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Profiles in Travel

One Man's Mount Vernon

His passion helps tourists record visits

June 14, 1998|MARYLOU TOUSIGNANT | WASHINGTON POST

MOUNT VERNON, Va. — The tiny black-and-white photograph in Ray Gallagher's wallet is as sharp and clear as his memory of the Sunday afternoon on which it was taken. The year was 1920. Ray was 6 then, a scrubbed-spiffy lad dressed up in knickers, stockings and a silk bow tie for a special family outing to Mount Vernon.

They rode the rail line from Camp Humphreys (now Ft. Belvoir), where John J. Gallagher, an Army staff sergeant, was stationed, traveling the few miles north to the Virginia riverfront estate of George Washington.

There, in a moment that no one in the Gallagher family fully appreciated at the time, John Gallagher got out his Brownie box camera, lined up his wife and two young sons in front of Washington's ivy-covered brick tomb and snapped their picture.

It was the documented beginning of Ray Gallagher's love affair with Mount Vernon, an enduring bond that has grown ever deeper over three-quarters of a century.

In good weather and occasionally bad, from spring into fall, not a week goes by that Gallagher, now 84 and long retired from his insurance business, does not visit Mount Vernon. This time of year, he shows up daily, prompting personal greetings of "Hello, Ray," from the ticket-takers as he goes through the turnstile.

Gallagher makes the daily pilgrimage from his nearby home not to brush up on Washington family lore (he knows plenty of that already) or to wander the 500-acre estate's lush grounds (although he enjoys the gardens and vistas). No, he goes for the simple reason of giving other visitors the same pleasure his father unwittingly gave him all those years ago: He goes to take people's pictures.

Perched near the columned piazza on the mansion's east side, or down the hill at the tomb built in 1831--two of the estate's prime picture-taking venues--Gallagher politely approaches families, school groups and other clusters of camera-laden tourists and asks whether they would like him to take their pictures, using their cameras, to give them a lasting memento of their visit.

A few are skeptical, or camera-shy perhaps. But most people seem pleased at the offer, their faces lighting up as Gallagher produces his billfold, shows them the photo of himself, Billy and their mother in 1920, and then regales them with stories from his colorful past. Such as the time in 1950 when he carried a Virginia ham all the way to Rome to present to the pope as a gift from the Alexandria (Va.) Jaycees, who were trying to recruit His Holiness as an honorary member. (Gallagher got his picture in newspapers around the world but never got to meet the pope. A Vatican monsignor accepted the ham on his behalf.)

"It's a pretty neat thing," said Jason Holleb, a San Francisco architect who heard some of Gallagher's tales during a visit to Mount Vernon a few weeks ago. "He gets so excited, you get caught up in it."

On a good day, if his energy keeps pace with the rapidly unloading tour buses, Gallagher will take 50 or more photos in two hours' time--snap, snap, snap, one right after the other, the cameras dangling from his thin arms like little black evening bags.

He claims as his personal best 85 photos taken last July 4, although Mary Gallagher, 71, says with a wink that her husband's numbers are prone to shift, depending on whom he's telling the story to.

Each morning it falls to Mary Gallagher to make her husband of 43 years a brown-bag lunch. She kisses him goodbye, like a mother sending her first-grader off to school. Be home by noon, she tells him, trying not to fret about whether he's overdoing it.

"It keeps him happy," she said.

When he isn't at Mount Vernon snapping photos, Gallagher is making plastic-bag time capsules filled with newspaper articles, magazines and whatnots he collects. With the permission of contractors, he has hidden his capsules in the walls of homes and businesses all over Alexandria. He estimates that there are 200 out there somewhere, their locations known only to him. "One hundred years from now, when someone finds them, they're going to have a great ready-made story," he said.

Dressed in his seersucker sports coat, matching suspenders, gray slacks and white shoes, with a sun-shielding hat planted firmly on his head and his name tag affixed to his jacket, Gallagher climbs behind the wheel of his 1972 gold Chrysler Newport--a conversation piece in itself, given that it's several feet too long for both his garage and the parking spaces at Mount Vernon--and begins the eight-mile drive down the George Washington Memorial Parkway to Washington's home.

Gallagher, an Irishman to the core, usually sings out loud the entire trip, ignoring the din and exhaust from the buses and cars speeding past his open driver's-side window. Twenty-five minutes later, he's in the upper garden at Mount Vernon, searching among the boxwoods for his first "victims," as he jokingly calls unsuspecting tourists.

Should a group prove a tough audience, Gallagher will reach into his coat pocket for his plastic kazoo. Name your state and he has a song to go with it, most of them committed to memory decades ago when he was the Boy Scout bugle champion of Alexandria.

Although his brushes with tourists are fleeting, Gallagher's picture-taking has led to some lasting friendships. Dozens of visitors from as far off as California have written him once they got home, many enclosing photos that they, in turn, took of him while at Mount Vernon.

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