Educator James Gallagher shone locally, nationally in educating kids with special needs

CorrespondentMarch 23, 2014 

  • James J. Gallagher

    Born:June 11, 1926, in Pittsburgh

    Family:An only child, he marries Rani Gallagher in 1949, and they have four children: Kevin of Atlanta, Sean of Auburn, Ala., Shelagh of Charlotte, and Brian of Cincinnati.

    Education: Earns bachelor’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh, followed by a doctorate in psychology from Pennsylvania State University.

    Career: He publishes over 200 journal articles and 39 books, including two seminal textbooks, “Teaching the Gifted Child and Educating Exceptional Children. From 1970 to 1987, he serves as director of the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill, working to establish the N.C. School of Science and Math, and co-founding STAGE, the Statewide Technical Assistance in Gifted Education network. He serves as president of the Council for Exceptional Children, the National Association for Gifted Children, the World Council for Gifted and Talented Children, and the N.C. Association for Gifted and Talented.

    Awards: Gold Medal of the American Psychological Association for Psychology in the Public Interest; John Fogarty Award for Distinguished Government Service; Old North State Award; and many others.

    Dies: Jan. 17

James Gallagher, one of the world’s foremost experts on special education, dedicated his career to improving education both for children with developmental delays and for those who were gifted.

Colleagues credit Gallagher as being a pioneer in the field, helping move children who would have once been institutionalized into the mainstream classroom. Among his many contributions was the Individualized Education Plan, a practice now common nationwide. Parents of young children everywhere owe him a debt of gratitude for approving the initial funding for “Sesame Street” while at the Department of Education, family members said.

Gallagher was director of the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill for 17 years, and during that time, he conducted research on an unprecedented scope into the academic performance of low-income children. From that research in the Abecedarian Project came initiatives such as Head Start, the state-funded preschool program. The research continues today.

Still working, writing, publishing and consulting until the very end, Gallagher died at his Chapel Hill home in January. Though he was 87, his death was unexpected. He had just finished proofing the 14th edition of “Educating Exceptional Children,” a textbook first published in the 1960s. One of the additions he made to this final draft was the word “perfectionism” in the glossary – an irony not lost on his loved ones.

“This book always led the field,” said Mary Ruth Coleman, a senior researcher at Frank Porter Graham. She worked with Gallagher for 28 years, first as a graduate student at UNC, later co-authoring articles as well as editions of that seminal textbook.

Always grateful for GI Bill

Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Gallagher enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager during World War II. An only child, he was not chosen for deployment and was stationed in San Diego, where he repaired radar on battleships.

He took full advantage of the GI Bill and attended the University of Pittsburgh, earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology. The opportunity the bill afforded him was not something he took for granted, said Sean Gallagher, one of his four children, whom he told he could easily have wound up selling shirts at a department store.

Rani Gallagher, his wife of 64 years, said he wanted to be a physician but could not afford medical school. The two met when he interned at a Connecticut institution for children with developmental delays, where she taught.

Working with children who were not being served by their school system was a natural calling – he knew not all teachers were as creative, or dedicated, as his mother. Working in the Pittsburgh public schools, Anna Mae Gallagher used innovative techniques to teach children who were then called “retarded.”

“He was very aware that excellence in education could not happen by accident,” Coleman said. “And it could not happen solely at the discretion of the teacher – that that teacher really needed an infrastructure to support her work.”

Gallagher was first able to advocate for this infrastructure on a national level in the late 1960s when he was appointed the U.S. Associate Commissioner for Education and was the first chief of the Bureau of Education for the Handicapped in the U.S. Office of Education. He later served as the deputy assistant secretary for planning, research and evaluation for the Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

‘Children ... related to him’

He understood decades ago that educating children with special needs had to involve families, doctors, therapists, teachers, neighbors and neighborhoods – a holistic approach.

While many academics find it easier to remain distant and reserved from their research, Gallagher never hesitated to get down, literally, to a child’s level, often perching himself on a second-grader-sized chair in the name of education.

“He related to children, and they related to him,” Coleman recalled.

“The kids just would open up to him and talk with him about their feelings.”

Colleagues say he was often the first in his field to ask the questions that mattered. He felt that by understanding how to best serve those children at each end of the spectrum, the masses would benefit as well. The bright child sitting bored in her classroom was just as unacceptable as the autistic child who would have once been institutionalized.

“He was the first of a lot of things,” Rani Gallagher said.

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service