Touches of green and orange danced in the pews as St. Dominic’s church filled to capacity on April 30, the day North Denver said goodbye to the Honorable Dennis Gallagher.
A trio of fiddle, guitar, and uilleann pipes played “The March of the King of Laois.” There were hundreds from every walk of life, relationships Gallagher cultivated over 82 years, including current and former elected officials too many to name.
Mourners hushed as the procession began. If the atmosphere in the church did not yet exude the spirit of Dennis Gallagher, it did when five priests and a deacon stepped into the center aisle to make their way to the altar. Gallagher knew each. And together they reflected his boundless Catholic faith: Holy Family, Regis University, St. Dominic’s and Transfiguration of our Lord.
Before Dennis Gallagher donned the numerous titles that would draw so many to remember him, he was a young man growing up near a place called Tennyson Terrace. Gallagher’s brother Tim remembers the two walking along Tennyson Street, passing Eaker’s grocery store, the meat market, and candy shop.
They’d stop into the record store to sit and listen to records in a little booth. Then, they’d walk to the bakery for a donut or an éclair and sit and watch the world go by.
“It was a great time to grow up in North Denver,” Tim Gallagher said.
He was a young boy as his older brother Dennis grew into the big personality he would become known for. The older Gallagher acted in plays at Regis and Loretto Heights, as the young quieter Tim watched with curiosity as audiences applauded.
“We were almost exact opposites,” Tim Gallagher recounted, “and far apart in age. He was nine years older, so it was a long time after my brother that I arrived at Holy Family High School. But the nuns still called me Dennis.”
Gary Sulley, Gallagher’s long-time friend, said, “Dennis saw himself on a continuum of time, from his grandparents, through his parents, and on to him. And then, through to his children. He always saw himself as an inherent part of North Denver because that’s where his grandparents settled. He was born here. He was raised here. He would never have considered leaving here.”
After studying English literature, Latin, and Greek at Regis College, Gallagher left Denver briefly to attend Catholic University in Washington, D.C. for an MA in speech, linguistics, and comparative philosophy. Gallagher returned to North Denver for a career of over 40 years teaching at Regis University.
In 1970, Gallagher began a parallel endeavor: 45 years in local politics. He represented North Denver first in the Colorado State House of Representatives (1970-1974), then in the State Senate (1974-1995) and City Council (1995-2003) before going on to work as the Auditor for the City of Denver (2003-2015).
Gallagher strove to live by the values of his faith and by values found in the Athenian Oath he often summarized and shared, especially the section that read, “The land of my ancestors I will leave to the next generations in a condition that is not diminished but instead greater and better than it had been before. And I will do so both by myself and together with everyone else.”
Former Mayor Wellington Webb spoke, in his eulogy, of Gallagher’s early years in elected office, when the two worked together in the state legislature.
“I learned a lot from Dennis. I knew what drove him was his faith, his belief in family, his pride in his Irish heritage. He was very proud of North Denver, very proud of Regis … And it is this spirit that I will always remember Dennis for: no matter what the opposition, his moral values always put him on a different plane, helping those who were less fortunate.”
In Gallagher’s obituary, it is said, “Those of us who rarely, if ever, hear from or see our representatives can only envy the residents of Northwest and Central Denver. Dennis was ubiquitous … He always walked his districts meeting people one by one, passing out literature door to door, distributing his famously numbered household for Gallagher yard signs, always making sure his mother’s house received “number 01.”
“People did know him,” said Lisa Rogers, owner of the former Common Grounds Coffeehouse, “He got around and he took time with people.”
Gallagher held court at Common Grounds, hosting meetings of all kinds and posting a handwritten sign in his trademark calligraphy when it was time for weekly office hours. He didn’t take over the place, Rogers remembers. He just found a table and settled in. When Gallagher retired from the Auditor’s office in 2015, he continued to advocate for the things that mattered to him, forever striving to leave the city a better place.
His column for The Denver North Star was a reader favorite. “Shaping Our Future by Remembering Our Past” connected micro-history lessons with issues of today: civility, government accountability, threats to open space, and the hazards of prioritizing development over people (especially the poor and working class).
His column wove disparate topics into a tapestry of ideas landing in a lesson. Like in April 2020, when he connected Francis Schlatter, a North Denver healer of the late 1800s, with railroad and farmworker history, Tom Noel’s “Denver Landmarks & Historic Districts,” Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and Dr. Anthony Fauci.
Former North Denver Tribune editor (and North Star contributor) Basha Cohen reflected, “Throughout the last decade of chronicling all things Northside, for the North Denver Tribune, and at Little Man Ice Cream, at the epicenter of it all was my friend Dennis Gallagher. I feel enormously lucky to have stood in his towering light and to have captured his photos, laughter, quips, and motherlode of history. Since The Denver North Star began we occasionally landed on the same page with stories. That always made me smile, knowing his column was so coveted. He was a historian and wordsmith extraordinaire. He was someone I learned from constantly. In short, he was my hero.”
Gallagher’s closing words in what turned out to be his final column for The Denver North Star were words he had shared countless times in his life, his distillation of the Athenian Oath, “Let us try to leave the world better off than we found it.”
Gallagher leaves behind continuing involvements like the James Joyce Reading Society, which he co-founded in 1982 with Ned Burke and Bob Ross. The group would gather to read aloud and discuss the works of the Irish literary giant, sometimes going to a cemetery to add to the effect.
They still get together on Tuesday evenings, cycling through Joyce’s major works. And in the last year, Gallagher’s friend Clay Vigota began bringing Gallagher’s insights to YouTube through installments of “Gallagher’s World.”
The video series, like Gallagher, delves into a range of topics, from the Ludlow Massacre to the role of the KKK in Colorado politics. And then, breaking from history and politics, is an installment on Gallagher’s lifelong love of calligraphy.
In each episode, viewers are treated to important histories supplemented by opinionated or humorous asides and brief riffs into myriad topics. On a shelf behind Gallagher in a few “Gallagher’s World” episodes, one can see small wooden art pieces bearing touches of gold. Icons, they are called.
Gary Sulley said, “Dennis has always had a fascination and a love for religion. About ten years ago, he got involved in an icon painting class conducted at St. Dominic’s church. Icons are an Eastern Orthodox Catholic form of prayer. Dennis has created, over the years, six or seven icons. They’re very extensive and they’re absolutely gorgeous. It fit Dennis. Part of the reason it takes up to a year is that it’s a process of praying, through art, and centering yourself on what’s on your mind at a given time.”
At Gallagher’s funeral were classmates from Holy Family and Regis, colleagues from elected roles, people he met at a neighborhood association or who had attended one of his famed collaborations with historian and friend Tom Noel, such as the annual July 4 reading of the Declaration of Independence.
A few pulled samples of Gallagher’s calligraphy out of a purse or pocket. Gallagher even made his own ink from gallnuts found under neighborhood trees.
Sulley recalled, “And one of them was across the street from Common Grounds’ last location up there on 44th. Every time I go by I think ‘there’s the tree!’ Dennis was famous for his calligraphy. But he didn’t do it because he was famous for it. It was his identity.”
“Dennis would head to the calligraphy section,” said Lois Harvey of West Side Books. The bookstore became one of the neighborhood places Gallagher frequented and supported. “I appreciated that he came out to engage with people so consistently, with such authenticity. I appreciated that he STAYED engaged even when he could have just retreated and rested on his laurels.”
Small memorials to the life of Dennis Gallagher can be found across North Denver: a sign posted at West Side Books, copies of “Irish Denver” on bookshelves, calligraphy on an envelope.
Bagpipes led Father Sheeran, his co-celebrants, and Gallagher’s friends and family out of the church into a sunny afternoon on April 30.
Sheeran’s message lingered, “And a word to the public servants, and all the citizens, especially those of the great North Denver who are here in this church. Whether you look at your life through the secular eyes of the Athenian Oath, or through Dennis’ very Catholic eyes, remember that you and I and all our fellow citizens are walking the same path that Dennis has now walked to the end. One day we’ll each be in a church somewhere, in a box or in an urn. What will people say of us? Were we co-creators who made God’s good world a better place?”
As did the words of Dennis’ son, Danny Gallagher, “This packed church represents a lifetime of service. And it is a testament to one man’s ability to create ripples in his city. It has been heartwarming to hear and share stories about my father these last few days. But there is something else we can do to remember the legacy of Dennis Gallagher. We can pay his love forward. Remember that each and every one of us has the power to change people’s lives for the better in both big and small ways. Let us all create our own ripples which can become waves and can wash away hate, leaving behind empathy, love and respect for one another.”
The Gallagher family said people who want to make a contribution in memory of Dennis Gallagher may do so through the “Meaghan Gallagher Scholarship Fund” at Regis University. 3333 Regis Blvd, Denver, CO 80221 or www.givecampus.com/campaigns/21516/donations/new.