As Diane Gallagher walks through BU’s Mugar Memorial Library, she finds herself flicking off light switches. The reason Gallagher, a nursing history and University archivist at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center on the library’s fifth floor, hates to see lights left on: she once lived in a cement apartment without electricity or running water.
Gallagher, 70, joined the Peace Corps in 1990 and lived in the Republic of Cape Verde off the coast of western Africa for three years, helping 25 women in the poor tin-shack towns establish a sewing association to raise money to build homes. “They had no houses, no money, no food,” she says. “But they had a lot of heart.”
This fall, Gallagher was honored for her service. After speaking at the annual AARP convention in Boston on September 4 about why the Peace Corps is an option for people over 50, she was presented with the lifetime achievement award from the President’s Council on Service and Civic Participation — the President’s Call to Service Award. “I was stunned,” she says. “I was speechless — and I’m never speechless.”
Gallagher was born and raised in Manhattan and attended Colby Sawyer College in New Hampshire. She spent a year at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of Theater after college, then began working for an advertising agency.
In 1961 the Peace Corps was founded, and Gallagher, newly married and expecting her first child, applied immediately, but wasn’t accepted because of her family situation. In 1989, after raising four children and working at Fidelity Investments, she decided to apply to the Peace Corps again. “It was always in the back of my mind,” she says. “I waited until my four kids graduated from college and had jobs and apartments of their own.” Then 53, she had to undergo rigorous medical tests before she was accepted. But the following year, she was on a plane to Africa.
Gallagher lived in a cement apartment, using candles for light, a bucket of water for bathing, and a cat to keep the rats away. “There was no radio, no TV, no phone, no car,” she says. “But you really don’t need all that stuff.”
Among the biggest challenges Gallagher faced were learning Portuguese and living in a climate with no humidity and temperatures often reaching 95 to 105 degrees. Eating mostly rice and beans, she lost 35 pounds. “But the hardest part was missing my family and not having a cold glass of beer,” she says.
Back in Boston, Gallagher had to become reacquainted with ATMs and grocery stores. “In Cape Verde I had a glass bottle of yogurt delivered every morning,” she says. “At the grocery store here you have 20 different kinds to choose from.”
Gallagher worked as a Peace Corps recruiter for five years and spent two years with the U.S. Census Bureau before joining the Gotlieb Center seven years ago. She works on new collections, handles researchers’ and scholars’ questions, and does presentations on BU’s history.
She has been back to Cape Verde. A year after her Peace Corps assignment ended, Gallagher returned to bring back a four-year-old boy to the adoptive family she had found for him. She was happy to see that the sewing association was still in operation. By that time, 27 percent of the women in the association were able to afford cement to build houses, so they no longer had to live in shacks made from tin barrels.
Although it took 30 years before Gallagher was able to join the Peace Corps, it was worth it. “You have to fight for the poor, which I did with great passion,” she says. “They have nobody to be their ombudsperson.”
Abby Jordan can be reached at email@example.com.