‘Rage, rage against the dying of the light’: The nine lives of Bill Callahan

BRATTLEBORO — Neighbors on Oak Street still tell stories about Ferguson, the late but seemingly immortal calico tabby cat that fearlessly sauntered and sunbathed in the middle of traffic, even after an accident sparked swelling nearly as grotesque as the vet bills.

But the feline had nothing on its family's patriarch, William Joseph “Bill” Callahan, the Depression-era child turned World War II soldier, husband, father, mail carrier, middle-age college student and teacher, post-retirement cyclist and heart attack survivor with nine lives - including the one that came after he was ejected from hospice for too actively embodying the spirit of one of his favorite poems.

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light ...

For Callahan, that meant punctuating his already spirited story with one last surprise.

Born March 22, 1925, in New York City, the Catholic-baptized child often found himself with his butcher father in Prohibition speakeasies (his mother spent five years in a tuberculosis sanatorium) before they all moved to Brattleboro in 1939. Callahan was the first in his family to graduate high school - in 1943 - and to go on to fight in World War II.

“I can remember how eager I was to enter the service,” he told an audience at the local American Legion earlier this year.

Then Callahan landed in Normandy, France, just after the June 6, 1944, “D-Day” start of an invasion to liberate Europe from Nazi occupation - leading him to Belgium for that December's Battle of the Bulge, Germany's last major attempt to stop the United States and fellow Allied forces.

“I was frightened every minute,” he recalled, “and was not at all a brave soldier.”

Returning home, Callahan traded the frontline for a mail route. One day in 1948, he made a delivery to the local public health office. A nurse named Marjorie opened the door. Smitten, the carrier soon concocted a certified letter so she would have to stop and sign for it.

That delivery led to marriage, the purchase of an Oak Street home and the birth of six children. Callahan's work also expanded his social circle, be it students from the local School for International Training he invited to the family dinner table or a Greek literature scholar who inspired him to start college at age 45.

Juggling his job and studies before graduating 12 years later, Callahan left the post office to teach at Community College of Vermont. There he received its Educator of the Year award for mentoring students from disadvantaged backgrounds, all while he acted in local productions of plays by Anton Chekhov, Arthur Miller, William Shakespeare, and George Bernard Shaw.

Retiring in 1993, Callahan went on to bicycle well into his 80s, riding two dozen miles a day along Windham County's West River, with detours to Montreal's annual 36-kilometer Tour de l'Île and treks through France.

Then came the bumps in the road. In 2011, he cared for his nurse wife until her death after 61 years of marriage. In 2014, he suffered a heart attack, resulting in cardiac rehab and a daily aspirin. In 2018, he found his body backpedaling as he lost breath and gained fluid.

Doctors, finding his heart beating at only 30% capacity, called in hospice. Callahan signed a directive outlining his last wishes just before Thanksgiving 2018 and spent that Christmas season wondering if each day would be his last.

“He was not coherent,” recalls his youngest child, Jennifer. “He oftentimes was seeing or reaching out for things that weren't there.”

She remembers hearing her father talk with her late mother one night that winter, only to see him grow stronger in the weeks leading up to his 94th birthday that spring.

“He sat right up in bed, looked me in the face and said, 'I don't think I'm ready to die yet.'”

Rebounding, Callahan proudly told everyone he was ejected from hospice in 2020.

Cue the Covid-19 pandemic. Housebound, he bought a stationary bike and charted his progress on an Excel spreadsheet, all while reading, listening to classical music and opera, solving crossword puzzles, learning French online, confusing telemarketers by reciting speeches in Russian or Polish and following the lives of his 11 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren - at times by tapping a cellphone tracking app.

“He would even report to my mom when I was driving too fast,” recalls his youngest granddaughter, Molly.

Callahan was one of five veterans in their 90s honored by the American Legion this past summer.

“The whole population suffers during wartime,” he told the crowd. “I hope the world will come together and realize we need to stop killing each other.”

Then this autumn, feeling out of breath, Callahan lost his balance, fell and broke his femur. Struggling through surgery, he died Oct. 21 - but not before serenading his nurse, Jolene, with the namesake Dolly Parton song.

“In some ways, his fall and sudden passing may have been kinder than a slow demise,” former teaching colleague Ann Newsmith said. “Bill had his faculties - his wit, warm heart and contagious smile - until the very end.”

Callahan wasn't a churchgoer, but he considered Catholics his “tribe.” That's why his family scheduled his remembrance ceremony at Brattleboro's St. Michael Cemetery, where three generations of survivors gathered as the funeral director passed out prayer cards with that favorite verse.

… And you, my father, there on the sad height,

Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Callahan loved poetry, prose, true stories, too. He repeatedly reminisced about the unlikely bond between two real-life Brattleboro characters, the late Police Chief Patrick O'Keefe and bootlegger “Holyoke Joe” Dudley - the latter who sparked headlines a century ago for such crimes as hitting a nemesis over the head with a rolling pin.

“The ever-vigilant Pat found it necessary to arrest Joe from time to time,” Callahan wrote in a remembrance. “Joe would hand over his pinky ring, gold watch and wallet to Pat for safekeeping until his release from jail.”

When the policeman died in 1951, Dudley purchased the neighboring gravesite, not knowing he'd need it four years later. Visit the cemetery today and you'll see the chief and his charge buried side by side. But look past their stones and you'll find a new neighbor who figured out a way to forever have one last laugh - William Joseph Callahan.

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