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Friends, family recall former congressman’s humble beginnings and love of Mobile



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    MOBILE, AL (WALA) — Many of the condolences that poured in after news of former U.S. Rep. Sonny Callahan’s death Friday focused on his legislative achievements, but his family and closest friends remembered the personal side.

Callahan, who died of natural causes at 88, served southwest Alabama in the House of Representatives for almost two decades. Jo Bonner, who served as press secretary and chief of staff for the congressman before running successfully in 2002 to succeed his boss, said Callahan had a big heart and a drive to help his constituents.

“To meet Sonny once was to make a friend for life,” he said.

Callahan also had a love and talent for cards, Bonner said. He recalled one time during the 1990s when then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was in Israel with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The two were discussing a drawdown in U.S. aid to the Jewish State.

It was a topic in which Callahan was heavily invested. He had come to Congress skeptical of large amounts of foreign aid – particularly economic assistance to Israel, which at the time had an economy that was outperforming America’s.

Albright needed to talk to the congressman.

“The problem was Sonny was playing cards with a group of buddies,” said Bonner, who now serves as Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey’s chief of staff. “The chief justice on the Supreme Court was there. Several members of Congress, the House and Senate were there.”

Bonner said Callahan never carried a cell phone or wore a watch. So, he added, he went to the town house where the card game was in full swing.

“Sonny had a really good hand. I don’t know whether it was a royal flush or what it was, but it was a really good hand,” he said. “I said, ‘Congressman, you’re gonna have a phone call any minute from the secretary of state. She needs to talk with you.’ And he motioned me over, and I walked over, and he showed me his hand. And he said, ‘Tell her I’ll call her back.’”

Humble beginnings Callahan was born in Mobile to a large Irish, Catholic family. His father, who worked as a bag man for the railroad, died when Callahan was young. The congressman’s nephew, Mike Callahan, said that forced him to step up.

Sonny Callahan graduated from McGill Institute and attended the University of Alabama’s Mobile Center, the predecessor to the University of South Alabama. He then served in the Navy and drove an 18-wheeler for the family business, working his way up to company president.

“Then, using that legacy of service, brought that into politics to serve the great state of Alabama and AL-District 1,” he said.

Callahan served as a Democrat in both the state House of Representatives and Senate. In 1982, he ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor, losing to Bill Baxley. It was the only election he ever lost.

Two years later, retiring-U.S. Rep. Jack Edwards personally lobbied for Callahan to become a Republican and run for his seat.

“That was when, literally, the entire family switched from Democratic Republican,” Mike Callahan said.

Callahan won that race by a little more than 4,000 votes. It was the closest race for the 1st Congressional District in the past half-century.

Mike Callahan said his uncle amassed an eclectic group of friends. He was friendly with representatives on both sides of the aisle and counted the singer Bono as a friend from his time working with him on issues like Third World debt relief and land mines, according to Mike Callahan.

But Callahan said the congressman’s greatest legacy is his family. He fondly recalled Easter family gatherings at his Granny Fan’s house.

“Uncle Sonny was always the one that would tell you where the good eggs were hidden because he was – he was the hider, one of the hiders. or one of the hiders,” he said.

In Congress, Callahan was a reliable Republican vote on most issues. He rose to become chairman on the House Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee dealing with foreign affairs. As one the “cardinals” that controlled spending decisions, he became one of the most powerful members of Congress.

“He never let that go to his head,” Bonner said, noting that Callahan never was eager to see his name adoring public buildings. “He was just as comfortable meeting with kings and prime ministers or presidents as he was someone who was mowing the grass or someone who was just driving a truck.”

Fingerprints all over Mobile Callahan’s fingerprints are all over southwest Alabama. From his perch on the Appropriations Committee, he helped steer millions of dollars to the district for projects like upgrades to the Port of Mobile and the University of South Alabama. Bonner noted that Callahan helped secure funding for a rare and expensive piece of equipment as the university worked toward the creation of the Mitchell Cancer Institute.

Bonner said when Callahan learned Georgetown University and the University of Notre Dame had received federal funding – a rarity for a private religious college – he helped get funding for Spring Hill College’s library.

Callahan also helped get federal funding for the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind to expand to Mobile and frequently attended its graduation ceremonies. Former Mobile Mayor Mike Dow credited Callahan with helping to launch the Mobile Bay National Estuary Program and to renovate the city’s former train station.

“When we tried to save the GM&O Building, Sonny helped us get the federal funds to, you know, save that historic building,” he said.

Dow said Callahan was a champion for economic development and recalled him going on the offensive when he learned Ohio U.S. Sen. Howard Metzenbaum was trying to lure a Mobile-based company to his state.

“It’s important to be organized like that,” he said. “But it’s equally important to have somebody who cares enough to listen, set the meetings up and start pushing the buttons, you know, when you needed to be pushed, Sonny was just good at that.”

‘Politics was not bloodsport’ Bonner said Callahan was a regular at an Alexandria, Virginia, restaurant named RTs – such a regular that it named a room for him

The congressman, Bonner said, loved the restaurant because the Southern seafood menu was the closest thing to eating in Mobile he could find near the nation’s capital. He recalled Callahan once hosting Dennis Hastert, who then was speaker of the House. The Illinois Republican never had eaten fried catfish served with crawfish étouffée, Bonner said.

To Uncle Sonny, politics was not bloodsport

“And the speaker says, “What do I do with this?’ And so he said, ‘Enjoy it,’” he said.

Callahan was from a different political era, when bipartisanship was more common and the inter-party warfare a little less intense. During Barack Obama’s presidency – after Callahan had retired, he lamented the state of politics.

“There’s a tremendous amount of true animosity between the two parties,” he told FOX10 News at the time. “So severe and so mean and ornery.”

Terry Lathan, a longtime GOP activist from Mobile who recently served as statewide party chairwoman, said Callahan set the “gold standard” for constituent service.

“Sonny’s reach was bigger than political parties,” she said. “He thought every day about serving the people … He always put us first and himself last.”

Mike Callahan said his uncle could disagree vigorously without hating is political opponents.

“To Uncle Sonny, politics was not bloodsport,” he said. “Politics was, you know, you were on one side or the other but at the end of the day … we can argue in the day, but we can still go out and have dinner at night.”

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