Las Vegas Sun

September 21, 2014

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Remembering Nevada’s wizard of higher ed

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One of Nevada’s most endearing and enduring citizens passed away last month. Most Southern Nevadans have never heard of Dorothy Gallagher, who served as a university system regent for nearly 30 years, and that is a shame because she represented what is best in people and, certainly, what was best in Nevada.

While I have some warm and fond memories of Dorothy, I think her life is better represented in the words of Dr. Kevin Marie Laxalt, a professor at Great Basin College in Elko. Laxalt, herself a member of a well-known and respected Nevada family, writes about her “cherished mentor,” which pretty much sums up the life of Dorothy Gallagher. — Brian Greenspun

I just returned from a “celebration of life” event in Elko that honored one of my most cherished mentors — Dorothy Gallagher.

This event created a gathering that was uniquely Nevadan. It included members of the old “Elko guard” — complete with ranchers and business leaders, many members of Dorothy’s long-admired Northern Nevada family, representatives of the university system both past and present, elected representatives, representatives of Great Basin College, local journalists and friends. I repeatedly heard the phrases “What a great Nevadan!” and “What a great woman!” Colorful tales traversing decades of Nevada history softly adorned the somber backdrop of this farewell event. It was, indeed, a fitting testament to this incredible woman of Nevada.

I first met Dorothy Gallagher upon my return to my home state of Nevada in 1997 after many years away. I had just accepted a faculty position at what was then the Community College of Southern Nevada in Las Vegas and went to a Nevada Board of Regents’ meeting. My lifelong mentor, Father Caesar Caviglia, introduced me to Dorothy Gallagher, “the most important figure in Nevada’s higher education system.” To be honest, I was a bit dumbstruck as I glanced with curiosity at a petite, meticulously dressed elderly woman whose family I recalled having a rich history in both banking and ranching.

Over time, Father C’s words that day certainly proved to be true. And, amazingly enough, I had somehow captured the honor of having Dorothy Gallagher act in the role of mentor for me. I could go to Dorothy for an honest appraisal, a listening ear and an unwavering attitude of sound support. In fact, her final words to me just weeks before she passed away were, “Now, Kevin, you’ve got to make some time for your writing this summer.” And so, I composed my written thoughts in memory of my mentor, my friend, my sage, my support — Dorothy Gallagher.

What’s amazing to me the most about Dorothy Gallagher is that she succeeded in transcending generations of time — quite an amazing feat, particularly for a woman of the 1950s and 60s. This realization became particularly clear every time I entered the front room of the Elko home she and her husband, Tom, shared. The moment I entered, I would immediately feel my posture improving. My manners, too, were in check. I would sit (with complete attention) upon her 1960s satin couch with an old-fashioned coffee table in front of me. In just an instant, my mind would automatically jettison to my own past — to my own grandmother’s home, indeed, even to my own mother’s home, and to that time-lost tradition of making “house calls.” And thus we would visit, simply visit, complete with an offering of tea or lemonade depending on the time of year.

But that is where the past disappeared. Inevitably, the lighter conversation would lead into more serious discussions about real issues engulfing the world of higher education in Nevada. In an instant, she became a brilliant, focused CEO-level professional — attending to every minute detail. It was disarming at times, trying to shift from my own childlike respect of this tiny grandmotherly woman to garnering my own professional footing.

Looking back today, I realize that it was Dorothy who urged me to grow. Dorothy Gallagher provided me with one incredible gift across my career: She believed in me.

Dorothy also provided for me an empowering model of a brilliant, talented and successful woman who became a real political player within the state. It truly amazed me how she, without even flinching, not only made admission into Nevada’s “good old boys’ network,” she ultimately transcended it. Over time, the roles became reversed. It soon became Dorothy who many powerful Nevada “brokers” came to for advice, support, and clear and honest guidance.

Ever since Dorothy Gallagher passed away, my mind has returned to a scene from “The Wizard of Oz”: Judy Garland presents her famous rendition of the simple farm girl, Dorothy, sitting upon an old farm fence singing the hopeful classic, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” For me, this scene portrays a consummate image of the woman of those times. Today, when I hear the character Dorothy singing, I cannot help but translate them into, “I am a helpless little farm girl. Let me passively wait while someone bigger and more powerful comes along and saves the day for me.” Such was the role for most of the women of my mother’s generation. Such was the role that Dorothy Gallagher had artfully dodged.

As I mourn the passing of this incredible woman, I know that Nevada’s Dorothy didn’t quietly remain upon that fence railing awaiting her rescue. The Dorothy Gallagher I knew boldly walked away from that scene. And over time, she easily made her way to becoming a very powerful player behind that formidable curtain of Oz. In actuality, it was Dorothy who became “the Wizard” behind Nevada’s colleges and universities. There she was, pulling levers and pushing buttons across decades with all her might. Her levers included such forces as educational equality and accessibility. Her buttons included critical decisions that ensured the reality that the hopes and dreams of many Nevada college students might indeed translate into successful career pathways.

Thank you, Dorothy, for having a Nevada ranch girl’s nerve to step away from that old fence. Thank you, also, for teaching many of us that the most powerful step in making our own “dreams come true” is quite simply to believe in ourselves. Your life has taught every one of us that the answers for the future will not be found “somewhere over the rainbow” but rather right here in the hearts and hands of dedicated and passionate Nevadans, a distinctly defined reflection of Nevada’s Dorothy.

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