Regis University remembers Dennis Gallagher

Dennis Gallagher, an activist, scholar, teacher, public servant, podcaster, staunch Catholic and rabble rouser whose passion for his hometown — Denver — and his alma mater — Regis University — seemed to be his life’s blood, died April 22 after a brief illness. He was 82.

Perhaps best known for the controversial 1982 amendment to the Colorado constitution that bore his name, Gallagher was for decades a fixture in Denver and Colorado politics and in Regis classrooms, both as student and teacher.

A proud native of northwest Denver, Gallagher graduated from Holy Family High School, then majored in English at Regis. As a student at Regis in the late 1950s, Gallagher fell under the spell of professor and noted James Joyce scholar Rev. Robert Boyle, S.J., who ignited in Gallagher a love of the Irish author that lasted a lifetime. “When he built his new house, he had the door made to look exactly like the door to James Joyce’s house in Dublin,” said longtime friend Phil Farley.

Farley recalled that as a student at Regis, Gallagher formed a club to celebrate his heritage. The Irish Regis Association became one of the more popular clubs on campus, Farley said. “We had really great parties that were probably against all Regis regulations.”

Less successful, Farley said, was Gallagher’s attempt to start a club dedicated to learning Gaelic. “I lasted about two weeks.”

After graduating from Regis in 1961, Gallagher earned a master’s degree from The Catholic University of America. At Regis he taught Greek, Latin and speech.

Gallagher continued teaching part-time as he launched a political career that spanned four decades.  In 1970, he was elected to the Colorado State House of Representatives, where he served two terms before moving to the state senate where he served 20 years. He later served two terms as a Denver city councilman and three terms as Denver auditor.

A gifted orator fond of quoting Shakespeare — and Joyce — Gallagher was recognized for leading the successful effort to save the northwest Denver duplex where Israeli Prime Minister Gold Meir lived as a child. “The Saturday before it was to be torn down in 1981 . . . I crawled under the construction fence to have a last look. I felt like Indiana Jones without the cool felt hat . . .” Gallagher wrote about the incident earlier this year in the Denver North Star.

 As auditor, his last elected office, Gallagher elevated the position from obscurity to high-profile with often searing evaluations of city spending on projects like its homelessness initiative and hotel construction at Denver International Airport. He also treated Denver residents to regular emailed updates about the city’s financial situation.

“The auditor is kind of like the dentist,” Gallagher told The Denver Post days before he left that office.  “The dentist doesn’t tell you about the good teeth. He tells you about the bad teeth.”

In an earlier era, Gallagher might have been called a Renaissance man, with interests and abilities ranging from calligraphy – a talent he displayed prominently on his Facebook page — to the plight of Jews in the former U.S.S.R. “He was interested in everything.” Farley said.

Farley and Gallagher were part of a group of Regis classmates who met monthly for years at the Willis Case Golf Course in northwest Denver. “He always made us laugh,” Farley said. “But he laughed at us, too. He was a good listener.”

Despite being officially retired, Gallagher’s last years were anything but serene and uneventful. He continued his decades-long tradition of hosting St. Patrick’s Day parties. In 2021, at age 81, he launched a podcast, Gallagher’s World, on which the witty and outspoken former legislator held forth on topics ranging from the history of the U.S. Constitution to the historic role of the Ku Klux Klan in Colorado politics.

He campaigned vigorously on behalf of Jamie Giellis in her unsuccessful 2019 effort to deny Denver Mayor Michael Hancock a third term, then fought vigorously against repeal of the controversial constitutional amendment that bore his name. Gallagher championed the amendment in the early 1980s, when so-called “taxpayer revolts” limiting tax increases were sweeping the country. The amendment’s aim was to shift property tax burden from homeowners to businesses, and between its adoption in 1982 and repeal in 2020, the Gallagher amendment saved Colorado homeowners an estimated $35 billion in taxes. But critics charged the savings came at the expense of needed funding for schools and other public entities.

“Dennis never slowed down,” his longtime friend Clay Vigoda told Denverite this week. “If you asked, he would have told you it was his Jesuit upbringing and education. He would always talk about leaving the city a better place than you found it, and I think he took that to heart.

Gallagher is survived by his son, Danny Gallagher and brother Tim Gallagher. He was preceded in death by his daughter, Meaghan Gallagher.