Jim Callahan was among the last of the two-fisted journalists who could turn a phrase and complement it with his own photograph. Raised in a family of nine children, he was a kid from King of Prussia, Pennsylvania–growly, disheveled, outspoken, sweet, sour–who arrived in Bridgeport in the late 1970s geared up to take on politicians, storm meetings, get tossed out of meetings in a gritty city that became his journalistic political playground. It was his life. Callahan on Sunday died in hospice care in West Chester, Pennsylvania suffering throat and esophageal cancer. He was 62.
Just weeks before his passing he managed a balanced perspective. “More people have died than are alive right now,” the OIB correspondent whispered in a radiation-influenced response. He sounded at peace recognizing the end was close.
As a reporter, Callahan didn’t care if you were white, black, brown, purple; male, female; young, old; Democrat, Republican or something in between, he treated just about everyone the same. That didn’t mean everyone treated him the same. For some he was an acquired taste, including former Mayor John Mandanici with whom Callahan butted heads when he was a political reporter for The Telegram, a predecessor paper of the Connecticut Post. Callahan pretty much had universal skepticism for anything with too much power–political parties, organized religion or corporate institutions. Callahan and Mandy never hit it off. One night Callahan dared to ask the mayor too many questions at a political meeting. In an era with no imbedded cameras, the mayor’s people shoved Callahan down a flight of stairs and out the door.
Callahan stormed back to the newsroom bruised, cranky; determined to write about the meeting but not what happened to him. I was a pimple-faced reporter who really didn’t have a clue. “They throw you down a flight of stairs and you’re not gonna write about it?” I wondered. “You have to protect yourself.”
“No,” he snarled, “I’m not gonna let them get the best of me.”
I thought Callahan had a warped perspective on getting “the best of me” but in time I’d learn that was his way. To him readers didn’t care he was thrown down a flight of stairs, they only cared about news from the political event.
When it came to Bridgeport politics Callahan ably described what most universally agreed but could not quite articulate: “A rat’s nest of infighting, back-stabbing and double-dealing.”
Callahan had a healthy distrust for things proclaimed by ambitious public officials. There was the day circa 1981 when a young United States Attorney Richard Blumenthal (now U.S. Senator) declared it could be that a body fished out of the East River in New York City was that of Hell’s Angels Danny Bifield who had escaped from a Bridgeport jail. Some news outlets went with the story. Callahan wasn’t sure. Some editors leaned on Callahan to write the story. He barked back saying he didn’t have enough. Turned out it wasn’t Bifield’s body. Bifield had holed up with a girlfriend in Bridgeport watching the whole thing play out on statewide television. When the dust settled he slipped out of the city and wasn’t captured until about six months later in Colorado.
Callahan wrote about cops and robbers, but politics was his sport. His eye vision wasn’t the best but he had a nose for a story and a camera poised at the right moment. It came into play during the 1989 Democratic mayoral convention in Bridgeport when Callahan served as editor of the community weekly newspaper the Bridgeport Light. Prior to the endorsement, political rivals Mario Testa (today the town chairman) and Mike Rizzitelli were going back and forth about this and that. It was intense. Callahan reached for his camera, a fight broke out and Testa and Rizzy fell into his camera. The photo won a statewide journalism award for spot news.
Callahan had a weakness. He drank entirely too much, which cost him a marriage and relationships with two sons. It eventually caught up to him physically too, but not without an unexpected rebound. He was down for the count and nearly dead about six years ago in a Pennsylvania rooming house. No one thought he’d be able to give up the sauce. He surprised many. He stopped drinking, the Pennsylvania newspaper that let him go brought him back. In his spare time he wrote commentaries for OIB, sometimes providing on-the-ground assistance during election season.
A regular OIB reader, Callahan had hoped to come back to Bridgeport to lend reporter support in what is shaping up as a wild city mayoral election. Alas, it is not to be. More importantly, he reconnected with his sons in the past few weeks.
Callahan is gone in body, but his words and stories will last forever.