Saturday, August 31, 2013

Fare thee well, my friend

The first indication I had that anything might be wrong was Friday morning when I was directed to the story in The Salisbury Post that its long-time sports editor (and my friend), Ronnie Gallagher, had died unexpectedly at the age of 57.

Ronnie Gallagher
 It was shocking news.

The story noted that Gallagher had had a mild heart attack a week or so earlier. That, too, was a surprise to me. Ronnie always appeared to be so... so... fit.

The story also said that Gallagher had complained of stomach pains Friday morning before going to the hospital, where he eventually passed away.

I thought that sounded a bit unusual until a friend of mine suggested that severe nausea can be a sign of a heart attack. That information was almost consoling to me — Ronnie always had a big heart: a big heart for sports and sports writing, a big heart for his friends, and a big heart for his family. So maybe, just maybe, his heart simply wore out. Anyway, that's how I want to see it.

I met Ronnie probably in 1976. I'm guessing he was a few years fresh out of North Davidson Senior High School (the family house abutted the school property) and he was already covering games for The Dispatch as a stringer. I was a newly-hired sports writer at the newspaper back then, and I could tell right off there was something a little different about Ronnie: he was soooo into the games, more than even most sports writers, it seemed. He knew all the rules; he knew all of the players; he knew all of the coaches; heck, he probably knew most of the referees and most of the fans in the stands.

His enthusiasm for sports was clearly — and refreshingly — unjaded.

Over the course of time, I discovered he also had developed encyclopedic knowledge of sports, and especially local sports. He could tell you who did what on what day eight years ago, when that player went 3-for-4 and tore his uniform sliding into home plate during a high school playoff game on an overcast day in a season where he hit .422 and drove in 38 runs.

Ronnie may have gotten a career-making break in the early 1980s when The Dispatch created a sister publication called The North Davidson Dispatch (NDD). It was a weekly — it came out every Wednesday — and Ronnie was its sole sports editor/sports writer.

But Ronnie took the job and ran with it. He consistently filled six or eight wide open pages with everything North Davidson. If the Knights had played Tiddly Winks and Pick-Up Sticks as varsity sports, or even as junior varsity sports, Ronnie would have covered them. This is where, I think, Ronnie's earliest concept of what a sports section should look like first developed. It would serve him well later on.

The NDD lasted about two years. Shortly thereafter, in 1986, Ronnie became the sports editor/sports writer for another weekly, The Davie County Enterprise. Taking the foundation he created with the NDD, he singlehandedly turned The Enterprise's sports section into an award-winning publication — something in which he justifiably took great pride.

By 1995 he was working at The Post, and two years later, he was The Post's sports editor. The cream always rises, you know. Once again, he brought his concept of total sports coverage to yet another publication and made it something special. I like to think you can trace those roots back to The Dispatch.

To my way of thinking, Ronnie's writing matured as he did. Winning press awards is a very subjective thing, but it's about the only measurement we have in the business (other than unheard of merit raises or bonuses) to gauge a writer's worth. Ronnie ended up winning 14 North Carolina Press Association awards for The Enterprise, and 20 more for The Post, which is astounding when you consider that in this world of specialized education, Ronnie never went to college. That just doesn't happen anymore. Heck, you can't even get hired anymore without a degree. His was the School of Hard Knocks, and he made it look easy. He was unabashedly proud of that accomplishment, too, and it's well that he was.

So now I sit back and reminisce about an old friend way before I want to. In later years, we'd occasionally bump into each other while covering the same event, and we'd sit and chat for a bit and catch up. But it was all too infrequent.

It's still going to take a little time to process this loss. I hope I have the heart for it. So for now, at least, fare thee well, my friend. Fare thee well.

(Here's a sample of Ronnie at work with one of his Roamin' Rowan videos.)

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