Mac Callaham, biologist, dies at 87

Protected water quality for Atlanta and the state

Credit: Courtesy

Credit: Courtesy

An exercise in gratitude and love. That’s the way Mac Callaham structured his life.

He loved his work as a biologist sampling creek and river tributaries in North Georgia and compiling reports about the health and water quality of Lake Lanier and the Chattahoochee River. Those reports helped ensure the quality of drinking water for metro Atlanta. He loved teaching and mentoring students — and sometimes younger faculty members — at the University of North Georgia He loved his wife and four children, and “he loved to be in the forest, to bask in its presence.”

Mac Aaron Callaham, Sr., died on December 3 after a long decline from dementia. He was 87 years old. Callaham was born on August 30, 1936, in Sylvania, Alabama, one of seven children of Talmadge and Lucille McElhaney Callaham. His hardscrabble upbringing meant bringing home fish to his family. There was no catch-and-release for him, as a boy or as an adult, when he fished for crappie with his sons.

After finishing high school, he attended West Georgia College and the University of Georgia, where he earned a biology degree in 1958. Callaham enlisted in the U.S. Army but received an honorable discharge two years later to teach biology to high school students in Chattanooga.

“Because of Sputnik (the first satellite Russia launched into space), science and math were seen as critical need areas,” said Mac Callaham, Jr. “We had to catch up.”

In Chattanooga, Mac Callaham, Sr., met Patricia Headrick on a double date. They were married six months later, and they had been married 63 years when he died. He taught at Belmont College in Nashville, Tennessee, and earned master’s degrees from Peabody College before joining the faculty of what was then North Georgia College in Dahlonega. Encouraged by his supervisors, he earned a Ph.D. in fisheries and wildlife biology from the University of Georgia in 1968.

“He was probably the most loved faculty member and department head on campus,” said Robert Fuller, his friend and colleague. “He was just an outstanding human being.” Callaham twice received the Distinguished Professor Award. Fuller said Callaham always did applied research, holding contracts with the U.S. Forest Service to sample swimming beaches in the Chattahoochee National Forest.

“My brother and parents and I would pile into his VW Beetle, and go off, then hike to a creek or lake and hike out with water samples,” said Callaham, Jr. “This started when I was a little kid, old enough to wear a backpack.”

In the summer, he would be testing well water for friends and clients. His son said Callaham had a passion for protecting the water resources of Georgia, “and was one of the first people to start thinking about the water supply for Atlanta, Lake Lanier and the water, and sediment flowing into Lake Lanier.” For 30 years, he sampled the nine major tributaries into the lake, looking at oxygen levels, erosion from land development and coliform bacteria from the poultry industry. He would compile his findings into a report to share with county and state folks.

In his free time, Callaham, Sr., liked to read. He always had a subscription to the New Yorker and to news magazines like Time and Newsweek, and he enjoyed the short stories of James Thurber and John Cheever.

In addition to his older son and wife, Mac Callaham is survived by his brother Frank Callaham, his sister, Judy Patton, daughters Shannon Garner and Leslie Costa, son Clay Callaham, 11 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren. A celebration of life will be held on January 6th on the Dahlonega campus of University of North Georgia. Contributions may be made to the Mac Callaham Scholarship fund at University of North Georgia.