Just call him Mr. Gallagher
Call him what you want … educator … basketball coach … respected friend. In Virginia City, a community that glitters with history, Hugh Gallagher is a man who has risen to mythical proportions in his own lifetime.
Just ask long-time residents who grew up and went to school in Virginia City. They simply call him Mr. Gallagher.
Gallagher still lives in Virginia City, where he grew up, where he played basketball and where he devoted the better part of four decades to education as teacher, coach and administrator. Today, Hugh Gallagher Elementary School on South D Street stands as a tribute to the man who has meant so much to so many.
It’s a legacy current Virginia City High School Principal Todd Hess often thinks about.
“Along with John Mackay and some of the other mining people, Hugh Gallagher has probably been one of the most important men in Comstock history, just for what he gave to education up here,” said Hess, who played on Virginia City teams that won four straight state basketball championships in the ’80s. “He was much more than basketball. When Mr. Gallagher was at the school, he was teacher, principal, superintendent, janitor, part-time secretary. He was literally Storey County schools for more than 30 years.”
At any given time until his retirement in 1979, Gallagher could be seen performing duties as superintendent, principal, coach, secretary, even janitor.
“He wore every hat at the school,” said Tom Andreasen, who himself coached state championship basketball teams at Virginia City and Carson in the 1970s. “He could teach math, or anything else that needed to be taught, and he was as good a fundamentals coach as I’ve ever seen.”
Those words were echoed by Lyle Damon, who coached Virginia City’s teams of 1963-64 to 55 straight victories.
“Hugh Gallagher is the finest man I’ve ever known,” Damon said. “He was the promoter of everything up there. He was principal … superintendent … he was the deal.”
Gallagher graduated from Virginia City in 1938 and went on to receive his bachelor’s of arts degree from the University of Nevada. After World War II, he returned to Virginia City in 1946 as a teacher and basketball coach.
“There were 13 students in the high school at that time,” said Gallagher, who will celebrate his 82nd birthday on July 17. “I became principal the following year, but we were so small, I had to coach to keep the program going.”
Gallagher compiled a 107-49 record as a varsity coach, and more important, laid the groundwork for the program’s future success. One of his students was Mike Harper, a two-time state MVP for the Muckers in 1962 and ’63
“You can go back to Jake Lawlor (in the 1930s), but Mr. Gallagher was practically the inventor of Virginia City basketball,” Harper said in a 1994 interview when Gallagher was inducted into the Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association Hall of Fame. “He literally coached us from first grade all the way through high school. Every fundamental aspect of basketball that we knew came from Mr. Gallagher.”
Virginia High School has won 17 state basketball championships, more than any other school in Nevada. The Muckers won 93 straight games and five state championships between 1982 and ’86, and before that, had a run of six state titles between 1962 and ’67.
Those statistics that take on even more meaning when you consider the school’s enrollment numbered well below 100 students.
The memories remain vivid for Gallagher, who has rebounded from a serious heart attack earlier this year.
“Oh, they were great,” Gallagher said. “We had a good program for kids, and kids who grow up in a winning environment, they have something special.”
Gallagher believed the community’s mining roots dating back to the 1850s made for a special environment. He should know. His own father, Hugh, was born in Gold Hill in 1880. His grandfather, Neil, was a Comstock miner earlier than that.
“You had families that worked in the mines, and that brought out in them a tremendous amount of respect … to do everything they could to help their children,” he said.
In an era when students from first grade through 12th all went to the same school, most of the boys played basketball. Gallagher was always ready to help out, whether it was conducting clinics for first graders on a Saturday morning or simply handing over keys to the gym.
“I was playing organized basketball under the direction of Mr. Hugh Gallagher when I was in first grade. He had us doing layup drills and shooting from spots, and at that age, you’re throwing the ball up there, not shooting,” Bob Rudnick said. “Every Saturday, we would do this up on the hill. You could go to the school and play basketball anytime you wanted. All you had to do was go over to his house, he would give you the keys to the gym and tell you, ‘Just make sure and lock up when you’re through.'”
Rudnick and Bob Gallagher — born two days apart in September of 1954 — grew up together living just across the street from each other. They became known as the “Gold Dust Twins” and in 1972 were teammates on a state championship team.
Gallagher and his wife, Lola, have three children: Hugh, a high school All-American in the mid-1960s who went on to play at the University of Nevada, and is now a Reno-based consultant; Bob, former coach and now athletic administrator for Elko County; and Barb, an elementary school principal in Winnemucca.
“Up in Virginia City at the time, that was a big thing,” Bob Gallagher said. “You always had a ball in your hand and there was always a place to play. If you wanted to go in the gym, you’d go find my dad and he’d give you the keys. He always trusted the kids to make sure the facility would be taken care of and that it would be locked up afterward. Even if you couldn’t find him, you could always find an open window where you could crawl inside, and the basketballs would always be out there.”
Hugh Gallagher knew the key to establishing a successful high school program was to teach the fundamentals at an early age.
“We started them in first grade,” he said. “I tried to develop a personal goal for these kids; that those first graders in 12 years would bring Virginia City its first state championship. That’s how it worked out, too.”
The Muckers came into 1958-59 with high expectations after winning the Northern B division zone the season before, but they had to play under a new varsity coach after Gallagher announced he was going to step down from the post.
“We had seven or eight seniors so it looked like we were going to have a pretty good team,” said Andreasen, a freshman on that first state championship team. “We would have loved to have had him as our coach, but he just turned the team over to Frank Jordan. That’s the type of guy he is. He was never in it for the glory.”
The Muckers won the 1959 Northern B tournament with a 51-23 win over the then Dayton Haymakers, and a week later knocked down the state championship door with a 54-35 victory against Eureka.
The Muckers were willing to take on any opponent, and on Jan. 30, 1965, they traveled down the hill and defeated the high-powered Reno Huskies, 61-57.
“I was at that game,” Rudnick recalled. “I still remember the Reno fans doing a cheer, ‘Beat the Hillbillies.’ And then our fans responded with, ‘Beat East Verdi.’ It was all in good fun, though.
“Here I was, a 10-year-old boy going down to a high school basketball game to watch his idols and to dream of the time when he would have a chance to play.”
Hugh Gallagher Jr. scored 31 points in that game. Rollie Hess, who later played at Nevada and coached state championship teams at Incline High, also scored 17 points to celebrate his 16th birthday.
“We tried for years to schedule the big schools and none of them would play us,” Damon recalled. “Reno finally said they would play us and we went down to their place for the game. It wasn’t really that close, either. We had a big lead going into the fourth quarter.”
Lyle Damon and his wife, Karen, made up half of the high school’s teaching staff at the time.
“Those were the best times in the world,” Damon said. “I left in 1966 to go work on my Doctorate’s at USC, but it was a tough decision to leave Virginia City because the people up there treated us like kings.”
Coaches came and went — Jordan, Damon, Lonnie Moore and Andreasen, among others — and one of the reasons they came was Jake Lawlor, who coached at Virginia City in the 1930s and later became a Hall of Fame coach at the University of Nevada.
“Jake was kind of the guiding light in the background,” Gallagher said. “He sent some great coaches up to us. Those men were all great competitors and great teachers. You have to be a great teacher to be a successful coach. And those men did the job in the gym, and they did the job in the classroom.”
Another of Virginia City’s successful coaches was Fred Gladding, who played at Virginia City and later guided the Muckers to prominence in the 1980s.
“Fred Gladding was one of the greatest,” Gallagher said. “His teams had 90-some consecutive wins. That really is amazing.”
The Muckers were so successful during that time — they won five straight B division championships between 1982 and ’86 — Hess never experienced defeat on the court in his four years of high school. The school’s tradition played a role in that, Hess remembers.
“A big goal of ours was always to try and match what they had done,” he said. “When you get some of the old-timers and the alumni together, they always talk about who had the best team. The mystery has never been solved, but I know it will be discussed for the next 100 years or so.”
And, of course, the name is still Mr. Gallagher. Always.
“He never gets old, nor will anybody ever let him. That’s not allowed. He’s one of those guys you expect to be there for your kids and your grand kids,” Rudnick said. “To this day, I still call him Mr. Gallagher. It’s never been Hugh. Just Mr. Gallagher.”