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Preserving the passion ; Retirement from substance abuse agency won't detour dedication to teen causes

Two passions still burn fiercely in the chest of 69-year-old Richard J. Gallagher, even as he walks out the door Wednesday on his last day running the agency that oversees the Kids Escaping Drugs campaign.

The two -- helping teenagers overwhelmed by drugs or alcohol and promoting local high school athletes, especially football players -- still consume Gallagher as he retires as executive director of Alcohol and Drug Dependency Services.

Gallagher will remain on the Kids Escaping Drugs board, staying active in various projects. He won't be a stranger to the dozens of kids who greet him affectionately with high-fives as they battle through their addictions. And he will continue his 24-year-old labor of love, publishing the Western New York High School Sports magazine.

In other words, Dick Gallagher's not really retiring. He's just leaving his day job.

No one in Western New York is more responsible than Gallagher for all the lives that have been saved by Renaissance Campus, the 62-bed facility in West Seneca that offers various stages of care for drug- and alcohol-dependent teens.

He remains eternally thankful for that, even for one of the lives that no one could save. He lost his daughter, Christine, 24, to suicide in 1993, after she had battled alcohol as a teen.

So every day, Gallagher goes to St. Michael's Catholic Church on Washington Street, where he lights two candles.

"I thank God for giving us Christine for 24 years and knowing that she's in peace and comfort," Gallagher said. "I also thank God for the thousands of people he's allowed me to interact with, to make my life so special."

Then Gallagher provided what might be the most apt description of his retirement plans:

"It's like the old saying, 'Stay humble, but stay hungry.' "

Gallagher doesn't hesitate in describing three huge incidents and influences that have fueled his passion:

One occurred in the late 1960s, when Gallagher was a social worker in the old E.J. Meyer Hospital emergency room.

Three nights in a row, doctors refused to admit a homeless man named Charlie for treatment of his alcoholism.

"Then, when I came to work on the fourth day, Charlie was admitted, but not for his alcoholism," Gallagher remembered. "He had to have his leg amputated."

Gallagher remembers the question he asked himself that night:

"If alcoholism is a disease, why are people being treated like this, and why aren't they afforded the opportunity to be treated for their illness?"

Another influence also came from the late 1960s, when Gallagher worked in the trenches during Robert F. Kennedy's ill-fated presidential campaign.

"I knew what Bobby was trying to do, helping people through adversity -- whether it was alcoholism or drug addiction or mental illness or poverty or racial discrimination," he said. "I really took that with me when he was killed, along with what Martin Luther King Jr. did. That drove me to make a difference."

Gallagher had been in the alcoholism-treatment field for some 25 years when his daughter died in 1993.

"The last 17 years, that sparked an effort on my part to do everything I could to prevent other families from going through what we went through," he said.

Gallagher then reflected on those three influences.

"Those stories describe who I am, what I bring to the table and why I came to work for 42 years," he said. "I think one of the purposes of our life is to be able to make a difference, particularly in the life of a child."

Those who have worked in the field of drug-addiction with Gallagher have marveled at his continued commitment.

"I've never seen anybody do their job as passionately as Dick Gallagher," said JoAnne A. Hudecki, executive director of Kids Escaping Drugs. "I would say he is the face of helping people overcome their addictions, no matter how old they are."

Colleagues and close friends have marked his retirement by reciting his many "Gallagherisms," his catchy sayings that he utters repeatedly. Sayings like "It is what it is" and "Stress is not part of our vocabulary."

No matter how much Gallagher accomplishes in retirement, his legacy always will be the Renaissance Campus.

It all started in 1986, when the Alcohol and Drug Dependency Services board adopted a resolution to set up a facility for adolescents.

"Kids were committing suicide," Gallagher remembered. "Kids had to go out of state for treatment, or they were receiving no treatment at all."

The Kids Escaping Drugs campaign was launched the next year, followed by the openings of Renaissance House for boys ages 12-17 in 1990, Stepping Stones for girls and young adults, ages 12-20 in 1995 and Promise House for young men 18-20 in 2002.

Gallagher heads into retirement with his wife of 44 years, Ann. They're not heading for Aruba or buying a home in Florida. They're staying in Western New York, near the couple's two other children, local educators Michael and Ricky, and the couple's seven grandchildren.

He vows to keep chasing his passions, as long as he retains his health and his energy.

If you help a child, Gallagher reasons, then you help his or her family, their children and even their grandchildren.

"So long after your work is done, your legacy continues," he said. "Nothing is more rewarding than that."

e-mail: gwarner@buffnews.com

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