A Tribute to Dr. James Gallagher
The Architect and His Influence
Kristen R. Stephens, Ph.D.
Dr. James J. Gallagher, a giant in gifted education, special education, and early childhood education passed away at his home on January 17, 2014. North Carolina and our nation have greatly benefitted from his research and contributions in education. Even though he is no longer with us, he has left us with many blueprints detailing his vision for educational excellence.
I had the opportunity to attend Dr. Gallagher’s memorial service on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and hear from former graduate students, colleagues, family, and friends who shared the enormous impact this educational “giant” had on their lives. Though I primarily knew Dr. G. (as he is affectionately referred to by folks in NC) as a powerful education advocate and fellow gifted education colleague, his memorial service exposed additional dimensions of this revered man—the mentor, the family man, the leader, and the witty Irishman.
Over the last several weeks, I have been thinking about what one term I would use to describe this man who has had such a profound impact on my own career and interests in policy and gifted education. Macro-visionary, icon, luminary, compass, champion, and consensus builder were just a few terms used by those speaking at the service to describe Dr. Gallagher. The term that keeps emerging for me is architect. Like an architect, Dr. Gallagher could see the “big picture” and he understood what it takes for every intricate part of a complex and fluid system to work together effectively. Perhaps our current educational policymakers need to listen to more voices like Jim Gallagher – more architects – who fully understand the impact of policy decisions on the teachers and children.
The last few times I saw Dr. Gallagher, he handed me a paper that he had written entitled: Educational Disarmament, and How to Stop It (Gallagher, 2013). He always came to gifted education functions equipped with multiple copies of this paper to distribute. It became evident that he had a sense of urgency and passion around the ideas presented in this paper. Since his passing, I have reread this paper multiple times looking for guidance as to how I can move his ideas and “call to action” forward. I believe there are three specific actions that those invested in our public education system can take to help realize Dr. G.’s vision: 1) Change the question from “Who is to blame for failing schools?” to “What do we need to get the job done?” 2) Build a solid educational infrastructure. This means a national commitment to a long-term investment in education which includes an investment in research, curriculum development, program evaluation, leadership training, and technical assistance among others. 3) Change the status quo by linking education to national defense and appealing to the emotions of fear and national ambition. Dr. G. states, “…anything strongly linked to our national defense rarely gets delayed or dismissed because of budget balancing” (p. 202), and we have already seen instances in our country where fear and ambition have driven educational change (e.g., Sputnik).
I pass the ideas presented in Dr. Gallagher’s paper on to you, just as he handed me his paper on each occasion that I saw him in his final days. I believe he is prompting us all to action to fully realize his final vision for a prioritized educational system with the infrastructure and support systems to effectively address the needs of ALL students. As a macro-visionary, he truly realized the critical importance of our educational system and the important place it holds within the contexts of all our other national systems (e.g., defense, health, etc.). Dr. Gallagher was an architect, and his ideas will continue to propel us as we “get the job done” by building an educational system in which our nation can be proud.