While standing in the back of a pickup truck that was decorated with banners and balloons, 19-year-old Brendan Gallagher was flanked by family and friends as he enjoyed his time in the spotlight as MacArthur High School’s first grand marshal.
Gallagher, who is autistic, waved to community members and clapped his hands as he led the school's homecoming parade Saturday. Sporting his honorary football jersey, No. 83, he raised his arms in the air and smiled when friends shouted, “Hi, Brendan!”
An avid sports fan, Gallagher, of Levittown, has rooted for the MacArthur High School Generals at every school sports event. For his support, the football and soccer teams have named him an honorary member.
“He was a big supporter in the stands and we just kind of took a liking to him,” said 18-year-old Michael Marrero, a MacArthur alumnus and former member of the football team. “He’s really been there for us and we’ve always been there for him, and it’s been a great relationship ever since.”
Gallagher was originally voted homecoming king, but his parents felt that the honor should be given to another student, said Gallagher’s father, 47-year-old Joseph Gallagher. Instead, the student body decided to give Gallagher the honorary title of MacArthur High School’s first grand marshal.
“It would’ve meant more to [another student],” Joseph Gallagher said. “It would have been a moment for him but a lifetime for someone else.”
As grand marshal, Gallagher was given a top hat and a sash when he arrived at the football field. Before the game, he had the honor of handing over the names of the 2013 homecoming king and queen, John Lewis and Rachel Walsh.
“He’s got a great family, they’re all very nice and respectful, and I’m glad that he got to lead the parade for us. It was a great experience,” said 17-year-old Lewis.
Before the game, Gallagher rallied cheers from the audience by jumping up and down in front of the stands.
Joseph Gallagher said that although his son’s verbal skills are limited, he works part-time at Old Navy and Stop & Shop while taking tech classes at G.C. Career and Technical High School in Levittown. He attends math, English and physical education classes at MacArthur High School in the afternoons.
Jenny Rausch, 17, one of Gallagher’s best friends, said she makes an effort to communicate with him on a daily basis because she understands that autism makes it difficult for a person to convey his feelings.
“Our whole school has such a big heart, and wants to make him happy, and wants to be his friend because he makes us all so happy here,” said Rausch.
Gallagher’s popularity reaches beyond the regular school day. Football team members visit his house often to watch televised football games and play video games. After the Generals won the homecoming game against the Elmont Memorial Spartans, 33-14, the whole team went to the Gallaghers’ home for dinner.
“Anywhere we go, everyone knows my son because of the kids in this school,” Joseph Gallagher said. “They made him a part of this community because of who they are, and for that, we’re so lucky.”