Sunday Profile: Everybody has a story — including the storyteller
For the better part of a decade, Walter Gallacher has helped give voice to hundreds of locals in his “Immigrant Stories” series on the radio and in print. He’s a firm believer that everyone has a story to tell – and he’s no exception.
Gallacher, 68, is a Glenwood Springs native with deep local roots.
“On my mother’s side, they go quite a ways back,” he explained. “They were teamsters in Aspen in the silver days, then after silver went bust, they moved down around Divide Creek.”
His father, a Scot with famine Irish roots, had enlisted as a pharmacist in the Navy and ended up assigned to the Hotel Colorado during World War II.
“I came from humble roots,” Gallacher said. “One of the most important people in my life is my grandmother, who came from poverty … My grandfather queued up for work. He was just trying to get by. I can see that in my own community.”
He recalls being struck by the plight of the downtrodden and marginalized at a young age.
“I grew up seeing the civil rights movement played out on television,” he said. “It was something I was really moved by.”
So, after graduating from high school and spending two years at Mesa State College in Grand Junction, Gallacher decided to pursue a degree in sociology at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
“I thought sociology was some way I could help make a difference,” he recalled. “I learned pretty quickly that it was a more objective study than hands on.”
Gallacher found his true education while working on his masters on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. His stay, which ran from 1968 to 1976, included the infamous Wounded Knee incident – a standoff between Native American rights activists and the federal government.
“It was a really tumultuous time on the rez,” Gallacher recalled.
“It’s unbelievable what they have had to endure,” he added.
His own work was less flashy but perhaps more enduring. The courses he helped establish during his years there have since evolved into the Oglala Lakota College.
He also got involved in a small newspaper, the Shannon County News.
“Journalism started to be something that I thought about,” he recalled. “I got some seat-of-the-pants experience. We did everything. We had to shoot photos, write stories and paste it up.”
He considers himself the main beneficiary of his time there.
“I went to help the Indians and they ended up helping me,” he said. “I learned a lot.”
That’s not to say it was always easy.
BACK TO THE MOUNTAINS
“I was a child of the mountains and here I was on the Plains. It was flat and desperately poor. It felt pretty foreign,” he said. “Oftentimes I felt like people didn’t want me there, but I learned eventually that they’re just shy. The white do-gooders often don’t stay very long, so they don’t necessarily want to invest in a relationship.”
He recalls being asked why he wasn’t at home with his own people, and in the end he heeded the call of the mountains.
“I was in love on the rez and that relationship went to hell, so I came back broken-hearted, but I came back to a strong family and a small-town clan,” he said. “We’ve been left with the idea that you’re supposed to go off and do something else, but more and more people are seeing the real beauty behind small-town life.”
He managed to combine his teaching and journalistic experience in a position as a publications specialist at Colorado Mountain College.
He settled into something of a routine until he met Sarah Hess.
“I didn’t know I was going to be a family man or had it in me,” he said. “I thought I was going to be an uncle for the rest of my life, but I fell in love with this woman and it all made sense.”
They married and had a pair of kids. His son even ended up back on the same reservation for years through Teach for America.
“It was a trip to take him back to the place where I was when I was his age,” Gallacher said. “I’d been back, but it was like seeing it through my young eyes again. One of the things that’s disturbing to me is that life on the rez is still really really hard for people. That doesn’t seem to have changed much.”
FEAR FROM NOT KNOWING
In 2005, Gallacher had the option to retire from CMC and decided to take it.
“It was time to switch gears and do other things,” he said.
He ended up serving on a board of locals who wanted to ease the immigration process for a growing influx of Latinos. In 2007, he pitched the idea for a radio program focusing on immigrants.
“Stories are done mostly by the established community, and there’s a whole part of our community that doesn’t get in the paper or on the radio,” he explained. “People don’t know, and out of not knowing comes fear.”
The group assigned him to the task.
“I hadn’t done radio at all, but I approached KDNK,” he said. “They helped me learn radio enough to do a story.”
From the beginning, he made a point of highlighting not just newcomers, but also those who came to the area years or decades before.
“I knew it wouldn’t be effective if it was just Latino stories told again and again,” he said. “When you think about the fact that we’re all immigrants from somewhere, it’s not that different. The Italians came here and suffered some of the same indignities and prejudice that the Latinos have been subjected to.”
Over time, he has learned how to conduct an interview by mostly staying out of the way.
“I’m there to introduce that person and allow them to tell their story,” he said. “You have to go gently and ask permission, but people most often want to tell it. I suppose it’s a way to let go of it. For some of these folks, it’s one of the first times they’ve talked about it to someone. You have to be very careful. Oftentimes you’re opening doors to some trauma people have locked away for a while.”
In the end, it’s worth it.
“It enriched my life. To sit down one on one in a quiet room with somebody and listen to their story is a very powerful thing. You can’t have that kind of human exchange without moving to a different level of a relationship,” he said. “I hope it does the same for the community. It’s still around, so there must be something to it.
“I think that fear and loathing is always present, and it’s our job as a society to advance and treat people with the dignity they deserve,” he added. “We’re not making progress until you listen to the people’s story.”
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