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Remembering "Rocks"

By Tom Furlong

William "Rocks" Gallagher '48One evening in June 1937, Billy Gallagher played ball with friends in Maynard, Mass., and woke up the next morning blind. From then on, he was known for his blindness, but he is remembered for his courage and wit, his grace and good will, his smile.

When he died on April 19, 2000, William "Rocks" Gallagher '48 was an acclaimed advocate for the blind and a beloved son of Holy Cross.

Rev. John E. Brooks, S.J., '49, president emeritus of Holy Cross, recalls his meetings with Bill as "moments of grace," a phrase that resonated with those assembled in Hogan Campus Center Oct. 13, 2001 for the unveiling of a plaque installed in Rocks' honor during Alumni Weekend.

As president of the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) in New York, Bill Gallagher sat at the desk of Helen Keller, perhaps the top post among 1,500 agencies and organizations that serve blind and visually impaired people in the United States. For his life's work, Bill received the highest honors from his peers as well as Distinguished Service Citations from the president and the U.S. Senate.

And yet, despite all these accolades, he cherished being named to the Holy Cross Athletic Hall of Fame. The College played a pivotal role in his life and held an enduring place in his heart. "Bill Gallagher is one of the great figures in Holy Cross history," says College President Michael C. McFarland, S.J.

Bill was steered to the College by his mentor and friend Rev. Thomas J. Carroll '32, a giant in the field of blindness rehabilitation. Bill had been graduated from the Perkins School for the Blind where he captained the wrestling team and was salutatorian, a fact stressed in his interview for admission to the Cross. He didn't mention there were only two students in the class!

Handling collegiate life with aplomb, Bill did much to dispel the image of the blind man as helpless. He put others at ease in almost any circumstance. Bill had the knack for making blindness invisible. At first glance, people often failed to realize he was blind. It helped that he was good looking and personable, that he had lively blue eyes and expressive features. Nonetheless, Bill worked hard to maintain the subtler skills of personal communication—eye contact, facial expressions, hand and shoulder gestures—skills easily lost when a person loses sight.

Although he blended in well as a student, Bill also achieved celebrity as the inspirational "member" of the basketball team that featured Bob Cousy, Ken Haggerty and Joe Mullaney. Rocks sat on the bench next to George Kaftan, absorbing his play-by-play commentary and tracking players by the screech of their sneakers. With Bill cheering from the bench, the Crusaders launched a winning streak that propelled them to the 1947 NCAA championship.

At a victory rally, Rocks brought down the house when he stood at the microphone, faced a barrage of flashbulbs, and quipped, "Cut that out, fellows. You're going to blind me. "

Some acquaintances thought the name "Rocks" referred to libations of the chilled variety. Actually, he was nicknamed by his roommate, the late William B. Furlong '47, who'd caught Bill stealing rolls at the dinner table and dubbed him "Rocks" after a thief in a detective yarn. The name and the friendship lasted a lifetime.

Academically, Bill needed—and appreciated—the help of volunteer readers. His friends appreciated it too because the readers were co-eds from the Newman Club at Clark University. One evening, Furlong, who bore a passing resemblance to Rocks, expressed interest in meeting a volunteer. Rocks obliged, letting him stand in for a session in Porter's Lodge by the lobby of O'Kane Hall. A man appeared and introduced himself as the girl's father, explaining that she was sick and he was filling in. Word got to Rocks who shot down to the lobby and strolled by—several times throughout the now torturous evening—whistling as he went.

Holy Cross had the foresight to pair Gallagher with Furlong, a veteran of the D-Day invasion who was blinded on a battlefield in Normandy and, over time, regained a significant degree of vision. The two men happened to share an upbeat outlook on life, a blend of idealism and realism leavened by a good natured sense of humor. For their first few weeks as roommates, Gallagher let Furlong make his bed and clean the room until he realized that Rocks was capable of doing the work himself.

Many classmates enjoyed adventures with Rocks Gallagher. On a lark late one wintry night, a group made their way into a department store in Worcester, occupied a living room set in the display window, uncorked a bottle of champagne and toasted passers-by.

After graduation, Rocks followed Fr. Carroll's advice, earned a master's degree in social work at Boston College and spent five years as a case worker in Boston. In 1954, he joined the agency that now bears Carroll's name—where the priest developed an advanced rehabilitation program derived from his work with veterans blinded in the Second World War.

In Boston, Bill met and married Catherine T. "Kay" O'Brien, who'd served as a MASH unit nurse in Korea. They were a remarkable couple—generous, kind and hospitable. In 1961, they moved to Pennsylvania where Bill set up rehabilitation services at the Greater Pittsburgh Guild for the Blind before moving again in 1965 to direct rehabilitation services at the world renowned Lighthouse in New York. In 1972, Bill joined AFB and served in the top post from 1980-91.

Seated at Helen Keller's desk, Bill understood the truth of her saying, "Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much." For him, recognizing talent and delegating responsibility was more than a practical matter. He sought out the best in people. A quiet unifier, he overlooked differences and developed ideas aimed at achieving the common good. Mary Ann Lang, vice-president of International Programs for the Lighthouse remembers that, "He was a serious fellow who was fun to work with in a group."

Recognized as a statesman in the sometimes fractious field of blindness, Bill was elected to represent North America in the World Blind Union. He traveled extensively in the United States and abroad, serving on various boards and lecturing at more than a dozen universities, including Fordham and Harvard.

At AFB, Bill groomed the current president, Carl Augusto, who, with hearty laughter, recalls Rocks teasing him when they had differing opinions, "Carl, we're going to miss you!"

Truth is, they still miss Bill Gallagher. Top leaders attended the unveiling of the plaque at Hogan Center located on the second floor next to a bank of computer keyboards where students communicate in cyberspace. Bill, who thrived on student activities, would have liked that. At AFB, one of his pet projects was a Jobs and Technology Center he established to showcase and to refine the latest in computers for the blind.

On the adjacent wall hangs, fittingly enough, a picture of the guitarist Jimi Hendrix and although Bill's musical tastes were of an earlier era—Big Band and Swing—his collection of music was a great source of personal joy and a pleasant backdrop for visitors to his home.

As Bill was about to retire, he and Kay prepared to move to the dream home they had built on Webster Lake in Massachusetts. Sadly, Kay contracted cancer and died in New York. Bill's retirement to New England coincided with that of his classmate Frank Marshall, and the two rekindled their friendship. By 1997, Rocks had developed Parkinson's disease and was confined to a wheelchair. He made an emotional return to the Cross to celebrate the 50th anniversary of that NCAA Championship season. As he was wheeled to center court, the crowd rose to its feet.

Marshall spearheaded the effort to create the plaque in Rocks' honor. As it was unveiled on that chilly day in October, fog settled in Worcester, limiting the vision of anyone out and about. Bill would have appreciated the gentle irony.

On the evening he died, Bill lay in hospital ravaged by cancer, comforted by Frank and their friend, Jack Kelly, an amateur singer.

"Bill, I'd like to sing you a few songs," said Kelly.

"Very few," said Bill, in typical fashion, raising his eyebrows a notch to reveal in the surprising blue eyes the sparkle that blindness and disease never eclipsed.

A few hours later, Rocks was released from the bonds of blindness, having left this world a better place for blind and disabled persons and for all who shared the joy of his company along the inspiring journey that began in Maynard, Mass.

Tom Furlong is director of public information at Research to Prevent Blindness in New York. He was recruited by Rocks Gallagher into the field of blindness in 1983, joining the national staff of the American Foundation for the Blind. His poetry has appeared in America, Commonweal, The New York Times and elsewhere.

 

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