[Congressional Record Volume 156, Number 75 (Tuesday, May 18, 2010)]
[Extensions of Remarks]
[Pages E873-E875]
From the Congressional Record Online through the Government Publishing Office [www.gpo.gov]



                             HON. JO BONNER

                               of alabama

                    in the house of representatives

                         Tuesday, May 18, 2010

  Mr. BONNER. Madam Speaker, I rise to pay tribute to former Alabama 
Congressman Sonny Callahan, who was honored on April 8 with the 
Mobilian of the Year Award, presented by the Cottage Hill Civitan Club. 
Former Congressman Callahan received the Bienville Plaque and a 
proclamation from Mayor Sam Jones.
  I was honored to deliver a tribute to Sonny Callahan's life and 
career during the award celebration on April 8 and below is an excerpt 
of my remarks.

       The Sonny Callahan story is much like that of many other 
     young men his age--and from that time in Mobile's past. But 
     Sonny, according to those who have known him the longest, was 
     always someone special. He had the good looks, the charm and 
     personality that made other people feel good about themselves 
     when they were with him.
       He had a natural charisma and intellect, often masked with 
     that Reagan-esque self-deprecating humor, that made Sonny, 
     even to his peers and colleagues, a natural-born leader that 
     people gravitated to for his counsel and advice, for his 
     often unique perspective on life . . . or simply for a little 
     humor and levity to lighten the moment.
       As the story goes, we know he used those talents early on 
     in the world of business and it was a success story that made 
     for a natural campaign brochure.
       I'll never forget what our wonderful friend, mentor and 
     advisor, the late Bill Yeager, told me when I was first 
     interviewing to be Sonny's campaign press secretary back in 
     1982 . . . Bill said, ``Jo, Sonny's story of a self-made man 
     who grew up with all the reasons not to succeed, but 
     overcoming one obstacle after another, always finding a way 
     to be successful, is not just biographical hype.
       ``Even if he is sometimes hard to pin-down,'' Bill told me, 
     Sonny is truly one of the most decent human beings I have 
     ever known.''
       And as Bill Yeager often was in his judgment of others, he 
     was right on the money as it related to Sonny.
       Sonny's early success on the campaign trail . . . he was 
     elected to the Alabama House in 1970 and only once--in the 14 
     times his name appeared on the ballot--did he not finish 
     first--was an omen of even bigger opportunities that would 
       But Sonny wasn't just someone who loved politics . . . he 
     loved helping people.
       And that, my friends, is a distinction that sadly, too few 
     of us make when it comes to lumping everyone in politics in 
     the same vat.
       There were the light-hearted moments . . . like the time 
     when Sonny was driving to Montgomery when the legislature was 
     in session and his friend, Tommy Sandusky, had finally gotten 
     one of those Motorola car phones almost a year after Sonny 
     had gotten his first car telephone.
       The story goes that Tommy was so proud of the fact that he 
     had finally caught up to Sonny, that he pulled up to Sonny in 
     his car at a stoplight in Montgomery, picked up the phone and 
     called him to say, ``hey Sonny, I just wanted you to know 
     that I'm calling you on my car phone.''
     . . . to which Sonny--with that quick Callahan wit replied 
     without missing a beat--``Tommy that's great . . . 
     unfortunately, I can't talk right now because my other phone 
     is ringing.''

[[Page E874]]

       Sonny was always one step ahead of most of us. But the 
     light-hearted memories take a back seat to the stories that 
     were never written in the press but were the headlines of 
     Sonny Callahan's amazing life.
       I got a call the other day from a lady who said when she 
     heard that Congressman Callahan had been named Mobilian of 
     the Year, she simply wanted me to be sure and mention that 
     had it not been for Sonny, her son . . . who at age two had 
     meningitis which left him deaf and blind . . . would have 
     been institutionalized. When her father arranged for her to 
     go see Sonny to tell him her plight, Sonny promised her that 
     he would help.
       And help he did. Sonny found the money to start the area 
     school for Deaf and Blind here in Mobile, patterned after the 
     one in Talledega, and today, some 44 years later, her son was 
     able to graduate from high school, go on to college and is 
     now a successful young businessman. With tears of gratitude, 
     this lady wanted me to say ``thank you'' to the man who 
     helped give her son a new lease on life.
       But that is just one of the many rich subchapters of the 
     Sonny Callahan legacy. In truth, they all have a similar 
       Also from his days in the Legislature, there was Callahan 
     Tuition tax credit that help Alabama's private colleges, like 
     Spring Hill, Birmingham Southern and Huntington, assist young 
     Alabamians with their dream of a college diploma.
       Perhaps most lasting, there was also the Heritage Trust 
     Fund that Sonny's leadership helped establish for the oil and 
     gas leases that were being let in the mid-1970s. This fund 
     mandated that the State invest the principal and instead live 
     off the tens of millions of dollars that would accrue in 
     interest every year, assisting dozens of worthwhile state 
     programs over the past 30 years.
       When Jack Edwards retired from Congress in 1984 after an 
     impressive 20 years of service, Sonny got in the race to 
     succeed him--with Jack's full blessings and support, no 
     less--and shortly thereafter he began what would become an 
     equally-impressive 18-year-run.
       The kind of commitment to helping others that Sonny had 
     become known for in the legislature soon became the hallmark 
     of his Congressional service as well.
       About six months after Sonny had taken office, we had the 
     long-awaited dedication of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway. 
     It was every politican's dream . . . a beautiful, festive 
     day, thousands of people in attendance, and everyone was in 
     an upbeat mood.
       Jack, naturally, was invited to sit on the speaker's 
     platform with the governor, both senators, the mayor and all 
     of the other dignitaries of the day. After all, Jack Edwards 
     had spent practically his entire 20-year-tenure in Congress 
     trying to keep the funding going for what was the biggest 
     public works project in American history.
       But true to form, when it came Sonny's turn to speak, the 
     newly-minted freshman congressman took the microphone, 
     thanked everyone for coming out and said, ``you know, Jack, 
     you certainly accomplished a lot for our area during your 20 
     years in Congress. But let the record show that it was during 
     my first six months in Congress that we were finally able to 
     finish the Tenn-Tom!''
       Jack likes to tell people that he knew then that he had 
     backed the right man to follow in his footsteps.
       While others in Congress have spent their time building 
     monuments to themselves, Sonny quietly went about doing the 
     work that a true member of the ``People's House'' takes pride 
     in doing for it was always about the ``people'' that Sonny 
     worked for . . . the young mother who had that blind and deaf 
     son . . . the veteran whose government had forgotten him long 
     after his service had ended . . . or the worker who toiled in 
     the hot, un-air conditioned plant and never knew what the 
     inside of a college classroom looked like, but who, when he 
     became injured on the job, turned to Congressman Callahan for 
     the help he needed.
       As he gained seniority and certainly after his party had 
     taken the majority in Congress with the historic 1994 
     election, Sonny never let the additional titles and 
     responsibilities that came with those leadership positions 
     change what was important to him.
       Sure, when he became the Chairman of the House 
     Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations--the 
     committee that funds all of America's foreign aid--Sonny 
     would come to the office often to find a line of Kings, 
     Presidents and Prime Ministers waiting for just a few minutes 
     of his time.
       But Sonny would remind his staff . . . don't get too 
     impressed, these folks are here to see ``the chairman.'' If 
     it were not me, they'd be standing outside someone else's 
       And never once, when Sonny had control of a budget that was 
     greater than the budgets of two or three states combined . . 
     . did he ever think talking to a head of state was more 
     important than talking to Mayor Shell in Atmore, Judge Biggs 
     in Monroe County or some person who didn't have a title, but 
     who just needed to talk to ``my congressman about a personal 
       If our friend, Mayer Mitchell, were still alive, he would 
     be the first to tell you that when Sonny flew to Israel to 
     meet late one night with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, 
     to discuss a new plan that Sonny had conceived to decrease 
     the economic aid to Israel while, at the same time, increase 
     the military assistance to our best ally in the Middle East, 
     neither Mayer nor even President Bill Clinton, who had told 
     Sonny just hours before the trip that this couldn't be done, 
     gave him any chance for success.
       But succeed he did. And that's why when President Clinton 
     needed a Republican to step up and provide the crucial 
     support for his administration's plan for Bosnia--back when 
     most Republicans and a lot of Democrats weren't eager to go 
     along--the president turned to Sonny to provide that 
       Soon thereafter, others on both sides of the political 
     aisle followed his leadership and this humble, self-
     described, ``back-bencher'' in Congress, was fast becoming a 
     major player on the international stage.
       From the pages of the Washington Post to the Wall Street 
     Journal, conservative and liberal pundits alike called 
     Chairman Callahan ``an unlikely champion.''
       But once again, the folks in his hometown were always more 
     comfortable calling him Sonny, not even congressman, and to 
     him, that was his reassurance that he had not lost touch with 
     those for whom he worked.
       The list of his signature accomplishments throughout 
     southwest Alabama is literally endless. I honestly don't know 
     of a complete assessment.
       But here's just a quick stab at some of the highlights . . 
     . Sonny secured the initial funding for what is today the 
     Mitchell Cancer Center at the University of South Alabama . . 
     . he helped make the initial down-payment on the new library 
     at Spring Hill College . . . he found the funding to restore 
     the historic GM&O Building in downtown Mobile . . . he 
     secured the first installment for a new bridge to replace 
     congested tunnels along Interstate 10 . . .
       The money to replace the 14 mile rail road bridge, funding 
     for towns like Fairhope, Bayou La Batre, Jackson and 
     Thomasville . . . Sonny got the money to help refurbish the 
     historic old Monroe County Courthouse, just as he secured the 
     funding for the Foley Beach Express.
       When they start construction on the new VA cemetery in 
     Baldwin County, it will be because of Sonny Callahan's 
     determination--and leadership--several years ago, that this 
     dream will one day soon become a reality.
       But as I have said before, Sonny never did any of this for 
     personal gratification or recognition. He did it because it 
     was what the people of his district needed and wanted.
       After he retired from Congress, grateful communities and 
     groups alike began the naming process . . . a tiny little 
     bridge near Foley, the airport in Fairhope, a building at 
     Mercy Medical, a Boys and Girls Club in West Mobile.
       No one did more to help make sure Mobile Bay was included 
     in the National Estuary Program, or build on the work started 
     by his predecessor to help expand and protect Bon Secour 
     National Wildlife Refuge and Weeks Bay Estuary.
       A few years ago, The University of Alabama was able to 
     complete work on the finest child development center in the 
     nation, thanks solely to Sonny Callahan's leadership.
       At about the same time, the University of Alabama 
     Birmingham established an endowed student scholars program in 
     his honor because, as they said, his creation of the Child 
     Survival and Diseases program--back when he was in Congress--
     guaranteed that children and adults--``from the Black Belt of 
     Alabama all the way to Bangladesh--today enjoy cleaner water, 
     safer food and a lower incidence of disease because of 
     Sonny's labors.''
       In 2004, our local veterans made him the ``Patriot of the 
     Year,'' Governor Riley appointed him to serve on the board of 
     the Alabama Port Authority . . .
       And I'm telling you . . . I literally could go on and on.
       There were also the gaffes . . . we've all made them and 
     most of us, when we do, it eats us to the core. Not Sonny. He 
     always kept things like that in perspective . . . like the 
     time he admitted to being in the desert when Operation Desert 
     Storm commenced. Sonny was in the desert . . . at a luxury 
     hotel in Palm Springs playing golf . . . but that wasn't the 
     sand most people were thinking about at the time.
       Or the time that he told both President and Mrs. Clinton 
     that they needed to slow down the money spigot going to other 
     countries . . . you can imagine how much fun the press 
     secretary had at the time trying to explain his comment 
     ``it's Halloween in Washington and if you want to get some 
     treats, just put a turbain on your head and go knock on the 
     White House door.''
       The Washington press corps loved that line, Sonny got the 
     President's attention but I got a migraine dealing with that 
       And of course, when Secretary of State Madeleine Albright 
     was in Mobile, he meant it as a compliment when he said, 
     ``Madeleine, you are like a flamingo in the barnyard of 
       She has actually told others that she couldn't have had a 
     more supportive chairman to work with than Sonny Callahan so, 
     congressman, I think she knew you were paying her a 
       But I'm going to close by saying this to tonight's honoree 
     . . . and I want to say this as all of your friends and 
     family are listening on . . .
       As I've been reflecting back over our almost 3 decades 
     together, your story really isn't like most everyone else's . 
     . . for when you were given the opportunity . . . an 
     opportunity that few people in life are really

[[Page E875]]

     ever afforded . . . to do great things and to make your mark, 
     you did--and I truly mean this--you always did it with 
     humility and with humor . . . without the malice and nasty 
     partisanship that is so prevalent in Washington today . . . 
     you did it because of the greater good that would accrue to 
     the benefit of untold numbers of people that you might not 
     ever meet or know . . . but you did ``it'' . . . whatever 
     ``it'' was . . . because ``it'' was the right thing to do at 
     the right time to do it. Thank you, Sonny, for always being 
     our champion.
       Before I turn the microphone over to Mayor Jones, I would 
     be extremely remiss if I did not thank two other groups of 
     people who deserve special recognition . . . first of all, to 
     Sonny's family . . . certainly his brothers and sisters and 
     countless cousins, but most especially, his beloved Karen . . 
     . wife, partner, soul-mate and mother to their six children.
       Sonny used to say that Karen must have been the inspiration 
     for the song, ``Wind Beneath My Wings,'' because she was 
     always there for him, standing off in his shadow, never 
     having the sunlight on her face . . . but he could fly higher 
     than an eagle, because she was the wind beneath his wings.
       I must admit that until I was elected to Congress, myself, 
     in 2002--thanks in no small part to Sonny and the incredible 
     reputation he had earned--you know, when Sonny retired he had 
     the highest approval rating of any sitting member in the 
     entire U.S. Congress at 92 percent--contrast that today with 
     an approval rating for Congress, as a whole, at an 
     embarrassing 13 percent nationally--and I don't know that 
     even I fully appreciated the demanding, difficult--and yet 
     absolutely critical roles--that the spouse and family of a 
     public figure play.
       But Karen, for all sacrifices that you, Scott, Patrick, 
     Shawn, Chris, Kelly and the always close-to-our-heart, 
     Cameron, have made . . . for the nights, the days, the weeks 
     and the years that y'all have shared your wonderful husband--
     and daddy, and now granddaddy--with everyone else . . . thank 
       Mobile--and indeed the entire state of Alabama--is a better 
     place to live because of the man you love and tonight, the 
     man we honor.
       Finally, and I know Sonny would be the first to agree with 
     this, but I must also thank the tremendously dedicated, loyal 
     and extremely talented staff that Sonny brought together 
     during his many years in the public arena.
       No one person can answer all the mail, return all the phone 
     calls, make all the contacts that are required to be made and 
     do everything else that is expected of a person who has 
     635,000 constituents--as well as a national responsibility--
     and while Sonny was the best I have ever seen in this often-
     misunderstood job, he was able to do what he did because he 
     surrounded himself with a team that was second-to-none.
       Together, his family and his staff can take great pride in 
     knowing that the lives Sonny has touched . . . and the legacy 
     Sonny has built . . . is a living testament to your unselfish 
     love, loyalty and admiration of a man known by kings and 
     presidents . . . movie stars and musicians . . . truck 
     drivers and ditch-diggers . . . simply as our friend, Sonny