Bo Callaway dies at age 86

Callaway Gardens patriarch made major headlines as congressman, candidate for governor, Army secretary and key member of Republican Party

tadams@ledger-enquirer.comMarch 15, 2014 

Howard "Bo" Callaway was much more complex than the man so well known for helping his parents get Callaway Gardens in nearby Pine Mountain, Ga., up and running six decades ago.

He was a political force who experienced his share of ups and downs, making major headlines along the way.

Callaway died Saturday at the age of 86, nearly two years after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage.

"It is with a heavy heart that I share that my father, Bo Callaway, passed away this afternoon," Edward C. Callaway, chairman and CEO of Callaway Gardens, said Saturday evening in an emailed statement. "While he may be gone in body, as a founder of Callaway Gardens in lock-step with my grandparents, his spirit will continue to be in everything he helped to create from the Gardens to so much more. We thank you for your thoughts and prayers. Both our family and the Gardens family will miss him deeply."

Throughout his career, Bo Callaway experienced triumphs and disappointments. They ranged from being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in a "Go with Bo" campaign to a controversial failed bid to become governor of Georgia, a potential stepping stone that could have led to even bigger things.

From that disappointment, he would rise to the post of Secretary of the Army under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. But that was followed by his resignation as Ford's re-election campaign manager amid a congressional investigation into his operations at the Crested Butte ski resort his family purchased out of bankruptcy in Colorado in 1970.

"He was a great personification of that old thing -- it doesn't matter how many times you get knocked down. It's how many times you get up," said longtime friend and former Columbus Mayor Bob Hydrick. "He had a lot of setbacks, but he never let any of them stop him. He kept on going. He kept on plugging."

Hydrick, who served as Callaway's press secretary during his successful congressional campaign in 1964, said the best way to describe the LaGrange, Ga., native is as a renaissance man because of his wide variety of interests and his persistent pursuit of them.

At the core of his life was Callaway Gardens, the resort carved out of the 13,000 acres of prime Harris County forestland owned by the family for decades. His parents, Cason and Virginia Hand Callaway, opened the gardens in 1952 and at its peak would welcome more than 1 million visitors each year.

"He not only ran the gardens, he knew the gardens," said Hydrick. "He could tell you what kind of azalea that was or what kind of tree or plant. He had a good knowledge of what went on in the gardens, and he was very much committed to the mission of the gardens as his parents had envisioned. And that is to educate and create an appreciation of the natural environment, particularly the natural environment of this area."

But Callaway also developed a yearning for public service at an early age. It started with his entering the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., following two years of studies at Georgia Tech. His military service would include leading a platoon in Korea and instructing infantry troops at Fort Benning.

In 1953, however, he returned to the land where he grew up and took the helm of Callaway Gardens and its nonprofit parent organization, the Ida Cason Callaway Foundation, until 1970.

"Mother believed very strongly that we should not just take from our environment, but that we must take care of our environment," Callaway said in a 2000 interview with the Ledger-Enquirer. "She understood that there was a delicate balance between man and nature and she respected that balance. ... The whole idea behind Callaway Gardens was preserving the native plants of this area and providing a place where anyone could come and enjoy them."

Political career

While the gardens was his love, politics was his passion, with Callaway launching his campaign for Georgia's 3rd Congressional District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1964, the same year Arizona Republican Barry Goldwater ran for the presidency as an arch-conservative. Callaway, who was raised a Democrat, switched to the Republican Party and won easily, becoming the first GOP candidate elected to the U.S. House from Georgia since Reconstruction following the Civil War.

That victory set the stage for his bid for the Georgia governor's seat, a race that would be filled with drama and segregationist and race-baiter Lester Maddox snatching the office away from Callaway with help from a Democrat-controlled Georgia General Assembly.

Callaway, who was 39 at the time, campaigned on a platform centered around "peace through strength and limited government and low taxes and individual initiative and personal responsibility," said Hydrick.

Maddox, an Atlanta businessman, defeated Newnan native and former Georgia Gov. Ellis Arnall in a Democratic primary runoff. He then battled it out with Callaway in the General Election, with the younger man from Troup County receiving a plurality of votes, but not the majority needed to win. There were unproven allegations that Republican supporters of Callaway voted for the polarizing Maddox in the Democratic primary, thinking he would be easier to beat than the more mainstream Arnall.

The state's constitution called for the General Assembly to decide the victor in that case. In a Legislature dominated by Democrats, Callaway had little chance and walked away defeated.

Retired Columbus attorney and state legislator Milton Jones, who served eight years in the General Assembly, called the episode a "terribly unfortunate thing" and was among a group of Democrats who supported Callaway. But most Georgia Democratic lawmakers were not prepared to elect a Republican

Jones said he believes Callaway would have made an excellent governor.

"There were a lot of other folks, there were a lot of good Democrats who supported Callaway against Maddox for several good reasons," Jones said. "Lester Maddox stood for everything that at that time was bad in Georgia politics. He was very racist. He ran a racist campaign. He had run full-page ads every Saturday in the Atlanta newspapers for years demeaning integration and things of that line."

A federal panel of judges later struck down the law allowing the Legislature to choose a governor. But the damage had been done. Callaway headed back to the gardens at Pine Mountain, but not for long.

Army career

Still hungry for politics, he was offered and took the position of Republican National Committeeman from Georgia in 1968. That would lead to his appointment as U.S. Secretary of the Army under President Richard Nixon in 1973, a job that paid $42,500 a year. Hydrick believes that was Callaway's proudest moment.

"He loved the Army and that experience," the former mayor said. "The four years that he was at West Point shaped his life more than anything else I think could have shaped his life. It gave him the discipline, particularly self discipline. I've never known anybody as disciplined as Bo is."

As the Army's top civilian, Callaway was faced with transitioning the military branch from the much-maligned draft mandated during the Vietnam War to an all-volunteer force. He also dealt with the issue of race in the military and the burgeoning idea that women might be ready for combat.

"The Army continues to experience an acute shortage of minority officers," Callaway told Washington reporters in 1975. "Currently, just over 4.7 percent of Army officers are black. This is particularly unsatisfactory when viewed against the 22 percent black content of the enlisted force."

As Army secretary, he also entered the tangled legal fray of William Calley, a second lieutenant and platoon leader who was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the murders of more than 100 people in the Vietnam village of My Lai in 1969. Amid much national sympathy, his sentence was reduced to 20 years by Fort Benning's commanding general and then to 10 years by Callaway. Calley ultimately would serve less than four years and that was under house arrest on post, then reside three decades in Columbus.

"There are mitigating circumstances indicating that Lt. Calley may have sincerely believed that he was acting in accordance with the orders he had received and that he was not aware of his responsibility to refuse such an illegal order," Callaway said in a statement published in the Ledger-Enquirer at the time, noting that others involved in the bloody incident were not punished, although the acts could not be "condoned" or "forgotten."

Callaway's tenure as Secretary of the Army came during Nixon's resignation as president, then under Nixon's successor, Gerald Ford, a man he had met years earlier while both were serving in the U.S. House of Representatives. That connection would prompt Ford to tap Callaway in 1975 as the person to manage his re-election campaign.

That, too, would eventually take an odd turn, with Callaway being put on the defensive a year later with allegations that he had used his Secretary of the Army position to influence the U.S. Forest Service to lease land for an expansion of the Crested Butte resort.

A federal investigation was launched and congressional hearings held. But when the dust cleared, there was no evidence of wrongdoing by Callaway, who had moved his family to the Colorado resort town in 1976.

The Ledger-Enquirer subsequently ran an editorial titled, "Callaway Mistreated." It said the former Georgian had been unfairly treated by newspaper and television media, calling him an "upright and honorable man."

"It is understandable if he is soured and embittered over the treatment accorded him by the media and the palace guard at the White House," the editorial said.

Still, Callaway remained active in politics, even attempting an unsuccessful bid for a U.S. Senate seat in Colorado, a spot that would ultimately be filled by Democrat Gary Hart. He would also serve as chairman of the Colorado Republican Party for six years in the 1980s.

He later, in the mid-1990s, would play a behind-the-scenes role in the Republican resurgence in Congress. That included working with former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and helping to line up financial support for the party.

Return to Georgia

It was in Colorado that Callaway would remain until returning to Pine Mountain in 1993, again taking the helm of the gardens and resort just in time to oversee the Buick Southern Open golf tournament. A little more than a decade later, the Crested Butte resort was sold and Callaway's middle son of five children, Edward, was chosen to become chairman and CEO of the Ida Cason Callaway Foundation, with his father becoming chairman emeritus, a nod toward retirement for the man born Howard Hollis Callaway on April 2, 1927.

Hal Northrop, who ran the gardens as president and CEO more than two decades, through the 1970s and 1980s, said he will remember Callaway for his sheer charm and the wealth of ideas he would bring to the table.

"He was very, very bright, much more maybe than might meet the eye," said Northrop, who now lives in Athens, Ga. "I think the standout of his quality is his character. He is without question totally honest. As a matter of fact, to the point of maybe being so candid sometimes it might be a fault. ... I do know he has impeccable integrity, and had an excellent mind that was full of ideas."

Always conservative and very competitive, Northrop said, Callaway had a "strong personality" but an overall even temper that generally led to productive moments in operating the gardens. He typically would ask for Northrop's honest opinion on matters, even if he already knew what his decision might be.

"This is hard to believe, but I don't recall that we ever had any cross or heated words," the former gardens CEO said. "Strong discussions. Strong debates. This is the way it should be kind of an attitude. But if you debated with him, a better decision would result, really."

Looking back, Hydrick noted that Callaway always appeared to focus on the future and not the past. That served him well in his gubernatorial and U.S. Senate defeats, he said, as well as the fallout from the Crested Butte and Ford campaign episodes.

But the toughest moment for Callaway, Hydrick suspects, would be the financial struggles that Callaway Gardens has endured in recent years. The resort's foundation, in two separate deals, sold off about 7,000 of the 13,000 acres of Callaway property to pay off a large chunk of debt it owed from sagging attendance, partially caused by the U.S. economic downturn.

"He took his stewardship of that facility very seriously," said Hydrick, who attended a birthday party for Callaway just prior to the first land sale in 2012. "I'm sure that caused him a lot of sleepless nights trying to work all of those arrangements out to get them back on their feet where they need to be financially. But he was very upbeat the night of his birthday, because they were right on the verge of concluding some of those agreements that have been publicized since then."

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