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Bill Gallagher (Photo provided)
Bill Gallagher (Photo provided)

The Hospice Path: Goodbye and what comes after

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Most of us hate to talk or think about death. It may be the last taboo subject in America. But beginning last spring, Brian Mann asked one North Country family to do just that.

As part of a series called The Hospice Path, Brian documented the lives of Bill and Tommie Gallagher. Bill joined the High Peaks Hospice program after he was diagnosed with an untreatable lung ailment. He died last Monday at his home in Saranac Lake, surrounded by family and helped in his final hours by a hospice nurse.

But it turns out that Bill's death isn't the final step in the hospice process. As Brian learned, the program's nurses and counselors will now work with his family as they begin to grieve and say good-bye.

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Bill and Tommie (Photo:  Lou Reuter, Adirondack Daily Enterprise)

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Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

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SARANAC LAKE - Bill Gallagher passed away early Monday morning at the age of 87, after more than half a century of service in Saranac Lake as an educator and a local government official. I was traveling when I got the news and found myself thinking about a day last summer when we were sitting on the sun porch at his house.

We had just eaten lunch, and Bill and his wife Tommie were looking through a thick album of photographs and press clippings.

"That was at the railroad station," he said, tapping a black-and-white snapshot. "Oh yes, this is when he left for the service," Tommie laughed. "I was going to hitch a ride with him."

The year was 1942, and Bill was shipping off to serve with the 10th Mountain Division. In the photographs, both of them are drop-dead handsome, like a pair of movie stars. While we talked, Bill pulled out an old pair of ski boots that he used during the Italian campaign, where he served as a machine gunner, earning a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart.

"See here where the crampons fit?" he said, in his big gravelly voice. "There's a little groove here in the toe."

Bill came home from the war deaf - he blamed his wrecked ears on the chatter of his gun and on the roaring blast of artillery - and with a leg wound that pulled him off the front lines.

"It was my million-dollar injury," he told me, his face turning somber. "The guy who took my place was killed."

He was sent to a rehabilitation hospital in Oklahoma, where Tommie joined him and they began to piece their lives back together. He learned to read lips and received therapy for the depression he felt after being shipped home ahead of his fellow soldiers.

"I was plagued with guilt, and it kind of screwed up my head for a while," he acknowledged.

"If anyone just walked through a VA hospital, they'd all be pacifists," Tommie said, recalling that time.

I got to know Bill and Tommie and had the fortune to hear the stories of their long life together after they agreed to take part in a documentary series I?did for North Country Public Radio about High Peaks Hospice and Palliative Care. They joined hospice when Bill was diagnosed with a degenerative lung disease that his doctors said was untreatable.

"They looked at my CT scan, and it was very bad," he said.

"I think we didn't realize that Bill wasn't going to get better until the doctor said it very frankly," Tommie added. "So you kind of have to face that. So we needed some help and direction in kind of trying to continue with life."

A devout Roman Catholic and a former coach and public school teacher, Bill said he thought it was important to spread the word about hospice, which helped him to remain at home with his family even as his illness worsened.

"No more hospitals," he would say, sitting in his big stuffed chair. "I want to stay right here. No more tests!"

"This isn't easy," Tommie said. "But to know that you can call hospice any time, so you're not walking this alone, I think this is the biggest thing that they have going."

When I visited, Bill often talked bluntly and with remarkable courage and humor about his illness.

"My goal is to go out and play golf with my boys one more time, even if it kills me," he joked. Despite his growing weakness and his reliance on an oxygen tank, he pulled it off. He also celebrated a huge family reunion with his seven children, a 66th wedding anniversary and one last gala birthday party.

"My parents have always been very open minded and very open hearted," said Gail Gallagher, Bill's oldest daughter. "The philosophy of hospice, to live life fully until it's time to go from this earth, is very much the way Mom and Dad have lived their life."

"He's a man who had a very large life, who lived in a very big way," said Sarah Wardner, the hospice nurse who worked closely with the Gallaghers and became a close friend of the family.

After the war, Bill went back to Princeton, where he played for the college football and baseball teams. In 1952, he took a job teaching at Saranac Lake High School, where he coached a wide range of sports and taught history.

"One of my favorite questions, if I gave a reading assignment, was (telling my students) to come to class with questions that are not answered in the readings," Bill recalled.

Over the next four decades, he also created a series of mentoring and counseling programs aimed at helping young people outside the classroom.

"Squad leaders are famous for looking out for the people in their squads," said George Tolhurst, who taught English during the same era and now lives in Vermontville. "I think that carried over for Bill from the war. He was very concerned about the well being of his students. He was always thinking of them."

Bill later entered politics, serving as a village trustee and eventually as Harrietstown supervisor. He liked to joke about the struggles of running for office as a Democrat in an area that was dominated by the Republican Party.

"There wasn't much hope for us back then," he laughed.

"In those days, there were very few Democrats," agreed Gail Rice, former Harrietstown councilwoman and past head of North Country Community College. "When Bill and I discovered that there were few people willing to run, I said, 'I'll do it if you will.'"

The pair got elected and for many years were the sole Democrats on the town board.

"When Bill was the supervisor, he was always a team player, very inclusive," Rice recalled. "The thing we loved about Bill very much was his sense of humor. That kept things from being too difficult."

When I dropped by this week, Bill's good humor was still buzzing in the Gallagher home. Even as his family gathered to say good-bye, they were laughing at one of his last requests: Bill insisted that someone would have to tell his favorite joke - a gag about Quasimodo with a punch-line that I won't give away - during his funeral on Saturday.

"He was just a really good guy," Tommie said, sitting in the parlor surrounded by her sons and daughters. "Friends and family make this time possible. It's such a wonderful community, a tremendous small town. I'm not alone."

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