Hugh Gregory Gallagher
(October 18, 1932 -
July 13, 2004)The long day wanes; the slow moon climbs; the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.--- "Ulysses"
Alfred, Lord TennysonYou always know when the pain has gotten to be too much. You simply pass out.--- Hugh Gallagher
on his first year
in the hospital,
1952 - 1953
Part IThey tell me that in his last hours he complained about being put in "the Japanese Wing" of the hospital. I know exactly what he meant. He and I often found ourselves being shuttled off somewhere we didn't expect to go, often in the wrong wing, on the wrong day, with the wrong set of operating instructions.
The first time we met was in the spring of 1953 at Warm Springs Foundation in Georgia, in the ward that was to be our home for the next five months. They put Hugh in the bed across from mine, and he looked over and saw that I was doing the New York Times crossword puzzle. He didn't know that I could never get much beyond the second definition, that it was all show. Even so, he told me later: "When I saw you and the New York Times, I knew everything was going to be OK."
If we had to be somewhere with polio fifty years ago, Warm Springs was the right place. It was one of the most genteel rehabilitation centers on earth, a place of fun and life and impressive care. We had come from dingy little hospitals all over the country and suddenly we were in the palace of the gods --- with good and dedicated physical therapists and support staff, a graceful campus, wonderful food: a place which changed forever our feelings about ourselves, and our disease, and the man who had made this paradise possible.
We had fun there --- me and Hugh and Margot and John and Leumel and Gary. Hugh and Joe Mack once organized a testimonial dinner dedicated to fungus. They wrote songs, made long speeches about the skin condition that affected those of us who didn't have the power to reach down to dry between the toes. The theme was "There's a Fungus Among Us."
Speaking of themes, Hugh reported to us with glee that the official song of the National Infantile Paralysis Society was
When you walk through a storm
Hold your head up high
And don't be afraid of the dark...
Walk on, Walk on
With hope in your heart
And you'll never walk alone...
He was also the first to note that when they brought comedies for the weekly showing at the Warm Springs movie house, we were laughing but no one could tell because most of us had lost our diaphragm muscles, the muscle that the able-bods use to laugh, sneeze or cough. The only way you could know that we thought Red Skelton was funny was not by the sound of laughter but by the shaking of our bony shoulders.
§ § §
It was fifteen years after Hugh left Warm Springs that he made disability rights not only his agenda but also the agenda of America. It happened when he was working as legislative assistant to Senator Bob Bartlett of Alaska.
At the time the Senate Office Building had no ramps, no curb cuts, no bathroom facilities for people on crutches or in wheelchairs. In the mornings, Hugh waited patiently in the Senate garage for someone to help him and his wheelchair up the curb. Sometimes it would be a janitor or a legislative assistant. A couple of times it turned out to be Wayne Morse or Robert Kennedy ("Very shy," Hugh said of Kennedy: "He said nothing as he set down his diet coke and notebook and helped me up the curb.")
At other times, there would be his personal bÍte noir, Senator Margaret Chase Smith. She was not there to help him up. Rather she would literally chase him out of the garage. "This space is for Senators only," she would grumble, oblivious to his wheelchair and to the reality of his life. Years later he would remark, "I suppose she thought the rules of the Senate garage trumped the problems of the state of Maine."
Hugh was a man who wore his dignity lightly, but there came times when dignity turned to indignity. He was indignant that while working on matters of state, as he once wrote, he had to beg for help to get up the stairs, into the bathroom, or "pee in a coffee can."
In 1968, he and Bartlett cooked up the Architectural Barriers Act which stated that all buildings "designed, built, altered, or leased with Federal funds" would be required to have ramps, curb-cuts and access to all facilities. It was their radical view that accessibility was a basic civil right for all.
The ABA sailed through the Senate on unanimous voice vote, passed the House as quickly, and was signed into law by President Johnson. And suddenly Hugh and I and everyone else in United States who moved about on crutches or in a wheelchair got a boost up.
I don't think it was much commented on at the time, and I think that was the way he wanted it. He wasn't much for prizes or acclaim. When his great grandson --- the Americans with Disabilities Act --- was passed in 1990, there was much foo-foo-raw on the grounds at the White House but he didn't join in the festivities. He loved working behind the scenes; loved seeing things that should happen happen; cared little at all for the encomiums.
He did enjoy the trappings of power, though. While he was working for the Senator, a lobbying group for chiropractics sent several of their members around to lobby for a tax-break. The official assigned to Bartlett's office came in, patted Hugh on the head, and told him that if he had been able to work with him earlier he'd now be out of his wheelchair, climbing the mountains. "He must have wondered later whatever happened to his tax-break," Hugh mused.