William James “Will” Gallagher, who enlisted in the Army at 16 and fought in some of the most harrowing battles in military history, used the leadership he learned in World War II to mount a huge undertaking: the first major revision of the Encyclopedia Britannica in nearly half a century.
As art director of the encyclopedia, he wrangled artists, cartographers, photographers and writers to craft a 1974 reference that was up-to-date and complete in the days when Google was merely the surname of a comic strip character called Barney.
It could be a nerve-wracking job. He and other makers of the book waited to see if Richard Nixon, embroiled in the Watergate scandal, would still be U.S. president as they prepared to go to press.
A gifted watercolorist, he exhibited at the Old Town Art Fair, the Bucktown Arts Fest and Around the Coyote.
“He was very rare in that he was a warrior and an artist,” said his brother-in-law, Bernie Judge.
Mr. Gallagher was assigned to the 101st Airborne’s 501 Parachute Infantry Regiment. At 17, he parachuted into the Netherlands and was struck by a bullet or shrapnel in Operation Market Garden, a daring airborne invasion behind enemy lines that would be immortalized in the book and movie “A Bridge Too Far.”
“He said they got out at about 800 feet,” said his friend Bob Parker. “They were in the air a very short time, or you would be an easy target.”
Later, he spent six months recovering from injuries suffered at the Battle of the Bulge.
Mr. Gallagher, 87, died July 12 at Blessing Hospital in downstate Quincy.
He felt the debt owed to American GIs when he traveled to the Netherlands for a 50th anniversary war commemoration. He visited a farm where glider pilots and paratroopers like himself landed in September 1944 for Operation Market Garden.
The farm had become holy ground. Its owner told him “a lot of the [American] veterans like to have their ashes scattered on that field,” said Cathy Gallagher, his wife of 30 years.
“When we were leaving, [the farm owner] took me by my shoulders and said, ‘Take care of him. He is my champion.’ ”
Mr. Gallagher also fought at the snowy Battle of the Bulge, which lasted from December 1944 to January 1945. “After Christmas at Bastogne [Belgium], they clashed somewhere there, and he said a German patrol went by him, and when the last guy came by, he came out of hiding and stabbed him,” Parker said.
It was only when he took another soldier to see a medic that a physician noted his terrible frostbite.
“There were stacks of boots of the guys who had been killed, and Will was going through those” to find a dry pair, his wife said. “He had taken his shoes and socks off, and a doctor walks by, and he said, ‘You’re going in the ambulance with the guy you brought in, or you’re going to lose your feet.’ ”
He spent months in the hospital recovering, then was shipped back to Europe to fight some more.
For the rest of his life, he felt twinges from that frozen month in the Ardennes Forest. “He had trouble with rehab and walking because of the nerve damage,” his wife said. Once, when he went out in the cold to cut a fresh Christmas tree, she looked down and saw “his hands were gray-white.”
Mr. Gallagher grew up on the Northwest Side and attended St. Philip High School at 3141 W. Jackson.
With the patriotic and romantic zeal of a young man outraged by the stealth attack at Pearl Harbor, he lied and said he was 18 so he could enlist. “He said he was born in 1925 instead of 1927,” Parker said.
Before being sent overseas, Mr. Gallagher spotted battle-hardened German POWs at Camp Grant near Rockford and wondered, briefly, if he had done the right thing, his wife said.
After the war, Mr. Gallagher worked in construction and studied at the School of the Art Institute before landing a job as an art teacher at Arlington Heights High School. One of his students was Ed Paschke, his wife said.
In the late 1960s, he began the first major reboot of Encyclopedia Britannica since 1929.
Former Ald. Mary Ann Smith (48th) was a recent college student when she went to work for him. “The place was chock-full of great artists and writers and editors,” she said. “He could handle a temperamental artist. He could handle the deadline pressures, the financial pressures, and he handled all the technology. He was a great boss.”
“He was as gracious to me as he was to the heads of the corporation,” Smith said.
For decades, Mr. Gallagher enjoyed attending the Indy 500. He followed the White Sox, and he liked setting up an ice rink in his yard so kids could skate.
“I love the way he paints,” said Helen Gagel, who owns his watercolors of Navy Pier and the Chicago skyline. “There’s a serenity about it, and just a beauty.”
In addition to his wife, Mr. Gallagher is survived by two daughters, Audrey and Jane; a son, Hugh; his sister,Margaret; his brother Ed; and a grandson.
Services were held at the Illinois Veterans’ Home in Quincy, with burial at Sunset Cemetery.