Gallagher ’62 Embraces JFK’s Challenge and Later Brings the World to Monmouth
In the early hours of October 14, 1960, John F. Kennedy proposed a bold new move in public service to about 10,000 bleary-eyed students on the steps of the University of Michigan’s student union in Ann Arbor.
Just a presidential candidate at the time, Kennedy challenged the throng of students who gathered to meet him at 2 o’clock in the morning while reporters and most others slept. Kennedy called on Americans to “do for their country” by joining an international volunteer organization.
Nearly five months later, with the help of Sargent Shriver (who later became its first director), President Kennedy signed an executive order establishing the Peace Corps—a familiar entity now, but at the time the idea was revolutionary and a bold contrast to the 500 military advisers sent into South Vietnam that same year. Kennedy hoped for 500 Peace Corps volunteers by the end of the year, but the response was immediate and overwhelming. More than 5,000 people applied by August.
Accepting Kennedy’s challenge was Tom Gallagher ’62, who packed his bags for Africa only five days after graduation in 1962 and became part of the first Peace Corps group to train in Washington, D.C. This would turn out to be just a precursor to many firsts for the son of an Irish immigrant.
While in training, he heard speeches from Earl Warren, Hubert Humphrey, and Margaret Meade. He also volunteered with Paul Tsongas. “Our group director, Harris Wofford (later a U.S. senator), held Martin Luther King’s right hand at the bridge at Selma,” recalled Gallagher.
“Every liberal in town wanted to have his or her picture taken with us,” he said, adding that he and his group, Ethiopia I, had tea with the Kennedys in the Green Room before departing, and were greeted by Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I in Addis Ababa.
Gallagher was assigned to a small town in Eritrea Province in northern Ethiopia. “Heady stuff for a 21-year-old kid who graduated from Monmouth,” he remembered, adding that there were frequent hangings in front of his house by Selassie’s troops, the first of which he experienced on Christmas morning of 1963.
It comes as no surprise that Gallagher became the first American supporter of the Eritrean revolution. “I stayed in touch with that heroic struggle during its entire 29-year history. After independence, I was one of the first country officers for Eritrea at the State Department. In that capacity, I was responsible for all official American contacts with Eritrea,” Gallagher said.
The Long Branch native seems to harbor no regrets and still holds a strong attachment to Africa in spite of the turbulent history he witnessed. “My two years in the Peace Corps were the best of my life. I’m still in touch with several of my students from those days as well as many of my fellow volunteers.”
Following his days in the Peace Corps, at age 34, Gallagher became the youngest chief of a diplomatic mission in modern United States history when he served as Consul General in Ecuador.
Fast forward five decades, and the 2014 Monmouth University Distinguished Alumni Award recipient, Thomas Gallagher, addressed a packed crowd in the Multipurpose Activity Center (MAC) on Founders’ Day.
Unceremoniously and without trepidation, the “retired” foreign service officer began by saying, “If I gave the speech that I am about to give when I was a student at this institution, I would have been expelled.”
And what a travesty that would have been.
Gallagher added, “My psychology professor at Monmouth taught me that homosexuality was a serious mental illness. Among the cures recommended by the American Psychiatric Association were electroconvulsive therapy and frontal lobotomy.”
Without skipping a beat and no dramatic lead-in needed, he said, “I later met that professor at a gay cruising area on the Asbury Park boardwalk. We pretended that we did not recognize one another.”
“A few days after starting training I was welcomed into federal service by the founder of the Peace Corps, John Kennedy,” Gallagher said. “Had he known of my sexual orientation, President Kennedy would have been forced to fire me as I was a criminal under American jurisprudence. The only crimes more serious than homosexuality were murder, rape, and treason.”
In spite of this, after hearing about the gay rights movement and feeling frustrated by the discriminatory treatment of gays, he became the first civil servant of any government in the world to voluntarily come out of the closet as a gay person in 1973.
His actions were so memorable that 39 years later, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton cited his courage in a speech in which she also announced that it is the policy of the U.S. government to support the rights of gay people in the foreign service and worldwide.
“Before they could fire me, I resigned from the job that bills itself as ‘The Best Job in the World’ – a job I had wanted since fourth grade,” said Gallagher.
During his respite from foreign service, Gallagher spent nearly 20 years in San Francisco running the largest public mental health clinic in the United States. The clinic won awards for its AIDS services during the worst years of the epidemic.
“Things began to change in the early 90s when Bill Clinton, God bless him, ended the policy of firing gay people from the diplomatic corps. As soon as I could, I returned to the State Department thinking that discrimination had ended. How wrong I was.”
In fact, his reappointment was delayed by seven months by the security service, but Gallagher remained steadfast in being committed to serving his country as well as those persecuted by injustices, all the while toting a positive attitude and an unrelenting spirit. But he urged the audience at Monmouth’s graduation ceremony to be aware of what still exists and realize that the rights of gays in countries like Brunei, Nigeria, Russia, South Africa, and Uganda are still being suppressed.
“But the fight is not over…We still have a long way to go…And for heaven’s sake, whatever you do, please don’t ever stop being carefree and frivolous.”