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Robert Owen Callahan

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Photo Robert Owen "Bob" Callahan Poet, writer, teacher, publisher, editor and raconteur extraordinaire Bob Callahan (Robert Owen) died in Berkeley, CA, in the early evening of January 28, 2008, after a long illness. Gifted with a silver tongue, rapid-fire synaptic flashes and a huge store of talk, he was unabashed in his enthusiasms, embracing the best of both the schlock and the sublime of American culture with a characteristic Callahan zeal. Born in Stamford, CT, on April 23, 1942, as a young man he worked as a speech-writer for Bobby Kennedy in a time of great political upheaval; his allegiance to grass-roots democratic ideals and much-desired political change were never shaken. In the early 1970s, in collaboration with designer and poet Eileen Callahan and publisher Max Milton, Bob began an in-dependent non-profit small press pub-lishing venture. Turtle Island books were imagined with no less modest an idea than to broaden the idea of an “American literature” by publishing poet-scholars, mystics, teachers, shaman, musicians, ecologists, poets, essayists, geographers, botanists, ethnographers and linguists outside the academic life whose work could (and would) reshape ideas about the American Continent and the legiti-mate voices therein. The Village Voice wrote in a review of Turtle Island books that if presses could be rated like base-ball players with an earned run average, then “Turtle Island was [the only pub-lisher] whose work could be recom-mended sight unseen.” Co-founder in the mid-1970s of the Be-fore Columbus Foundation, Robert stood with other marginalized writers as a pio-neer in a then-little respected idea of Irish-American culture whose gumbo ad-mixtures in the slums of American cities gave us a whole new range of American slang, a new art form called tap dancing, and an infusion of zest and spirit directly into the marrow of American life. Through his range of scholarship in The Big Book of Irish American Culture and Callahan's Irish Quarterly, he turned attention to the inheritances of an Irish-American identity far more influential (and alive) than had previously been imagined. The many books which he initiated, ed-ited, published or wrote include The Smithsonian Book of Comic Book Stories (from Crumb to Clowes); A Day in the Life of Ireland; the multi-volume series of George Herriman’s The Komplete Krazy Kat Komics; the fugitive newspaper strips of George McManus’ Jiggs and Maggie; his own autobiographic Algonquin Woods; and numerous magazine articles and newspaper columns. His collaborations with the alt-comic artist Spain Rodriguez for Salon.com and the LA Weekly helped pioneer the admixture of serious text and noir graphics as the 21st Century's most reliable witness. In spite of a lifetime of hard economic times, he never stopped doing what he loved best. When he died, he was in the middle of writing a book on the history of cartoon art and pop culture in 19th Century SF, and keeping his text clear and true with a healthy dash of Mark Twain. He thought of this as the book he’d been waiting his whole life to do. His family surrounded him with love in his final illness, and thought of him as wondrous throughout his entire life. He is predeceased by his mother Helen Lynch; his father Vincent Augustine; and broth-ers, Vincent and Eddie. He is survived by his son David and his wife Eileen Grace O Malley; his brother Paul, and sister-in-law, Vera Callahan; and a large Irish clan of Callahan nephews, nieces and cousins (and children thereof) to whom he pledged his loyalty and affection. He was loved deeply; he will be sorely missed. A Celebration in his honor will be held Sunday, March 16, 2008, 12:30 to 4:00pm at Anna's Jazz Club, 2021 Állston Way, Berkeley. All his friends from far and near are invited to come.
Published in San Francisco Chronicle from Mar. 11 to Mar. 12, 2008
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