By Christine Graf
Whippany’s Thomas “Ace” Gallagher was walking his son, Danny, to school in 2006 when he noticed a potentially hazardous situation. At the time, Danny was a third grader at Salem Drive Elementary School.
“I noticed some dangerous tree limbs hanging over the path,” said Gallagher, owner of Ace Gallagher’s Stump Grinding Services. He has worked in the tree industry since 1986 and started his stump grinding business in 1989. He works with a network of more than 170 landscape and tree companies. He also works on federal projects at locations including Ellis Island, Liberty Island, and Breezy Point.
When Gallagher contacted the district superintendent to report the hazards that existed on the walking path, he was told the school district had no money budgeted for tree maintenance. As a result, he volunteered to take care of the problem himself.
“I said, ‘I can come over here and take care of this myself on Saturday with a couple of guys,’” he said. “To make a long story short, we went over there and did it. It came out beautifully and took us about an hour.”
A few days later, Gallagher told his wife, Sheilah, that he had an idea. “I figured that every school was the same—that they had no budget for preventative tree care and maintenance. So, I said that if we did this on a larger scale and got everyone together at one school for one day, we could probably save the districts a lot of money,” he said. The next day, he decided on a name for the program he envisioned. It would be called One Day One School.
The first One Day One School event took place at Ridgedale Middle School in Florham Park in June 2007. As word of the program began to spread, Gallagher said his phone started to “ring off the hook.” One of those calls was from the Tree Care Industry Association Magazine, the most widely read periodical in the tree care industry. After they published a story on One Day One School, many of their readers were inspired by what Gallagher and his team were doing. As a result, similar projects were started in several other states.
One Day One School has grown dramatically since it began in 2007. Gallagher estimates it has saved local school districts in excess of one million dollars. When the program first began, its focus was on safety. By identifying and removing hazardous trees and tree limbs from school grounds, Gallagher’s team of volunteers are able to make schools safer for students. It wasn’t until later that a beautification component was incorporated into One Day One School.
The beautification idea came from Gallagher’s lifelong friend, Ralph Politi, Jr. According to Gallagher, Politi said, “I appreciate all of the great work you do, but you have to get more into beautification and not just cutting down hazardous trees. You guys do such a great job and work so hard, but a lot of people don’t notice. When you roll into a school people notice when the plants are colorful, and the mulch is fresh.”
Politi told Gallagher he would join the One Day One School team and handle the beautification component. “He said, ‘I’ll work with you and we will make it bigger and better than ever,” said Gallagher.
Politi delivered on his promise and helped to expand the program in a very big way. “His idea of the beautification aspect really put us on the map,” said Gallagher. “We started removing invasive species and putting in plants that are native to the area and putting in plants that would bloom every year. We would make the school look beautiful–not just go in and cut things down and leave it looking barren.”
During Politi’s first year of involvement, he told Gallagher that Gennaro Forte from The Godfather Pizzeria in East Hanover was going to donate 50 pizzas on the day of the event. “I said, ‘What are we going to do with 50 pizzas?’ But, Ralph always thought big. Together, we were the perfect storm,” said Gallagher with a laugh.
Gallagher never imagined there would be enough volunteers to eat 50 pizzas as well as the hot dogs that are barbecued after each year’s event. He was wrong.
“I thought if we had 50 volunteers, we would have been good,” he said. “We had 300 shirts to give out, and we ran out of them really fast.” There weren’t enough shirts for all of the volunteers who showed up that day.
Politi, a local business owner and board of education member, was especially good at recruiting volunteers and soliciting donations. “He knew everyone. Everyone loved him. Everybody loved his family,” said Gallagher. “He was a great, great guy.”
In May 2012, Politi was walking when he was struck and killed by a drunk driver. He was just 49 years old and left behind a wife and twin daughters. “It’s still unbelievable to us,” said Gallagher.
This year’s One Day One School event will take place simultaneously at three different schools in the Hanover Park Regional High School District (the tentative date is the second Saturday in October with the third Saturday as the rain date). Sixteen tree companies and twelve landscaping companies will be volunteering their services. Planning for the event will begin this summer.
“There is extensive planning involved,” said Gallagher. “We have a crew of eight to ten people who meet three months out. We do several property walk throughs and do tree analyses and look for hazardous limbs. We make color coded maps and designate specific companies to work in specific areas. If a company is really good at removal, that doesn’t mean they are good at pruning. With our resources, we put the right tree company in the right spot.”
All tree and landscape companies are vetted and must submit proof of insurance before they can volunteer their services. “We look at their three to five-year loss plans. We want to make sure that if we don’t know them firsthand that we know that they aren’t reckless,” said Gallagher. On the day of the event, access to dangerous areas—called red zones—is restricted and police officers are on hand.
Gallagher expects this year’s event to bring out hundreds of volunteers including families, students, teachers, administrators, PTA members, Board of Education members, local politicians, public service employees, scouts, school athletes, Knights of Columbus members, and many others.
“When a young kid is working side by side with the superintendent of schools, the superintendent of public works, or the chief of police, it is an example of working together as a community in the truest sense,” said Gallagher. “It is a true private/public partnership at work.”
One Day One School receives a tremendous amount of support from local businesses. They donate everything from hot dogs to work gloves. According to Gallagher, Mark Macaluso and Brian Foran from the Department of Public Works are also “great, great assets” to the program. Bandit Industries, the world’s second largest manufacturer of forestry equipment, is a major partner in the initiative.
Gallagher said it would be impossible to name everyone who works to make One Day One School the success that it is, but he credits his wife, Sheilah, 22-year-old son, Danny, and 14-year-old daughter, Katie, for supporting both the event and his involvement in it. “My family makes a lot of sacrifices in order for me to make this happen,” he said.
In 2009, One Day One School was awarded The New Jersey Green Achievement Award for Excellence in Forestry. The award is presented by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s Park and Forestry Division.
When Gallagher was invited to the awards ceremony, he said his attendance was conditional. “I said, ‘I’m only a piece of this. It’s got to be our whole group. I’m not going to do that to this team.’ They called me a half hour later and said to bring the whole group down,” said Gallagher. “There are no heroes in this. We are a team.”
For Gallagher, his involvement in One Day One School has led him into the public service arena. He served as a member of his school district’s Board of Education, and he is entering his sixth year as a Hanover Committeeman.
He decided to get involved in both the school board and local politics only after being repeatedly urged to do so by friends and colleagues. “People thought I had a practical way of getting things done,” he said.
Although he admits he never imagined himself in politics, he said he enjoys the job 95 percent of the time. “I like listening, getting things done, finding solutions to problems. You just have to keep your ear to the ground, care about people, and have a little bit of courage,” he said.
When asked about the other five percent, Gallagher said the speed at which things move in government can be discouraging. “It’s frustrating because you can’t get things done overnight. Things don’t move fast enough.”
Gallagher’s schedule is busy, but he remains committed to One Day One School. Each year’s event is held in memory of Ralph Politi, Jr. “We say it’s in memory of Ralph, but we consider him still part of our team,” said Gallagher. “When we had meetings, he was the loudest guy in the room the funniest guy in the room. We feel like he is still with us.”