Hugh Gallagher Dies; Crusaded for Disabled
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 16, 2004; Page B04
Hugh G. Gallagher, 71, who died of cancer July 13 at Sibley Memorial Hospital, wrote an early civil rights law affecting the disabled and a praised biography of former president Franklin D. Roosevelt's struggle with polio.
Mr. Gallagher, stricken with polio at age 19, played a major role in the 2001 decision to add a statue of Roosevelt in a wheelchair to the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington. For years he told reporters, "Don't let them steal our hero!"
Mr. Gallagher underwent rigorous and at times horrifying treatment for his disease, which he contracted during its last widespread sweep in America before the invention of a vaccine. He was paralyzed below the chest and later suffered from clinical depression.
He went on to address his concerns for the disabled through a career in politics and prose. Although many worked to change the image of the disabled -- from the pitiable, leg-braced waif in old March of Dimes promotions -- Mr. Gallagher was far more concerned about practical questions, the personal and financial costs of living with a disability.
While working as an aide on Capitol Hill, he developed and drafted the language of what became the Architectural Barriers Act of 1968, a lauded precursor to the sweeping Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990. His legislation mandated that buildings funded with federal dollars had to be accessible to the disabled, which many opposed because of expense and aesthetic appeal.
"Hugh's most outstanding contribution to the quality of life of people with disabilities was to successfully place disability rights on Congress' agenda for the first time," former Senate majority leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) wrote for an event honoring Mr. Gallagher in 1995.
Mr. Gallagher was never a one-issue man, and his social concerns ranged from gay rights to dignified end-of-life care. He also was a prolific writer of newspaper opinion pieces.
His earliest nonfiction books concerned a range of subjects, from congressional logjams ("Advise and Obstruct: The Role of the United States Senate in Foreign Policy Decisions," 1969) to the efforts of the indigenous people of Alaska to win large land claims from the U.S. government in 1971 ("Etok: A Story of Eskimo Power," 1974).
By far his best-known book was "FDR's Splendid Deception" (1985), about the president's ability to radiate hope and confidence while living in great physical stress. Many critics hailed the book's unsentimental approach to a long-overlooked aspect of Roosevelt's life.
In her review for The Washington Post, Marina Newmyer wrote that Mr. Gallagher "has put together a solid, suspenseful and fast-paced account of the medical tragedy suffered by Roosevelt."
Mr. Gallagher found that among the 35,000 photographs of Roosevelt at his presidential library, only two featured him in his wheelchair. Media of the day all but ignored the polio, an omission that served the president's political purposes and showed his threshold for withstanding pain, he wrote.
He said he understood Roosevelt's stoicism, which Mr. Gallagher took to indicate a near-disavowal of the disability. "For years, I tried to work harder than any able-bodied person would," he told an interviewer. "My drive to become a superhero exacted a terrible price. I paid no attention to my emotions. I became an automaton."
Hugh Gregory Gallagher was born in Palo Alto, Calif., where his father taught political science at Stanford University. He grew up in Chicago, New York and Washington.
He was at Haverford College in spring 1952 when he suddenly developed polio during parents' weekend. He left school, spent three months in an iron lung and was operated on several times. "I never realized such pain existed," he told a reporter at the time.
Once, his iron lung stopped, and Mr. Gallagher had to instruct the unnerved nurses how to pump the device by hand.
Much of his rehabilitation took place in Warm Springs, Ga., where Roosevelt also had recuperated. That triggered his fascination with the president.
In 1956, he graduated from what is now Claremont McKenna College in California and then went on a Marshall scholarship to Oxford University, where he received the equivalent of a master's degree in political science, philosophy and economics.
At Oxford, he had difficulty maneuvering a wheelchair on the cobblestone streets. The only bathroom he could use was a block and a half from his room.
Such indignities led to his legislative work on Capitol Hill. He spent most of the 1960s as an administrative assistant to Sen. E.L. "Bob" Bartlett (D-Alaska). He also worked for President Lyndon B. Johnson as his legislative signing and veto message writer in 1967 and 1968.
He then was the Washington representative for British Petroleum and spent about 25 years as a policy and politics consultant for large oil concerns in Europe. His work took him to Alaska and other oil-drilling areas, where he was often hoisted onto oil rigs in his wheelchair.
Over the years, he lobbied to make airports, performance halls and libraries accessible to those in wheelchairs.
He wrote from his home in Cabin John, including the books "By Trust Betrayed" (1990), about Nazi Germany's treatment of the disabled, and "Black Bird Fly Away" (1998), which looked at his own depression about his disability.
In 1995, Mr. Gallagher received the $50,000 Henry B. Betts Award for his lifetime work for the disabled.
At the time, he reflected on the "revolution" in attitudes toward the disabled but added that there were some limits in what was doable or even desirable.
"Making the New York City subway system accessible to wheelchairs is not the best way to spend public money," he said. "Besides, I'm not going down there to get mugged."
Survivors include his father, Hubert R. Gallagher of Bethesda; and a sister.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company