Mike London Column: Looking back at Ronnie G.’s time at the Post
Davie County Enterprise-Record sports editor Brian Pitts remembers the short fellow who climbed up into the old pressbox at Davie High on a Friday night in 1986.
“It must have been the feeling you get when you’re a stranger walking into a bar and all the regulars turn to check you out with a cold glare,” Pitts said. “I was sitting with my dad, and we were all like, who is this guy?”
The new guy introduced himself as Ronnie Gallagher, and he explained confidently that he was there to cover the game.
“No Davie reporter had ever covered a game,” Pitts said. “But this guy had a swagger about him, like he knew something we didn’t.”
By the time he exited that pressbox, Gallagher had a dozen or so new best friends. That’s how he was.
I’d like to have a quarter for every time someone called Ronnie at the Salisbury Post to chew him out about not enough of this or too much of that in the paper. By the time he hung up the phone, that caller was renewing his subscription.
Starting with that first night in 1986, almost overnight, Ronnie revolutioned sports coverage at Davie’s weekly newspaper.
“I was a 13-year-old sports lover who went from barely paying attention to racing to the stand to pick it up,” Pitts said.”The sports section was massive, action photos and stories galore. People were thrilled.”
Pitts had the bigger thrill of reading about himself when he pitched the North Davie middle schoolers to a win against rival South Davie. Gallagher praised him to the heavens, and then Gallagher barely mentioned Pitts’ struggles when South Davie bombed him in the rematch.
“He wrote that South Davie’s hitters were fantastic,” Pitts said. “He didn’t even mention I was on the mound for a grand slam. He understood kids have tender hearts.”
Pitts was right about that.
Gallagher understood that sports played by school kids aren’t so much about won-lost records and stats, as they are about people.
Every young athlete has dreams. The really talented ones dream of earning college scholarships. The good ones dream of winning a ballgame for their school with the key hit, or basket, or goal or touchdown. Then there are the not-so-talented ones who just dream about wearing a uniform for a championship team.
For Ronnie, it was always about those kids and the overworked, underpaid coaches who helped them realize those dreams.
The legacy Ronnie Gallagher leaves behind at the Post and in the state was beautifully handled by columnist Mark Wineka and sportswriter Ryan Bisesi in Saturday’s edition, but the shock of his death Friday, frankly left me numb. I hope you won’t mind if I pile on today.
There was an outpouring of grief, disbelief and prayers from all over, as word of Ronnie’s death reached writers via Facebook and Twitter. I heard from the papers in Hickory and Gastonia and Shelby and Statesville and Clayton and Asheboro and a dozen others. Delano Little and Nate Wimberly praised Ronnie on “Football Friday Night,” a highlight show Ronnie dearly loved. He’d always race home to watch it as soon as we’d finished a football Friday of our own.
Ronnie touched a lot of people. I don’t think anyone who met him ever forgot him.
Wrote Justin Parker, sports editor of the Lake Norman Citizen, “Once while passing through town he picked up a sports section that included a few of my stories and sent me the nicest work-related e-mail I’ve ever received, giving me a boost of confidence totally out of the blue. That’s the kind of man he was.”
I like sports, but passion for the games ran far deeper with Ronnie. Emotion boiled out of him. Who else would put together a “March Madness” tape every year? Who else could get pumped up about a late-night St. Mary’s vs. Gonzaga matchup? He could get excited about any sporting event as long as the home crowd was into it.
Anytime we drove through High Point, he’d stop at a convenience store. Armed with fistfuls of quarters, he’d buy area papers from a half-dozen machines. He wanted to see what the sportswriters were writing about and wanted to see how the sports section was laid out.
Ronnie left Davie for the Post late in 1995, with Pitts, a kid to whom Ronnie had given his first writing opportunity following him in Mocksville.
Ronnie became sports editor of the Post in 1997. When he did, he set out to make the same kind of sports-coverage revolution that he’d executed in Davie. He succeeded, and the awards for him personally and for the Post sports department, collectively, piled up high.
When his hair was starting to depart in the 1990s, he wore a ballcap 24/7 and would always disappear into a tunnel or hallway shortly before the national anthem, so he wouldn’t have to reveal his balding head to the crowd.
That insecurity vanished eventually, and he became as proud of baldness as anyone since Kojak. His shaved head and coal-black mustache became a big part of his “The Ronz” persona, and the arrival of the “Roaming the County” videos gave him a chance to connect with the public as never before as “The Ol’ Sports Editor.”
Beneath that outrageous outward persona, though, was a decent guy with his priorities in order. His family was first; the sports section was second.
Sports fans around the county saluted Ronnie Friday night, always his favorite night. It was emotional, especially at West, where one of his sons (Jack) graduated, and the other (Mackie) is now a student. West football coach Scott Young pulled out all the stops to express his appreciation for Ronnie’s work.
“He did so much for our kids and for our school,” Young said sadly. “It’ll never be the same.”
West basketball coach Mike Gurley grabbed Mackie Gallagher out of class and took him to Chick-fil-A for lunch Friday, and Gurley fought tears as he praised Ronnie prior to the West-Davie game.
“If the Ronz could be here, he’d tell every Falcon and every War Eagle to play as hard as they can and to have fun,” Gurley announced.
“What Ronnie did,” Gurley told me, “is he never allowed high school sports to be put on the back burner. He always knew what the story was, and he made high school sports so important in this county.”
Many were convinced Ronnie had a West bias, but believe me, when North, East and Salisbury earned rings, he was as thrilled as he was with West’s titles. He couldn’t wait to fill the sports pages with dozens of photos and a giant headline in a size usually reserved for the ending of world wars.
Ronnie and I weren’t as close in recent years as we were in the old days, mostly because he had a lot more in common with guys who had wives and families, and that’s who he hung out with outside of work. But whatever our differences outside the lines, we were always teammates, for 16 years, once we climbed the stairs to the third floor to get another paper out. There must have been a thousand nights I was sure there was no way we’d meet deadline, but we almost always did, and the sports section, largely because Ronnie was such a talented layout guy, was almost always good.
He was the NCHSAA media representative of the year in 2005, and richly deserved it. When I won that award in 2011, it was solely because he campaigned for me like it was a presidential election. He drove me to Chapel Hill to accept the plaque, and he was more excited than me. That’s just how he was.
Ronnie was so proud of this paper, It frustrated him on days when we were only allowed three pages for sports. He bounced around like a kid when they’d hand us six or even eight, and he’d ship copies of the 32-page football and basketball editions to every coach in the state.
Newspapers have a diminished role today than from a decade ago — changing times and technology — but Ronnie never accepted that and fought against it until the end.
He’d been much quieter lately, and I knew he was hurting physically, but he really didn’t want to talk about it.
He had a heart attack recently, but he was out of the hospital and back at the Post last Saturday and Sunday so that Ryan Bisesi could take two days off. He was in here Wednesday orchestrating one more mammoth Thursday sports section that devoted four pages to high school football features.
That was his last one. His last text to me was Wednesday night, telling me Joe Pinyan wanted us to put in the paper that the Carson jayvees played at 6:30 p.m.
He was still texting Coach Young late Thursday night, but Friday morning Ronnie was gone.
Sportswriters went to work with heavy hearts Friday night. Pitts and I were two of them. We stood there after the game in front of Davie coach Devore Holman, a longtime friend of Ronnie’s, and it was hard for any of us to speak without crying.
Holman finally squeezed out a few words, and his first sentence started with “Ronnie Gallagher.”
West players were equally emotional. All of them are close to Jack. They know Mackie well.
“This was a hard night,” West safety Najee Tucker said. “Everyone loves Jack and everyone loved Mr. Gallagher. They were definitely in our hearts and on our minds, and I’m so happy we won this game.”