OIB Correspondent Jim Callahan Struggles For Life, But Not Perspective On Life–A Journalist’s Journey

Jim Callahan
Jim Callahan

Jim Callahan is among the last of the two-fisted journalists who can 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, 62 years old, is now struggling for his life in hospice care in Westchester, Pennsylvania knowing the end is near suffering from throat and esophageal cancer yet still maintaining a balanced perspective. “More people have died than are alive right now,” the OIB correspondent whispered in a radiation-influenced response Tuesday night. He sounded at peace recognizing the end is close.

Mario Testa, Mike Rizzitelli
A Jim Callahan classic taken in July of 1989 featuring the brawl between Mario Testa and Mike Rizzitelli.

As a scribe, 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 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 of 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.

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 support in what is shaping up as a wild city mayoral election. Alas, it is not to be, but more importantly he has reconnected with his sons in the past few days.

Callahan knows his days are numbered existing on end-of-life care but never the memories of his stories. Here’s a commentary he wrote in 2012 that disses the Nov. 6 charter question that if approved by voters would have given the mayor the power to appoint members to the Board of Education. City voters agreed with Callahan.

By JIM CALLAHAN

The people have the right to elect public officials. The proposed charter change involving the Board of Education takes that right away. Bridgeport should vote against this reform. The charter question calls for “educational governance reforms.” Reform of “educational governance” sounds good. Is it?

Broadly, the reform means the people are giving up their right to elect Board of Education members. Instead, the mayor will make the appointment with the approval of the City Council.

The theory goes the mayor will make better appointments, and they may be less controversial and political than elected Board of Education members. Will they really?

Politics is about government and government is about politics.

There is no provision that calls for the mayor to make “good” appointments. There is no provision that forbids the City Council from making “political” decisions.

Government–good and bad–is all about politics.

Mayor Bill Finch is a likely target, for good or bad. This should not be about Mayor Finch. You may like the mayor or dislike the mayor.

The mayor has expressed his dissatisfaction and frustration with public education in Bridgeport. It is well placed. The problems are well known and well stated. This is his suggested reform to the people. The suggestion should be rejected.

The Charter Revision Commission said in its report the reform “places a single publicly accountable official in charge rather than nine wannabe mayors immobilizing the school system with their petty squabbles, power grabs and turf protecting.”

Wannabe mayors? Petty squabbles, power grabs, turf protecting? This sounds like the City Council on an average day. There are 20 of them.

The Charter Revision Commission said under their proposal “the mayor and the City Council are the focal point for public support or derision.”

Using this theory, the public should concentrate existing public support or derision in city government even more.

No. Education is too important. The people should not allow this concentration of power into the hands of the mayor. That is where it will end. The mayor, if the person is a good politician, will finagle his appointments to the Board of Education on City Council after taking into account their petty squabbles, power grabs and turf protecting.

All Bridgeport mayors would presume to govern without the annoyance of the City Council. Mayor Finch might be worse in the opinion of some.

That is irrelevant.

This reform concentrates further power into the hands of the mayor, and makes government less accountable to the people.

The “reform” rewards this mayor for a crisis he largely manufactured. The “wannabe mayors” on the Board of Education were a minority of members who the administration conspired to strangle. There was always a majority of votes–just an unsilent minority they could not control.

The nomination of Board of Education members has been criticized as overly partisan, and under the control of the Democratic Town Committee. Minority representation to a second party is provided. The collapse of the Bridgeport Republican Party over the last two decades has allowed the votes for minority party representation to drift to a more radical faction of the Democratic Party, independent of the Democratic Town Committee.

This reform would quash that drift.

It should not be the people’s business to quash the representation of the community. This reform is against elected government.

Non-partisan elections where all winners must receive at least 50 percent of the votes is one solution to that “problem.” That is not on the ballot.

Suppression of the people to represent themselves is on the ballot.

Vote against it.

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23 comments

  1. My prayers go out to Jim, his family and friends, praying for God’s grace. Lennie, thanks for sharing these stories because we need to give roses to those while they are still with us. Hopefully his spirit of getting the story right rubs off. Jim’s position in his letter about the BBOE is a roadmap and a civic lesson for all of us. Reading Jim’s articles over the years put you right inside of what was going on in Bridgeport, it’s sad that style of reporting is gone.

  2. I always paid attention to you, Jim. A couple of invaluable conversations I had with you at the Austin Street Café, old Club on Goodsell Street and elsewhere that you were paying attention to my career and offered advice to me on how to deal with the politicians, community activists and developers. You enjoyed Bridgeport and Bridgeport enjoyed you.

  3. Jim Callahan,
    So sorry to hear of your troubles and my appreciation for how you are bravely facing this ultimate challenge.

    Of the many good guys and bad guys I’ve met since moving to Bridgeport, you and John Gilmore were two of the best guys. Many’s the fond memories of a pint lifted at O’Connell’s and an argument/discussion either started or decided.

    All the best.

  4. Jim, I would like to say I am saddened to hear the bad news. I would like to thank you for covering me for so many years on the City Council. We shared many great days together and you have always been a Great Friend. My prayers go out to you and your family! GOD Bless!

  5. In this time at which you are facing the fundamental reality of life, Jim Callahan, it speaks volumes you are taking this time to acknowledge your friends in Bridgeport. We are blessed to have known your wise counsel, we are blessed to have known you as a fair-minded, true friend.

    God Speed in your transition, and know that on OIB and in this fine City, your legacy lives on in this plane of existence.

    ‘Til we meet you again.

  6. A true dinosaur in a cesspool of slanted journalists. A refreshing example of what journalism should be and was at one time. Best of luck to Jim Callahan and all who have appreciated his independent spirit.

  7. Jim you’re a professional journalist of the Old School and we could sure use a few more like you today. It was a real pleasure to have you, John Gilmore and Lennie here at the Black Rock Library a couple of years ago sharing your first-hand stories of Bridgeport’s colorful political history. It has also been a pleasure to read your stories over the years. Lastly, it’s my great pleasure to have known you. Rest easy my friend.

    John Soltis

    1. John Soltis, thanks for mentioning John Gilmore, these were three good young reporters, Jim, John and Lennie for the Connecticut Telegram/Post back in the day when the Post did cover what was going on in Bridgeport.

  8. Jim, you will always be remembered as an important influence to those of us who served on the City Council in the day. We waited with great anxiety to read your coverage of us in the morning Telegram, and then we did the same when John Gilmore’s script followed. You, John and Lennie motivated us to do the job we were elected to do or face the wrath of your reporting. The most effective checks and balances ever. You were a great writer and will be missed. I’m fortunate to know you.

  9. Jimmy C,
    He used to come around and seek my perspective on various elections knowing every once in a while I got it right. And he would not hold back the criticism when I would allow my emotions to get the best of my predictions. But as one mick to another, we always got along.
    I’d run into him down at Austin Street or another South End bar when the South End was making another of its many comebacks or rebirths.
    Other times it was some of the bars downtown or even the HQ’s downtown. Back then their downtown was still a happening place. Jimmy would come around with his cigar looking for a story, an angle, a different twist on an old story or any new rumor you might have heard. He knew how to work a story or create one when others didn’t know it existed. He was a good old-time reporter.
    I am pleased to call Jim a friend.
    Let’s not put the big -30- on this story quite yet.

  10. Jim, I’m so sorry to hear about your troubles. I hope you can fight your way through it. If anybody can, you can. I always liked your combative style of reporting–you took journalism seriously and you never sold out. You gave a lot to Bridgeport and people appreciate that. All the best.

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