to the movies, stopping afterwards for the treat of a black and white soda.
America was born in Cuba, and it was her influence that would lead the Irish/Polish Hugh to a life-long appreciation of and openness to various cultures and their music.
Hugh loved America as his own mother, and he delighted when America gave birth to his four siblings: Freddie, Bobby, Carol and James, who, in the years to follow, Hugh would help look after. They all looked up to their big “Brother Hughie.”
As with most families living in Brooklyn during this era, money was scarce, and Hugh did what he could to help put food on the table. As a boy he collected bottles for recycling. The number “11” became his lucky number for life the day he played it at a local fair to win three food baskets to help feed his family.
In high school Hugh excelled in track, football and baseball. His baseball team took the city championship, and Hugh was named the outstanding athlete of the graduating class of PS 16 in 1947. He joined the army and served his country during peace time. Afterwards Hugh took a job at a Titanium Sales company, starting out as a lowly mail clerk, rising up over time through the ranks in a classic American story of improving one‘s lot in life by hard work. At nights Hugh put himself through Brooklyn College. Somewhere along the way he put in some time playing semi-pro baseball as a pitcher and a field player.
As a young man living in Brooklyn, there was nothing better on a weekend in the summertime than to relax with cold beer listening to Red Barber call a game of his beloved Brooklyn Dodgers. On occasion he managed to get to Ebbets Field, where he would always remember seeing a young Sandy Koufax pitch.
(His heart was broken when Walter O’Malley up and moved the Dodgers to Los Angeles, and like any true Brooklyn Dodger fan, he refused on principle to transfer his allegiance to the Yankees, waiting instead for the arrival of the Mets to Flushing to renew his love affair with baseball.)
Following Hugh’s graduation from Brooklyn College in 1955, the company he worked for gave him a big promotion that involved his transfer to Cleveland, Ohio, where he was put in charge of the sales department for the entire Northeast. In the years that followed, Hugh spent a great deal of time on the road overseeing more than 2000 accounts. Late in his time in Cleveland, however, he did find time to fall for and propose to a young bank teller named Nancy, who was eleven years younger than Hugh. They were married in a Roman Catholic Church on May 11, 1963. Revealing his deeply romantic heart, Hugh gave his bride a ring engraved with the time of their very first kiss.
Shortly after their wedding, the couple moved back east to an apartment in Lake Hiawatha, New Jersey. Hugh had accepted a position helping to start up a new company called Titanium Fabrication in Caldwell.
Nancy’s mother Lillian had been the first female vocalist to sing on the radio in Ohio, and had passed on her gift and appreciation for the finer forms of music to Nancy, providing training for her as an operatic singer. Back in the New York area, Hugh delighted in taking his young bride from Ohio on outings to experience the higher culture and arts for which Nancy craved, and that only New York could provide. They spent their weekends visiting museums and attending plays and concerts.
In 1968 the couple’s only child was born, a beautiful little girl, whom they gave the name Nancy, after her mother. Her mother had put her name down on the birth certificate as Nancy Ann Gallagher, but recognizing that this would give his daughter the initials “NAG”, Hugh insisted on having the name changed to Nancy Grace Gallagher. Nancy Grace was surely a gift of grace for her parents, who loved her deeply. Her father, a hard-working and hard-smoking three-packs-a-day man immediately gave up his long enjoyed cigarettes when he realized the smoke was harmful to his asthmatically inclined daughter.
When Nancy was four the family moved into a house on Hollywood Avenue in Caldwell, the place Hugh would call home for the rest of his life. Hugh planted his rose garden for which he would become famous. Every year the family would take a vacation some place special. They had a time share in the Poconos, and traded in time at places like the Bahamas, Jamaica, Niagara Falls, and Florida.
When Nancy was ten, her cousin Lisa who was nine came to live with the family, and Hugh raised her as one of his own.
When Nancy was thirteen, the economy tanked, and Hugh found himself out of work for a couple of years. He got contracting work where he could, and took advantage of the time to be with his beloved family. His primary activity outside of the home during this period of time was volunteering at the family’s parish of St. Thomas Moore, doing their gardening and maintenance work.
Hugh always had this innate sense for God’s presence in his life. Pondering the beauty of one of his beloved roses, he would ask, “How could people ever doubt God when you see one of these?” Gardening was a spiritual exercise for Hugh, a way to commune with God and to partner with God in nurturing the beauty of this world. To stand shirtless in the sunshine, quietly weeding his rose garden was for Hugh an act of worship and praise.
When his wife Nancy’s mother died in Ohio, the one thing Hugh wanted to bring back from her house to remember her by was a small peony bush he dug up from her yard, transporting it back to New Jersey to plant in his yard, where under his tender care, it multiplied and bloomed to bless countless others.
Eventually Hugh re-entered the work force, taking a high-powered job working as the national rep for a Swedish based company called Avesta Stainless. The position involved regular trips to Sweden. Nancy graduated high school, and after attending Rutgers for a year, decided she wanted to enter the work world. She had always dreamed of living near the beach in sunny San Diego. When Nancy managed to land a job there, Hugh took extended time off work to accompany Nancy on a winding trip across the country with no particular agenda, a time both of them would remember with great fondness for the rest of their lives. There took their time, watching a sunset in Texas — gazing at the splendor of the Grand Canyon — whatever caught their eye. When they finally arrived in San Diego, Hugh stayed in town for a couple of weeks helping Nancy get settled in her new apartment. Two years later when Nancy decided to return East for a time, Hugh flew back to San Diego in order to drive Nancy’s car back for her.
Hugh was always there to support the dreams of the two women in his life — the two Nancys around whom his life revolved. He had encouraged his wife to develop her beautiful singing voice. As time passed, another dream emerged for his wife — a dream to own her own flower ship. In 1992 Hugh took out a home equity loan to provide the start-up money needed for a flower shop. The plan was for Nancy the daughter to run the daily operations of the business they named Precious Petals until Nancy the mother could retire from her job to take over the business full time.
But things don’t always work out the way we plan. In 1996, while Hugh was away at a trade show in Chicago, his wife died suddenly at home, the result of rare, undiagnosed heart condition, breaking the hearts of both Hugh and his daughter.
Hugh never did go back to his high powered sales job. His heart just wasn’t in it. He was content now to devote himself to working with his daughter at Precious Petals. He had always loved the cultivation of flowers; now he found pleasure in being a delivery man, seeing the happiness his flowers brought to his customers. His employees were devoted to him.
At Christmas time there was a tradition at the shop in which everybody who worked there would take part in $15 gift exchange. Throughout Nancy’s childhood, every Christmas eve there had been a birthday cake baked for Jesus — the family’s way to remember what the real gift was.
At some point, Hugh suggested the staff of Precious Petals that a better way to express the true spirit of the season would be for everybody to take the name of a child from St. Peter’s Orphanage in Denville. He and Nancy would match their funds to purchase a gift for the child. Everybody loved the idea. Each year Hugh would serve as the delivery man of the gifts to the children.
When Nancy reconnected with BI after so many years, Hugh welcomed him, as well as BI’s extended family, into his heart, and they in turn welcomed him. He was a happy addition to every party.
The first time I met Hugh was two years ago when he showed up at a murder mystery at our church playing the role of an embezzling senator. Knowing no one but BI and Nancy, he charmed us all. He was dapper in so many ways: a singer of Irish ditties, a smooth dancer, a whistler extraordinaire. He was, as Nancy said, the ultimate Gentlemen. He made a point of learning how to say “hello” in a whole host of different languages.
He had a simple, heartfelt philosophy by which he lived. It only takes a little effort to show a little kindness; make the effort. He believed in cultivating life; he would take the plants home from the store that were dying and nurture them back to health. He believed that the way to change the world was to begin in your own little corner of the world. He believed in lending a hand to your neighbor, and in turn his life demonstrated that when you do so, your neighbor more often than not will return the favor. Hugh’s neighbors, grateful for his friendship, made a point of planting his flower garden this past month when Hugh was no longer able to, confined as he was to his hospital bed.
Hugh believed that what mattered most in life is the attitude you bring along with you, and that it was a person’s choice what attitude they could bring to life, and he always did his best to bring a positive one. And when you consider the fact that he endured some truly tough blows in life — the death of his mother when he was just one a half — the sudden death of the beloved wife with whom he planned to grow old — the cancer that invaded his body to suck out the life — his capacity to keep the faith through it all was truly remarkable.
There was another woman who captured Hugh’s heart late in life, and that was his granddaughter Kylie. How he loved her so, and how she loved him.
A year ago with the diagnosis of cancer was made, Hugh refused to quit living. He kept coming to the parties, kept doing what he could to help with Nancy, BI and Kylie, help with flower shop. Though he never complained, the cancer took its toll. “The mind is willing,” he would say, “but the body’s just not able.” He had little appetite, surviving on mac and cheese and the black licorice BI’s dad provided him with.
Six weeks ago he rallied himself for one last trip, accompanying Nancy, BI and Kylie for an excursion to Vermont, which he so enjoyed.
Last month he had so looked forward to making the toast at his brother’s Freddy’s (with Lillian) 50th wedding anniversary, as long before he had done at Freddy’s wedding reception. But he became simply too weak to attend. He moved in with Nancy, BI and Kylie, and there the family came to visit him. He so appreciated their visit, sitting up for an hour an a half, so very grateful for their love. Three days later Hugh entered the hospital, never to be discharged. His family gathered there as well. He felt himself loved, which is the way it should be when we get ready to leave this world.
I was honored to get to know Hugh over the past year. I came to visit him Tuesday afternoon, the day he died. It was hard for him to speak. Mostly he dozed. In the little time he was awake, we prayed together. I told him it had been a privilege for myself and the church to have him in our midst, Hugh, every the gentleman, said it was a privilege for him as well. He was weary, O so weary, and finally, ready finally to let go.
When Nancy returned home that evening, her Dad was resting peacefully. Nancy gave Kylie her bath, an activity she had often shared with her father, who called Kylie his “Doll Baby.” Kylie kept looking off in the distance, as though she could see her grandfather.
Nancy was rocking Kylie to sleep with the phone call came from the hospital telling her that her father had passed. Two hours later Kylie was quietly sobbing in her sleep, not desperate cry, but a gentle cry, saying farewell for now to her gentle grandfather.
In my sermon last week I mentioned my fascination with contemplating large sweeps of time. The astro-physicists tell us that the universe has been around for something like 14 billion years ago. At the precise moment of the big bang the physical laws of the universe were in place that would be required for the eventual evolution of life, and then what we call intelligent life. It would take billions of years for the earth to be formed, and billions more for life to come about. About 130 million years ago, the first flower appeared on this planet. It would take another 129 million years for a creature to evolve who would have the capacity to appreciate the beauty of that flower. That creature would be us.
It is as if the whole universe was designed so that over a very long period of time, human beings would come around with the capacity to appreciate the beauty of it all.
Hugh standing there marveling at the rose, sitting there contemplating the beauty of the sunset in Texas, the majesty of the Grand Canyon — this is a man for whom God created the universe.