By Kathy Yanchus
Thomas Gallagher left a tremendous legacy in Hamilton’s Catholic community and its education system.
Gallagher, who died Oct. 29 at the Willowgrove Long-Term Care Facility, was the first lay executive director of the Catholic Youth Organization (CYO), Hamilton diocese and expanded its ministry to include year round outdoor education at Camps Marydale and Brebeuf. The first fully integrated camping program for children with special needs in Ontario, which became a model for recreation programs around the world, was launched under his leadership.
In 20 years of service to Catholic education, Gallagher was a trustee on three different boards, initially serving on the Board of Education for the City of Hamilton, where he represented Catholic ratepayers and parents of Catholic students attending public high schools. He was eventually appointed chair of the board – the first and only Catholic to hold that position.
Gallagher was also appointed to the Board of Governors of the Catholic High Schools of Hamilton and was subsequently appointed its chair by Bishop Anthony Tonnos. In 1988, the lifelong Hamilton resident was elected to the Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic District School Board as a trustee, representing parents and students of the west mountain. He also served as the HWCDSB vice-chair.
Gallagher was as well known for his longstanding work as a trustee, as he was for his volunteer work as football coach for 40 years at Cathedral High School, and he remains the winningest coach in the 100-year history of that school’s football program.
“What I most admired about him was his absolute commitment and concern for the wellbeing of young people,” said Pat Daly, chair of the HWCDSB. “I think just by looking at what he did throughout his adult life, one can see that the good of children was at the centre of his life, whether it was as executive director of the CYO, longtime coach at Cathedral or as a trustee. Clearly the centre of his focus was children and I always admired that in him.”
Gallagher would continually remind board trustees to really look at what was best for the children as they discussed and debated issues, said Daly.
He was a tremendous politician in the best sense of the word, and he was just a good decent man, added Daly.
John Spatazzo, the CYO’s current executive director, knew Gallagher all his life as a CYO camper and camp counsellor, and was hired by him fulltime in 1988.
“Thomas was a great man of vision. He had this wonderful fortitude towards youth and bringing youth to the forefront in athletics, camping or socially involving them, and primarily the marginalized, be it financially marginalized or those with physical disability,” said Spatazzo. “He was very politically involved and his involvement in the Catholic community in education was very significant, but with his political influence, he always had the CYO in the forefront of his motivation.”
In 2001, Gallagher received the board’s Award for Distinguished Service to Catholic Education.
“Personally I will remember Tom as an individual who gave of himself completely to ensure Catholic education is firmly rooted not only in Hamilton, but across the province,” said Nancy Di Gregorio, retired HWCDSB Superintendent of Education and former Cathedral High School principal.
As the school’s football coach, his commitment went deeper than winning in that he was an “unbelievable mentor to the young men he had the privilege of coaching,” said Di Gregorio.
“He always looked out for the betterment of the athletes. He guided them to realize the importance of playing, but also always reminded them of the fact that they could get wherever they wanted in life if they got themselves a good education. He really encouraged them to do extremely well in school.”
When he saw potential in a young man, he made absolutely sure that every opportunity that could be provided to this individual was given, she added.
“When you coach a team you like to win, but more importantly, he always stressed to the athletes that he coached, that winning was not the be all and end all, but treating everyone with dignity and respect was at the forefront of everything,” said Di Gregorio.
“Athletes knew when they went out on that field, whether they won or lost, the expectation of their coach, that you make sure that when you leave that field you have treated everyone that you have been in contact with with dignity and respect. The young men knew that and behaved that way.”
Gallagher fought for Catholic education because he really believed in it, she added.
Gallagher attended both St. Ann’s School and Cathedral Boys High School. He graduated from McGill University with a Master of social work. He also played football for the McGill Redmen and was an assistant coach.
Gallagher was pre-deceased by his wife Marie and eldest son, Thomas Michael. He is survived by five other children Patti, Teresa, Mary, Carol and Mark, as well as numerous grandchildren. He was the brother of the late Bill Gallagher, Kathy Epstein and Dorothy Hoskins.