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Mike Callas: A life of service

December 11, 1998

For the past four decades, Michael G. "Mike" Callas has been a major player in every important event in Washington County. His name on a study panel or a campaign committee roster is enough to confer instant credibility on the subject under study or the candidate.

And like the late Ed Henson, who always insisted that he was "just a ditch digger" as he aided one community cause after another, the president of Callas Contractors, Inc. has also done his good works without seeking the spotlight or a public pat on the back.

His biographical file in The Herald-Mail archives contains just four short articles, including one I did on the 1973 dinner marking his installation as national president of Associated Builders and Contractors. After the event, during which speaker after speaker had paid him tribute, I approached the head table and asked him what he'd thought of the event.

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"I really don't go in much for this sort of thing," he said, puzzling a young man who didn't realize then that there are more important things than public priase.

Nevertheless, acclaim came his way again this week, when the Mason-Dixon Boy Scout Council honored him as 1998's Distinguished Citizen of the Year with a dinner held at the Sheraton Four Points in Hagerstown.

To mark that occasion, I asked, and he generously agreed, to share the story of his life.

He was born in April of 1921 in the Washington County Hospital, not long after his parents came to Hagerstown from New York's Lower East Side, their first stop after emigrating from Greece.

"Pop came down in 1919 and settled in Hagerstown. He was a candy dipper and a friend of his had come down and opened a store, the Princess Confectionery. It was about where McCrory's was. Then they moved down to the Square, where they dipped chocolates and sold sodas," he said.

Callas worked in the candy shop from the time he was 11, just barely tall enough to reach the lever that dispensed the seltzer water.

"They had that in there up until the 1930s, and then they went up next to the Maryland Theatre in a place that they outfitted with all modern fixtures, with nice cherry booths. Unfortunately the Depression came along in 1933 and we lost the store, the home we had and pop was unemployed," he said.

The elder Callas was eventually hired to manage the Valencia restaurant on Potomac Avenue, across from the old Hagerstown High School and now the site of Richards' World of Travel. For a certain generation of Hagerstonians, the Valencia was where they learned to dance, socialize and celebrate the city's sporting victories by climbing up on the roof to ring the bell that hung there.

But for the Callas children, it was also work.

"All of us worked at the Valencia. Marie (his sister) opened the store in the morning, and pop and I closed it up," he said.

His work day began after school at 4 p.m. and didn't end until midnight. In a November 1984 interview I did with the four brothers - Mike, Pete, Greg and Bill - Greg said that they earned 25 cents an hour, but it didn't buy them any luxuries.

"It all went into a little aluminum bank shaped like a Scotty dog, and when he needed a new shirt or I needed new shoes, out it came. There wasn't any of this 'my money' or 'your money,' " Greg Callas said.

For Mike, working at the Valencia meant doing his homework on a table in the back, in between customers, and eating ice cream for dinner except on Sundays, when family members would take turns walking to the family's home on North Street for a home-cooked meal.

"In 1939, I graduated from Hagerstown High. There was only one high school then," he said, adding that while he knew he wanted to go to college, he wasn't sure then what he would specialize in.

A neighbor, Mrs. Ann Stouffer, had some political connections and suggested that he try for an appointment to West Point. Part of that process was a physical exam, conducted at Fort Belvoir. But Callas' hopes of a career as an Army officer were dashed by one of the examiners, who told him he had "second-degree flat feet." He would likely last two years at the Point, the officer said, but not beyond that.

It was a long, slow walk from the post to U.S. 1, where he stuck out his thumb and headed home, then consulted his neighbor again about how a young man without money might get an education.

She introduced him to a state senator who said he had a couple of scholarships to give, but to get one he would have to score well on a competitive exam. He took the test, the results came back and he had won a scholarship to Johns Hopkins University that covered books and tuition, but not board.

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