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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

He does it his way

Published: April 3, 2009
Section: Features

CHIEF: Director of Public Safety Ed Callahan has worked at Brandeis for the past 30 years and has served as chief of police for the past 10 years. Before coming to Brandeis, Callahan worked at Children's Hospital in Boston and Boston City Hospital. While most police chiefs are seen as stern and authoritative, Callahan infuses fun into his job and is a well-known figure on the Brandeis campus.<br />PHOTO BY Max Shay/The Hoot

CHIEF: Director of Public Safety Ed Callahan has worked at Brandeis for the past 30 years and has served as chief of police for the past 10 years. Before coming to Brandeis, Callahan worked at Children's Hospital in Boston and Boston City Hospital. While most police chiefs are seen as stern and authoritative, Callahan infuses fun into his job and is a well-known figure on the Brandeis campus.
PHOTO BY Max Shay/The Hoot

On the door to Ed Callahan’s office there is a sign that reads “Will retire.” Its plastic red dial is carefully spun to the year 2040. Above the sign is a crinkled piece of paper with the words “Never ever” scrawled in pen.

Inside, the cramped office of the Brandeis police chief is lined with police hats, award certificates, family photos and filing cabinets filled with police reports.

In his dress attire, Callahan, 5-foot -11 with grey hair and a mustache, stands out among a uniformed staff of men in blue. Callahan does not fit the stern stereotype of the campus police chief he has been for a decade.

Maybe this is because of the way Callahan runs the show. The hallway echoes with the sound of Callahan’s voice calling out “D.B.” or “Peewee” – nicknames he has assigned various officers.

Maybe this is because of the affection in which he is held. The office overflows with gifts that mirror the friends, students and acquaintances he has touched during 30 years on the Waltham campus.

Maybe this is because Ed Callahan is my dad. Being the daughter of the chief of police certainly has its merits and its drawbacks, but it has given me a unique perspective on the man behind the title, not an impartial perspective certainly, but perhaps an insightful one.

Before rising to chief, Callahan worked at Brandeis for 20 years as patrolman, investigator, detective sergeant, captain and deputy chief. Prior to joining the police force at Brandeis in 1978, he worked for the police departments of Children’s Hospital in Boston and Boston City Hospital.

Each morning, Callahan shows up for work in a dress shirt, slacks and, when he feels like it, a sweater vest. You know it’s a special day, one of his student workers once said, if he pulls out the purple dress shirt.

When asked what he would wear given the choice – a suit or casual wear – Callahan says he would always go for the suit because “You dress for success.”

So, who is the man behind that impeccably ironed Paul Frederick dress shirt?

He’s the man who’ll return your email within minutes, the man for whom vacation means answering phone calls every five minutes, the man most people at Brandeis call Chief.

The phone rings late at night and the voice on the other end says, “Good evening, is Chief Callahan home?”

Maybe it’s a sign of respect, maybe it’s a habit, but whatever it is, Callahan often tells people they can just call him “Ed.” When asked which he prefers–Chief or Ed– he says, “It doesn’t matter. Just don’t call me late for lunch,” and then laughs.

This wisecrack is typical of Callahan’s “work hard, play hard” attitude. When it comes down to it, he probably works more than 50 hours a week, but he has fun doing it.

Callahan, 55, grew up in Cambridge and later moved to Medford with his parents and older brother. This is where he lives today with his wife Jean, myself, and my sister Kim, 21, a senior at Suffolk University.

An English major at Boston State College, Callahan had originally planned to be an elementary school teacher. At the time, many teachers were being laid off, so he thought it might be more practical to pursue a career in his second major—law enforcement.

Some would say he didn’t veer too far from his original path. After all, Callahan works alongside students and has shaped the minds of many an employee over the years, preparing them, he says, for “life, for the real world, for reality.” He runs Brandeis’ escort safety service, including the famous “Branvan.” In addition to a student crew of 70, Callahan works closely with four student managers.

The man demands a lot from his students, who essentially are on call all hours of the day just as he is, ready to take care of any emergency that might arise. From middle-of-the-night calls to his house to trips to campus on a weekend, Callahan’s job is anything but nine to five.

Case in point: It’s a Sunday night. Callahan is sitting in his living room, cell phone in his lap, Blackberry on the armrest and house phone in his hand. Just minutes before, he sat in the same position with only one piece of technology – his Nextel Blackberry – reading glasses lining his nose, and hands clicking the keys, checking his messages.

Then the phone rang, as it often does. It’s snowing outside, and Callahan’s student workers need to check in to insure the safe running of the Branvan. One of them calls and they get disconnected. Callahan calls him back and gets the voicemail. Within a minute, he calls again and leaves another message. Just seconds later, he has another student on the line. When asked how he is, Callahan says, “I’ve been better.”

“He dropped the ball,” he continues, disappointed his student worker let his call go to voicemail yet another time.

Though Callahan strives to foster close, trusting relationships with his students, they are, at the end of the day, still students. And as such, he takes it on himself to serve as a father figure, doling out advice and often referring to them at home as “my other kids.” And as with his actual children, tough love is often on the menu.

“There’s no time for mistakes,” he says. “We expect perfection and give nothing else.”

During his time in public safety, Callahan has seen it all–or at least as much as can be seen on a college campus as small as Brandeis’. While coordinating security for campus events, Callahan has even met the likes of the Dalai Lama, Whoopi Goldberg, Ted Koppel and Barbara Streisand.

Holding his position also inevitably requires being the bearer of bad news. When the decision to arm the Brandeis police was announced last year, for instance, Callahan took the brunt of the abuse, though the decision wasn’t fully his. For him, even this experience is seen in a positive light.

“It’s part of the job, I guess. You have to deal with people who have difference of opinions,” he says.

Such a demanding job leaves little room for relaxation, but Callahan finds the time here and there.

It’s a Wednesday: two days after President’s Day, to be precise. It’s also Brandeis’ February break, so the campus is relatively quiet. Most students have gone home for break; some employees have taken time off. Callahan has decided to take the day off as well. It’s a rare occurrence. Callahan has accumulated so much vacation time he has actually lost some of it.

So today he drives up to Laconia, N.H., where Callahan and his family have a vacation home. It’s there he seems to be happiest; in the mountains, away from the chaos of campus.

But not so far that he loses cell phone reception, of course. Between the one and a half hour drive up Route 93 and a leisurely survey of the condo, Callahan inevitably checks his Blackberry for the unavoidable emails. He receives, on average, 100 a day.

So why did he decide to take today off? No reason in particular.

“I have a lot of time,” he says, referring to his vacation days. But you can’t help but think there’s some kind of an existential meaning lying underneath.

Callahan was diagnosed with prostate cancer when he was 48 years old. The diagnosis of Hodgkin’s lymphoma came a year later. Not even months of chemotherapy and radiation could keep Callahan from going to work, though. It got to the point where his boss, a fellow workaholic, told Callahan he needed to stay at home.

Workaholic though he might be, Callahan is anything but a boring cubicle worker. While many employees are content to sit in their office for eight hours, you can find this police chief cruising around in one of the police cars or his own car several times a day.

Perhaps you’ve noticed him calling out to people from up on the third floor balcony of the Shapiro Campus Center, causing them to look around and wonder if they really heard their name or if the stress has really gotten to them. Or maybe you’ll see him at the corner convenience store picking up a pack of his favorite licorice. If there’s someone driving on the path in front of the campus center, it’s most likely Callahan as well.

Whether it’s from these trips around campus, the very nature of his role as director of public safety or his endearing personality, Callahan knows everyone. From the janitors working in the Usdan Student Center (quite a walk from his office in Stoneman), to the members of the Student Union, to at least one employee in just about every office on campus, Callahan is certainly a well-known figure. At the mention of his name, these admirers often refer to him as “My friend Ed” or “Mr. Wonderful.”

Sergeant Michael Walsh of Brandeis public safety has worked at Brandeis for 39 years and watched Callahan work his way up to the post of chief.

Walsh says Callahan is certainly a well-loved figure among students, staff and faculty and has worked to speak for the students in many a situation.

“He’s always had the university close to his heart,” he says.

Though he’s spent his whole life in New England, Callahan swears he’ll move to Florida when he retires–that is, if he ever does. Nearly every night, he stands in front of the TV set in his kitchen, listens to the meteorologist, and reports, “It’s 76 degrees in Florida today.”

Here’s to hoping it might be half that tomorrow where he lives, but Callahan has a lot to hope for, or so he always says. Two bouts with cancer have taught him not to take himself too seriously and to treat everyone with respect.

“I try not to get stressed out since I’ve been ill,” he says.

Perhaps that’s the reason for his fun-loving personality. Maybe that’s the way he’s always been. Who knows? The one certain thing is that Callahan does what he wants to do.

Case in point: It’s late at night and Callahan’s phone rings one last time for the day. It’s Mark Collins, his boss.

“Yo-yo,” he calls into the phone, using his nickname for Collins.

Most employees wouldn’t call their boss “Yo-yo,” but Ed Callahan isn’t most employees.