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Nevada's system of higher education has come a long way since Dorothy Gallagher set her sights on making a difference.

Dorothy GallagherWhen Dorothy Gallagher died recently, so did a lot of history—and a bridge from the old Nevada to the new.

Gallagher was born in Elko in 1925.  She was a fourth-generation Nevadan.  Her father was Harvey Sewell, a longtime businessman.  He was a banker.  He and his two brothers owned a chain of stores, including ones in Elko and Las Vegas.  He also had a slaughterhouse and when he couldn’t get material during World War Two from the War Production Board, he simply told a senator from Nevada.  That senator, Pat McCarran, took him right to the main office in San Francisco, and told them to help Harvey Sewell.  They did.  Things are done differently now.

When Dorothy Sewell went to Reno to attend the University of Nevada in 1943, she met Thomas Gallagher, and married him in 1947, the year she graduated with a zoology degree  Like her family, Gallagher’s family had settled decades before in Ruby Valley.  He became a dentist and they returned to Elko, where Tom Gallagher practiced with his father and brother.  In fact, Tom Gallagher’s brother Morris, also a dentist, married Mary Lou Sewell … Dorothy’s sister.

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The Sewells were ranchers, and Dorothy helped with the family holdings in Lamoille, Diamond Valley and Pine Valley.  She served on the board of her father’s bank after his death.  She also was elected to a seat on the Elko County hospital board

After the ranches were sold, she ran for the board of regents.  She was elected in 1980 and served five terms.  She liked to say that her district ran from Idaho to Pahrump.  She was the board’s representative for rural Nevada.  The Gallaghers had supported the creation of the community college in Elko in the mid-1960s … something the state originally had nothing to do with.  Community members did it themselves.  The state eventually took charge and invested in it, with some financial help from Howard Hughes.

Gallagher believed strongly in the need for higher education in Elko.  She supported efforts to expand what was then Northern Nevada Community College into Great Basin College, a four-year school.  She said that if higher education had been available nearby, she wouldn’t have agreed.  But Elko was so far away from institutions that granted bachelor’s degrees that its residents needed the access.  She fought hard for her district on the board of regents, that’s for sure.

It’s a cliché to say she lived to see a lot of changes, but consider this.  Her father’s bank, Nevada National, almost merged with the Bank of Las Vegas, operated here by Parry Thomas and Jerome Mack.  Instead, it ended up merging with Security Pacific Bank.  THAT bank later merged with Bank of America, which also combined with the bank that Thomas and Mack built.

Dorothy Gallagher came from early Nevada ranching stock and lived to see the state reach a population of more than two-and-a-half million.  When her ancestors arrived, the only higher education in Nevada was a tiny school in Elko.  The campus moved to Reno and became a university, but she helped bring higher education back to Elko.  A bridge between the old Nevada and the new, indeed.

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Dan Klaich
KNPR's State of Nevada
KNPR's State of Nevada
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