SALISBURY — Friday morning when Sports Editor Ronnie Gallagher died, his usual column appeared in the Salisbury Post, giving readers some behind-the-scenes insights into high school football.
Maybe it was divine intervention: Friday football nights were heaven to Gallagher.
On his weekly “Roamin’ the County” videos, Gallagher liked to introduce himself as the “old sports editor.” And that he was — a sports editor.
First at the Davie County Enterprise, then at the Post, Gallagher established arguably some of the best newspaper coverage of high school sports in the state.
In recent weeks, Gallagher, 57, had suffered a mild heart attack and learned days later he had a mass in his lung. But he kept his condition private and returned to work, making videos, laying out pages, talking to players and coaches and writing his column.
He became ill at home early Friday morning and died about 6 a.m. at Novant Health Rowan Medical Center. His death stunned family, friends and co-workers.
“He was the best sports editor I’ve ever known,” Post Publisher Greg Anderson said. “The pride he took in his work and the joy he got from watching his two boys grow up was inspiring.”
Gallagher is survived by his wife, Joan, and sons Jack and Mackie. Ronnie fittingly met Joan on an athletic field.
“This has been a sad day at the Salisbury Post,” Editor Elizabeth Cook said. “Ronnie had a spark — a passion for his job and for this newspaper — and suddenly that spark is gone. I can’t quite believe it.”
As a sports editor and writer, Gallagher often treated normal games as though they were the Super Bowl, because he knew that’s how the contests were viewed by the players, fans, parents and coaches.
Pride in his work
Cook said Gallagher’s sports pages were a reflection of his personality — “clever headlines, splashy photos and the most thorough coverage of high school sports that you can find in the state.”
“He didn’t do anything halfway,” she added.
The stories and packages often ended up on refrigerators and bulletin boards. Meanwhile, his special-edition publications for football, basketball and baseball were exhausting, yet beautifully done.
Gallagher once wrote this note to Lifestyle Editor Sarah Campbell, complimenting her on putting out a good Education section.
“It’s kinda like us with the football tab,” Gallagher said. “You know you’ve got to hustle, and you do it.
“I like workers who have pride in what they do. I hate whiners. It ain’t about us. It’s about the readers.”
In 2005, the N.C. High School Athletic Association named Gallagher the winner of the Tim Stevens Media Representative of the Year Award.
“Ronnie was so passionate about high school athletics and the schools that he covered,” said Rick Strunk, associate commissioner of communications for the NCHSAA. “It was vitally important to him that his paper have information for its readers you couldn’t find anywhere else — in-depth high school coverage, features, photographs, columns, whatever it might be.”
Strunk said Gallagher would sometimes drop copies of the Post sports section in the mail to Strunk, so he could see what the Post was doing.
Model for local coverage
“One time he sent me one with a picture of a standing-room-only crowd at the Sam Moir basketball tournament with a sticky note on it that said, ‘Can you believe the enthusiasm for high school sports here in Rowan County?’ ” Strunk recalled.
Strunk said he has often told others the Post was a model for covering local sports. Bret Strelow, a former Post sports reporter who now works for the Fayetteville Observer, said Gallagher kept sports sections in the trunk of his car so he could hand them out.
“He was so proud of the newspaper and the hard work his staff put into filling it with local stories,” Strelow said.
As a way of paying tribute to Gallagher and helping the Post sports staff Friday night, Strelow covered the South Rowan-A.L. Brown football game.
“I can’t even imagine heading to a football game tonight without thinking “Ronnie G. is doing likewise,” said former Post Sports Editor Chris Hobbs.
‘He loved what he did’
Gallagher started his sports-writing career at the Lexington Dispatch in 1980 and became sports editor of the Davie County Enterprise in 1986. He joined the Post staff as a sports reporter in November 1995 and took the editor’s position in June 1997.
Gallagher won 14 N.C. Press Association awards while at the Enterprise and 20 with the Salisbury Post.
“He loved what he did and was very good at it,” Davie County Enterprise Publisher Dwight Sparks said. “... He could tell a story.”
Sparks said Gallagher had the ability to forge great relationships with coaches and players. Many people interviewed Friday about Gallagher mentioned his enthusiasm.
“When he got there, he was like a kid at Christmas,” former Post Sports Editor Steve Phillips recalled of Gallagher’s first days as a sports reporter in Salisbury. “He would come in and write a column every day, if you let him.”
Gallagher also was the rarest of sports fans in that he rooted equally as hard for both the University of North Carolina and Duke University.
“He just loved what he did,” said Phillips, who now works in media relations for the Atlantic Coast Conference. “He loved his job as much as anybody I’ve ever worked with.”
Brian Pitts, sports editor of the Enterprise, considered Gallagher his mentor, and he often does sports pages and special sections with the question “What would Ronnie think of this?” running through his head.
“He wanted to put out a perfect paper every single day,” Pitts said.
Pitts grew up in Davie County, and he remembered the immediate impact Gallagher had as the Enterprise sports editor. “The sports section went from almost nothing to something magical literally overnight,” Pitts said.
Gallagher first worked as a stringer for Bruce Wehrle, retired sports editor of the Lexington Dispatch. “His enthusiasm is probably the one thing everybody will recognize about him,” Wehrle said Friday, “and as he got older, it didn’t seem to slow down.”
Gallagher’s family lived next door to North Davidson High School. Debbie Merten, Ronnie’s older sister, said the Gallagher house shared property lines with the school.
“He was basically a gym rat,” Wehrle recalled.
Merten said her brother got into deep trouble as a third-grader after he won a foot race at school. With a black permanent marker, he wrote on the back of one of his good T-shirts, “Ronnie ‘Bob Hayes’ Gallagher” — a reference to one of the fastest men in the world at the time.
Merten said her brother loved basketball the most as he was growing up and played for church teams and the community college — but never for North Davidson High, where he graduated in 1974.
“He was more the writer, coach and umpire kind,” Merten said. “... The newspaper meant everything to him, and his boys and Joan. Oh, my goodness, he was proud of those boys.”
Through the years, Phillips said, Gallagher periodically sent him clippings and photographs of his children, giving Phillips updates on how Jack and Mackie were doing.
“If we didn’t have Facebook, I still would have been kept up to date on his kids,” Phillips said.
Keeping in touch
Gallagher always wrote his family’s Christmas letter and sent it out to friends. Katie Scarvey, former Lifestyle editor for the Post, said Gallagher had fun with it, making it both goofy and sweet.
Cora Shinn, who met Ronnie through his wife, always received a Christmas letter, too.
“Today,” she said Friday, “I opened my Christmas card scrapbook and looked at the Gallagher boys as they have grown from little brothers wrestling in the yard to handsome high school and college students.
“I reread their dad’s delightful Christmas card column, which I will truly miss this year.”
Each year, Gallagher also sent Shinn a Tar Heel yearbook and media guide for UNC basketball. “I don’t know if he really loved us that much or if he loved the homemade peach cobblers that found their way to his desk,” Shinn said.
Gallagher displayed his loyalty to friends often. When Post photographer Jon Lakey injured his hand several years ago in an accident with a chainsaw, Gallagher visited him 19 times while he was out of work.
Friends sometimes referred to Gallagher by nickname — “The Ronz” or simply “Ronnie G.” He was known for almost always wearing shorts and T-shirts, his Fu Manchu mustache and his shaved head.
Strelow remembered Gallagher arranging to meet him for the interview leading to his job for the Post. “When I hung up,” Strelow said, “I wasn’t sure that he was serious. Is it really OK to show up for a job interview in shorts and flip-flops?”
A few minutes passed, and Gallagher called Strelow again.
“I mean it,” he told Strelow. “Don’t dress up.”
Their interview took place at the Cracker Barrel in Statesville, but soon they were off to Salisbury where Gallagher wanted Strelow to taste the sweet tea at the old City View restaurant.
He also introduced Strelow to Joan, a teacher who was working in her classroom that day, and he made sure Strelow saw the sports mural in the basement of his house.
“It was an unorthodox interview, to say the least,” Strelow said, “but it showed me how much love Ronnie had for his family, including his two sons, and how much passion he had for covering sports. I saw it first-hand for nearly a decade.”
Gallagher quickly embraced the multi-media aspect of his job as newspapers set about reinventing themselves in the digital age.
“I don’t think anyone in the newsroom was shocked that he was a natural in front of the camera,” Scarvey said. “He was, after all, ‘da Ronz.’ ”
Scarvey said Gallagher cared about his craft. Nobody could write better headlines than he did, she said.
Howard Platt, sports director for WSTP, said Gallagher had a great personal style to his writing, to go along with strong personal relationships with many coaches.
“He always wanted to put the players and schools first,” Platt added. “He will be missed.”
Anderson, the Post publisher, said many people in the community recognize “the wonderful sports product he and his team produced each day.”
“He always lobbied for more pages,” Anderson added. “He would fill all he could get. Now he will fill our hearts with wonderful memories.”
Tributes were paid to Gallagher at high school football stadiums across the county Friday night, particularly at West Rowan High, where his sons have attended.
Pitts was covering the West Rowan-Davie County game for the Enterprise. He said he made his own promise to Gallagher:
“I promise to cover tonight’s Davie-West Rowan as if it were the biggest game ever played.”