August 6, Gerald Neil Callahan “purposely peeled his fingers loose from the grasses and the hollow stones and fell into the stars.” He was 73.
Gerry Callahan was a Renaissance man – loving family man, award-winning writer/poet, gifted immunologist, inspirational teacher, insightful mentor, fierce friend. He had a limitless capacity for expansive thought and the ability to combine his love of science and creative writing into philosophy. He wrote at the intersection of memoir and science to explore the personal meaning of modern biomedical research. He believed the stories we tell are infectious agents with the power to heal or destroy.
Callahan’s own story began in Coffeyville, Kan. Born to Gerald “Wayne” Callahan and June Perry Callahan Dec 22, 1946, he was the third of four children. In early childhood, his petroleum engineer father relocated the family to Bountiful, Utah, where Gerry learned to love putting boots on sandstone in Utah’s canyon country. He received his BS and PhD – in experimental pathology – from the University of Utah. Leaving graduate school in 1974, Dr. Callahan pursued biomedical research, first as part of a Nobel Prize-winning team at Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation in La Jolla, Calif., and since 1984 in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Pathology at Colorado State University where he was a professor of immunology and public understanding of science. In recognition of his literary contributions to popular scientific literature, he received a joint appointment in the Department of English at CSU in 2004. He was a well-loved professor in CSU’s Honors program and was a major contributor to the program’s creative design. He was an unpretentiously brilliant teacher of courses on the construction of self, human and animal disease, and scientific and creative writing.
Callahan received numerous awards and recognitions for his scientific research, writing, and teaching, including three National Research Service Awards, designation as a Leukemia Society of America Scholar, a Colorado Council on the Arts Fellowship for creative nonfiction, a Pulitzer Prize nomination, CSU’s 2006 Willard O. Eddy Award for excellence in interdisciplinary teaching, an Outstanding Science Faculty Award in 2012, Honors Professor of the Year Award in 2019, and the 2019 College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences Teaching Award.
As a scientist, he investigated interactions between the human immune and nervous systems, humans and their microbiomes and the biological basis of sex. During his distinguished career, he published more than 50 scientific papers, a veterinary immunology textbook and a virtual textbook. As a creative nonfiction author and poet, he published more than 70 poems and essays and four popular science books exploring the processes of being human.
His work has been featured on or in – among others – National Geographic Television, ABC Evening News, the Los Angeles Times, National Public Radio, ESPN, Discover Magazine, USA Today and Ms. Magazine. His works have been translated into Japanese, Chinese, Korean and Portuguese.
Callahan was a lover of words, stones, rivers, and ravens. He spent many joyful years hiking, camping and river running with his family. He was an avid cyclist, a formidable chef and a consummate dog lover. He craved books, music and art and the desert southwest and was dedicated to protecting human rights and the environment. Blessed with a wicked sense of humor (he named a tumor “Mitch McConnell”), he leaves a legacy of love and curiosity for the natural world. Dear friends say: “He was deeply kind, gentle and generous. We were and are blessed for having him in our lives, and we will miss him with an ‘ongoingness’ without end.”
Callahan is preceded in death by his parents Wayne and June Callahan and his sister Cathi Butler. He is survived by his wife of nearly 40 years Virginia “Gina” Mohr-Callahan of Fort Collins, son Patrick Callahan of Fort Collins and daughter Jennifer Callahan of Scottish Borders, Scotland. He is also survived by his brother Michael Callahan of Albuquerque, N.M.; his sister Patricia Larkin of Big Water, Utah; miniature schnauzer Nutmeg, also of Fort Collins; as well as nieces Monica Petersen, Kris Butler and grandniece Mia Wyasket of the Salt Lake City area; nephew John Callahan and grandniece Maya Callahan of Carmel, Ind.; niece Elizabeth Weese of Boise, Idaho, as well as grandnephews Sash and Andy Weese, also of Boise; and niece Pamela Henry of Redlands, Calif.
Gerry Callahan believed dying was his chance to be “part of everything.” In lieu of flowers or cards, his family urges you to pay attention – to the “dry chill of early mornings,” the “red coil of the wind,” the “iron crust of the desert,” and the “careless dance of birds.” You’ll find him there.
Near Gypsum Gap from “River Odyssey” by Gerald N. Callahan
From where I stood, when the light fell at last among the furrows of that distant headland, I thought: You and I could go there and live beneath the alligator junipers, the fluted sky, and the high, hard shoulder of the land. And there, there would only be the promise.
Rain and wind and ruined rocks, sunsets, starlight, the dry chill or early mornings. We could live there, in the shade of those trees for a very long time, years perhaps.
Until one night, satisfied with it all, we would purposely peel our fingers loose from the grasses and the hollow stones and fall into the stars.
A memorial for Gerry will be planned when it is safe for us to gather.