This past week, Keene lost a woman whose life was marked by perseverance after personal tragedy.
A survivor of the one of the most horrific nightclub fires in U.S. history, Ann Marie (Clark) Gallagher went on to become a great-grandmother, a music fan and dancer, and a longtime employee of Antioch University New England.
She died Wednesday at age 90 at Bentley Commons in Keene, where she lived.
She is survived by children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
On Nov. 28, 1942, at age 15, Gallagher went to the Boston College-Holy Cross football game at Fenway Park with her parents, Clyde and Mabel Clark; her boyfriend, Fred Sharby Jr., a star running back for the Keene High School football team; and Fred’s parents, Fred Sr. and Hortense Sharby.
Afterward, they all went to a trendy Boston nightclub, the Cocoanut Grove, for dinner and dancing. Nearly 1,000 people were there — twice its legal capacity.
Disaster struck when a busboy lit a match in an attempt to replace a light bulb that another couple had taken out. The nightclub was filled with flammable materials, such as fake palm trees, and a flash fire engulfed the building. Gallagher and Hortense Sharby survived; Gallagher’s parents and the Sharby men did not. They were among the 492 people who lost their lives in the incident.
In a 2009 interview with The Sentinel, Gallagher said she was told she escaped through the one and only revolving front door upstairs, though she didn’t remember how she got out. She spent 24 days in the hospital, suffering from smoke inhalation.
In the years and decades following, she grappled with the trauma. In the same interview, she said she was uncomfortable in crowds and her hotel rooms had to be near an exit door; she was also especially disturbed by the similarities between the Cocoanut Grove fire and the 2003 nightclub fire at The Station in West Warwick, R.I., which killed 100 people.
“Those things never leave you,” she said.
Still, Gallagher was able to both carry on and contribute to her community for the rest of her life.
She eventually dated and married another classmate, the late Joseph Gallagher, and they were together for 53 years. They had four children: Timothy, Thomas, Susan and Patricia.
After raising her family, she went to work at Antioch University New England in Keene for about 20 years.
To her family, Gallagher was a vibrant character whose boundless enthusiasm touched many.
“She was the most positive woman you would ever meet,” said Carole Robinson, 78, of Sunapee, Gallagher’s youngest sister. Speaking Friday, Robinson recalled how Gallagher’s charm lit up those around her, including those at Bentley Commons, the senior living community in Keene where she spent her final days.
It was a character trait that came through against all odds, Robinson said.
For years, Gallagher shouldered scars left by the fire, rarely addressing the incident with her family but keeping it close in her thoughts, according to Robinson. It was only in recent years, attending commemorative events related to the fire, that she was able to fully open up about her thoughts, Robinson said.
After the tragedy of losing both parents, the family splintered, said Robinson, who was only 3 when it happened. Robinson, Gallagher and their sister Martha, now 82, lived with different families near Keene but didn’t see each other much. Robinson herself didn’t see Gallagher again until she was 9.
But once the sisters did meet, they stayed tight. They scheduled constant family events and holiday gatherings. They took trips and shared meals, the get-togethers growing grander as each sister married and raised a family of her own.
They made up for lost time, Robinson said — and they made the most of it.
“Our family just happened to have so much love,” Robinson said. “We had a lot of tragedy but we had a lot of love.”
And Gallagher, she said, was the energizing force that tied the three sisters together.
Patricia Aumand, Gallagher’s daughter, remembers her mother as the happiest — and wildest — in the room.
She was funny and charming, cheery and gregarious. She donated to blood drives, shopped local and kept strong roots in the Keene community, Aumand, 56, of North Hampton, said. She was a cool mom, who listened to the music of the day, from Santana to the Allman Brothers to Sting.
And she danced. Year after year, record after record, Gallagher came alive to the music she loved, taking her husband, Joseph, to clubs for as long as Aumand can remember.
“She had her second chance at life,” Aumand said, referencing the tragedy. “And she lived her life to the fullest.”