In 1971, when Paul Daniel Gallagher was only 25 —the ink on his doctoral degree barely dry — he became assistant to the founding College of Education dean at Florida International University.
By the time he retired in 2007 as Senior Vice President, Emeritus, Gallagher had held seven vice presidencies — a national record, according to FIU President Emeritus Modesto A. Maidique, who worked with Gallagher for 26 years, and called him one of the school’s “true founders.’’
Gallagher “clearly was one of the most influential figures in the history of the university,’’ FIU President Mark Rosenberg said on Wednesday, still reeling from the death of his longtime friend the previous day.
Gallagher, a Pennsylvania coal miner’s son — the fourth of eight children — born on Aug. 29, 1944, died at his home in St. Augustine. He was 68.
His wife, retired FIU professor Jo Gallagher, said he succumbed to a rare, fast-moving kidney cancer, diagnosed in early July.
She said he’d grown up poor in the town of West Hazleton, Pa., where kids played in the waste from open-pit mines, but his parents prized education.
Her husband went to a local branch of Pennsylvania State University, then the main campus in State College, and earned master’s and doctoral degrees from Florida State University. In addition to the College of Education post, Gallagher was FIU’s associate vice president for academic affairs, vice president for the North Campus, vice president for student affairs, provost, vice president for advancement, senior vice president for business and finance, and senior vice president and chief of staff in the Office of the President.
“I’m in denial,’’ Maidique acknowledged on Wednesday. “Three weeks ago he complained of back pain, but he was perfectly fine.’’
In retirement, Gallagher worked with Maidique to develop the Center for Leadership, where he served as faculty director of the Miami-Dade County Schools’ Principals Leadership Development Program.
Gallagher led FIU’s successful $275 million fundraising campaign and was a force behind the FIU Foundation, Inc. As the public university’s lobbyist in Tallahassee, he fought for the College of Law and the Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine, and against state budget cuts.
But his greatest pride was in creating the Golden Panthers football team.
“Paul was convinced that a football team would really help the university and there were many roadblocks,’’ recalled Patricia Telles-Irvin, former vice president of student affairs, now vice president of student affairs at Northwestern University. “He was steadfast, and worked with people to make it happen. He had me find funding for a band, and selected a coach ... He never missed a game,’’ home or away.
Gallagher told the Miami Herald that the school needed a team to enhance campus life, increase student and alumni loyalty, draw attention to FIU’s other sports, and raise FIU’s media profile.
When the Florida Board of Regents approved the football program in 2000, Gallagher, then senior vice president for business and finance, overseeing the athletic department, was thrilled.
“We feel great, terrific,’’ he said. “It took us longer than we planned to get to this point, but it leaves us in a far stronger position than we would have been. Right now I’m at the University of Florida, standing in Florida Field looking out on 84,000 seats and hoping someday we’ll have this at FIU.’’
Gallagher “leaves a trail of accomplishments, having been involved in every major initiative that moved the institution forward, beginning with the development of the Comprehensive University Presence (CUP) program that ushered in advanced and doctoral degrees at FIU in the 1980s, to the initiation and development of two strategic plans that helped to shape FIU in the 1990s and early 2000s,’’ Rosenberg said in a statement.
“Almost every construction project at FIU has had Paul’s distinct touch, including the Miami-Dade County Public Schools’ Carlos Finlay Elementary School... He was a major force in the addition of residence halls to the university and played a leading role in the steps culminating with the transition to Division I intercollegiate sports...’’
Rosenberg joked Gallagher was known for “vacation days’’ that he never took.
“He would announce days in advance that he would be off on a given day, only to show up on that day with a sheepish grin proudly declaring himself ‘on vacation,’ only to work the full day... That was his way of demonstrating his love for the institution.’’
“FIU was his passion,’’ said Jo Gallagher, who married her husband in Coconut Grove in 1977.
Her husband also loved to read — “five or six books at the same time’’ — and served on The Fair’s board of directors. She hadn’t yet met Paul Gallagher when he joined the FIU administration, invited by G. Wesley Sowards, the first Education College dean, whom he’d met during an academic trip to South Korea.
“It was a brand new university, he had a brand new PhD and a brand new job.’’
Telles-Irvin said Gallagher “knew no strangers. He had great compassion for those who are struggling. He was a mentor and a coach.’’
Her husband, Don Irvin, was among Gallagher’s closest friends, and a motorcycle pal when both couples lived in Gainesville, the Gallaghers’ intermediate stop between Miami and St. Augustine.
“He would spend hours at the Barnes & Noble reading every kind of book on leadership,’’ Irvin said. “He was immensely curious. He always wanted to learn.’’
In addition to his wife, Gallagher is survived by daughter Jennifer Jo Rau of Virginia; brothers Joseph and William, sisters Louise Volciak, Mary Ellen Rubright. and Catherine Pavlick, all of Pennsylvania, and brother Michael, of Missouri.
A celebration of his life will be held in South Florida after the fall semester starts.
Miami Herald Staff Writer Joan Chrissos contributed to this article.