In the 1960s, when nearly every elected Georgia Republican could fit in a Studebaker, Howard “Bo” Callaway was the party’s driver.
By 2010, when the GOP swept every statewide office for the first time, Callaway’s name was spoken with reverence, as the father of the Georgia Republican Party and its first superstar.
Callaway, 86, who helped his parents create the Callaway Gardens resort near Pine Mountain, died Saturday, nearly two years after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage.
His death marks the end of an era that saw him become, in 1964, the state’s first Republican congressman since Reconstruction, and almost the first Republican governor two years later. And while he never returned to elected office, veteran Georgia Republicans say he never stopped working to grow the party.
Matt Towery was the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor in 1990 and said Callaway was a constant presence on the campaign trail as the GOP’s first and only star.
“He, unfortunately, was forced to go to every campaign event a Republican had,” said Towery, who lost the general election to Democrat Pierre Howard. “He showed up all the time. He always had a consistent message and Bo never changed.”
Until the successful U.S. Senate campaigns of Mack Mattingly, in 1980, and Paul Coverdell, in 1992, Georgia Republicans had few big names to help recruit candidates or campaign for those already running. Callaway was always ready, Towery said.
“I’m telling you, in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, there was no superstar other than Bo Callaway,” Towery said, adding that many in the GOP “thought of him as our first Republican governor.”
Callaway was nearly an even bigger deal. In 1966, Callaway left his seat in Congress to run for governor. He became the first GOP nominee for the state’s top office since Reconstruction ended. Democrats nominated segregationist Lester Maddox. Callaway actually won 3,000 more votes than Maddox, but because former Gov. Ellis Arnall mounted a write-in campaign, no candidate received the majority needed to win.
State law at the time did not allow for a general election runoff; instead, the Legislature was allowed to choose the next governor and the Democratic-controlled machine backed Maddox. Callaway sued to overturn the decision but lost a challenge before the U.S. Supreme Court. The law was later changed, but Callaway’s moment had passed. No Republican was elected governor until Sonny Perdue in 2002.
Newt Gingrich, who also had a major role in growing the Georgia GOP as a congressman, eventual U.S. House speaker and candidate for president in 2012, said a Callaway victory would have changed everything.
“With a few thousand-vote difference, he would have been a candidate for president,” Gingrich said. “In ‘66, if he had won that race, he would have been a rising star and would have been a potential vice presidential candidate in ‘68, and the world would have been different.”
Callaway, however, never publicly expressed anger over the outcome.
“I don’t look back, only ahead,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1987.
Sixteen years later, in 2003, he told the paper that had he won the election as a Republican, the aggressive Democratic majorities in the House and Senate would have made governing difficult.
“There would have been a vested interest on the part of most of those in the Legislature that I not do too well,” he said then. “But, if I could have pulled it off and been successful, it would have been a whole different South.”
Although he lost the race, he inspired a generation of young Republican. Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, was 12 in 1966. He remembers even then the impact Callaway had.
“I grew up in a family of Republicans and Bo Callaway was what we had been waiting for,” Ralston said. “I was in elementary school and I had my Blue Horse notebook and I had a ‘Go Bo’ sticker. And I remember being very proud.”
Callaway, Ralston said, wrote “the first chapter of the modern Republican Party in Georgia.”
There was much more to Callaway than politics, however. A Korean War veteran, Callaway was later served as Secretary of the Army and, after moving to Colorado, was chairman of the Republican Party there.
Perhaps his most-lasting mark on Georgia, however, is his service in the family business. Callaway Gardens opened in 1952 and is a 13,000-acre slice of Georgia countryside that is home to the world’s largest azalea display, a huge butterfly conservatory and a renowned vegetable garden, as well as a man-made beach resort.
Callaway has five children. His wife of 60 years, Beth, died in 2009.
Carolyn Meadows, who for years held one of Georgia’s seats on the Republican National Committee, recalled Callaway as a “great American.” His bid for the Governor’s Mansion in 1966 was “the beginning of the conservative movement in Georgia.”
“He was very down to earth in that he appreciated people,” Meadows said. “I ran into him down at Callaway Gardens, he knew who I was, embraced me and I think he would have done the same if I had been out moving the lawn.”
A funeral Mass is planned for noon Wednesday, at Christ the King Catholic Church in Pine Mountain. The service will be followed by a private burial. Striffler-Hamby Funeral Homes, Columbus, is in charge of arrangements.
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