John Gallagher plans to retire after 31 years running Pasco County government. He deserves all the accolades. Someday somebody will name something really big after him.
More than any single person, he is responsible for cleaning up a corrupt system where developers dictated policy. He envisioned the Suncoast Parkway and secured rights of way. He built a staff of professionals that brought credibility to a place that had been a punchline. He oversaw construction of modern water and sewer systems, parks, libraries, a garbage disposal facility, a jail and miles and miles of roads. He left us with a vision for more sensible, centralized subdivisions and higher-paying private sector jobs.
County administrators don't usually last long, and certainly not three decades. Even when they do good work, political forces often send them packing. Gallagher, for all his talent and accomplishments, found himself vulnerable in the early '90s to a group of power-hungry manipulators who came within a whisker of gaining a majority on the commission.
Buoyed by the election of two commissioners, they used a local radio station to go after Gallagher, blaming him for tax increases as if all those improvements mentioned above came free. And when I defended Gallagher, they attacked me. "Stevens and Gallagher are friends,'' blathered one. "They vacation together.''
This effort for control flamed out, but even today somebody will ask me where we're going this year. "Jamaica?''
I admit it, I like the guy. But rather than a personal friendship, my admiration is based on qualities that don't make headlines — mainly loyalty. Gallagher easily could have run a company, made more money, given up the pressures of public service. But this is his home, where his parents settled in 1951, where he graduated from high school. He and Judy have been married 38 years, raised two children who remain in the area.
The Gallaghers added on to their house so they could care for Judy's mother, Dorothy Brady, who lived there for 26 years before she passed away last February at 94. When John's brother Thomas, a retired New York cop, contracted cancer, the Gallaghers cared for him in their home. When Thomas died in 2006, they raised his son, Matt, getting him through high school and into college.
They had done the same for another nephew, Alex, who moved in after his parents divorced. The Gallaghers got him through high school and college.
I saw this same sense of duty and compassion when Gallagher stayed by Bill Munz's side several years ago after a virus attacked Munz's heart. Munz, Gallagher's top assistant, died in 2008 at age 56.
Gallagher had his own health scare in 1984 when his doctor diagnosed melanoma. Even as he endured treatments, he conducted staff meetings on his back porch for six weeks. He probably would have gone into the office but he had to wear loose-fitting pajamas that wouldn't aggravate his skin grafts.
Gallagher is a funny guy with a quick, infectious laugh. Mary Lecznar, who served as his secretary from the beginning, recalled that Gallagher's meetings could get so loud and raucous with laughter (mainly his) that people who called the office would ask, "You having a party?''
"We knew if it got quiet in there, the meeting wasn't going well," she said.
Gallagher endeared himself to the office staff by also laughing at himself. He prepared once for a particularly important meeting, carefully laying out his suit the night before and practicing what he was going to say. Moments before the meeting, he went into his office for a final collection of thoughts, staring out his window. He put his feet up on his desk and was horrified to see one brown shoe, one black. A staff member rushed to his house. He took some kidding.
Without revealing my sources, I can also tell you he is the world's worst speller. His staff bought him an electronic spelling machine but he didn't use it. Rather, he would ask how to spell something and then say, "Are you sure?''
He constantly "lost'' items that Lecznar and secretary Pauline Palmer found on his desk. They bought him medals emblazoned with images of St. Anthony, patron of lost things.
Every St. Patrick's Day, employees from throughout the government center have made their way to the county administrator's office hoping to get some of Gallagher's famous Irish soda bread. He is a proud and good cook. On his office wall is a framed story from the Tampa Tribune featuring his bread recipe.
He can be tough and loud and aggressive. He loves a good verbal fight, yet he is an expert on china patterns and collects tea cups and egg holders. This seems especially odd considering his other collection hobby: Hot Wheels. He has trunkloads of the model cars, still in their original packages.
In all their years together, the Gallaghers have rarely taken vacations. Judy, assistant principal at Gulf High School, is off much of the summer when John is immersed in preparing the budget for one of Florida's largest counties. But even if it weren't the budget, she says, it would be something else.
"He's on emotional overload,'' she said about his decision to retire. "He is more strongly married to the county than to me. He eats and breathes it.''
John Gallagher will leave county government in far better shape than he found it. He will leave with testimonials about his devotion to a duty that is far more complex than most of us can imagine.
He will leave with due respect.