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Alumni Stories: Thomas Callahan '84

The Making of Citizen Thomas Callahan

by Lisa Birzen '03callahan

Thomas Callahan ’84, currently a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the US Department of State, believes in a liberal arts education.  “My father was class of 1947 at Dartmouth and used to quote to us one of his favorite professors, a philosophy professor named Eugene Rosenstock-Hussey:  ‘The goal of education is to form the Citizen.  And the Citizen is a person who, if need be, can refound his civilization.’” 

Rosenstock-Hussey was a German Jew who had fought in the Kaiser’s army in WWI.  As Nazism took hold in post-Weimar Germany, he emigrated to America. 

“He and my father clicked, I think, because neither of them took anything for granted.  Rosenstock-Hussey had lived through chaos and war.  My father had just completed his tour with the Marine Corps in WWII.  My father’s parents were Irish immigrants and he grew up during the Depression.  They were very poor.  By the time I came along, my brothers and sisters had it pretty good.  He didn’t want us to ever take life for granted.”

Tom Callahan, a Government major at Dartmouth, grew up in Darien, CT, amidst other values such as “education, hard work and making a contribution to society.”  His father attended Dartmouth thanks to the Marine Corps.  The experience opened up new worlds to him.  Neil Callahan ’47 read voraciously, majored in English and Philosophy, and became friends with Robert Frost while at Dartmouth.  Upon graduation, he chose to return to Connecticut and start his own contracting business rather than pursue doors that his Ivy League credentials might have opened. 

“My father believed strongly in education and the liberal arts.  He didn’t judge a man by his paycheck or his title.  I think I learned from his example that there are many paths so long as you are righteous and true to yourself.”

In life, Callahan has been motivated to “lead an interesting life…to be relevant.”  In a profile of him in the June 1984 issue of the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine, on the verge of his graduation, he was quoted as saying: “Someone once said, ‘the unexamined life isn’t worth living.’  Well, I hope I always follow those words.”

And Callahan has remained true to this promise: his professional career has included business, international relief work, foreign policy oversight in the House and Senate, executive branch policy toward Africa, and both operational and policy work in U.S. counterterrorism efforts.  At every turn he has measured his pursuits against the dual yardsticks of interest and meaning.

His father’s love of Dartmouth no doubt influenced Tom’s decision to attend the College rather than Harvard, Stanford, Middlebury, or Cornell, where he was also accepted.  “I looked carefully at the other schools, but there is truly something special about Dartmouth.  When I visited during my junior spring in high school, it just felt so right.”

Even before graduation, Callahan’s college career was full of diverse experiences marked by both academic and athletic honors.   He earned varsity letters all four years as a diver on the swim team - where he was a walk-on his freshman year, not having competed in high school.  He also rowed freshman crew and earned a letter from the track team during his junior year.

Callahan was serious about his studies, graduating Magna Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa, but he also enjoyed fraternity life at Dartmouth.  He was a member of Phi Delta Alpha and became its president, as well as serving as vice president of the Inter-Fraternity Council and chairman of the IFC judiciary committee.  Just before he took the reins as president, Phi Delt was put on social probation by the administration for a series of behavioral incidents and infractions by its members.  Callahan was faced with the difficult task of finding a way “to reconcile the house’s objectives with the legitimate concerns of the Administration.”

In this capacity, he worked closely with Dean of the College Ed Shanahan and Dean of Students Lee Levison, both of whom helped him figure out how to get the house “back into the good graces of the College.”

“I learned a great deal from that experience – how to get things done and how to lead without being obnoxious,” an experience that has undoubtedly served him well in the leadership positions he has gone on to hold within the various departments of the United States government.  “There are boundaries that any member of a community must accept and adhere to, but I am skeptical of overly ambitious social engineering efforts by any college administration when it comes to a campus of 18- to 22-year-olds.  The glue that can be formed among members of a fraternity or sorority is very durable.  Many of my fraternity brothers and I get back to Dartmouth whenever we can and, despite our advanced years, we feel quite at home in the Phi Palace.  And rather than resent the intrusion of these old codgers, the current brothers seem to enjoy our company.  I guess there’s no accounting for taste!”

He let his interests dictate his course schedule at college.  “I found professors I liked and took more of their classes.”  He fondly remembers literature classes taught by the Russian Department’s Professors Richard Sheldon and Barry Scherr, as well as the Religion Department’s Professors Richard Oden and Hans Penner.

Overall, he “had a really good college career,” and left an impression on administrators not only as a high-caliber athlete and a dedicated student but also as a down-to-earth, humble individual.  When Callahan was a senior, Dean Levison said, “The one thing that impresses me about Tom is his lack of ego.  He has excelled in many areas but unless you know Tom very well you would not know.”

Callahan received both the Cardozo and Kramer prizes his junior year and the Barrett Cup his senior year.  These recognitions of all-around achievement came to Callahan as a surprise.  “There were so many outstanding individuals at Dartmouth in my class who were as deserving of these awards as I.”

Reaching his senior year, Callahan recalls having little idea about what should come next.    “I went through campus recruiting and got a few good job offers, but I suppose I was looking for that same gut feeling of ‘rightness’ that I had about the decision to come to Dartmouth.  It never happened.”  Callahan turned down his offers from IBM, Merrill Lynch, and Leo Burnett advertising and went instead to Chicago where he stayed with his sister Jean (Tuck ’80).  He worked odd jobs until he landed a paid position as deckhand on the 93-foot sailboat Odyssey.  He and other crewmembers sailed it through the Great Lakes, up the St. Lawrence River, and down the coasts of Canada and the U.S. to Florida. 

“I loved learning the skills needed for handling and navigating a large boat.  We saw amazing sights and ran into some horrendous weather off the coast of Nova Scotia one night that challenged us and nearly killed me.”  From Florida, the ship was sailing on to the Caribbean to do charter work throughout the winter, and though that prospect was “enormously appealing in some ways, I recognized that it was probably not a ‘career path’ that I should get overly accustomed to!”

He reunited with the people at IBM, who “were still willing to give me a job” and worked at their Burlington, VT location for the next two years.  Still in search of the “gut feel” for work both interesting and meaningful, Callahan found his way in 1987 to the international relief organization AmeriCares.  During the next four years, both as Special Projects Director and later as a consultant “trouble shooter,” Callahan organized missions to Ecuador, Mozambique, Sudan, Ethiopia, Poland, the Philippines, Laos, Lebanon, and even Iran.

“Bob Macauley, the founder and CEO, put a lot of faith in me.  He was the kind of executive who encouraged people to take the initiative and ‘make it happen.’  He had little patience for bureaucracy and good intentions that weren’t backed up by results.  He also was a very keen observer of international politics and foreign policy.”

Callahan went on to Yale Law School, choosing it over other programs for its reputation for public policy.  In his second year, his mother developed a terminal illness, and he did not finish the program to attain his degree.  “It’s nutty go to through nearly three years of law school and not finish, but between my mother’s cancer and the growing realization that I did not want to practice law, I just sort of lost motivation for a while.  It can happen, and you just have to move on.  I think it worth mentioning here because alumni profiles often just herald the high points, and most careers have a few valleys as well.” 

In 1991, he began working in the U.S. Senate, first for Senator Jack Danforth of Missouri and later on the Committee on Foreign Relations as the Director for African Affairs.  No stranger to travel in foreign hot spots, Callahan conducted oversight missions to Somalia prior to and during the U.S. intervention there.  He was also the first U.S. official to arrive in Rwanda after the genocide that caused the US embassy to evacuate and killed nearly a million Rwandans.  “That experience challenged my faith.  In June 1994 when I arrived, there were bodies everywhere.  The frenzy of murder that swept over that country was an evil that is difficult to comprehend.”

In 1995, he began looking for an opportunity that would allow him to live for an extended period overseas.  “You can get a lot from a two-week trip, but it is not the same as living in a foreign culture for two years.”  With the blessing of his new bride, Kathy Gord Callahan ’86, he accepted a job with the International Republican Institute, part of the National Endowment for Democracy, to direct its democracy and governance program in South Africa.  “South Africa in 1996 and 1997 was fascinating.  The country and its various cultures are like an onion, with many, many layers.  For both Kathy and me, it was just an extraordinary experience.”

Enhancing their experience even more, Grace, their first child, was born in Johannesburg in 1997.  Claire, their second daughter, was born three years later.

Returning from overseas, Callahan became Director of Public Policy and Government Relations for World Vision, a relief and development organization, and later joined the staff of the House Committee on International Relations.  He was then offered a position on Secretary of State  Colin Powell’s Policy Planning Staff, a kind of internal think tank for the department.  His first day on the job was September 10, 2001 – one day before 9/11.

“Our focus certainly shifted after 9/11,” Callahan said.  “People say that 9/11 was a wake-up call, but I disagree.  We’d already had wake-up calls – in 1993 with the first World Trade Center bombing, in 1998 with the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, in 1999 with the USS Cole attack, and with other incidents that didn’t make it into the newspapers.  The wake-up calls were there, but we just kept hitting the snooze button and rolling over.”

Callahan is still at the Department of State five years later, and he has performed a variety of interesting roles in that time.  While at Policy Planning, Callahan conducted a security assessment for a ceasefire agreement in Sudan’s remote Nuba Mountains.  “A couple of Army colonels and I flew into some pretty remote air strips and hiked through dramatic terrain to meet up with rebels of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army.  Civil war in Sudan has continued with only brief interruptions since the country’s independence in 1956.  The suffering there has been of biblical proportions, and it continues today with fighting in Sudan’s western region of Darfur.”

In 2002, Callahan joined the Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security.  Working closely with the Coordinator for Counterterrorism, Callahan helped guide the Antiterrorism Assistance program (ATA) as it quadrupled in size and took on new missions.  “ATA trains and equips foreign law enforcement and security organizations to prevent and investigate terrorist attacks.  While I was there, we helped establish specialist counterterrorism units in Indonesia, Pakistan, and Kenya.  We established a Presidential Protection Unit for President Karzai in Afghanistan.  And we set up an anti-kidnapping unit in Colombia.  It was tough work, but extremely interesting and rewarding.”

Last year, Callahan was promoted to a Deputy Assistant Secretary in the State Department’s Bureau of Legislative Affairs.  “Working effectively with Congress is key to the Department’s objectives.  Our bureau’s role is important, and it’s been wonderful to be able to be home with my wife and two girls at night and on weekends -- but I must admit that I miss the operational and policy work of the counterterrorism arena.” 

Asked what advice he would give to undergraduates or recent alumni about to embark on their careers, Callahan said, “Whether you are in government, business, law, arts, medicine, whatever, I think integrity and character matter enormously.  How you treat others and conduct yourself are habits that are formed early in one’s life, and they affect everything you do.  Second, I would say that passion and interest are guides that should be listened to.  I believe one can make a living at almost anything if one is passionate about it and energized by it.  I don’t subscribe to the ‘practical’ school of thought that counsels a poet-at-heart to go into engineering just because he’s good at math and engineering pays better.  There are lots of engineers who are good at math, but only those who are passionate for the work will excel and feel fulfilled.”

Asked to speculate on what might be next for him, Callahan demurred, saying that for now he served at the pleasure of the President and Secretary Condoleezza Rice.  As an appointee, he knows that he will be out of a job by the end of 2008.  Whatever comes next, one can be reasonably sure that Tom Callahan’s pursuits will be both interesting and meaningful, and that he will continue to take nothing for granted.


Last Updated: 6/21/12