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Saturday, June 28, 2008 | Nearly every one of Pat Gallagher’s notable accomplishments is represented in a framed photograph or trophy on the dining room wall of her Hillcrest apartment. Over here: snapshots of a younger, bikini-clad Gallagher crouched next to her catch of shellfish on Mission Beach. Over there: headshots from her time as an officer in the Marine Corps. Up high: action shots from the Mexico Open competitions she won playing badminton.
One of 78-year-old Gallagher’s proudest accomplishments isn’t displayed on her wall, but she’s reminded of it every time she walks along the sand in Mission and Pacific beaches. She was a staunch advocate of widening the boardwalk earlier this decade, a feat she says she accomplished for the benefit of her fellow taxpayers despite threats to her life.
voiceofsandiego.org visited her apartment this week. Here are some highlights from the dozen or so tales Gallagher told that afternoon.
So you widened the Mission Beach boardwalk.
Yeah, I was sitting on the seawall with my back to the ocean just looking down Monterey Court one day. And the sun glinted on some survey marks, survey buttons, about the size of a nickel, about twelve feet back from the boardwalk. But I thought and thought and thought. That can’t be a survey button (property line marker), because it’s twelve feet back from the boardwalk. …
See, the boardwalk was built in 1930. It’s about the same age I am. The original owners had signed a statement with the city and … before you can get your house you have to sign a paper saying, the last twelve feet of my front yard really isn’t mine. It belongs to the taxpayers of San Diego and it is actually owned by the taxpayers and their guests. And at the time the city deems the boardwalk dangerous, we will at that time relinquish those twelve feet back to the original salt sand that we found it and turn it over to the city for boardwalk-widening. …
That’s a lot. That’s a lane. A good,
healthy lane. … The public still owns it, and no matter how long those damned Ocean Front (Walk) owners north of PB Drive sit on it, it still doesn’t mean it’s going to be theirs. Have the idea?
I wasn’t on the Mission Beach Precise Planning Board but I quickly got on it. … I wanted to be strong enough as an elected member to keep bringing the boardwalk up in front of the board. … And of course most of the people on the board were Ocean Front owners. They were on that board so that they could keep voting it down. … No one questioned conflict of interest until I did. …
I’m making the papers now, you see. First the Beach and Bay Press, the little grunion wrapper. People were snatching that away from neighbors and everything else to get the first word on what had Gallagher done now on the boardwalk. How far along were we?
So I connected with a group called SEA — Save Everyone’s Access. … I went to them with this issue and I said, “Before I even open up this issue to you, you have to understand — I’m a nobody. I’m simply a voter. I’m educated, and I’m traveled. And I was a world-class athlete for this country and I was an officer in the Marine Corps. Other than that, I don’t have a whole hell of a lot to hang my hat on. Except I’m not gutless, OK? And I’m going to stay at this until the boardwalk is widened, or I’m going to die in a wheelchair still trying to get back and forth to meetings. Oh, they laughed and said, “Well, how can we help you?” …
Then the Ocean Front owners amassed and made their own group. …
And the death threats started on the phones. … And over the phone they’d let me know how they were going to kill me and how long it was going to take. But I like competition; I’m a competitor. And I’ll tell you what. I’m armed, and I carry. And if I see the flash, you’ve missed. And there was never an attempt on my life that I’m aware of. I’d have killed them all. …
So here’s what we had to do. The crooked mayor made it real plain: Here were the hoops. We elected Byron Wear (as councilman for District 2). … We elected him, he stayed with us on the boardwalk. … There were two naysayers, but everyone else voted yes. And that meant we win. The last person voted and there was just a gasp in the audience. … Then of course, they all got together and sued us. And the city won.
You told SEA you were a world-class athlete. In what sport?
Well, I play badminton. It’s a very difficult sport, you know. (She pulls a book from her bookshelf.) This is the International Badminton Federation handbook from ’65. Mexico had the most famous tournament of all. The very first one, in ’49 and ’50, I didn’t play. I was in active duty in the Marines for El Toro Air Station. So the Marine Corps is not going to let me run around the world playing badminton.
Then in ’52, I said, I can beat [the U.S. women’s champion]. So I want to take a vacation from the Marine Corps. I want my leave and I want to fly to Mexico City and go beat her. So you can see who’s won the rest of ’em. I’m Pat Gallagher. Gallagher, Gallagher, Gallagher. All the way down to … ’64. It’s all together nine years. But there were some spots in there that the countries couldn’t play that were at war with each other.
I don’t know if you know about Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia. You’re listed as an Olympics participant from Mission Beach. You went to the Olympics, too?
No, I was in a full leg cast from here (gestures to her thigh) to the foot. I blew an ACL.
So this is why badminton never went professional in the United States. There were no professional badminton players. I’ve lost my whole body and I’ve never made a nickel. Best player goin’, and all it did was cost me money. However, Grays of England made my rackets.
I have one more question about badminton. You didn’t just play in the States, but you worked for (former Chilean dictator) Gen. Augusto Pinochet, right?
It’s actually Pino-SHET. And I’m sure that Augusto would agree with me. He is Augusto Pino-SHET. … I adored the man. I think he’s the greatest leader of my time.
How’d you find him?
They found me. They wanted to introduce badminton into secondary education. He was quite fond of JFK. And JFK backed badminton 100 percent, once he realized what this sport was all about. It’s the fastest sport in the world. … We were hitting damn near 200 miles an hour in the ’50s. There isn’t anything like that in tennis. Look at what your pitchers throw a baseball — what, 97, 100 miles an hour? And you can’t even track that with a human eye.
So JFK was a big badminton fan.
Oh yeah, big fan of badminton. He said the Navy’s basic training is going to include badminton. That didn’t work real well because it takes space to put in a badminton court. And each court is only good for four people, whereas you can get a whole lot of people in that space doing jumping jacks.
About six of us were asked to go down to Naval Training Center and give a demonstration. The Navy boys, they didn’t want to play badminton. That was a sissy sport. So they asked us to come down and put on a demonstration. And man, did we ever. Those sailors were left with their eyes wide open and their mouths hanging.
When JFK was killed that was kind of the end of military badminton. Of course, I was at El Toro and I’m still playing. I won my first championship. And the Marines just couldn’t wait to watch me train. And there was always somebody who thought Oh, I can beat her, she’s just a woman. So I took some enlisted guy that thought he was a jock. and I made sure that he understood that … “I’m going to give you 13 points. I’m going to give you the serve. I’m going to play a doubles court while you play a singles court. And I’m going to beat you 15-13.” Well, you know, that just brought the Marines in.
Was it through one of these, where you were out performing, that somebody contacted Pinochet?
No, no, he wanted to know who was the world’s best badminton player. And they said well, the very best is a man, a Thai man whose name was the longest name in the phone book. OK, so he said, that’s not going to work — I can’t be calling that guy. I can’t pronounce his name. Well, what about women? And so they said well, the women who’s also a teacher is Pat Gallagher.
“Gallagher?” he said. “We’ve got 13 pages of Gallaghers in the Santiago phone book. Get that woman.”
And so I taught teachers at the University of Chile. I taught teachers going into secondary education to teach badminton.
Did you interact with Pinochet a lot?
No. I did have two meetings with him. Neither about badminton. Both about a shellfish called a loco. It’s actually a giant limpet. Chileans called them locos, crazies. … And they taste exactly like abalone. I couldn’t tell the difference. And the anatomy looked just like that of an ab!
So what did Pinochet want to know about the limpet?
Oh, he didn’t want to know anything. I was the one telling him, “You’re nuts.” Because here’s what’s going to happen, and I can attest to it. The United States did a stupid thing and when (Jacques) Cousteau brought in compressed air, we didn’t make any rules. We made no rules; we just let them rape the coast. It only took about four years. We had no abalone, we had no lobster, we had no pismo clam. We had nothing. And I said, “You’re doing the same thing.”…
Every single morning, people who didn’t want to do anything else, or weren’t schooled to do anything else, would take burlap sacks and they’d have routes. … And then they walk up and down the avenues, real early in the morning. And each one has his own song. And it’s “Locos for sale. Se vende locos!” …
Well, how long do you think they’re going to keep that up until there are no more locos? They had no license. There was no limit. No one has studied how they reproduce. No one even knows if they reproduce. They don’t know the boys from the girls. They don’t know nothing. And the country lives on locos. And now Japan wants in. …
And I got a hold of Pinochet right away. … I explained to him that this can’t go on. And what I said made sense.
So it was five years that you lived there?
Did you ever have kids?
Nope, never married. Never stood still long enough. Still don’t have any desire. And you know, I’m 78 and there’s still a lot I want to do.
This kind of holds me back a little bit — I’ve had seven total hips. Replacements. My right shoulder’s artificial. Badminton took it. They’ve just fused the lumbar vertebrae (pulls out a photocopy of the x-ray). So — oh, I was wrestling sharks for a while.
There’s a lot I have trouble doing. But I haven’t run into anything I can’t do.
— Interview by KELLY BENNETT