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Jul 7, 2010 11:54 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Alfred J. Callahan Jr., advocate for people with disabilities, dies at 65

Jul 7, 2010 11:54 AM

Faced with adversity, Alfred J. Callahan Jr. fought back with the determination of an army, and the compassion of a survivor.

A strong advocate for the rights of people with disabilities, the former chairman of the Southampton Village Planning Board, who died last week, was remembered by family, friends and acquaintances in recent days as a skilled debater and conversationalist, a history and politics buff and an avid spotter of seabirds.

The gentleman fondly known by many as “Alfie” died on Monday, June 28, at the age of 65 at Southampton Hospital after a bout of pneumonia and complications related to a paralyzing injury sustained in 1969.

A fateful car accident that rendered Mr. Callahan a quadriplegic at age 24 while training with the United States Army in Puerto Rico earned him an honorable discharge from the United States Army less than a year after his enlistment, but his battles had only just begun.

The second lieutenant with the 36th Civil Affairs Company had also been married to the love of his life, Sarah (née Schumacher) for just three months before his life-altering crash. The couple, who met at their undergraduate alma mater, Georgetown University, went on to adopt an infant, Alfred Callahan III, in 1987, but less than a year later, Ms. Callahan was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She succumbed to her illness a short time later, in August 1988.

With the adoption not yet finalized, Mr. Callahan had to battle to keep the baby when some involved in the case argued that a widowed quadriplegic with only limited use of his hands would not be able to care for a child.

The veteran persevered.

“Because of our situation, we were extremely close,” his son, Alfred Callahan III of Southampton Village, now 22, noted last week. “We always talked about how it’s me and him against the world and nothing’s going to stop us.”

“When I was young and had to run to the kitchen in the dark or whenever I got scared, my dad would say, ‘Grab the magic string.’” The string referred to an invisible, yet very real connection between the father-son pair. Mr. Callahan could not run to his son’s side physically, but the “magic string” allowed him to stay close. “It’s silly, but I’ve always felt safe,” the younger Mr. Callahan said. “I’ve always had that string with me.”

Born August 30, 1944, in Mount Vernon, New York, Mr. Callahan grew up in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, summering with his family in Water Mill, Bridgehampton and Southampton until becoming a full-time resident of the village in 1991. Southampton was a more relaxing place for him, his son said.

One of Mr. Callahan’s proudest accomplishments, his son recalled, was when he designed and had built a two-story shingled home on his Barnhart Street property. The father-son duo had lived for a decade in a tiny cottage on the same lot, which still stands today.

The new house became Mr. Callahan’s “sanctuary,” and allowed him greater mobility. An architect donated an elevator that had come from another house. Inside, he added to his collections of hundreds of toy soldiers and nearly 3,000 military patches.

Always appreciative of nature, Mr. Callahan declined to put gutters on the new structure and shunned elaborate landscaping in favor of ivy and brush.

“He loved the fact that the deer would come right up to the window. He never wanted to take their homes away for his,” his son said. “Most people get really mad when deer come up to their flowers.”

Not Mr. Callahan. The south-facing windows on the bedroom where he spent much of his time allowed plenty of light to filter in and improved the opportunities to observe wildlife.

“He couldn’t move, but he could hear birds, so he said, ‘Dang it, I’m going to learn all about birds,’” recalled Robert Devinney, a close friend who met Mr. Callahan at one of their favorite haunts, the Southampton Publick House.

Plastered on the back of Mr. Callahan’s specially designed van (which he drove using custom-designed levers) is a campaign bumper sticker for Mr. Devinney’s one-time unsuccessful run for Village Trustee on the Heritage Party line, a party Mr. Callahan co-founded, according to his friend. On the driver’s side window is a specially designed scope he used to identify shore birds on Meadow Lane.

Determined to help others, Mr. Callahan enrolled at the Hofstra University School of Law in the 1970s to become an attorney, like his wife. Though he never specialized in a particular area, he was particularly fond of disability law and worked out of his home.

To allow people with disabilities the chance to sail, Mr. Callahan founded a sailing program, Sealegs, and bought a 20-foot white Independence Class sloop with white sails and a blue stripe that was specially designed for handicapped sailors. Naming it the “Sarah C.” in memory of his wife, Mr. Callahan donated it to the Southampton Fresh Air Home, a residential camp for children with disabilities.

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Rest in Peace, Alf. Your wit & sense of humor will be missed.
By Draggerman (955), Southampton on Jul 11, 10 7:34 PM
Alf, you will be missed, we need more people like you!
By rabbit (65), watermill on Jul 15, 10 11:39 AM
I grew up with the Callahan family in Riverdale and my wife Cathy and I wish to convey our sympathies to Alfred lll and to Michael and Charles and their families, not only for this sad event but also the passing of their sister, Fances, who was also a good friend of Cathy's at Seton Acad. .
Please forward my contact information to Michael.
Thank you.
Kevin Coleman
Pasadena, CA
By kevincoleman110@hotmail.com (1), Pasadena on Aug 8, 10 1:28 PM