Joe Gallagher, left, with his son Brendan Gallagher at MacArthur High...

Joe Gallagher, left, with his son Brendan Gallagher at MacArthur High School's homecoming game on Oct. 26, 2013. Credit: Ann Luk

When Joe Gallagher saw the goodwill that the MacArthur High School football team in Levittown offered his son, who has autism, the father had to do something to show his thankfulness.

So Gallagher picked up his camera and became the unofficial photographer of many MacArthur games, practices and events, going out of his way to provide players and their families keepsake photos, said his wife, Maria Gallagher.

The football team "accepted Brendan, they embraced him," recalled Maria Gallagher, 54, of Levittown. Players made him feel part of the team, and even named him grand marshal during the homecoming parade in 2013. In turn, Joe Gallagher provided many game photos to players free of charge, she said.

"That's something he was honored to do," Maria Gallagher said. "It made him feel he was giving back."

Joe Gallagher died Dec. 17 at home. He was 54. The cause of death remains to be determined, said his wife, who said he had recently undergone neck surgery and had been diagnosed with pneumonia the evening of his death.

Gallagher's heart had long been close to MacArthur High School. He grew up in the surrounding Levittown community and attended the school, playing football and lacrosse, his wife said.

Ken Walther was his close friend back then. The two had known each other since junior high school.

Brendan Gallagher: Always a General

"We were typical goofballs from Levittown," recalled Walther, 53, of Wantagh. "We were beach rats out on Zach's Bay."

Gallagher met his future wife when he was a bouncer at the former Dublin Pub in New Hyde Park, and she was a singer in a pop band in the mid-'80s. They started dating a few months later and married in 1990.

Brendan, their only child, was born in 1994, and was diagnosed at age 3 with moderate to severe autism. As he grew, his parents saw he had difficulty communicating and he attended special classes. He started at MacArthur High School around 2009, his mother said.

"Joe couldn't do the things with Brendan that other dads did with their sons," Maria Gallagher said. Going to school football games and practices became a big thrill for both of them. "That was their father-and-son bond."

The football players took a shine to Brendan. They made Brendan an honorary team member, giving him his own jersey with the number 83. When Brendan was 19, he reveled in the spotlight of being the grand marshal of the homecoming parade, smiling and waving to people from the lead car. 

Joe Ryan played right tackle on the school team, and he remembers the impact that Joe and Brendan Gallagher had on the players. Ryan himself formed a strong bond with the elder Gallagher. The two had many conversations that started out about sports but ended up about life, he said.

"He became a second father figure," recalled Ryan, 22, of Wantagh. "He's the best man I've ever known, and we're going to do all we can to fill his giant shoes."

After Gallagher's death, the community started a GoFundMe account to help the family that has raised almost $40,000.

As for Brendan's effect on the football team, Ryan said, "He changed our lives more than we did his."

Beyond his community activities, Gallagher spent a dozen years driving trains for the Long Island Rail Road.

Brendan is 25, and his mother says it has been difficult for him to come to terms with his father's death.

"He's a little confused," his mother said. "I tell him, 'Daddy is now in heaven with nana, grandpa and grandma."

The funeral service was Dec. 23 at Chapey & Sons Funeral Home in Bethpage, followed by a burial at St. Charles Cemetery in Farmingdale.

Beyond his wife and son, Gallagher is survived by his father, Joseph R. Gallagher of The Villages, Florida; a brother, Chris Gallagher; and a sister, Patty Kipnes, both of Wantagh.

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