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Tom Gallagher: A fuzzy line divides personal and political lives

Now, he's a career politician, but he was shaped around a crowded family dinner table.

Published August 27, 2006

On even the coldest winter mornings in Delaware, a teenage Tom Gallagher arose in his attic bedroom, quietly dressed and slipped out of the house while six younger siblings and his parents slept.

Twenty minutes later, an electric trolley delivered him to the downtown Wilmington YMCA, where he hit the pool for practice. He always started with the most exhausting task: a mile of the slow-going breast stroke.

Day after day, he kept the routine. Sometimes, leading up to a big competition, he added an evening practice.

As a senior at an all-boys Catholic high school, Gallagher expected to attend the University of Niagara, a small Catholic college in upstate New York. But then, for a brief time, he held the Delaware high school record for the 100-yard breast stroke.

The University of Miami came calling.

For a teenager who spent winter mornings riding a trolley car with wet hair, the promise of a partial scholarship in a tropical climate was too much to resist. It was a decision that would rewrite his future and that of his family.

Gallagher, now running for the Republican nomination for Florida's governor, doesn't tell that story on the campaign trail. Nearly a lifetime has passed since then.

At 62, he is one of Florida's longest-serving politicians, once a legendary bachelor in Tallahassee who is now happily married, proudly a father and relentlessly conservative. Nowadays, as he campaigns against another longtime bachelor, Charlie Crist, Gallagher emphasizes his current family life with wife Laura and 7-year-old son Charlie, Charles Thomas Gallagher IV.

But before that family, Gallagher's life centered on another, much larger one - the boisterous, social Irish-Catholic clan that taught him discipline, honed his competitive spirit and gave him confidence.

It buoys him still.

* * *

Tom Gallagher is the son of a real estate broker and a no-nonsense mother; and the heir apparent of a political gene.

His father, the late Charles "Charlie" Thomas Gallagher Jr., once led Delaware's Republican Party and was appointed to manage Delaware's Memorial Bridge to New Jersey.

His mother, Hope, now 86, lives in Tallahassee with her youngest child, Tami, and her family.

Hope Gallagher had eight children over 21 years; first Tom, then four more boys. Three girls came last. Their two-story childhood home, her children say, was a well-oiled machine that constantly bordered on chaos.

Dad - who started Gallagher Realty from a home office - remodeled a sleeping porch to house four of the boys' beds and another to serve as a de facto locker room for changing their hand-me-down clothes. Tom, as the oldest, claimed the attic for his own room.

Household order came in regimen and rituals.

Every other Friday, before school, the boys filed into the basement where a single barber chair sat. A retired barber arrived before a pancake breakfast and gave everyone a trim.

Every day, the Gallaghers dressed in uniforms to attend Catholic schools. After school, boys and girls played sports - ice skating or tennis, basketball or baseball. In the summers, once they were older, they worked. Tom was a lifeguard and later, during college, a city park manager who sometimes sent his young siblings home for misbehaving.

But every night, dinner was at 6 p.m. Attendance mandatory.

Miss a meal, as youngest son Kevin once did, and the consequences could be huge. Kevin was left sitting the bench for the rest of basketball season because he missed practices due to being grounded, his sister said.

"My mother was very black-and-white. She had to be with eight kids. She'd say, 'If it was that important to you, you would have been here,' " said Christine "Chris" Gallagher Gingrich, 47, the only sibling who doesn't live in Florida. She lives in Centennial, Colo. "You learned your lesson."

Those dinners are also the reason, Tom Gallagher now jokes, he can't eat slowly. Do so growing up and your brothers would beat you out for seconds. But it was also a family forum, extended over more than three decades of child rearing long after Tom Gallagher was a school furniture salesman in Florida. At its apex was a father with an insatiable curiosity about everything from politics to theater.

The enthusiasm was infectious. Tom Gallagher on the campaign trail is frequently happiest when he is sidetracked by his own curiosity.

In a Cape Coral metal fabrication factory, he spent more than 30 minutes peppering the owner with questions about how he makes widgets used in medical technology. Riding down the road, past nuclear power plant stacks, he recites a random fact about how the power is generated.

"I know friends who joke that if you ask Tom what time it is, he tells you how to build a watch," Chris Gallagher said. "He gets that from our dad. He had a way, if he was interested in something, he made you interested too. You just learned from him."

From his mother comes another personality trait, one that has not always served her political son well. Ask Gallagher's opinion and he gives it, without varnish and, sometimes, without tact. Critics call it arrogance. Supporters call it honesty.

"Sometimes people are put off by it. It can be taken drastically wrong," said Chris Gallagher. "But growing up, you ask Mom a question, she'd give you an answer. You never questioned where you stood. Tom, a lot of us, are the same way."

* * *

There wasn't always a brood growing up. For a brief period when he was 5 years old, after nearly two years of having a younger brother around, Tom was the lone child again in the Gallagher home.

Dennis Gallagher, age 22 months, had been diagnosed with juvenile diabetes, a then little-understood disease with possibly deadly consequences. For 18 weeks, the toddler was hospitalized, visitation limited in the medical tradition of an era that worried too much contact would be emotionally taxing.

Younger children in the Gallagher family wouldn't understood the seriousness of Dennis' condition until later in life. The parents made a point not to treat him any differently.

But the two siblings closest to him in age, Tom and Doug, the third son, were aware. There were the two morning insulin shots; the constant vigilance for signs Denny's blood sugar might plunge.

"That's the problem with diabetes. No one really knows that a person is a diabetic," said Tom Gallagher, who remembers there always was orange juice in the refrigerator for emergencies. "It's very scary when your brother is having one of those reactions. It was like his lights went out."

Denny went on to be the first sibling to marry, the first to have children, a boy and a girl. The first, also, to die. In May 1974, he passed away at age 28 from complications from his illness.

By then, nearly the entire Gallagher clan had followed Tom to Florida. Denny had followed his brother and attended the University of Miami. Doug came after college, eventually launching a software business with financial backing from Tom that would make Doug a millionaire. In 2004, Doug Gallagher unsuccessfully bid for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination.

After retiring, Charlie and Hope Gallagher moved south in 1972 with their three youngest children, who were still in school: Kim, Chris and Tami. Brothers Dean and Kevin made their way down, too, in adulthood.

The year of Denny's death was also the year Tom Gallagher had his first political victory in a special election. Tami Gallagher Samper, the youngest child, still remembers that race, when Tom Gallagher won a state House seat he would hold for 13 years in Miami's then-overwhelmingly Democratic Coconut Grove.

Tami was just 10 years old when she learned to knock on doors and perfect her campaign pitch, her father lingering on the sidewalk behind her: "My brother is running for the (state) House of Representatives and I would like you to vote for him."

Thirty-two years later, Tami Samper is married and living in Tallahassee with her husband, children and mother. She talks to her brother frequently; her son Anthony, age 13, is like a big brother to Tom's son Charlie.

The family has seen other painful losses. Charlie Gallagher Jr., the family giant, died in May 1998, which prompted Hope Gallagher's move to Tallahassee, into a house Tom helped her buy next door to Tami. In May 2001, 48-year-old brother Kevin died after a battle with cancer.

But the family passion for Tom's political career hasn't wavered. Tami still works on her brother's campaigns. Chris will fly in from Colorado on Monday to see him in the GOP primary debate in West Palm Beach.

Tami's pitch has matured, but is just as sure.

"Personally, I didn't want him to be elected to the U.S. Senate when he ran (in 2000)," Tami Samper said. Gallagher dropped his bid before the primary and ran successfully for Florida education commissioner that year. "I told him I wanted him here where I know he'd be doing something that will help my kids, that will help Florida."

* * *

On the campaign trail, Tom Gallagher does tell this story: about how after graduating from college in Miami and serving two years in the U.S. Army's Old Guard in Washington, D.C., during the Vietnam War, he found himself unhappy in New York, working a financial job.

As colleagues mused on their future as Florida retirees, Gallagher decided not to wait. A college friend offered an exclusive franchise selling school furniture throughout Florida. He jumped at the chance: "I thought, why wait when I can live in Florida now?"

But these days, swimming isn't in the cards. Gallagher faces a different regimen, a punishing gubernatorial campaign that is the toughest election of his 30-plus-year political career.

Earlier this month, as poll after poll showed Republican primary opponent Charlie Crist leading Gallagher by double-digit margins, even some of his friends urged Gallagher to drop out. A Miami Herald story quoted anonymous sources, described as close to Gallagher, as saying the candidate was considering it.

But Gallagher didn't quit.

At 7:30 the morning the story appeared, before even teachers arrived at the Villages Elementary School in Lady Lake to prepare classrooms for the new school year, Gallagher was there campaigning. Before day's end, he made five more stops, fending off reporters' questions at nearly every one.

"If I was getting out tomorrow, do you think I'd spend all this time (campaigning) today?" he said.

The next morning, at an Orlando news conference, Gallagher took his game to a whole new level, directly attacking Crist's positions on immigration, abortion, gay civil unions and Florida's class-size amendment. Every day since, like a new routine, he has made the same points.

The final meet, after all, isn't until Sept. 5.

BORN: Feb. 3, 1944, in Wilmington, Del.

Family: Married with one child, he grew up as the oldest of eight in a middle class, Irish Catholic family in Delaware.


[Last modified August 27, 2006, 06:51:40]

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