They say the best career teachers are the ones with practical experience in the fields they’re lecturing about.
Tom Callahan didn’t just have experience when it came to journalism — there was little in the media that didn’t have his fingerprints. Whether it was work that appeared in The New York Times, or Reader’s Digest, or yes, Penthouse magazine.
Callahan seemed to be everywhere at once — even spending a couple years teaching journalism at Manhattan College, directly influencing a new generation of journalists.
But there won’t be any more words of inspiration and knowledge Callahan can share after he died unexpectedly earlier this month in his Tuckahoe home.
How and when he died — even how old he was — wasn’t revealed, but Callahan’s passing so soon after leaving the school last spring came to a shock to those he’s touched over the years.
“He had developed what I thought was a very healthy paranoia of the government and the world,” said Anthony Capote, a former student of his at Manhattan College, as well as a former reporter for The Riverdale Press. “He was really, really, smart, and what he cared most about was encouraging students. Anytime we talked about journalism, it would always turn into not fearing those in power, and not fearing the people who would seek to silence good journalism.”
That helped Capote a lot when he found himself covering Manhattan College’s administration for the school’s newspaper, The Quadrangle. Although officials there never tried to silence his journalism, it was pep talks from Callahan that allowed him to walk into those situations with confidence.
Yet, Capote put that to the test when he tackled a rather sensitive topic — labor unions for adjunct professors.
“I sat in a room with college administrators who wanted to sell me that because Manhattan College was a Catholic school, they couldn’t have an adjunct professor union, because it was too much government oversight,” Capote said. “It was a good feeling knowing that there was a faculty member of Manhattan College who not only supported me in the effort of this story, but was willing to support me if and when the administration told me not to write about it.
“That never happened. They never told me not to write the story, but it certainly felt good that even if they had, I would still have gotten to, because I had an advisor who had my back.”
That’s why experience matters, said Thom Gencarelli, chair of Manhattan College’s communications department.
“He was about teaching them to care about people from the standpoint of social justice, and teaching them to fight the powers that create the inequities and injustice of the society at large,” Gencarelli said. “He himself was not a rabble-rouser. He himself was a humble and quiet man in the background. He’s not going to go out there and fight, other than as a journalist, as a reporter, as a storyteller.”
Among his many stops in his career, Callahan spent 24 years with Parade magazine, a national newspaper insert that at its peak boasted a circulation of 37 million.
While many at the time turned to Parade more for its entertainment features and columns, then senior editor Fran Carpentier remembers a man who she could depend on finding stories no one else was even thinking to look for.
“In the mid-1990s, he wrote the first national story about midnight basketball,” she recalled. “I think it started in Chicago, and basically the idea was to keep inner-city youth off the streets, away from the scenario that would lead to crime and drugs by basically keeping them engaged.
“And what was it? It was basketball.”
Callahan taught at various schools in his career as an adjunct professor including SUNY Purchase, Fordham University and Iona College in New Rochelle, among others.
But those who worked with him said he always had an affinity for Manhattan College, especially since it’s where he graduated as his class valedictorian in 1977.
“We’re stunned and deeply saddened by Tom’s passing,” Manhattan College spokesman Pete McHugh said in a statement. “He was a beloved mentor and colleague to so many students and faculty here at Manhattan College. We will certainly miss him.”
After earning his master’s degree in public communications from Fordham in 1981, Callahan first contributed stories to Suburbia Today, a Sunday supplement to Gannett-owned newspapers in Westchester.
He then spent a few years writing profiles for IBM’s Beyond Computing magazine, while also contributing to both Parade and Reader’s Digest. He also was a regular contributor to The Times-published Westchester Weekly, where he focused on county government.
He also worked extensively on his fiction work, including a story that was published in an anthology from bestselling crime writer Lawrence Block. Callahan was even known to ghostwrite books here and there as well.
But when it was all said and done, it was all about journalism for Callahan.
“What he brought to his students was just the aura of really the glory days of journalism and what that meant to be investigating a story, making sure everything was so accurate,” Carpentier said. “A lot of what he did was pre-internet, and it was very important to him that his students really understand the importance of the discipline they were pursuing.
“I hope he accomplished that. He was really one-of-a-kind.”