Forty years after her own ninth-grade graduation, alumna Heather Hummel Gallagher ’81 returned to the Greenwich Country Day School campus to address the Class of 2021. The selection of the award-winning author and photographer continued a Country Day tradition of having a member of the alumni community share their wisdom with the graduates. (She is not, however, the first one in her family to give a commencement speech. In 1985, her father Wally Ramsey, a legendary GCDS English teacher, also addressed the graduating class.)
Ms. Gallagher’s award-winning books include Gracefully, which won the Mature Media Award and Merit Award, and Whispers from the Heart, a New York Book Festival prize winner and a top “Books for Grownups” by Publishers Weekly. Heather’s second career is as a land and seascape photographer. Her work was represented by Agora Gallery in the Chelsea district of New York City in 2015.
As a ghostwriter, Ms. Gallagher has penned over a dozen books for philanthropists, public figures, politicians, and business leaders. She is a featured blogger in the Arts & Culture section of the Huffington Post. Television, print, and radio coverage for her clients’ books include: The Today Show; Publishers Weekly; USA Today and the Washington Post. Ms. Gallagher attended the University of Virginia where she graduated with honors.
“I have been asked to give a commencement speech at a time in history when it seems the most difficult to inspire anyone, especially graduating students,” said Ms. Gallagher. “But what intrigued me about this graduating class is that you are trailblazers . . . that’s why this opportunity to be only the second graduating class of Greenwich Country Day School seniors was appealing to you.”
Ms. Gallagher recounted her own experience of being a trailblazer. She pushed her way into the publishing world at a time where there was rapid change in the industry due to advances in technology. In spite of consolidation among book publishers and high rejection rates, Ms. Gallagher has had a successful and evolving career as a writer, author, and photographer.
Born without a pulmonary valve, Ms. Gallagher has had three open heart surgeries at ages 9, 25, and 49. She has had to courageously and patiently overcome the obstacles that her condition presented. She shared a memory with the graduates about her first surgery when she was in third grade:
“One day in third grade while I was sitting up in my bedroom right across the street at 430 Old Church Road, my entire class came across the street and sang to me,” she said. “I sat in my window looking down in our front yard as they sang, and while I can’t begin to tell you what songs they sang, I do remember the gesture—after all, isn’t it the gesture, not the words, that people tend to remember the most?”
Ms. Gallagher also shared some counter-intuitive wisdom. “I want to dispel the myth that winners never quit and quitters never win.”
Drawing from her own life experiences, Ms. Gallagher recounted how she left her small all-girls boarding school after the first semester to attend Greenwich High School, where she discovered her passion for photography. She also left a college at which her family had deep ties and transferred to the University of Virginia, where she earned a Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies in English and Secondary Education, a new major at the time.
Like her father, Ms. Gallagher became an English teacher. Yet, her passion for writing and photography drew her out of the classroom. Within a year, she had a book deal with McGraw Hill on a book, Gracefully, that she co-authored with her mother, Valerie Ramsey.
“Don’t be afraid to quit what wasn’t meant for you,” Ms. Gallagher concluded. “If it means following your passion and trusting yourself, continue to be a trailblazer and to write your own story.”