Peter George “Pete’’ Callas Jr., who won equal measures of respect for his leadership at The Times of Trenton, his civic involvement and a four-decade battle with muscular dystrophy, died May 3, 2014, at his Hamilton Township home.
Mr. Callas was born Aug. 4, 1959, in Hoboken, N.J., to Peter George Callas Sr. and Elizabeth Vasiliades Callas. He grew up in Cresskill, N.J. His sister, Hope, was born exactly one year later. Throughout their childhoods, their mother celebrated their shared birthday with a party for all their friends and a cake that was half blue, half pink.
In the eighth grade, Mr. Callas was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy, a genetic disease that gradually weakens the musculoskeletal system and slowly limits locomotion. The diagnosis came after two years of increased worry by Mr. Callas’ parents, who had already suffered the death their first child, George, in early childhood.
“Pete played Little League when he was a kid, but he ran with a very different gait. That is what got our parents thinking something was wrong,’’ recalled his brother, Alex. “When Pete was in the eighth grade they took him to a special doctor in New York, that was all we were told. That night they called us and told us Pete was very sick and they didn’t know what would happen. Other than the Jerry Lewis fundraising, none of us knew anything about muscular dystrophy. We were in total fear. We had no idea if he would live a day, a week, a year. The doctors did not expect him to live past his 20s but he fought through.’’
Mr. Callas long courted the love of his life, Antoinette Ford. The couple was married July 1, 2001, and were together at home when Mr. Callas died.
In 1994, Mr. Callas suffered grievous injury in an accident at his house while living alone. His then-future wife grew concerned when he failed to call and rushed to the house. Mr. Callas spent six weeks in the hospital and was unable to walk unassisted afterward but his family credits Mrs. Callas for saving his life.
Mr. Callas met the challenges of muscular dystrophy with an indomitable will and the untiring support of his family, always finding a path to fulfill his aspirations. Illness kept him from playing sports at Cresskill High School but he earned the Al Del Greco Award as the Bergen County, N.J., Athlete of the Year in his senior year for his assistance on high school teams. Mr. Callas graduated Utica College at Syracuse University cum laude in 1981 with a bachelor’s degree in public relations and a minor in film, despite spending two summers enduring difficult surgeries.
“Those were grueling surgeries and grueling recoveries. Our sister, Hope File, took those summers off to care for him,’’ recalled Alex Callas.
While in college, Mr. Callas held a photography internship at the Record of Bergen County but switched to editing when he concluded muscular dystrophy limited his prospects as a photographer. His first newspaper job was as news editor at the Daily Advance in Roxbury. He began his 25-year career at The Times of Trenton in 1984 as a copy editor. He rose steadily to assistant night city editor, Princeton metro editor and city editor before taking over as metro editor in 1988 and managing editor at The Times in 1997, a position he held until he retired in 2009.
A congenital New York Yankees fan, Mr. Callas was innately competitive, a trait well-matched for his role as editor of The Times in its eternal rivalry with the other daily newspaper in the state capital, The Trentonian. For decades, Trenton was the smallest American city with two fully independent, rival newspapers.
Mr. Callas held leadership positions in the newsroom during a period when The Times enjoyed both its pinnacle in size and influence, and its painful shrinkage as newspapers nationwide were undermined by the growth of the Internet and electronic media. During his tenure The Times won countless journalism awards and earned respect statewide for coverage of New Jersey government and politics. The Times often reported on the local aspects of much bigger news, such as wartime activity at regional military bases. Conversely, the paper was just often reporting local stories with national implications, such as the abduction and murder of Megan Kanka, which prompted the passage in many states of Megan’s Law establishing a registry for convicted sex offenders.
That Mr. Callas suffered a serious ailment was obvious at a glance but never relevant in the bustle of a work day. He asked for no special accommodation of his disability, aside from his daily ride to and from the newsroom in a freight elevator. Mr. Callas’ management style was both demanding and supportive. While he could personify the irate boss when scolding an erring reporter, he was known for deep empathy toward friends and co-workers struggling with problems even they judged far less serious than his own. The newsroom staff were frequent guests at his home, particularly at his fabled, annual Summer Solstice party.
Following retirement from The Times, Mr. Callas started PGC Communications to assist businesses in the region connect effectively with media. He was a strong advocate for persons with disabilities, serving at various times on the board of the Progress Center for Independent Living and the Hamilton Township and Mercer County advisory committees on persons with disabilities. In the 1990s Mr. Callas used his powers of persuasion and a threatened lawsuit to convince his favorite hotels in Cape May, a beloved vacation spot for him and Mrs. Callas, to upgrade access to meet the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Mr. Callas is survived by his wife Antoinette “Toni’’ Callas, brothers John and Alex, sister Hope, and many nieces, nephews and cousins. Friends are invited to gather Thursday, May 8, at Peppler Funeral Home, 114 S. Main St, Allentown, NJ, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 3 pm to 6 pm. A memorial service will be held from 6 pm to 7 pm.
The family requests in lieu of flowers friends donate to the Peter G. Callas Memorial Golf Day for MDA, 11800 Sunrise Valley Dr., Suite 1210, Reston VA 20191. The golf outing is a long-established Callas family tradition of fundraising for the Muscular Dystrophy Association begun by the Peter Callas Sr. immediately after his son was diagnosed and continued by Alex Callas.