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Wednesday, November 27, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bill Gallant, 1954-2002: Voice of radio, church loses cancer battle

Seattle Times staff reporter

Bill Gallant, a former radio-talk-show host who served as spokesman for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle during one of its most turbulent periods, died yesterday after a five-year battle with colon cancer. He was 48.

Archbishop Alex Brunett, Bishop George Thomas and Mr. Gallant's wife, Vanessa Gallant, were at his side when he died at 7:35 a.m. at Swedish Medical Center/First Hill. They described his passing as peaceful.

"Bill Gallant was an enormous blessing to the archdiocese, a close personal friend, and an outstanding Catholic," Brunett said in a statement. "His ministry was always characterized by quality, integrity and enthusiasm. He will be missed by all of us."

Mr. Gallant's 26-year career in public life included a two-month stint as press secretary for U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Bremerton, and a failed run for Congress in his home state of Maine. Here in Seattle, he gained recognition as a liberal, sometimes acerbic talk-show host at various times for the KIRO, KING and KOMO radio stations, then moved to Northwest Cable News as executive producer in 1998.

Change in careers

But it was his short career, beginning in 2000, as Brunett's spokesman that he looked to as the defining time in his life, say those who knew him.

Mr. Gallant, a Catholic himself, helped orchestrate an aggressive public-affairs strategy aimed at making the Seattle Archdiocese a force in public life.

When Alaska Airlines Flight 261 crashed off the coast of California in 2000 — killing all on board including 16 Catholics from the Seattle area — Mr. Gallant persuaded NBC-TV to put Brunett on the "Today" show to help viewers make sense of the tragedy.

"He hit a home run," Mr. Gallant said of Brunett's appearance at the time.

Among his first conversations with Brunett was how to reach out to the tens of thousands of Catholics in the 800,000-member archdiocese who don't go to church.

The solution: a weekly television show. Mr. Gallant plucked longtime Seattle television producer Terry Murphy to produce "Northwest Catholic," and the two settled on a format that was part Charlie Rose-like intimate interviews, part "Evening Magazine"-type features.

The half-hour show on Saturday mornings debuted in October 2001.

The local spotlight hit Mr. Gallant again this year as a national scandal hit the Seattle archdiocese. One by one, allegations of sexual abuse by priests in Western Washington surfaced, followed by lawsuits.

Mr. Gallant stressed the reforms made by the archdiocese in the 1980s to root out abusive priests, and guardedly shared information about past allegations. But the archdiocese refused to disclose how many of its clergy had been accused of sexual abuse in the past and how much money had been spent in settlements — often leading to spirited confrontations between Mr. Gallant and reporters.

Staff members within the archdiocese marveled at Mr. Gallant's energy, even in the throes of his illness.

"He had such an incredible constitution," said Murphy. "We were amazed he could put in 14-, 15-hour days, particularly during the crisis."

Mr. Gallant disappeared every Thursday afternoon for chemotherapy — "he used to call it happy hour" — but invariably returned to finish the workday, Murphy recalled.

Sharing the news

Mr. Gallant was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1997 while he was an afternoon host on talk-news station KOMO-AM. He underwent surgery, but by then the cancer had spread to his liver.

He shared the news with his listeners. "I wanted to tell you, tell you not to worry and tell you to keep good thoughts and send that positive energy," Mr. Gallant said. "One is humbled by this kind of experience."

His conditioned worsened this summer and fall, but he continued working right up until this past weekend, when he was hospitalized, said Kathy Johnson, the archdiocese's associate director of communications.

Mr. Gallant began his broadcasting career as an airman in the U.S. Air Force in 1974, then joined WABI-TV in Bangor, Maine, as an anchor and reporter. After a short stint as spokesman for Dicks in 1979, Mr. Gallant returned to broadcasting. He worked as a political reporter and talk-show host on KIRO from 1979 to 1984, then returned to Bangor for a run at the U.S. Congress.

He returned to Seattle in 1985 and joined KING Broadcasting, then hosted "The Bill Gallant Show" on KIRO radio from 1991 to 1996. His next stop was at KOMO radio, hosting "Chronicles," before taking the executive producer job at Northwest Cable News.

"He was a great radio professional who always added depth of understanding to the news," said Ken Hatch, former head of KIRO radio and television.

Hatch said Mr. Gallant loved the work and enjoyed putting his personal spin on controversies. "He had strong opinions in an era when radio was just beginning to express strong opinions," Hatch said.

Strong faith

Throughout his career, Mr. Gallant and his wife were regular parishioners at St. James Cathedral. "Bill was a fellow with a very deep faith, and it was a very simple and strong faith," said the Very Rev. Michael G. Ryan, pastor of St. James.

Even as Mr. Gallant answered relentless questions from reporters and parishioners about abusive priests, his "faith was unshakable," Ryan said.

"For him I think it was a dream job," Ryan said. "He loved it, and it stemmed from the fact that he believed in the church and its mission, and while he could understand the failings of some of us, his faith won out, he knew it was bigger than the failings of a few."

In addition to his wife, Mr. Gallant is survived by his mother, Ethel Gallant of Bangor, Maine; sisters Margaret Caruso of Braintree, Mass., and Cynthia Garrison of Valrico, Fla.; and brother, Kirby Gallant, of Bucksport, Maine.

A vigil service will be held at St. James Cathedral at 7:30 p.m. Monday. The funeral will be held at the cathedral at 2 p.m. Tuesday.

Ray Rivera: 206-464-2926 or rayrivera@seattletimes.com.

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