Peter Callas Jr. remembers as if it were yesterday the day his father gave him “the F.D.R. talk.”
It was 1973, and Peter Jr., then 13 years old, had just been diagnosed with facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy (FSHD).
“Dad sat me down at the kitchen table and told me the story of how a man with a disability, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, became president of the United States. Dad wasn’t going to let me sit there and feel sorry for myself. He said, ‘There’s nothing you can’t be.’”
Callas’ father, who was in the coffee business, and his mother, who taught special-needs children, were immensely proud of their kids and told them to always do their best. Peter Jr., the only one affected by muscular dystrophy, knew his parents expected as much from him as from his three siblings.
“I could see in their faces how they worried about me, and I never wanted to let them know I was afraid, or that I thought less of myself because I had muscular dystrophy. I promised myself I would always try my hardest, no matter what.”
Callas went on to have a successful, 25-year career as a newspaper editor at The Times of Trenton(N.J.). Although increasing weakness put him in a wheelchair by the early 1990s, he learned to drive a van with hand controls and continued up the corporate ladder. He met and married his wife Toni, also a journalist.
A new career
Then in 2008, as in so many other newsrooms around the country, massive downsizing hit The Times of Trenton. Callas survived the first round of cuts, but later decided to accept a buyout and left his managing editor position. “It was scary,” he said. “No one was hiring, especially someone in a wheelchair.”
But Callas remembered his father’s words, gathered his courage, and struck out on his own. He put together a team of media experts and formed PGC Communications, a consulting and public relations firm that he operates from his home.
Today, Callas has several clients, including a hospital, an Indian tribe, a religious charity, and a disability-rights organization. He enjoys the freedom of not having to be an objective observer anymore, and has been appointed to several local disability-rights groups. He plans to push for more accessible accommodations and other concerns as he grows into his new role as an advocate for social change.
Transformed by MD
Callas is reflective about the toll muscular dystrophy has taken on both him and his family. He worries about his wife having to care for him as he gets increasingly immobile. Currently, he uses a portable lift for the bed and the bathroom and Toni stands him up once a day, briefly, to help dress him: “I cherish that moment of feeling my weight on my bones,” he says. The couple decided not to have children, for fear of passing on FSHD to the next generation. But, as a son of loving parents, Callas understands what a loss that is for both him and his wife.
At the same time, Callas is grateful to muscular dystrophy for the meaning and purpose it’s given him. “It’s made me far more compassionate,” he said. “I’m a better person knowing that, while I could have accomplished different things, I would not have been able to accomplish the same things.”
Callas’ family was transformed by his MD as well. His father threw himself into raising money for MDA soon after Peter Jr. was diagnosed. And after his father’s death in 1993, Peter Jr.’s older brother, Alex, continued the tradition by holding an annual golf tournament at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland honoring Peter Callas Sr. and benefitting MDA. (More information about the tournament, scheduled for June 16, can be found at www.golfdayformda.com.) Over the past 19 years, the Callas family has raised more than $800,000 for MDA.
Both of Callas’ parents are gone now, but the memory of their love and support sustains him as he embarks on a new career. “I have in my hand the Mont Blanc pen my father gave me 20 years ago,” he said. “I just used it to sign a new client. It’s a reminder that my parents are with me even today.”
Callas learned his lesson well. “Whatever challenges you have in life, you can overcome them,” he said. “If you can figure out how to climb a set of stairs, you can figure out anything.”