The Voice and Vision of Bo Callaway, R.I.P.


During his lifetime, Howard “Bo” Callaway had a significant influence on both the government and his community. R.I.P.


“The voice and the vision” – those were the words of the campaign song that accompanied Howard “Bo” Callaway through his 1980 U.S. Senate race (my first campaign as a staffer), but the words really capture much of his life and legacy. In Georgia, Colorado, and Washington, D.C., Bo Callaway pioneered a principled approach to Republican politics and empowered a generation of activists.

Callaway died this week at the age of 86 and is being remembered on editorial pages across the nation. But like many great leaders, much of his work is in danger of being forgotten too quickly.

Bo was the son of Cason and Ida Hand Callaway, highly successful textile manufacturers and friends of Franklin Roosevelt. Cason’s work in creating modern agribusiness programs was closely linked to restoration and improvement of water systems. It was often said of him (only half jokingly) that he tried to dam every stream in Georgia. But it is beyond dispute that when he died in 1961, he left Georgia better than he found it.

That proud conservation legacy lived on in Bo’s work, including the restoration of a threatened trout species and numerous habitat improvements throughout the region. It is a legacy that will far outlast even the famous Callaway name in the fleeting memory of the public.

In the early 1960’s Bo became active in politics at a time when there was virtually no Republican Party in Georgia. Bo ran for Congress in 1964, and had to essentially create the Party from the ground up. No Republican had been elected to Congress from Georgia since Reconstruction and there were normally no Republicans even listed on ballots. But the organization he created was so successful that he was elected, and two years later heavily favored to win the Governor’s race.

In a strange turn of events, he won the Governor’s race, but was denied the pleasure of serving. He won the popular vote in a three-way race, but at the time, runoff elections were not allowed in Georgia, so the State Legislature chose the winner. Overwhelmingly dominated by Democrats, the Legislature elected the arch-segregationist Lester Maddox. But Bo’s leadership of the Party was so influential that even this week the Atlanta Journal Constitution referred to him as the “Father” and the original “Superstar” of the Georgia Republican Party, and credited him with inspiring a generation of new leaders.

Never one to look back, though, Bo continued his leadership at the national level. A West Point graduate who served with honor in the Korean War, he served as Secretary of the Army in the Nixon and Ford Administration and helped manage the historic transition from the draft to the all-volunteer Army. He also became campaign manager to President Ford in 1976.

He and his family moved to Colorado to run the Crested Butte Mountain Resort, today one of the premier skiing destinations in the world largely because of his vision and business savvy. He became a superstar in Colorado politics, too. Bo inspired yet another generation of young politicos in his campaign for the U.S. Senate against Gary Hart.

Large crowds greeted Callaway throughout the State, and in one famous incident on Interstate 25 in the campaign car (the easily-recognizable “Bo-mobile” with its brightly painted logos), an enthusiastic motorist sped up beside Bo and handed him a donation through the open windows at highway speed. But despite the enthusiasm he generated, as in the Georgia Governor’s race, the effort was destined to be sidelined by bizarre characters and a strange outcome.

Though Bo was the clear front-runner in the GOP primary that year (and was already running ahead of Hart in some polls), he lost to a candidate who had failed to make the ballot at the State Convention, but petitioned onto the ballot, and fought challenges to her candidacy (not from Bo) that generated a massive wave of sympathetic media coverage. The result was Hart being the only Western Democratic Senator re-elected in the Reagan landslide that year.

Characteristically, Bo Callaway never looked back and harbored no bitterness. In fact, the night of the devastating primary loss, while others expressed anger and threatened legal action, Bo calmed the crowd and said to his senior staff, “Let’s go give the lady her pound of flesh.” And with that, he showed up at her headquarters with a broad smile, a public endorsement, and a large check.

As in Georgia, Colorado history would have been dramatically different had Bo won, but he never looked back and never expressed the slightest hint of bitterness. Instead, he was elected Chairman of the State Republican Party and ushered in a new era of professionalism, computerized vote tracking, and sophisticated outreach.

Bo Callaway eventually returned to Pine Mountain, Georgia as CEO of his beloved Callaway Gardens and Chairman of the Ida Cason Callaway Foundation. He served on boards, commissions, and task forces, always cheerfully and with his unique personal touch. His death marks the end of an era for so many whose lives he touched. His wonderful family remains active in business, politics, the church, and numerous charities and can be counted on to carry Bo’s “voice and vision” well into the future.

R.I.P.

Greg Walcher Senior Advisor

During his service with the State of Colorado, Greg helped negotiate settlement of the largest Western water case in U.S. history.

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