ELFERS — Like an old shoe, John Gallagher’s former desk still seemed to fit him perfectly, despite months of retirement following more than three decades as Pasco County administrator.
CARES Elfers Center obtained his desk and dedicated it as a historical exhibit in the century-old former schoolhouse – the same schoolhouse that Gallagher had helped save from the wrecking ball.
Gallagher’s trademark laugh rang through the halls of Elfers Center as he reminisced with CARES staff at the center.
“You’re looking great,” Bill Aycrigg, president and CEO of CARES, said as he greeted Gallagher.
Gallagher said he is used to getting peppered with questions about what he is doing in retirement, which began last June.
He is golfing and fishing, but primarily he is concentrating on renovating the house in which he grew up on Central Avenue in New Port Richey.
“I fixed it up so my daughter can move in there,” Gallagher said about the house with about 1,000 square feet.
“A lot of people asked me if I missed the job” as county administrator, Gallagher commented. “And I was fortunate enough to be able to hand them the keys and just turned it off. I said to myself, ‘I’m not part of the discussion’ ” any longer.
“I drove in on (S.R.) 54 this morning,” Aycrigg said. “There was more traffic coming into Pasco than there was going out. And I said, ‘that’s (the influence of) John Gallagher.’ On one hand I was backed up in traffic and cursing John. But at the same time, it was the business environment that you created here over 30 years. It just really has moved the county to where it is today.”
“I’m not sure I was that much business friendly,” Gallagher responded. “I always thought it was public money and you shouldn’t throw it away.”
Aycrigg pointed out that the boom in libraries, parks and other county services took place during Gallagher’s long tenure.
“Quality of life – that’s long term,” Aycrigg remarked.
Sitting down at his old desk, Gallagher tattled on himself about his early years.
“When I smoked, I used to keep an ashtray in here,” Gallagher remarked as he pulled open the upper left-hand drawer. “My wife (Judy) would show up now and then. She knew I smoked. So that drawer would get slammed (shut). Judy’s here.”
Starting in 1982, Gallagher might have wondered what he had gotten himself into at a time when many county elected leaders were under investigation for possible charges. Before his tenure, Gallagher recalled, the county had gone through 10 administrators in 10 years. Yet he assembled a long-lasting team that included Office of Management and Budget Director Mike Nurrenbrock and Dan Johnson, an assistant county administrator.
Center director Evie Parks paid tribute to Gallagher for helping to cobble together enough funds to save the historic structure from demolition. She said that 2,237 folks had visited Elfers Center in January alone.
That sparked memories of Gallagher’s childhood days, when his family once lived in an apartment not far from the old Elfers schoolhouse.
“Many kids went barefoot to school,” Gallagher reminisced. “That was not unusual back then. I remember during the summer I never wore shoes. We’d walk across blacktop, hot, never bothered us.”
Unlike Dade City and the eastern half of Pasco County, West Pasco developed much later and lacked very many historical structures, Gallagher said.
“Elfers has got some history,” Gallagher added. “They were going to tear this down,” he added, looking around at the schoolhouse building.
“Oh yes, three times,” Aycrigg interjected about destruction once contemplated for the Elfers center.
“It just took so long to get it done, but thank God it got done,” Gallagher said. The latest restoration efforts lasted nearly a decade before the Elfers center reopened in May 2013, complete with original floors.
Parks and volunteers surprised the venerable leader by gluing a plaque onto a desk drawer: “Historic desk … used by John Gallagher who serve as county administrator 1982 to 2013, a period of outstanding growth and advancement.”
Gallagher’s desk now adorns a corner of the Avery Branch of New Port Richey Public Library within the Elfers Center.
“I’ve got my name on two things,” Gallagher noted with a grin. “When I retired, the retirement party money went to help the animal shelter on a mobile (pet adoption) van. (Former County Commissioner) Mike Cox did all the hard work” on the project.
“It’s a good feeling to be retired,” Gallagher reflected. “I did my best that I could do for the county and I think it turned out all right.”