I didn’t much like Peter Callas, who died last week, when I met him 25 years ago.
As a young, cocky reporter, I formed a snap judgment of him that I can now see was comical in its inaccuracy. It went something like this: I was single-malt Scotch; Peter was tequila. I was Chopin; he was Springsteen. I said “breast;” Peter used a different word.
As I write that now, it becomes so clear why Peter had so many more friends than I did. And all of them attended the epic parties Peter threw during the time I worked with him at the Trenton Times. Like almost everyone who attended those parties, I had a blast, but I always felt just a little out of place.
When I think back, it kind of makes sense that Peter and I didn’t hit it off immediately. He had one of the most exquisitely tuned bullshit meters I have ever encountered. Around me at that age, it must have been pegged nearly all the time.
This was, of course, part of what made Peter such a great newspaper editor. It also made him likely to point out those times when I fell back on my writing to cover flaws in my reporting.
And, oh, I fancied myself quite the auteur back then. When he edited my copy, Peter was polite, and often appreciative, but the fru-fru always ended up in the trash. Now I realize that a lot of my writing could have been rightly characterized as florid, or even self-indulgent. (Pete would have used more colorful language.)
Over the years, Peter and I did develop a friendship. As I became less intent on proving that I WAS NOT a hayseed from Kansas (which I actually am), I began to realize how much Peter the editor — and Peter the man — had to teach me. Here’s a sampling:
Show up. No matter what, get your ass where it is supposed to be, when it is supposed to be there.
Never, ever make excuses.
In hiring (and elsewhere), if you must choose between “wow” and “work,” pick “work” every time.
If you’re complaining, you’re not working.
Stand up for others, and they will stand up for you.
If you can help someone with a problem, even by just listening, always do it.
That last one became much more than words for me in 2008. I had left the Times for the then-exotic World Wide Web in the late 1990s. Things had been going pretty well for me, but suddenly, just as the economy was tanking, I lost my job. Unemployed for the first time since puberty, I started spiraling into self-pity.
I don’t even remember how, but Peter ended up inviting me to do some consulting for him on a Web project. He had left his job at the Times and was starting a public relations firm.
Before long, Peter even provided what a person in my situation needed most: a paycheck. I mean a single paycheck. It wasn’t very big, and I’m not even sure what I did to earn it. Peter knew that didn’t matter. To me, a paycheck meant I was worth paying. That made all the difference.
Peter’s firm was located in his house because muscular dystrophy had finally made it impossible for him to get to work. Soon, I was making excuses to visit his home office and reminisce about old times at the Times, when we were both young and our newsroom was a heady mix of arrogance, talent and possibility.
On a couple of visits to his house, I even helped Peter in ways I had always avoided when I worked for him. This meant helping him with a transfer, or grabbing his belt and lifting him up in his chair so he could maneuver his joystick.
These are the uncomfortable moments. The moments when you understand what real strength is all about, and when you curse the cosmic comedian who gave a man such as this a disease that destroyed his muscles.
One late morning, as I sat across the desk from Peter, with sunshine streaming in through a large picture windows, Peter said, “How about a shot?” and gestured to a bottle of top-shelf tequila that always sat on his desk. (“The advantages of a home office!” he told me.)
As I poured the shots and set up Peter with his straw, he queued up some rock ‘n’ roll from his huge iTunes library. If I’m honest, I have to admit I don’t remember the music. But in my mind, it will always be Bruce. Probably one of us offered a toast, but I don’t remember that either. It’s irrelevant now anyway, because I’m re-writing that toast here, for eternity: “To Peter Callas, thank you for lifting me up!”