Governor's Council Gave Callahan Excuse to Be at State House, But He Was Made for Bigger Stuff

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Michael J. Callahan, God rest his soul, died of cancer at the Massachusetts General Hospital on Thursday, January 6, 2011, literally his last day in office as a member of the Massachusetts Governor's Council. In ill health for some time, he had declined to seek re-election to the council, his home away from home since 1998.

The Governor's Council was Callahan's base; it gave him a good reason to be at the State House every day. But the Governor's Council, a mostly invisible mechanism of state government that serves as a speed bump for judicial nominees, was too small an arena for Callahan, an insider's insider if ever there was one. It could never contain his immense -- and immensely lovable -- personality.

Callahan kind of resembled a big dopey Teddy Bear, but he possessed a keen intellect and a mind that was always churning behind the sports-fan-on-a-barstool persona. He loved to read and had a better brain that anyone who ever dared to pontificate at Harvard's Kennedy School.

With evident affection, many people called him "Mikey." I called him Councilor. He called me Kevin.

Yes, I met Callahan formally on several occasions when we both, in the words of Billy Joel, "wore a younger man's clothes." And I sat in audiences at many events through the years where he served as master of ceremonies or as one of the after-dinner speakers. But my name, it always escaped him.

After correcting him a couple of times, I let it go and settled into the Kevin-with-no-last-name spot I had etched, faintly, in Callahan's memory bank. (There was a stadium-full of faces in there, after all.)

I came to relish our chance encounters:

  • Mikey and Kevin chatting on the escalator at One Ashburton. "Ready for opening day, Kevin?" "You bet!"

  • Mikey and Kevin hailing each other from opposite sides of Bowdoin Street. "Have a great day, Councilor!" "Watch out for those Romney guys, Kevin!"

  • Kevin stopping at Mikey's table/court outside the small cafeteria on the fourth floor of the State House to swap "insights" on this race or that. (The only secrets the old fox ever shared with me were those known to all but the greenest interns in the building.)

Mikey even stepped out of an idling convertible in the Bunker Hill Day Parade in Thompson Square, Charlestown, one hot Sunday in June to explain to me (and my bemused family), "I'd be walking, Kevin, but I've been having problems with this leg."

I don't think Callahan ever had the lead in a school play or ever trained at the Improv Asylum, yet he was a natural on the stage, a born comedian.

Like his old friend, the late House Speaker George Keverian, Callahan with a microphone in his hand could get you laughing before he was half-way into a funny story. He could make you roar at a joke with cobwebs on it because he was simply funny standing in the spotlight, grinning at himself, the class clown who had gained weight but never grown up.

Although one seldom saw it when he was "on," there was a serious side to Callahan, as there is to every comic.

In the spring of 2004, he surprised many by jumping into the Democratic primary to fill the vacancy in the Massachusetts Senate created by the death of Charlie Shannon. It quickly became apparent that Councilor Callahan was serious as hell about become Senator Callahan -- that, in fact, he yearned to be a player in the upper branch, and that he had a slew of substantive ideas about what a senator should do for his district, and that he would use every trick in that big bag of his to win the fight against three capable opponents.

Alas, it was not to be.

Now, taking nothing at all away from Senator Pat Jehlen, who won that primary and the final, and who still occupies the Somerville-Medford-Winchester seat, I wish that Callahan had gotten his wish in 2004, if only for a year or three.

The Senate chamber was just about the right size for The Honorable Michael J. Callahan.

[NEXT: Why was Callahan so good at channeling Cardinal Cushing?]

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